2 Vans, 12 Runners, 30-Some Hours. A Grand Teton Relay Recap

Mike and I with Sasquatch … all the pictures I’ve seen of him have been so blurry, I never knew he had a ‘stash.

When the starting gun sounded on Friday, I was still messing with my Garmin. Everybody else took off like they were shot from a cannon.

It’s possible our venerable leader made a mistake assigning the first leg of our rely event to a chronic procrastinator. I had the honor of putting our whole team behind, first thing.

Caught in a selfie moment. Photo Credit: Colleen Smith
Caught in a selfie moment. Photo Credit: Colleen Smith

And why did everyone have to freaking sprint from the starting line like that? This wasn’t a 100-meter dash, and there was no Steve Prefontane. There was a guy dressed like Sasquach, though, plus a couple of people in pink, overstuffed double Ds, more than one superhero, and a lot of press-on tattoos. This was the 176-mile Grand Teton Relay, not the Olympics.

The logo? I dunno, and think it’s better that way.

Our course started at 5,400 feet, and would ascend to over 8,000 before plummeting down the other side of the Tetons, which meant that every one of us probably felt like I did after about a tenth of a mile, stifling the urge to claw at my throat like some deep sea diver whose line had kinked. Even so, and at my glacial pace, I was able to pass a few of those rabbiters. My one regret for that leg was an inability to overtake the guy with the lopsided gait and confederate flag tattoo on his calf.

Chasing the storm. Photo Credit: Colleen Smith

The Tetons were named by a group of French explorers who hadn’t seen women for long enough they apparently developed an exaggerated memory of that part of the female body. The highest peak is over 13,000 feet – way bigger than the double Ds. Our course would meander through the foothills of the spectacular range before crossing over to finish in Wyoming near Jackson.

I love being part of this team, some of whom have been running together for 25 years. Some are good friends, some are people we’re still getting to know, but regularly high-five at local running events, others we’ve just met: a team of twelve people of varying running ability stinking up two vans for the better part of 36 hours.

It’s actually more fun than it sounds.

Van #2 in the wee hours. Photo credit: Mike “Red” Tobiason. On Instagram @rediculousrunner

We’d arrived in Rexburg the night before, happy to find an Applebee’s with a full bar – liquor not to be taken for granted in the part of the world – and to have an overloud conversation about past relays (which drew stares, probably because our copious use of terms like nipple tassels), and still manage to rally at the starting line in Ashton by 7:30 Friday morning.

A s’mores stop at 2 am. Photo Credit: Mike Markley. On Instagram @markleymike.

Running relays in general requires at least one person who is super organized, and 12 people who can be comfortable with each other in long stretches in close quarters between running legs. Relays in this part of the world come with additional hazards to consider. I’ve written about trail running before, and of the need to be mindful of critters like ticks and snakes and dogs (if you missed those posts, they’re here, here and here) – which can be inconsiderate a-holes when you’re trying to get a run in. Here we had bigger things to worry about.

On this course there were 36 legs of between 3 and 8 miles and also distinguishable by the proximity of the runner to the rest of his or her team, i.e.:

  • Support Leg – The van can follow or arrange to meet up with the runner along the course for support, water, and whatever else a runner needs. A pep talk … beef jerky. Whatever.
  • Non-support Leg – There’s no place along the road to stop safely for beef jerky or a pep talk. The runner carries whatever they’ll need for the run and meets up with the van at the end of the leg.
  • Shadow Leg – Vans are encouraged to follow the runner closely, cheering, blowing horns, making noise and being as obnoxious as possible

…. And the runner must carry bear spray.

Yup. Bear spray. To be helpful, our relay guide contained a few tips on what to do in case of an actual bear encounter:

  • For black bears, make yourself big and intimidating. Black bears having better things to do, apparently, than get in your face when you look in the mood for a WWF smackdown.
  • The same is apparently not the case for the grizzly, who wanders the woods looking for a fight and prefers his food feisty. To look less appetizing to a grizzly, one should lie quietly, facedown, hands over your neck.
  • Oh, and there’s this little tidbit (emphasis added):

Try to remain motionless and do not make sounds. If the attack is prolonged and the grizzly bear BEGINS TO FEED, fight back. The encounter has likely changed from a defensive one to a predatory one.

That’s right. Our guidebook for this race included instructions in case the native fauna begins to eat you alive.

Morning on the far side of the Tetons. Do not let the scenery fool you. There are bears (and grumpy farmers) out there.
Morning on the far side of the Tetons. Do not let the scenery fool you. There are bears (and grumpy farmers) out there.

The possibility of bear attacks aside, I managed not to place our team dead last – thanks in part to a staggered start and the fact that at least one other team had car trouble, but I’ll take it. I ran through two lightning storms, ate s’mores at 2 am, took a wrong turn during my last leg at 5 am (and after a slightly panicked, and regretfully public group text, was able to find my way back in the dark), and consumed more than my share of cheese sticks and gum drops.

Other observations from our event:

  • The Tetons aren’t nearly so grand in the dark. Or when you’re asleep in a van. Or when it’s raining really hard.
  • Lightning storms, however, are pretty interesting in the dark, and apparently cause mild anxiety attacks for my husband when he’s in the van and I’m the one running.
  • It’s good to have a couple prolific photographers on your team, unless you’re not into being pinged a bajillion times on Facebook (who could possibly be against that?).
  • Clipboards do not make one a race official, but that won’t stop random people from asking questions if you happen to be holding one.
  • Patron Silver is really good for post race sipping – in modest amounts if you have an early start the next day.
  • Toothpaste makes decent spackle if someone’s bad throw leaves a small ding in the hotel wall.
  • Make-up could possibly give enough of a tint to the toothpaste to match wall paint.
  • Apparently nobody on our team packs much in the way of cosmetics for events like this. Go figure.
  • Tinted Clearasil could make an acceptable alternative to make-up for this particular purpose.
  • Yes, you can still get pimples in your sixties. You want to make a big deal, tough guy? When was the last time you ran 15 miles at elevation? Let a man have his tinted Clearasil and shut up.
  • Bear attacks, while good to prepare for, are not guaranteed.
  • Nor is a refund for lack of even one good bear sighting.
photo credit: Elsa Cervantes
The team. And Sasquatch. Photo credit: Elsa Cervantes

Heartfelt thanks to the Boise Bunrunners for putting up with this slow person and sharing your booze, humor, and photos. Unless you’re antsy about ramifications for yelling stuff about nipple tassels multiple times in a Rexburg restaurant even after I told you to shush. Then all of this stuff is fiction and any resemblance to any person (or bear), alive or dead, is purely coincidental.


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  1. Well done on finishing successfully! That\’s quite an accomplishment in itself when it comes to ambitious events of this kind. Great idea about the bear spray, incidentally! Using something to attract the bears to you like that is sure to increase the average speed of your team. (Or have I misunderstood something?)

    1. Haha, yes, that would be a great idea, and apparently how the bug spray worked. I mean, at least that\’s the way the stuff appeared to work on me.

  2. That sounds like such a fun race, but the whole bear thing…woah. I would have been freaking out. Who knew there was even bear spray. AND, if I happened to encounter a bear, I don\’t think I\’d be in the right state of mind to determine if it was a black bear or a Grissly! Ha! I LOVE LOVE LOVE all of your pictures! I love the picture of a selfie. That pic of the van with all the stars is unbelievable. Wow.

    1. That\’s one thing we were joking about, trying to be calm enough to remember the instructions, and determine what kind of bear we were looking at … \”excuse me, but could you wait while I get the guide out of the van to determine exactly how to behave in this situation, Mr. Bear?\”