The transcendental experience of the relay race

There is a scene replayed countless times a day, on playgrounds, swimming pools, high school and college tracks, and Olympic stadiums. Members of a relay team plead, cheer, and extol their teammates to go faster, to arrive sooner. If you look at the faces and gestures of those awaiting their teammates, the expressions are the same: wide-eyed hope and excitement.

If you have been a child, you have been part of a relay race. Because of this, you may take for granted the sweet dynamic created by any relay.

A few weeks ago, I was at a boot camp workout. There were people of a high fitness level, and others who could barely make it through. At the end, we divided up into arbitrary teams. The fairly random assignment to teams was quickly forgotten, as was the fact that our coach said, “This isn’t really a race.” Instead, from start to finish, everyone gave it their all. For those who weren’t at the high fitness levels, others quickly took to running alongside and encouraging them. As the last two athletes were finishing, I got a little misty seeing the genuine joy on the faces of everyone.

Next weekend, I will be part of a relay for a half-Ironman event, in which our lead-off member will swim 1.2 miles, before handing the baton to me for a 56-mile bike ride, before tagging our third teammate, who will run 13.1 miles. The preparations for this have brought to mind all the things I love about relays:

  1. They let you take the focus off yourself. You can’t be a good athlete unless you pay attention to your own training and focus, but if you only think about yourself, you run the risk of losing your joy in self-absorption. Relays make us work hard for the team’s benefit.
  2. Each person must do their job. While a team may be able to make up for one less-capable performer, you can’t really count on it.
  3. The magic of competition is multiplied. Every competitor knows the desired and dreaded feeling that comes as an event approaches. As Alexi Pappas says, “Nervous is cousin to excited. Excited is pals with bravery.” As part of a team, you can be nervous, excited, and brave with others.
  4. Win or lose, you gain something. You will never forget your teammates. You will always have that bond.

I have been a part of many relays. On a Tae Kwon Do mat. In a triathlon. On a football field. But my favorite relays have been the 200-mile running relays we’ve done the past three years. There is nothing like setting out with a teammate at 3:00 A.M., after you’ve already run double-digit miles on two legs.

Last year, we settled down for a couple hours rest. Because we were tired and the weather was fair, we put our blankets on the ground and quickly fell asleep under the stars. The alarm woke us up a couple hours later, we grabbed some coffee and Pop-Tarts, and headed out for our next legs. This scenario would have been absurd if done alone.

The relay transcends the race itself. At some point in every relay, you realize that this isn’t just a metaphor for life — it is life being lived at a very high level.

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