Around 3:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning in eastern Iowa, I am behind the steering wheel of a van pulled over to the side of a county highway, eating from a bag of Fritos Honey BBQ Flavor Twists and drinking a can of Starbucks DoubleShot. A man I have just met a couple days ago is running toward the van alone on the shoulder of the road, illuminated by a headlamp and a lighted vest. In a few seconds, he will reach us, and another man I just met will hop out, bump fists with him, and run down the road, and I will move the van one mile ahead in the same direction and pull over. Then I will stop eating Fritos Flavor Twists, turn on my headlamp, and wait on the shoulder of the road for my fist bump.
When it’s my turn, I run away down the shoulder, shoes slapping the asphalt next to the painted white line. I will see one other car come down the road for the entire eight and a half minutes I’m running.
Josh told me yesterday morning that one of the fun things about running by yourself out in the country during Relay Iowa is that you can turn your headlamp off, and there’s usually enough light from the stars and moon that you can see where you’re running. I said Yeah, I used to flip off the headlights in my piece-of-shit S10 pickup while I was driving Iowa county roads at night when I was younger, which was … 20-plus years ago now?
Josh is running in Luna sandals, with toe socks underneath. But one night during a previous Relay Iowa, he was wearing sandals with no socks, and running alongside a friend. They clicked off their headlamps to run in the dark.
“I definitely grazed a dead raccoon with my bare toes,” Josh said.
The first Relay Iowa mile I ran was Mile 18 of the 339-mile course. I stood on the gravel shoulder of the road in a light rain as 17-year-old Parker, our team’s youngest member, flew down the asphalt next to the painted white line. He held out the baton as he coasted to a stop, and I grabbed it and started running. I was ready to go, or at least get a few miles in, after wondering what this would be like for the past few weeks. Was I nervous? I mean, I knew I could run one mile. The real question was: Could I run 30-something miles, one at a time, over 52 hours?
Another question: You left the Mountain West just when the weather was just starting to get really nice at the beginning of June, to travel to Iowa to run a relay across the state on county highways?
There was absolutely no reason to run fast. Relay Iowa is not a race. Nobody “wins.” This year, 21 teams started the relay in Sioux City, Iowa, on a hill overlooking the Missouri River, Iowa’s western border, on Friday morning. We’d all finish sometime on Sunday. Nobody on our team was concerned with running particularly fast, because surviving to complete all (or at least the majority of) your allotted miles was more important—i.e., if you took off fast and pulled a muscle or wrenched an ankle on your first (or second or third or fourth) mile of your roughly 35 assigned miles for the weekend, the rest of the team would have to pick up your miles. If one team member gets injured, not a big deal, but if two or three or four people get injured, then it starts to be a big lift for everyone else. Again, no reason to run fast.
I ran fast. My mile was pretty flat, it was on asphalt, I was wearing cushy road running shoes, maybe I was just a little excited to run very short distances (something I never do). But I ran a fast-for-me 7:45/mile down the Moville Blacktop, turned left onto County Road D38 toward the Woodbury County Waste Transfer Station, a semi passed me, the 96% humidity hung on me like an old sweatsuit, and very quickly, I saw our van, hazard lights flashing, and Greg, standing across the road from it, waiting for me to give him the baton. I jumped in the drivers’ seat of the van and started driving.
The reason I came back to Iowa for this is: In 2018, my friend Dave started telling me about an ultramarathon in Dubuque, Iowa, called the Mines of Spain 100. Dave has introduced me to many great things throughout our 20-plus-year friendship, like Fugazi, Kind of Blue, and several restaurants, so I thought I’d give the 100K version of the race a try in 2019. It was surprisingly hilly, early fall was a great time to be back in Iowa to visit my parents, and the race was really fun. So I did it again in 2021, and got to know the race director, Josh Sun, a little more when I wrote a piece about the race for Trail Runner.
As it turns out, Josh is very talented at creating community around running, or getting people on board with his ideas that involve running. This is not his day job, but rather a hobby/side gig he is very passionate about, in a very laid-back way. Some of the things he has brought to life, as a race director and/or Friend Who Has A Fun Idea:
- The Mines of Spain 100, a 100K and 100-mile race in Dubuque’s Mines of Spain Recreation Area, which has only 21 total miles of maintained trails
- The Ks of Convenience, a 50K and 100K race around the streets of Davenport, Iowa, in which convenience stores serve as checkpoints/aid stations
- The Schuetzen NEIN! Hour Endurance Run, a nine-hour race that takes place entirely on a 0.85-mile loop with 125-150 feet of elevation gain per loop, and is a nine-hour race instead of the more common 12-hour race because the park was founded by German immigrants and “it’s fun to yell ‘nein!’”
