Report from My (and the) 5th Annual JRunners Relay Race
It was the 190th footrace of my running career, and if I had to rank them in order of how much fun and rewarding each of them were, I would have to pick this one as numero uno.
The race was a lot different this year. Women joined us for the first time, the race was truncated to legs 2-10 of the usual course, we started earlier in the evening, reduced the cost to $0, forewent breakfast, and for those of us nine-to-fivers, didn’t miss a beat of work, though we had to get through it with a ton of coffee.
The reason for these decisions was because it was a rebuilding year. JRunners had gone as far as it could go with its volunteer squad and hit a wall. We needed to hire an Executive Director to take the reins and rebuild it, spread it further, and be more inclusive. We hired the capable Vanessa Meghnagi, who is off to a running start, pun intended, but we did not hire her in time to put a solid relay together.
We did want to show her the ropes, and trial her by fire, so we decided to strip the race down to its barest elements, where she could view the race firsthand and understand its complexities without having to bear the burden of failure, should that occur. The board promised full support with race logistics, and the happy absorption of blame, if at all necessary.
Once the pieces were in place, with a date set, and the moving parts assembling, it was time to build and name a team.
Mordechai Ovits will be on my team until the end of creation. Any other available Ovits will be on our team until the end of time. Shlomo Rosenzweig is not allowed to run without Mordechai. Yoni Meiri wanted to run with me and Mordechai. Ayala Cohen – Mordechai’s Sister – was the available Ovits. She didn’t want to be the only female, so we put out a personal ad, which Shaina Nemtzov answered. The Guardians of the Galaxy were assembled.
What’s in a name? The movie happens to be popular at this time, and it struck me that the runners shared several personality traits with the cast.
I was Rocket Raccoon, because I’m a short, hairy smartass, with a Brooklyn accent.
Mordechai was Star-Lord, because he’s our star performer and natural leader.
Shlomo Rosenzweig was Groot, because he’s a tree-like humanoid who says little and does much. Also, the second syllable of his last name means “branch,” so it’s especially fitting.
Yoni Meiri was Drax, because he’s a muscular freak.
Ayala Cohen was Gamora, because she’s smart (Gamora-kup, har har), sassy, and green-skinned. Okay fine, not green-skinned, but the rest, yes.
Shaina was Phylla-Vell, because she, too, joined the Guardians later and naturally, was in possession of serious superpowers.
Connie Fried, if available to join us, would be Moondragon, who, like Phylla-vell, joined the Guardians later, and was super-strong and hyper-fast.
I changed into my gear at work, narrowly avoiding the quizzical stares as I bolted from the bathroom to the elevator. A quick train ride and I was at Prospect Park, where I showed up first, Vanessa showed up second, and my ma, aba, and sister were tied for third. They brought me a nice dinner, which I chowed down with enjoyment, and introduced them to Vanessa while I made for a nearby grocery to procure water and ice, because I was, as always, the Iceman.
The 40-runner troop started assembling, the cars came rolling in. I chalked out the start, and after Vanessa introduced herself to the crowd, preaching safety as the number one priority, I assembled the starters into the start box, blew a whistle that Mordechai handed me, and at 7:37 PM, the race was on.
Leg 2: Groot was out on the course first. Yoni would join us a bit later. The rest of us hopped in to The Falcon (he Guardians’ spaceship) and headed for Manhattan.
We arrived at the exchange with plenty of time to spare. I chalked out the exchange and started chatting up anyone in the field who was a stranger to me. I encountered some shyness, but they’d cave eventually. I’m a natural ingratiator.
While waiting for the lead runners to arrive, something occurred that could only happen in NYC, and was the likes of which I’d never seen before. Joe Bootin, a member of the Our Place team, spontaneously dropped to the floor and cranked out 60 pushups. I’d have joined him (I’m currently partaking in the Hundred Pushups program; up to week 5), but I had to conserve energy. I was next on the course.
Suddenly, a friendly New Yorker, with shoulder-blade length dreads, a torso like a V, a chest like Jorgen (obscure reference!) came over and said “A-ight, a-ight aight!” before getting down, starting some pushups, and suddenly, levitating! He was doing pushups with just his arms! With his legs straight out in mid-air! Whoa!
Joe Bootin took that as a challenge. He dropped and started doing clap pushups. Ooh yeah.
