195 Miles of Memories

Courtesy of the Dye Family

Our team names varied often – from Wine-ing through Napa, to Positiving through Napa, to The Grapists – but 195 miles, 30 hours and 11 minutes after starting the Ragnar Relay Napa Valley race, 11 of us crossed the finish line as one.

I, Ian Massey, finished my third Ragnar Relay in April, which was chronicled last spring in the New University. But shortly after finishing my third race, I had a burning desire to try something new. So I planned to run my fourth race and decided to make it more challenging. Let’s try renting a van, even though none of us are 25 years of age, and let’s drive all the way up to San Francisco and Napa Valley and back.

One of my teammates, the New University’s Entertainment Editor, Zach Risinger, and I are about to tell you the best story of our summers, but first, you’ll meet the team.

(IM): Liz Johnson graduated from UC Irvine in the spring and is currently continuing her education as a nursing student. Napa was her second Ragnar Relay. She’s definitely the most positive of the bunch. Liz began the race for us, crossing the San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge while snapping goofy self-portraits and texting them to teammates on her iPhone, and maintaining a steady pace. She ran three legs, totaling 14.6 miles.

(ZR): Ian Massey is a fourth-year literary journalism major at UCI. He was a fearless leader, and he ran his fourth Ragnar Relay, totaling 8.8 miles. He’s the man with the plan. Without Ian, none of this would have happened.

(ZR): Jamila Ha was the life of the party, and the spirit of our team. A fourth-year student at UCI, she was there to put a smile on everyone’s face, and she even ran an extra leg of the race when our 12th runner dropped out. Jamila ran 17.9 miles.

(IM): Kendall Dye is a fourth-year at San Francisco State University who aspires to work in education post-graduation. For three years, she ran cross country and track for SFSU. The week before she told her coaches that she’d be stepping away from running at SFSU, I gave her a call to see if she’d join my Ragnar team. It was perfect timing. Kendall left after her first leg to watch her boyfriend run a race at SFSU, then returned to run three more legs, totaling 25.3 miles.

(IM): Brittany Rowley is a former UCI pole vaulter who was featured in the New University’s Physique Edition last spring. Brittany is going into her last year as an Anteater. At one point in the middle of the night, Brittany missed the “ONE MILE TO GO” sign and was disappointed that she saved up her energy instead of sprinting to the finish. After running 9.2 miles, she bounced around for minutes, shaking out her leftover energy.

(IM): Zach Risinger can scoot. A fourth-year at UCI, Zach ran 25 miles over four runs, but after running 16.9 miles, his last run was 8.1 miles uphill in 90 degree heat. No big deal, Zach runs it in less than a 5:50 per mile pace – disgusting. While the rest of us were coasting along, Zach looked like someone shoved an M80 up Seabiscuit’s hind parts. Call him what you will, whether it be the velocity vegan or the shirtless wonder; watching Zach fly was pure entertainment.

(IM): Henry Nguyen is a fourth-year at UCI who began training just a few days prior to the race. He took on 19.8 miles over three legs, while delivering one of the most memorable moments of the race. Stay tuned…

(ZR): David Ly is the silent but deadly Bruin. A fourth-year UCLA student and a mutual friend of Ian, David was perhaps the most consistent runner I’d ever seen. Up hills, through stretches of shade-less Napa roads, David never slowed.

(ZR): Gabrielle Custodio is a fourth-year civil engineering major from UCI. Along with Ian, Gabby was the brains behind the operation and the rock that held our team together. At 2 a.m. she was sitting on a patch of grass, cheering on people she didn’t even know in the pitch black. Her unrelenting dedication kept us positive and focused.

(IM): Nick Pau graduated from UCI in the spring with a degree in English. Two of the team’s twelve runners dropped out within weeks of the relay, and Nick stepped up to fill one of their places. The other spot was left vacated for Jamila, Kendall and Zach to take on an extra leg each. Nick ran 14.2 miles over three legs, providing positivity, comic relief and sub-eight-minute mile pace despite minimal training time.

(IM): Corrin Rakowski is another student from SFSU, whom I met through Kendall. As Brittany would put it, Corrin’s zest for running was like a puppy being teased by a leash. As the last of our 11 runners to start the race, she finally got her opportunity seven hours after we started, and never stopped running on a tough 9.7 mile run. She totaled 18.8 miles over three legs.

2:00 p.m., Sept. 12, 2012 (two days before the race):

(IM): I was met by three of our eleven runners – Brittany, Nick and Jamila – at my apartment in Irvine. With Jamila driving, we headed north to pick up David at UCLA. Once David was onboard, we coasted along the 5 freeway, contemplating the extent of the universe, a zombie apocalypse and attempted to find the threshold at which dub step is tolerable.

Just past the Grapevine we stopped for the International House of Pancakes. IHOP we get there in good time. We did. There was Milpitas, a town just outside San Jose, where Jamila’s mom was waiting with spaghetti, meatballs and salad. Two minutes after we settled into Jamila’s home, Gabby arrived from Roseville to join in on the feast.

