It's a cold, misty morning in the purple mountains of Central Idaho and I'm running on the shoulder of a two lane highway, 25 miles from cell coverage. At over 7000 feet elevation, my legs feel like I'm running through a wading pool in cargo pants and I have a faint metallic taste of blood in my mouth. A grown man intentionally dressed as Draco Malfoy blazes past me like I'm standing still. I'm exhausted, humiliated and it's 4 miles uphill to the next exchange point. Is this a nightmare? A hallucination? No, this is my coveted guys weekend at the Sawtooth Relay.
For the last four years I've travelled to idyllic Sun Valley to meet up with a handful of graying college buddies. We're six guys from six different states, all pleasantly situated with career and family as we confront middle age. Our reunion up in God's Country is not a business boondoggle or a kegger for old times sake. We voluntarily take vacation days and endure TSA checkpoints in order to partake in a bizarre, masochistic ritual: the long distance relay.
Distance relays were invented by serial harriers to spice up the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other monotony. They involve a team of runners covering an absurd distance over a ridiculous amount of time. One teammate runs a few miles and hands off to the next brave soul before loading into the increasingly pungent van and leapfrogging toward the finish line. Crazy as this sounds, these events have become wildly popular: most of our crew also runs the 197 mile Hood To Coast Relay which turns people away each year after reaching their limit of 1000 teams of twelve.
The more modest Sawtooth Relay has 300 teams of six running a total distance of 62 miles with each member running two segments of around five miles. But there's a catch: this breathtaking route from Stanley to Ketchum cruises between 5800-8700 feet elevation. The air is so thin it makes a sea level guy like me feel like I'm breathing through a straw. I pay to do this.
The run is brutal but the rest of the weekend is outstanding. Sun Valley/Ketchum is an incredible place to hang out with some of the best food and scenery in the country. The fact that it couldn't cure Hemingway's depression shouldn't be held against it. I'm a big believer in the value of camaraderie and I find it enlightening to socialize with non-psychologists for a weekend. These guys are deeply entrenched in such foreign fields as "reinsurance" and "securities" and "market segmenting" and all sorts of topics of which I learned nothing in college. It's actually refreshing listen to another field's jargon once in a while. I also love the fresh trout, gigantic potatoes and a cold, hand-crafted beer at the finish line, which is just a warm up for the filet at the Pioneer Saloon later that night. So with all these wonderful aspects to the weekend, why spoil it with the voluntary trauma of the race?
We've talked about this. Between exchange points the Gatorade-and-sweat soaked van becomes a roundtable for exceptional discussions. We start with the obligatory family anecdotes, review of career status and world politics. We move to deeper questions about potty training, relating to in-laws and managing 20-somethings in the workplace. As the van trudges forward, the deepest questions come: What constitutes a high quality of life? Would we change any of the major choices we've made? What did we learn from our dads? As the resident psychologist and our team's weakest link, I continue to ask: Why do we run?
Which initiates our exploration of human motivation. We'd love a clear answer to this question, especially as we head up Galena Pass. Unfortunately, there are more theories of motivation than Range Rovers in Ketchum.
Virtually all the human nature all-stars including Aristotle, Freud, Pavlov, Maslow, Bandura and PT's own Steven Reiss have chimed in on motivation, typically with some variation on the "seek pleasure/avoid pain" theme. Looks like the makings of a top-notch Sawtooth team right there.
We've got no beef with these highly respected theorists, our ideas are more a simplification of their complex ideas than an improvement. This think tank is 83% finance guys, after all. In our oxygen-deprived state we boiled down our three basic motivators for running:
Chased by the Dog: We have a desire to stay healthy, blow off steam, avoid weight gain, heart disease and middle-age spread. We run to escape unpleasant, painful things in life: the fear motivator.
The Brass Ring: We have PR's to set, distance or weight goals to reach, competitors to beat and status to earn. We run to reach a goal: the achievement motivator.
The Joy of Running: We have the times when we leave the watch at home, ignore the mile markers and run to enjoy the scenery and collect our thoughts; when we forget we're exerting ourselves and get in the zone. Running for running's sake: the flow motivator.
Running Sawtooth is about the Dog and the Ring, but not the Joy. As a relay, this typically solitary sport now includes the pressure (fear) of letting the team down. There's also the competitive drive to beat those funbunch teams with too-cute a name or coordinated costumes, as well as improving our own PR of eight hours for the lung-bleeding distance (achievement). Joy comes when it's over, but in the midst of the tenth mile of anaerobic running all I could think about was trout, potatoes, beer and not failing the team.
But maybe this paradigm is still too complicated. According to team member Jack, who happened to be spending his 40th birthday running this race:
"We've passed more major mileposts at this age than we have left to pass. We've grown up, graduated, married and had children, and we only have left retirement, grandchildren and death...so, during this slog of middle age, we need some other small goals, like beating a race time, to keep us going and keep us active and interested..."
As luck would have it, we broke eight hours this year. Time to find a new goal to keep us active and interested. Best costumes?