Our new friend said the same thing again, and this time did something I have never, ever seen. Ever. The man got down and started doing one-handed pushups. Okay, we’ve seen that before, but then he started doing one handed clap pushups. Say what now? That’s right, he would push up with one hand, clap his chest, and repeat. When he got up, I told him, “Man, you just walked in and dropped the mic! Game over!” I asked him his name. He said Jay. I gave him the URL of the JRunners club and asked him to check out the page soon, where he’d see his name in lights. Hi Jay! Great show, man!
59 minutes after the start, the running-in-tandem teams of No Sleep and Till Monsey came running in together, and proceeded together on the course as the rest of us waited. 13 minutes later, a trio of runners came rolling off the Brooklyn Bridge, with my man Shlomo in the lead by a second, joined by Eli Lowinger – running on a two man team with Adam Orlow – and Dmitry Krachun – going for it solo. Also solo were Matt Katz and Yisroel Pupko, who had headed out together to cover the entire course by themselves. They had set out at 5:00 PM and were keeping me apprised of their status. They were already in Jersey at that point.
Leg 3: Shlomo slapped my hand, and I was gone goodbye like a bat out of hell, with Lowinger and Krachun catching up every time I got caught in frustrating Chambers Street traffic.
I had been coached of late to work past pain when I’m running. My friends were telling me to work harder, to not fear some agony. I was in very good physical shape. My heart would not explode. I had to work past my limits. That’s what I was going to do tonight, after working past that pain point in a lot of my training. I just had to cross the West Side Highway first and be free of this traffic.
I finally crossed, I looked dead ahead, I focused, and I was like a horse out of the gates. For the next five miles there was no slowing down for me, no breaks, just progression. I pulled in everyone along the course. Nobody outran me. I burned past all the casual joggers, and even the fast runners. The only pause was at 29th street, where a chopper was landing, spraying me with Hudson River water. That thing was loud, and looking up, I felt like Kyle Reese escaping a Hunter-Killer (obscure reference!). Once past that point, I went faster, faster, faster. Then I started feeling it. My heart moved up to my throat, and my guts tried to shoot out of my belly button. I didn’t care, because one thing that was not happening was overheating, which is a danger to me, because I run hot (not for nothing am I the iceman) and when temps are hot, I need a lot of management to keep my core temperature down. It was a cool evening, and I could push as hard as I wanted without concern.
I was now laying down sub 7s, zooming towards the exchange, and for the final .8 of the 5.8 mile stretch, I put down a 6:31 pace. I barreled into the exchange having annihilated the previous leg record, held by Adam Orlow. Old pace: 7:35; new pace: 7:04. I clobbered it by 2.5 whole minutes. I got there so early, that my teammates weren’t yet in position to take the baton from me. Many other runners were there and were forced to be privy to my cursing aloud about where exactly my team was. I called Mordechai, and yelled, “I Rocket Racooned the leg! Where the “#$&”#$& are you guys!” About four minutes later, the next man on, Yoni Meiri came running behind me. Oh, okay, there you guys are. All in good fun. I wasn’;t angry. I was having a good time. I broke the leg record; nothing else mattered.
Leg 4: Mordechai, Shaina and I then headed back towards the car, passing one of those Movies on the Hudson thingies overlooking the river. We couldn’t determine the movie, but Mordechai and I recognized Matt Dillon at the same time.
We piled into the car, where Yoni had placed a whoopie cushion in my seat. Little did he know that, as Ra’s Al Ghul cautioned Bruce Wayne, I always mind my surroundings. These tricks don’t work on me. When I said that out loud later, Shlomo got the Watto reference. I love people my age. I chugged a Gatorade in 1.2 seconds. We headed to the GWB to await Yoni.
When we arrived, we hung out with Our Place. No Sleep and Till Monsey were well ahead, working like a finely-oiled machine under Yossi Cohn’s guidance. Guardians were holding 3rd.
Leg 5: Yoni rolled in, handed off to Mordechai, and we headed out to Fort Lee. I took shotgun for the leg, but the job of navigator has been retired with the advent of Waze, hasn’t it?