With six of the eleven runners now together in two cars, we headed to Nick’s house in Cupertino after dinner for some shuteye – or so we thought. Nick lived on top of a cliff that overlooked the city, including his elementary school, middle school, high school and a local dentist’s home – who had divorced his wife after she cheated on him. Drama!

The problem was getting to Nick’s house. A not-so-steady incline forced Gabby to floor her Honda CRV, which she purchased just two weeks prior, up a steel hill without taking the foot off the gas.

Thirty seconds of panic later, we were in Nick’s driveway. His parents greeted us midweek at 11 p.m. and welcomed us with more spaghetti, which we saved for the next morning. Nick’s house was pristine. It was three-storied, with automatic recliners, a pool house as big as my room and a two-glass-walled dining room. I waited all summer for Ragnar Napa, but I never wanted to leave Nick’s fortress.

On Thursday afternoon, just a few hours before Zach, Henry and Liz would meet up in Irvine to make up carpool number two, the six of us left Nick’s house and headed to San Francisco to rent a van from Enterprise and meet up with Corrin and Kendall.

However, we were refused by Enterprise, over and over again. Let’s just put it this way, it would’ve been easier to donate a kidney in order to rent a van from Enterprise. Despite receiving confirmations the day prior that I had qualified to rent from them, the Enterprise employee informed me that I was misinformed and that I was required to leave a credit card, not a debit card, which was previously vocalized by one of his coworkers.

I didn’t have a credit card, Nick didn’t have a high enough balance on his credit card, and Gabby had a balance but wasn’t 21 years old; none of us were from the Bay area; even Kendall’s mom, who had been visiting from Southern California, couldn’t rent a van because she only owns a debit card.

“I have enough money in my account to buy one of these cars and they won’t let me rent one?” she said, puzzled along with the rest of us.

We left empty-handed and met up at Corrin’s SFSU apartment, wondering what our next move would be. Racing with three compact cars was against the rules, and would segregate our team. Which company would actually let us rent a van? Six hours after arriving at Enterprise, we drove away from the San Francisco Airport, thanks to Hertz. LOVE YOU, Hertz!

Now that we have that taken care of, where are Henry, Zach and Liz?

(ZR): Liz, Henry and I, the stragglers, rode up together the night before the race started. We left around 7 p.m., perhaps even later, and began our trek up to San Francisco. Having never met, our drive consisted of ice-breakers before Liz and I slipped into dreamland for a bit, leaving Henry to brave the dimly lit 5 freeway by himself. Henry hadn’t slept in 24 hours and was blaring music in his headphones to keep himself awake. After waking up and having a slight fear of Henry completely passing out behind the wheel from exhaustion, I took over and finished the drive to Corrin’s apartment in the city.

Driving across the Bay Bridge in the middle of the night, fog drifting lazily over the empty road ahead of us, my first encounter with the city was one of deserted roads and twinkling lights. We found the apartment in due time, and buckled down for a couple hours of sleep before having to get right back up for the early morning start time.

The start line was chilly as the air drifted over from Alcatraz and settled on the grassy park underneath the Golden Gate. On our bibs with team number 224, our team name read “Wine-ing Through Napa,” but a last-minute snarky college student thought changed our name to “The Grapists,” which we promptly began writing all over our vans.

We drew checkmark boxes to keep track of each of our 36 legs, and spaces for tallying our “kills,” which was slang for whenever we passed a runner from another team. We got all of our equipment, and cheered Liz on as she and several other teams slated for the 9:30 a.m. start time.

(IM): All of the moving pieces had come together. We had two vans, everyone was together, and we were off. But for two months, I had been rehabbing my knee, which I learned had never repaired from a sprained MCL 18 months beforehand.  I had run two Ragnar Relays on a damaged knee. My knee was now healthy, but weak, having been cleared to start running just two weeks prior to the race.

I took the baton from the lookout point by the Golden Gate Bridge and raced along the coast. My knee was surviving, despite a steep downhill grade. Having averaged 15 miles per race in my previous three Ragnars, it killed me to run just 8.8 miles over three legs; but knowing that I finished my first 2.7 miles at a 9:20 pace, as the team’s weakest link, provided some reassurance that all of the awkward squats and stretches throughout my summer were worth it.

(ZR): Deciding that the best way to beat the heat was to run completely shirtless, I did just that. Taking the snap bracelet for my first leg, I darted off into the outskirts of the city, looking for runners ahead of me to pass up.

Being the extremely competitive person that I’ve always been, my goal was to pass as many people as I could. My legs carried me through streets I had never seen before, and I even got slightly lost at one point when I took a wrong turn. Before I knew it, I was handing off the bracelet to the next runner.

(IM): At the exact midway point of the race, at exchange 18 of 36, there was a stand full of energetic high school girls handing out PB&J sandwiches. It was 2 a.m. on Saturday morning and I was well aware of my peanut allergy.

I asked for a jelly sandwich, trusting that they had used separate knives to spread the peanut butter and jelly – they hadn’t. Within five seconds of finishing the sandwich, I was at a First Aid tent requesting Benadryl. Two pills later, I knocked out within a half hour. I didn’t even know I was out.

