Van Life: What to Expect From a Relay Race

Here are 13 things you should expect from your next relay race

Relay races are a not-so-hidden type of race gem within the running world. They offer a break from obsessing about your own PR’s and give you a chance to connect with other runners on a deeper, more meaningful level.

They provide hours of entertainment, while uniting the group towards a common goal. Long-distance relays are like that high school camping trip you took with all of your friends, only this time you are an adult and if you want to enjoy a cold brew at the end, coffee or the other kind, you can!

Here are 13 things you should expect from a relay race:

1. Toilet Paper Is Currency 

It’s all fun and games until the port-a-potties run out of toilet paper. Relays aren’t your weekly run around the block where you know what bushes to duck into if, ahem, an emergency arises. You can’t go to the bathroom on people’s lawns and expect them not to come after you or to get you in some serious trouble with the race itself. Ducking into the woods, where you can use a leaf in a pinch, is never as bad as using a portable toilet with nothing to help you out. Be the prepared runner in your van who packs extra toilet paper and you will become everyone’s—and I mean everyone’s—new best friend.

2. Slap Bracelets Are All The Rage

The way that one runner passes off to the next is by passing the “slap bracelet baton.” Don’t think too much about the fact that this bracelet has been on 11 other sweaty runners, just focus on the fact that it’s plastic and not made of a sweat absorbing fabric. If you are the type of person who gets the heebie-germ-jeebies easily, pack disinfecting wipes in your van bag.

3. You Haven’t Seen Dark Until You Have Seen Dark

When someone tells you it’s dark at night, it’s not the type of dark that you experience when getting out of your car at night and fumbling to find your house keys with no house light on. This is the type of dark that you don’t adjust to, the type of dark where you can’t see your hand if you hold it front of your face. Herein lies why the race requires you to wear a headlamp, reflective vest, and back-blinking light on legs in the dark. It’s required for your safety but trust me, you will be happy you have a headlamp when you hear something rustling in the bushes up ahead.

4. You May Go Postal If You Have To Eat Another Snack

Meals can be hard to come by during a relay. Instead, you rely mostly on snacks to keep you going. By the time your third leg rolls around your patience for a lot of things has been tested; one of those things is snacks. If someone asks you if you want another granola bar or some trail mix before your final run, remain calm—they are just trying to help. Rest assured when you finally get that meal you have been craving, it will taste better than it’s ever tasted before.

5. Very Hard Legs Are Very Hard

The brains behind the relay race do know what they are doing. So when you see that 3.1-mile leg rated very hard and it makes zero sense to you how a shorter leg could be that hard, just know that it’s not making sense because you are tired. If it says very hard, it’s very hard. If you don’t want to kill your legs during the relay, sign up for a runner # that has one or two easy runs. If you are the masochist type, pick the runner # that has all the very hard you can get.

6. Inside Jokes For Days

If you are running with friends, you likely already have your own set of inside jokes. If your relay team is made up of people you only just met, be prepared for your friendship to be on warp speed. These people who less than 24 hours ago were strangers will now help you make memories and jokes that will last a lifetime.

7. Modesty Is Overrated

Modesty will go out the window with your new friends when you realize you need a bathroom STAT. Don’t be embarrassed, bathroom issues shall we say— all part of the fun of a relay. Managing them with the pink stuff and laughing about them when the time comes will make the entire experience better. 

8. Teamwork Makes The Dream Work

While getting to the finish line is the ultimate goal, the fun of a relay race is not just finishing it. Team work will make the dream work. If you don’t work together or try to enjoy each other’s company, the relay race is not likely going to be something that you sign up for again.

9. Suck It Up, Buttercup

A lot of things can go haywire during a relay race, one of which is your stomach. It’s nice that you think you are about to die of some sort of digestive illness, but so do a lot of other people. Your problems, while valid problems, are no worse than what everyone else is experiencing. In a relay it’s important to think about things in terms of the team, less I and more we. You likely will have sympathetic teammates who are also experiencing issues. But at the end of the day, suck it up the best you can; the race will come to an end at some point, and any issues you have will soon be forgotten. This isn’t about you and your race, it’s about the team and the team’s race.

10. Sleep Is For The Birds

Did you really expect to get a good night’s sleep in the same van as five or more other people? If you get more than a couple of hours of sleep, consider yourself lucky. Embrace the lack of shut-eye and embrace the inevitable giddiness that comes. Still not enjoying the “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” aspect of the race? Think back to when you were a 10-year-old at a sleepover and wanted to stay up all night with your friends. Your 10-year-old-self would love to do what you are doing now! 

11. It’s Going To Stink

It’s near impossible to run a relay and not deal with some unpleasant smells in your van. If you are the type who just can’t take smelling another person’s not-so-pleasant body odor, pack extra extra-large ziplock bags so each runner can dump his or her worn running clothes in a bag after each leg—and zip that bag up! While in a perfect world it would be nice for everyone in your van to bring their own ziplock bags, and shower wipes, that might not happen. So in this case, sharing is caring, and caring means sharing. Repeat after me: This too shall pass.

12. 200 Miles Is a Long Way To Go

While all relays aren’t exactly 200 miles, the majority of them are right around there. It sounds like a manageable distance until it’s 3 a.m. and you still have two of your runs left. It’s a long way to go even if there are 12 of you running it. What’s that you say? You opted for the ultra version? Two hundred miles is a REALLY long way to go in that case. Much like in a marathon, respect the distance. Start out at a pace that you think you can maintain for ALL of your relay legs combined. Your legs will thank you if you are smart in the early miles.

13. Love/Hate

Personally, I think relays are the greatest thing since sliced bread, but they aren’t for everyone. You are likely going to love your relay experience and look forward to the next one or you are going to hate it and chalk it up to something you crossed off your bucket list. Either way, a relay race is what you make of it. If you go in with an open mind it’s going to be a better experience than if you go into it expecting it to go the way you want it to go.

Dorothy Beal

Dorothy Beal became a marathoner in 2003 and hasn’t looked back since then. She’s run 33 marathons, including the Boston Marathon five times. A self-professed lover of all things running, she is the creator of the I RUN THIS BODY™ and #IHaveARunnersBody MOVEments and the writer behind the popular Mile Posts blog. Follow her at #irunthisbody and @mileposts.