(Ed. Note: The following is written by my friend Shon Hargis who I hired to produce a piece about his experience in the River to River Relay, Southern Illinois’ Premier Endurance Event. He will be paid with a lifetime subscription to our premium content area.)
When Matt asked me to consider doing a guest blog on the River to River Relay, I knew that I wanted to do it. My thoughts then went to what I should write about. Based on the questions that I get about the relay from coworkers and friends, I felt like I should begin by describing what the relay is and giving a little of its history. Then, I’ll move on to some of my personal experiences.
The River to River Relay is an 80 mile relay that starts on McGee Hill in LaRue Pine Hills, which overlooks the Mississippi River, and ends at the Ohio River in Golconda, IL. Each team has eight runners. Each runner runs 3 legs that vary in distance from 2.5-4 miles. While one runner is running, the rest of the team piles into one vehicle (preferably a 15 passenger van) and heads to the next exchange. This means that a runner will get a roughly 1.5-2 hour break after each of their legs.
Teams from across the United States try to get one of the 250 available spots in the relay. In fact, the entry process is a bit like a race – last year over 350 teams applied for entry in the first 5 minutes that entries were open. Even long established teams may have a difficult time making the cut.
The course begins in the LaRue Pine Hills. Then it goes through Trail of Tears State Park and North on Illinois 127. After that, it turns onto Mountain Glen Road and continues through Cobden. Once runners cross US 51, the course follows a large portion of the Southern Illinois Wine Trail. That segment ends near Blue Sky Vineyards, where it heads east to Goreville. From Goreville, it heads to Tunnel Hill – in fact one of the exchanges is right next to the Tunnel Hill trailhead of the Tunnel Hill State trail. From there, the route follows Illinois route 147 for some time until it turns onto some very hilly backroads until Eddyville. At that point, runners basically follow the Eddyville blacktop until it meets Illinois 146 and enters Golconda.
Of course, these details tell little about the actual course or the race itself. Those who follow Matt’s blog are probably familiar with parts of the relay course – he’s written about much of it, although from a cycling perspective. For example, the Bay City Rolller ride follows the relay route from Eddyville to Golconda. Those who have explored these parts of Southern Illinois know that the terrain can be challenging. Most people from outside of Southern Illinois have no idea just how hilly parts of Southern Illinois can be. First time runners and teams often comment on how difficult the course is – they have trained for the mileage, but not the hills. Also, because the race is usually the second or third Saturday of April, the weather can be quite unpredictable.
Even though I grew up in Southern Illinois, I had no idea what I was getting myself into the first time I ran the River to River Relay. I’ve been a part of two different teams over the last five relays. Some teams micro-manage every detail and place runners in specific legs based on their strength and ability. I’ve always been on teams that allow the runners to choose the leg they would like to run. Sometimes there’s a little fighting over certain legs, but I’ve always had at least some say in the matter. Back to my first relay… without knowing much about the various legs, I took the advice of others and chose what was supposed to be a relatively easy leg (runner 2, if you’re interested). The first two sections were relatively flat to rolling hills and weren’t too difficult, but the final section was very hilly. In fact, after the first mile, I just wanted to stop and quit. I ended up walking about half of it, and I didn’t think it would ever end.
Having learned my lesson, I used a different strategy the following year. I decided that I wanted to start with the hardest section and let my last section be relatively easy. That worked out a little better for me. Plus, that was the first year that I actually trained for running hills. Surprisingly, just like cycling, to run hills well, you have to run hills. Go figure! I’ve trained more and more for hills each year, and the last two years decided to challenge myself with some of the more hilly segments. I still haven’t tackled what I consider the most difficult segments. Since I hope to run each of the legs once before repeating one, the next three relays should be a big challenge for me! (If you’re interested, the 3 legs I feel are most difficult are 1, 6, and 8 – although all of the legs are difficult and challenging.)
No amount of training, though will prepare you for the variety of weather that I’ve experienced during my five relays. I guess that’s not technically true, but the weather has thrown a few curve balls over the years. I train in all kinds of weather. In the winter I expect cold, so I get used to the cold. In the summer, it’s hot, so I get used to it. Spring, well, spring weather in Southern Illinois is all over the place. I’ve learned to pack my bag for all possibilities. I remember a few years ago when the weather was supposed to be ‘seasonal’ – upper 50s – lower 60s. I don’t think it ever got out of the 40s all day and it was rainy. Anytime I was running, I was cold and miserable. This year, on the other hand, we finally had beautiful, if slightly windy, day in the lower 70s. The problem was, I hadn’t really had any training runs in those temperatures for months. As a result, I constantly felt dehydrated, despite intaking plenty of water. Our entire team struggled with the temperature this year, and based on several team’s finishing times, I would say that temperature played a factor in many teams’ performances this year.
At this point, the reader may be wondering “Why in the world would anyone pay to do this?”. (BTW, I know this is getting long – thanks for sticking with me.) Some people are just very competitive, some like the challenge, some just want to have a good time, and some people are just crazy. Most participants are probably somewhere in between. I’m a pretty competitive person, but that’s not why I run the relay. I do like the challenge, so that’s a part of it for me. But, I what I really enjoy most about the relay, and why I keep coming back is the team dynamic. Most running is about the individual. It’s refreshing to run with a team. As you run your leg, the team van will pass and they’ll stop to cheer you on. After you finish a leg, you’re back in the team van and there’s encouragement and conversation. While the teams I’ve been a part of have never been successful in terms of taking home one of the prizes, we have always had a great time, and I’ve never regretted one minute of the times we’ve had together.
I encourage anyone, regardless of whether you are currently a runner or not, to look into participating in the River to River Relay. Even if you never run, perhaps you’d like to volunteer. It takes hundreds of volunteers to pull off this event. You will have a great time. Perhaps you will meet new people and make new friends, I know that I have – I believe that I’ve met at least one new person every year that I’ve participated. You might even run into old friends who happen to be part of another team – I’ve had this happen too. Along the way, you’ll get to enjoy some of the most beautiful scenery in all of Illinois. It truly is an amazing experience.