Tips for Running Distance Relay Races

What better way to spend time with family and friends than running all day and all night and then all day again?!?  Running Times Magazine featured an article by Ethan Coffey offering ten tips for running distance relays, and how to get the most out of the grueling race while having fun! Long distance relays are becoming more popular every year. Why? I have no idea. I have never done another event that has kicked my butt (and mind) like the Blue Ridge Relay (BRR). And yet, I have competed in the ultra division of the BRR for the last two years. I’m also on a team for the Hood to Coast Relay (H2C). Am I just a masochist? Maybe.     For anybody who has never run a relay like this, the idea is relatively simple. In the BRR, the 211-mile course is split into 36 legs. Each team can have between four and 12 runners. Those teams with four to six runners compete in the ultra category, and teams with seven to 12 people compete in the open category. There are also categories for masters runners and mixed teams, which need to be at least half female. 

Other relays may have different categories, such as the corporate category at H2C. Each team assigns a running order to its members. The order must stay the same for the entire race, and every team must hand off at every exchange zone. Since each leg varies in length and difficulty, this means that with a little planning, each runner can be assigned to a set of legs that matches his or her ability. Of course, if somebody gets sick or injured (which happens frequently with people racing three or more times in one day over challenging terrain), each remaining runner moves up a spot, which can wreak havoc on a team’s strategy. Teams usually have one or two vans, based on how many runners they have, that shuttle the team members who aren’t currently running to the next exchange zone. Start times are generally staggered throughout the day, with the slowest teams starting hours before the fastest teams. The goal is to have all the teams finishing at around the same time.

So, with the warning that you should only attempt one of these if you want to trash your body and have a hell of a fun time doing it, here are some things I have learned that may help you avoid some agony and enjoy the event even more.

1. Water: The first time I ran the BRR, my team had no idea how much water six runners running six different times would drink. At one point, we found ourselves feeding quarter after quarter into a vending machine in the middle of the night trying to get as many bottles of water as we could, since we were nowhere near an open grocery store. You either want to plan ahead and decide where you will stop to buy extra water or bring two to three gallons per person from the beginning. Definitely err on the side of caution on this one.     2. Food: You would be amazed at what is and what is not appealing to eat at 4:00 a.m., when you’ve run four or five times and have covered 20 to 30 miles. Those of you with marathon or ultramarathon experience have probably gotten to the point where you know you should take that energy gel or bar, but you feel like if it goes down at all, it will immediately reverse course. If you are running more than three times during the relay, you will probably reach this point. Fortunately, you don’t have to try to eat on the run, so you have more options than gels and bars. The tricky part is finding something that you still find appealing and that will give you some calories and hopefully provide some nutritional benefit. Items that I have found very useful to have in the van include beef jerky (lots of it!), chocolate milk, Snickers bars, peanut butter, applesauce, oatmeal creme pies and bananas. Unfortunately, no matter what you bring, you will probably start craving something that you don’t have. That’s just the way it works.

Also, energy drinks can work wonders. While my team didn’t use any of the shot-type drinks, I have heard good things from other teams. One of our runners downed an entire Monster energy drink before each of his last three legs and was able to maintain his energy level through all six runs. Conversely, I drank one before my fourth run and spent the entire run trying not to throw up. 

3. Transportation: As previously mentioned, most teams will travel in one or two vans. Some teams use cars, some use minivans, but I highly recommend using 15-passenger vans. A 15-passenger van is perfect for six runners and a driver, because, while one person is running, there is room for one runner to navigate from the front seat, and each of the others has his or her own bench to stretch out on. Since you are constantly on the move, cooldowns are scant, and as your muscles start to cramp you will really want that extra legroom. 

4. Support: I previously mentioned a driver. I highly recommend having a full-time driver for each van. While it is possible to have the relay members driving the van, by the end of the race, sleep deprivation, dehydration and caloric deficits are likely to make driving a dangerous proposition. By the time I finished BRR each year, I couldn’t move my legs without having every muscle in both legs and feet immediately cramp. It’s a good thing I didn’t have to drive.

5. Teammates: You are going to be spending a lot of time in stressful situations and close quarters with your teammates. It’s a good idea to make sure that you can get along with these people. Of course, unless you happen to live in a van with all of your teammates, there is no way of knowing all of their eccentricities beforehand. And sometimes when you just need an extra body, you’ll take whomever you can get. Just be careful. Because at five or six in the morning, after no sleep, not enough food, cramped quarters and a lot of running, peoples’ patience tends to wear thin. The stench of a day’s worth of wet running shoes and sweaty clothes doesn’t help, either. 6. Safety: Chances are if you’re running a long distance relay, you will be running at night at some point. At the BRR, at least half of our running was done in the dark. Night running requirements are, at a minimum: reflective vest, headlamp and blinking LED on both your front and back. The first year I did the BRR, we didn’t think ahead and brought only one headlamp, as just one person is running at a time. This meant that we had to hand off both the relay bracelet and a headlamp at each exchange zone. We worked it out fine, but it was a situation that could have been avoided. Bring extra lights, and, if possible, get reflective vests that also have lights on them. Much of the running is done on windy country roads, and anything you can do to increase your visibility is a good thing. Also, be aware of any special safety requirements for the specific relay. For instance, any relay runner on the Blue Ridge Parkway at any time (day or night) must be wearing a reflective vest.

