Sometimes I feel that we live in an overly connected digital world and that we often miss out on making real human connections. I’m pretty introverted, but my love of running has allowed me to connect with and develop great friendships with folks in my community, especially through the running clubs I’ve joined: the Oak Park Runners Club and the OWies. In turn, those friendships connected me to something really special: the RELAY IOWA community.
This June, I participated in, for my second time, RELAY IOWA, an “endurance event” in its ninth year. Crossing the entire state of Iowa, 339 miles from Sioux City to Dubuque, the goal is to finish—in teams of up to 12 runners in less than 60 hours. This works out to about 28 miles per person. It isn’t easy, but it is really fun. And, circling back to my earlier point about connecting, it occurred to me on this year’s relay that the entire event could be a metaphor for life and personal connection.
The event is not a race, per se. Throw away the stress of competing for awards and PR times. Teams are formed of seasoned distance runners and cross-country speedsters, sure, but also those of us who run for fitness and fellowship and just want to try something new. If we had any competition, it might be internal trash-talking over who had the hilliest legs. And take note for those who haven’t visited, Iowa is seriously NOT flat. In fact, one of the annual traditions is the designation of which team member gets to run “The Pit,” an especially steep and long ravine mid-state.
This year 45 teams hit the route. Rolling secondary roads, pretty farmland and small towns offered us big hospitality in the form of resting places, food, showers (gasping, ice cold, true, but really welcome!) and camping spots, thou we opted for actual hotel rooms for those precious few hours of sleep.
The relay is, by turns: chaotic, (think vans leap-frogging each other, cheering, cow-belling and encouraging their runners) roasting hot, smelly, dusty, dark and peaceful, (as when running through the night or into the dawn), and occasionally scary. This year we had an epic Saturday night storm, which forced a 4-hour time-out and dive for shelter for all teams.
But these are all just “details.” My real takeaway is that what the relay truly offers us is a chance to connect, and to put a finer point on it, to walk (read, run) in another person’s shoes. Every team member comes into it with different strengths and ability levels — perhaps an injury, fear or physical challenge, maybe they’re taking a leap of faith joining a team of people they’ve never met.
My team had all of these components. And through the weekend, we all had the privilege of learning about each other. We sometimes got cranky as we ran our hottest or toughest segments, but more often we found our teammates’ most generous and ridiculously funny sides in the bargain. We had the opportunity to witness some awesome, tough-as-nails and surprising efforts from our teammates. And returning to that epic storm, it led to the entire relay hitting “reset” together at 1 a.m. Sunday. It also left in its wake cooler temperatures and a renewed sense of team joy as we pushed through the final miles.
When all was said and done, we had fun. We made new friends and great memories, had great snacks and covered a lot of ground. We also raised money in support of some wonderful charities (visit www.relayia.org for more information). But the very best bottom line, I believe, is the human connections we formed and strengthened in the process.