We arrived at Fort Lee, where I took care of a few orders of business: I chalked the exchange – so we could have a proper “Runner Restart”, tried to determine where Matt and Sruly were on the course, and also tried to find out where exactly Dmitry was. I hadn’t heard from him, and he hadn’t been spotted. I also was tasked with serving as a beacon for Mordechai, because the CNBC parking lot we were in could easily be missed by a runner.
When Mordechai arrived, having smashed the leg 5 record by an awful lot and actually having moved so fast that he set off a red light camera (!!!), I Elvis-in-Vegased him (dinner on me to anyone who gets that reference), then continued looking for signs of life from Matt, Sruly, and Dmitry. After many calls and texts placed, I learned that Matt and Sruly were doing very well, having covered 35 miles to that point, and feeling well. Sruly had minorly turned an ankle, but everything else was in order. Dmitry also e-mailed saying an old injury had fleered up before the GWB and was headed for home with appreciation for the experience.
With things in order, I relaxed a bit and waited for the runners to come in. As soon as we were all together, I made sure I had the standings correct before placing the leg 6 runners in the box and releasing them into the night. The time was 12:04 AM and Shaina was on her way, decked out properly in full reflective gear with her rave glowstick that she borrowed from Yoni.
Leg 6: While waiting at the Boy Scouts of America driveway, I noted a van come to a stop across the highway. Emerging was a young girl, in a wedding dress, who had removed her heels and was now staggering across the highway.
What was this now?
She came across to confab with Vanessa. I interrupted the conversation to ask her where she was coming from. She said a wedding. I said mmhm, and did you have anything to drink? She confirmed, but that it was a while ago. And i was like, how long is a while ago, and she was all, oh a few hours, and I didn’t like this deal one bit.
I pulled Vanessa to sidebar and expressed my displeasure with this situation. We were not having a, shall we say, knackered sheila running on a highway in middle of the night. Vanessa resolved to keep an eye on her, and try to sober her up first. I asked her to keep me posted. If necessary, I’d feed her that charcoal myself if I had to.
Out of the darkness emerged a bouncing light, with Shaina underneath, who bounded in having smashed her PR of the equivalent distance. She was exultant, and her buddy, Connie Fried, was quite vocally excited for her. Connie had just completed 12 straight miles and was enjoying a beer (that she’d metabolize in three minutes; no concerns there) when Shaina came in, handing off to Mordechai for the next leg.
Leg 7: Something interesting then happened. Shaina came off her leg with a high, but then I could see her energy meter dipping quickly. She staggered in to the first available car, thinking it was hers. I advised her it wasn’t our car, so she popped out, and headed for the next car, which also wasn’t hers. On the third try, she found our car. She took a pic with Connie after, and you could already see her half-masted eyes beckoning her to sleep. Connie was also half asleep, but that’s maybe because of the bitter beer she wasn’t enjoying so much after her run.
Connie joined us for the ride, and Shaina crawled into the back with her. I was shotgun again, and we were off, chasing Mordechai into the night, blasting one of the whoopie cushions at him, to which he responded, “Leave me alone.” Yessir.
We rolled past the Tappan Zee bridge, about which Shlomo and I marveled together about the architecture. He’s an engineer by trade, I’m a fan of engineering by interest.
At the next exchange, Hershy Mandel was hootin’ and hollerin’ and havin’ a good time, which is what he was doing at every exchange, but it would bore you to have me repeat it at every single leg. Suffice it to say that he was enjoying himself.
Shaina was out like a light.
Mordechai came barreling in, having put down a sterling 6:24 (the record is Yitzy Mittel’s supernatural 6:11 per mile) and putting in a half marathon in total in a time better than his half marathon PR. How ‘bout that!
Leg 8: Mordechai handed off to Yoni, with all his glowstick gear, and we rode on (Mordechai will be the first to get that reference), jabbering with Shlomo and Ayala about ‘80s commercial jingles. I told you I love people my age.
Shaina was sleeping like a baby.
Shlomo took over the driving, and I was into and out of consciousness for just a bit, having finally succumbed to the fatigue of everything, but official sleep was not to be had. I had driving duties.
This made me marvel at the undertaking of team OrLowinger. Imagine, you run 20 miles, you’re exhausted, you exchange with your mate, and now you gotta drive? Wowsers.