7. Preparation: Obviously if you’re going to run a relay like this, you are going to try to get into decent shape. This means running a good amount (in the ultra category of the BRR, you will run somewhere between 28 and 47 miles), probably running some doubles, and maybe even some triples. However, that’s only the beginning of the preparation. When you are traveling through 200+ miles of unknown terrain, much of it in the dark and in very rural areas, there is a lot that can go wrong. I was never a Boy Scout (I quit Cub Scouts when I was a second-year Webelo) but I know that their motto is, “Be prepared,” which is good advice for anybody.

For instance, our most valuable grocery item ended up being a bottle of Pepto Bismol that I bought at a gas station during the relay. Your stomach tends to get somewhat upset when you start running relatively quickly several times in one day with little rest. That bottle of the pink stuff was like ambrosia to us. Also, the first year I did the BRR, we just cut out pieces of paper for each runner with turn-by-turn directions so they could take the directions with them. That works fine until about three minutes into the run, when the paper is completely soaked through and useless. So the next year we made laminated cards, which worked much better. Finally, it turns out that everybody looks exactly the same at night with a reflective vest, a headlight and an LED. So, it helps if your team comes up with a “calling card” for nighttime running that will let you know that the runner coming into the exchange zone is one of your teammates. We started calling, “Ca-caw!” when we would get close to the exchange zone. This was the sign that my team needed to have the next runner ready to go. It was a great idea except for the time that the route passed an especially noisy chicken coop and our runner started sprinting, as she thought the “Ca-caws” were coming from us at the exchange zone (which actually happened to be about two miles down the road).

8. Communication: Losing a’s a terrible thing to think about, but it happens. It happened to my team. There are so many turns and so many miles that it isn’t uncommon for a runner to get off course, even if, as in the BRR, the turns are pretty well marked. Some runners carry cell phones with them, which is a good idea, but in a lot of rural areas, cell phone service is weak or non-existent. My suggestion is to include a couple of teammates’ cell phone numbers, one or two emergency contacts and the race director’s phone number on the laminated cue sheet that each runner has. That way, the lost runner will be able to contact somebody as long as he or she can find a phone. We ended up losing over 30 minutes (and then being fined an extra hour) because our runner took a wrong turn and completely bypassed the exchange zone, causing him to run an extra leg. We had no idea where he was and searched everywhere in the vicinity of the leg that he had started on, completely unaware that he was already waiting for us at the next exchange zone. He tried calling his cell phone in the van (the only useful number he knew), but it was (of course!) on silent mode in his bag.

9. Motivation: Again, these are long races, and it can be easy to lose motivation when you are running along a dark back road with no lights in sight, no cars and no people, not to mention that you’ve already run three or four times and your body is starting to shut down. One useful trick is to create internal competitions within your team. We had a competition to see who could get the most “kills,” or passed runners, both overall and during a single leg. This kind of competition will help to keep you moving, especially when you see a blinking red LED in the distance, signifying a kill waiting to happen. Also, we had an unofficial team song, “Danger Zone,” by Kenny Loggins. Yes, that’s the Top Gun song. Every time we passed one of our runners in the van, we would slow down and blast “Danger Zone.” This helps take your mind off the task at hand briefly, and also reminds you that, although you are running alone, you have a team that is depending on you and cheering you on.

10. Water: I toyed with the idea of using a cliché and making tip 10, “Have fun,” but if you use the other nine tips, this will happen anyway. So I went with that other cliché, which is that water is so important that I included it twice. Even on the 50-degree nights in the Blue Ridge Mountains, you are going to sweat a lot, and the longer you can stay well hydrated, the longer you can avoid cramps and other dehydration issues. During my first try at the BRR, my legs started cramping after my second run—and I still had four to go. The next year, I was able to hold off the leg cramps until I was finished (although I did get knots in other unexpected places, such as my abs and jaw). Of course, as soon as I finished, the cramps hit with a vengeance, but at least I didn’t have to run anymore.

If, after reading this, you still want to participate in a long-distance relay, you’re courageous. I’ll see you out there. My team van will have a mustache on it. To read the entire article, visit

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