- The Quad Cities Trail and Ultra Runners group, aka the QC-TUR(d)s, which, among other things, celebrates “TUR(d)smas,” a challenge in which participants compete to attain 25,000 feet of elevation gain in the shortest horizontal distance, during the first 25 days of December—in the Quad Cities, a region at the intersection of Iowa and Illinois, an area that is not exactly flat, but also not mountainous
QC-TUR(d)s was also our Relay Iowa team name, which means it was printed on the back of not just our t-shirts, but the t-shirts of everyone who participated in Relay Iowa:
We didn’t interact that much with other teams, besides a few honks, waves, and brief words of encouragement to other runners, so I would go the entire weekend without anyone asking, “Hey, are you a TUR(d)?” something that would have worked really well when writing a story about something like this. I mean, in a sense, aren’t we all? Sometimes.
Our team’s average age is 39.5. Josh is 37 years old, Parker is 17, Steve (Parker’s dad) is 37, Drew is 32, Brian P. is 44, Brian B. is 48, Andy is 40, Mitch is 38, Greg is 58, and I’m 44. Collectively, the TUR(d)s have dozens of ultramarathon finishes, including 100-milers. Which is not saying we are qualified to do something like Relay Iowa, but it doesn’t hurt.
I described Relay Iowa to some people as, “Like Hood to Coast, but instead of Hood and the coast, it’s the Missouri River to the Mississippi River.” Josh tells people that it’s like RAGBRAI (the weeklong group bike ride across Iowa that will celebrate its 50th year in 2023), except running instead of bicycling. Also, I would point out, much smaller than RAGBRAI, with around 200 participants compared to RAGBRAI’s ~10,000 (which on some days has swelled to more than 30,000 people).
Until the day before the Relay started, I didn’t really know how it worked. I assumed we’d just rotate through our 10 team members, running one mile at a time. So if we all ran 9-minute miles, each rotation would take 90 minutes. I’d have 9 minutes of running, followed by 81 minutes of rest, then repeat, for 52 hours straight. Then Josh sent me a color-coded spreadsheet. A screenshot from the middle of the spreadsheet:
So then I thought, “Oh, OK, looks like I run 3.9 miles, then rest, then run 7.1 miles, then rest …” Which was also not the case.
Josh has done Relay Iowa every year for more than a decade, and has developed a system that is kind of complex, but also genius. For the bulk of the weekend, the team splits into two groups: One van of six runners who are running, and the other van with four runners resting (or taking showers, eating gas station pizza, etc.).
Van No. 1, the one with six people in it, is further split into two groups of three people. Three runners who rotate through the front seat of the van, alternating driving and running, and three runners who are sitting in the back eating snacks, cracking jokes, napping, and/or reading Internets on their phones.
What I think is the smartest thing about this system: When you’re tired, like I’ve-had-three-hours-of-sleep-in-the-past-40-hours tired, you still have to drive. BUT: You’ve just run a mile before you jump behind the wheel, so your heart rate is still quite high, and you don’t have to chug Monster energy drinks or whatever to stay awake behind the wheel. Also, you’re only driving one mile at a time. Slowly. On pretty empty roads.
My second Relay mile was a straight line down the same road, and the third mile was almost all downhill, losing 150 feet of elevation in a mile, so I thought I’d just run fast for fun. It ended up being my fastest ever mile on Strava (which was unfortunate, because now I’ll never break my record). I turned left onto the highway into the town of Anthon, saw Greg waiting on the shoulder, handed him the baton, and jogged over to our van, waiting at a gas pump at the Cenex station. Parker walked out of the convenience store and hopped into the back seat of the van carrying a cardboard boat of mozzarella sticks. Anthon, coincidentally, was the hometown of Charles Osborne, the world record holder for the longest continuous attack of hiccups, from 1922 to 1990.
The baton: We had a baton. Josh had a custom baton made for this year’s relay:
We passed the baton between runners for a while, which was kind of fun, since I haven’t run with a baton since my last high school track season, but also kind of gross when you’re handing it between ten people who are essentially living out of vans for two and a half days and who have limited handwashing opportunities.