Leg 9: Yoni came in with a strong time, and it was Ayala out there in the pre-morning, with Mordechai at her side, Shlomo running along with them so he could get in a few extra training miles, and Yoni in the pack too for a kick. I didn’t depart from the exchange until Connie had secured company for her official leg 9 run.
Shaina was oot, as they say in the far north.
After passing the running pack and returning to fetch an exhausted Yoni, we pulled in to the final exchange, where I geared up for final flight, still holding third place behind the twin Monsey machines.
Shaina woke up for 15 seconds, and went back to lala land.
While waiting in the cool morning, I got a text from Pupko that he and Matt had made it to the end intact. They ran an intelligent modified course, knowing their strengths and limitations, and had accomplished what they had set out to do, running 46.8 miles (of the 54.3-mile official coure) in 9:38. I was so proud of them.
Up ahead in the distance, I saw a shimmering light (oh come on, that reference is just way too easy). Gamora was coming in, having run the longest she had ever run before, accompanied by Star-Lord and Groot. She high fived me with her water bottle and I was off, into the dreaded, awful Wesley Hills, where the leg records are slow because five mountains pose such enormous physical difficulty.
Then I got lost.
I had warned my teammates, and the entire race field, over and over about knowing your course as the number one way to ensure safety, and I had not heeded my own chidings.
Because of arrogance, of all things.
After clambering over four of the five Everests, I was looking for a right turn onto the 306. LIttle did I not realize, that I needed to make a right onto 80, before making that right turn onto 306.
When I came upon the right turn onto 80, I looked up, and I saw a hill that demoralized me so much, that my brain just decided that it was just impossible that this hill was the final one. It just seemed unclimbable. The original cartographer of the course could not be this cruel. Besides, I was looking for the right onto 306.
I should have heeded the warning of nature, who sent a skunk into my path to urge me back towards the right road, but I didn’t listen, I just gave the skunk wide berth and continued on the way.
It takes very little time to get very lost, very fast. That’s because when you’re moving along at a good clip, you can, theoretically, get a full mile of course, in a matter of 7-8 minutes, depending on your speed.
I had started to encounter unfamiliar territory, and I finally started thinking I was truly lost, when I had covered the distance I was supposed to have run (5.3 miles) but had no finish line in sight whatsoever.
Finally, I heeded the advice I’d preached to my team: if you’re lost, stop, take a breath, gather in your surroundings, and evaluate.
That’s what I did. I came to a full stop, breathed in a lung-swelling breath, whipped my phone off my belt, opened my map app, oriented, and found that I was 1.3 miles off course.
I then plotted my way back, realized also that I could cheat if I wanted, and take a shortcut to the finish.
I would do no such thing. I was lost, it was my fault, and I was not going to dishonor myself by cutting corners. I turned around and headed back to the turn I was supposed to have made.
At that time, a car came driving towards me, whooping its lights and sirens at me. It was one of our EMT cars, sent to fetch me. I reassured them that I knew I was lost, and knew the way back. I ran on, in a better mood, but sunken with the possibility that I had lost the position for our team. Mordechai then called me, concerned, but I assured him I was on my way back.
And by back, I mean back over the new hills I had unnecessarily plotted on the course for myself.
As if mocking me now, the same skunk had crossed the road and was now in my way again, forcing me out of the way this time, but I was on my way home.
I don’t know how I made it over that last hill, but I did, and everything was familiar again. I finally rolled in to the Wesley Kosher parking lot, having not squandered by team’s position (by the slimmest of margins). We placed third. I turned a 5.3-mile leg into 7.9 grueling, aching miles, but we’d pulled it off.
I celebrated with a beer, courtesy of Shlomo, and waited for a few more teams to come in. The race was just about done, and each of us had our jobs to get to. I got my stuff out of Shlomo’s car. Connie took my spot and hitched a ride. Shaina was still sleeping, and off went the rest of the Guardians to Work Sweet Work.
I hitched a ride with Vanessa and Ms. Tipsy, who was looking a lot more sober now. I conked out for the 15 minutes of the 25 minute ride home, and reached casa del Bodek at the exact time I shower daily. Perfect.
Then I started my day.
Martin is the author of 54 Runners, 54 Stories: The Tale of the 2012 200k JRunners Relay Race, available on lulu.com and amazon.com. Yes, he is writing a sequel. You just read 9 pages from the future book.