(ZR): My favorite leg of the entire race was the one I ran in the middle of the night. Consequently my longest leg, I ran 8.9 miles alongside grape-covered lands that I could barely even see for the layer of thin fog reflecting off the light of my head lamp. There was something about the night air that got me going and gave me a sort of vitality that I don’t think I had ever felt before.

I whizzed past everything with a dumb smile on my face, and made it to the next exchange with a teammate nowhere to be found. Finding my team’s van, I knocked on the window, bracelet in one hand.

“Hey guys … I’m here,” I said. Tired and confused stares shot back at me. Apparently, they weren’t expecting me to arrive for another 10 minutes at least, but my pace was faster than expected. One of the funnier moments of the night (for me at least), I calmly handed the bracelet to the next runner and took my spot in the back of the van and promptly fell back asleep.

(IM): When I woke up, I had missed three of my teammates’ legs. Apparently I slept like a champ. I stumbled out of the van to use the restroom, and then watched Kendall finish her third of four legs, and saw Gabby off on her second leg. Then it hit me like the peanut butter to my fat lip, “I have to run in a half hour.”

Gabby ran 4.1 miles in 31 minutes. When she arrived, I was still half asleep. I bought myself some time at 5 a.m., knowing I had 3.2 miles to go. I found the right playlist and ran off the effects of the Benadryl. I typically sleep 10 hours after taking two Benadryl, but I ended up sleeping just two hours total during Ragnar. At the end of my leg I handed the bracelet off to Brittany as the sun rose alongside us on a breathtaking Napa vineyard.

(ZR): The most grueling leg of my race, by far, was my last. 8.1 miles of near-shadeless asphalt waited for me. I needed to put everything I had into this last run and I would be done. 25 miles.

The heat bore down on my exposed back and sweat poured down my forehead as I launched myself anxiously to each patch of shade that was sparsely distributed maybe every half of a mile for a simple moment’s reprieve from Apollo’s wrath. After mounting hills and pounding every turn with all I had left, I came down to the next exchange putting everything I had into the last few meters. I handed off to Henry, the next runner, and stood, legs nearly shaking, among my teammates.

Ian checked his watch, took a moment to calculate the numbers in his head, and looked back down at his watch.

“That’s around a 5:50 per mile pace, right there,” Ian said.

“No way,” I said back. I thought there was no way in hell that I could have done that pace in that heat, with my legs feeling like iron. I suppose that the sheer desire to finish running was enough to push me along to what I didn’t think was even possible for me. But it happened, and the soreness and sheer fatigue in my legs for the next week were what I had to show for it.

(IM): From Zach to Henry, we were just three legs away from finishing. Henry, as I mentioned earlier, hadn’t prepared much for Ragnar. He was 7.8 miles away from the end of his race, but his stiff calves and a toasty Napa day weren’t going to let him off easy. One mile in, Henry was scraping at his eyes as sunscreen dripped in from his forehead. Four miles in, having run at a 10-minute pace, Henry caught up to a man with just one leg, when he needed it most. The man, we later found out, was named Fernando. He was an amputee and a damn fine athlete.

As I saw Henry and Fernando chatting and chugging along, I said, “I hope that guy drags Henry along with him.”

As the usual suspects of runners who had been ahead of Henry and Fernando started to finish, our team wondered where they were. And then we saw them, sprinting around the final corner, holding hands. Henry looked like he was about to pop 1,000 blood vessels and Fernando hadn’t even broken a sweat. He collapsed into Fernando’s arms, as our team thanked him for dragging our runner along with him.

“My body is a waste,” Henry said. “He’s able to do that with one leg and I have no excuse.”

As Henry’s calves pulsated and he cooled down under a tree, Gabby said, “That was probably a life-changing experience for him.”

(ZR): 10 runners stood anxiously waiting for Gabby to finish our 36th and final leg of the race, crowded around the last turn before the finish line reared its giant, inflatable self around the corner. Other teams would come in, cheering their last runner on behind them and finish together in one tired, sore mass of sweaty and disheveled body parts.

It wasn’t glamorous, it wasn’t easy, but it sure as hell was a fantastic feeling of accomplishment as Gabby came down the road, into the chute and immediately was followed by cheering teammates who reanimated dead legs to cross into the final meters of the 195-mile experience.

After getting our medals, snapping some photos and generally taking a moment to enjoy the experience of being done with the most grueling 30-plus hours ever, we sat down in the grass for a pow-wow. Ian and Gabby took the time to say something about everyone in the circle, describing what each of the people on the team brought to the group. Some of us had just met for the first time. New friends were made, and although I hadn’t known these people for any longer than two days I felt like I had some sort of personal connection with everyone.

One does not simply cross 195 miles of Napa Valley and not feel this type of connection to their fellow runner and teammate. Or at least, that’s how I felt about the experience. Those who run together, stay together. I’ll never forget the other 10 Grapists that sweated through the heat and terrain so we could all cross that finish line together.