When the baton got to Steve, he said something like, “I’m not running with a fucking baton,” and that was that for a while. We bumped fists or high-fived when switching runners, and that worked just as well (and might be more sanitary). The baton popped back in for a few hours, some runners using it for a while, and then somebody left it in the van, and it just kind of rolled around the back seats for the rest of the trip.
There’s no requirement for teams to carry a baton—Josh just thought it would be fun. The relay organizers have given each team a tracking device to carry, but we’re not required to carry it in our hands when we’re actually running. It’s more for them to keep track of where we are, and for the tracking website, in case any of our friends and family are keeping tabs on us from home. We keep ours in the van, so it’s always one mile or less from our actual runner.
There are relay rules, of course, but it’s not a race, so you can’t really “cheat.” If your team is struggling and falling behind significantly, the relay allows something called “double running,” in which, say, Steve and I would run five miles together, totaling 10 miles, and then we could both hop in the van and ride ahead five miles, in order to gain some time. We don’t end up needing to do this at all, and just keep running, one person at a time, mostly one mile at a time.
My fifth mile of running, Mile 36 of the Relay, ended just as the course switched to gravel roads for a few miles. My sixth mile was also on gravel, and Josh says I was lucky it was overcast, as the gravel is usually way hotter than the asphalt when it’s sunny outside.
My Mile 7 (Mile 41) started on a Level B dirt road, which in Iowa means it’s not maintained, and is probably too rough for a rented Dodge Caravan. So I got to run two miles, to the next spot the van could meet me. The road is essentially a two-track dirt road between farm fields, a straight shot west to east, but it’s bermed in spots and trees crop up on each side from time to time, a little respite of wild in a landscape almost completely tamed by agriculture in all directions to the horizons. Two miles felt surprisingly long (I haven’t run this far at one shot since Tuesday!), and I hopped back in the van, sweaty, for a five-hour break while another crew of our guys took on the next chunk of 30 miles.
We stopped for a spaghetti dinner at the elementary school in Ida Grove (pop. 2,051, also known as “Castletown USA” for its many castles and castle-inspired architecture built by farm and marine equipment magnate Byron Godbersen in the 1970s and 80s. For ten minutes, we sat at cafeteria tables in the school hallway to efficiently take down some pasta prepared by lovely volunteers, before heading back out onto the road. We continued progressing at approximately 6.5 mph across the state of Iowa in the late-afternoon sun, one guy running, handing off to another guy, some other guys watching from the van, which moved down the road every seven or eight minutes as necessary. It went on like this for some time.
Is it boring? Yeah, I mean, sitting in a van, looking at corn and soybean fields, nowhere to go, it is a little boring. But so is mountaineering, slogging up a steep snow slope in crampons. I guess the view is better, according to most people. But no gas station pizza on the side of Mt. Rainier, unless you bring your own, in which case it wouldn’t be as fresh.
Mitch and Greg and I rotated through miles 76 to 96, the sun setting in the middle of our leg. We put on reflective vests and headlamps so cars could see us on the left-hand side of the road, but when I ran and heard a car approaching, I jumped onto the gravel shoulder just in case. The front passenger seat of the van had become saturated with a cocktail of six different people’s sweat, which is just the way it is here when temps are in the 70s and 80s and humidity is, well, I guess it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.
I got the last one-mile leg into Lake City, ending literally in the parking lot of a Casey’s convenience store, the Iowa-born chain that is a) the fifth-largest pizza retailer in the United States and b) closed, as of four minutes before I shuffled into the parking lot, in case I wanted to eat a pizza at the end of my running shift. Which I did, but it was not an option.
We met our other van and the rest of the guys at the Lake City town square, where they had sprawled out in the grass for the past few hours trying to sleep amongst a few dozen other Relay team members, as Friday night traffic, or just the one guy on his loud motorcycle doing laps, continued on as usual.
We shuffled people and gear in and out of vans, and even though it was almost summer in Iowa, I realized I should have asked a couple more questions before packing for this trip, namely: “should I bring a sleeping bag?”
I put on every article of clothing I had with me, which included many thin, breathable running layers, but no pants. I shoved my legs into my empty backpack, and tried to get comfortable under the glow of streetlights, the occasional vroom of Motorcycle Guy or someone else, and the headlights of other Relay support vehicles pulling in and out of parking spots at the perimeter of the park. I think I caught maybe two 30-minute naps? And then my alarm went off at 2:30 a.m. and we were due to meet the rest of the team down the road about 30 miles, at about Mile 131.
I volunteered to drive, and from behind the wheel, moving along at 55 mph in the dark, the spectacle of the whole thing crystallized for me: The long blinks of the red lights on the army of wind turbines spreading across the horizon, slowly getting closer as we rolled through the blackness; the reflective vest and red light of a runner shuffling along the left side of the highway, then a minute or two later the flashing hazard lights of a vehicle pulled over on the shoulder waiting for the runner, then another runner, another vehicle, a group of vehicles, another runner, another runner—all these weird people forming a loose caravan along a county highway that would otherwise be almost empty at this hour of a weekend morning.
I started my next shift at 3:50 a.m., a slightly downhill mile in the dark, then handed off to Josh, who handed off to Andy, who handed back to me, repeat, repeat, repeat, and the sun started coming up slowly, and I finished my shift at 5:27 a.m. A few hours later, we pulled into the town of Jewell, where a church had a pancake breakfast, which I partook in, and the high school had showers, which I did not partake in, and we rolled on. I had a seven-hour break between running, and I tried to sleep a little bit at a park in Eldora, but had no luck.
As we passed the halfway mark of the 339-mile relay course, I started to feel that in ultramarathon terms, the experience was half that of a runner and half crew member. As a member of our team, I ran about one-tenth of the miles, which means I spent about five and a half hours running, and about 47 hours waiting, driving, eating pancakes, pooping in the roadside ditch when it was our only option, retrieving complimentary single-serving ice creams for the entire team at Hansen Dairy in Hudson, and telling the story of how my friend Tony’s dad, Randy, punched our other friend, Nick, in the face, knocking him and his beer out of a lawn chair, when they were full-grown men riding RAGBRAI together for the second or third time, an event I did not see firsthand, but heard about later, and only thought of as a few of us on the Relay Team were splitting a Casey’s pizza in the parking lot of Independence High School, which was where Nick played basketball in high school and was quite good if I remember correctly. (Nick was just fine after the punch, if a little surprised, and I bet with a couple decades of retrospect, would probably say he might have had that one coming after all)
I slept a little bit in the Independence High School wrestling room, maybe an hour and a half, along with about 100 other Relay runners, and ran my next shift of 4.3 miles with Mitch and Brian P. in the dark, starting around 2 a.m. and finishing just before 4:00 a.m., running downhill on the sidewalk into the deserted streets of Manchester.
I drank a can of warm iced coffee during my break, watched the sun come up from the back seats of the van, and then ran a couple miles leaving the town of Dyersville. If you’ve heard of any place in Iowa, you may have heard of the Field of Dreams, an actual baseball field constructed near Dyersville for the making of the 1989 Kevin Costner movie Field of Dreams (and as of a few years ago, home to an additional, functioning baseball stadium next door, where my dad likes to tell people, the New York Yankees in 2021 became the only team to lose a Major League Baseball game in Iowa, to the Chicago White Sox, in the MLB at Field of Dreams game).
The Field of Dreams is, of course, on the Relay route (Mile 304), and Josh, Andy, and I ran the bases. I was disappointed to learn that the route around the bases at the Field of Dreams, of course only being 360 feet, is much too short to be a Strava segment. But here it is.
As we rolled into the outskirts of Dubuque, we started to split our legs into smaller segments—.5 miles each instead of one mile each. So both vans traveled together, and we shuffled our five-minute chunks. Then we stopped and parked the vans in a lot just outside A.Y. McDonald Park on the Mississippi River, put on matching ugly-ass tank tops (singlets?) Josh and Andy had bought for the team, and jogged to the finish line together. And then it was over.
I wasn’t looking for a transformative experience, or some allegorical story about coming back to where I grew up and having an epiphany. I just thought it sounded fun, and it was fun. I got to do it with nine guys who were friendly, funny, interesting, came to run 339 miles together without complaining or much sleep, really, and they let me tag along.
I ran 34 segments total, each one of them a separate experience, but knowing how memory fades, I won’t remember all of them, or even most of them. But I think I’ll remember the feeling of running down a county highway in the middle of the night, headlamp illuminating the ten feet in front of me, my shoes slapping the wet asphalt next to the white paint, only hearing my own breathing for eight minutes, until I catch up to the van, fist-bump Mitch, hop into the driver’s seat and put the van in gear, as I wonder where Brian P. found these club mashups that are blasting over the speakers as Drew, Brian B., and Parker sleep in the back seats. I mean, what a fucking weird way to spend a weekend.