The tank top I wore during my last leg of the 2016 Texas Independence Relay sums up my general feelings toward this sport: I HATE RUNNING. But in order to truly understand the significance (and humor) of that outfit choice, I should probably provide some background to set the scene.
Commitment to Wellness
HCSS is uniquely invested in employee wellness, providing a Google-like work environment with access to a track, jogging trail, gym, basketball court, onsite workout classes, healthy snacks and lunches, and other fun amenities that help us maintain both physical and mental health. In fact, I’m writing this while sitting on a leather couch watching my colleagues put equipment away after a rigorous dodgeball tournament held earlier today.
In addition to the daily activities, HCSS sponsors the Texas Independence Relay (TIR) – a 200-mile relay race across Texas – for 24 employees and any friends and family members who are crazy enough to participate with us. Every year the 12 fastest runners load into two huge white vans on a Saturday morning and head to Gonzales, Texas, to pose for pictures by a cannon before starting their first of 40 total legs for the weekend. In their picture, the team always looks well rested and excited as they shield their eyes from the mid-morning sun. They’re eager to take on the challenge of running as a group for 26 hours straight.
And every year the other 12 runners load into another two vans the Friday night before and drive to Gonzales as part of the “fun” team. We have to start five hours earlier than the fast team in order to (ideally) finish around the same time. So, our pictures look vastly different from the one I described earlier. We are standing by the same cannon, but since it’s 6 a.m., we have sleep in our eyes from waking up so early, probably desperately need coffee, and are shielding our eyes from the camera flash because it’s still pitch black outside as we begin our first leg of the race. Oh, and we have to run for 30+ hours straight.
What Was I Thinking?
When I started at HCSS almost five months ago, I was drawn to the company culture and appreciated the wellness focus. I have been an athlete my entire life: an elite national softball player since age 5, indoor volleyball player (and now competitive sand volleyball player), and sprint swimmer growing up. But I never ventured into track or cross-country. In my mind, they require a lot of running. Softball, volleyball, and swimming require bursts of speed and energy, not the same type of endurance you need to run for miles at a time.
At HCSS, your colleagues aren’t just people you work with, they’re real friends. And one of my new friends convinced me to sign up for this relay race since, you know, all athletes are great long-distance runners, right? While I appreciated her confidence in my ability to translate my sports history into running excellence, I knew better. I reluctantly agreed to honor my commitment to the team, but was very upfront about my slow running pace.
Then something crazy happened: I was asked to be the captain of the fun team. Now, how did I go from avoiding running at all costs to captaining a team of people who signed up to run this race alongside their fearless, running-loving leader? I want to say I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but I believe it was actually the other way around; I was in the right place at the right time.
The Main Event
HCSS has sponsored TIR for years, so several of our runners are veterans of the event. On the fun team, five of the 12 members participated in TIR last year. Of course, they were all in one van (why didn’t we split them up?), along with only one rookie runner (who surprised us all with a significantly faster running time than anticipated). So, you do the math: the remaining six people in the second fun team van were newbies, both to running in general and to this non-stop relay event.
The first van started off strong, setting the bar high for van number two. While they were running at record-breaking speeds (at least compared to my pace), our van was cruising through rural Texas, taking in the scenery and getting to know each other better. I might have seemed completely calm and collected, but inside, I was stressing out. I’m pretty sure my body had already begun to reject the idea of running before I even started (think: racing heart, nervous sweating, and a phantom headache). Luckily, no one noticed.
When it was my turn to run, I was extremely intimidated. I did very little training before this (I honestly thought my natural athleticism would carry me through, which is delusional based on my aforementioned issues with running). My teammates rallied around me and helped motivate me to at least get out of the van and stand at the starting point for my leg of the race, which happened to be in the middle of a German festival. (Yes, the oompahs from the tubas were interfering with the perfect running playlist I’d created).
I was so proud when I saw my teammate running through the crowd toward me because he’d been dealing with the flu all week and was about to finish a six-mile run despite his illness. And then the fear of running hit me again. Another teammate knew I was terrified of disappointing my team, so he ran the first half mile of my leg with me despite running a six-mile leg about an hour before. And guess what? I successfully made it through my first leg even after he stopped running with me!
During that first leg, I had an interesting dialog going on in my head:
“Man, I really hope I don’t die out here.”
“Actually, I’m an amazing runner and will pass everyone on the course!”
“Oh wait, that guy just passed me. And that one. And that one. Great.”
“I swear if my headphone batteries die, I’m quitting.”
“Maybe a rattlesnake will jump out of the bushes and bite me so I’ll have to go to the nice air-conditioned hospital and never run again.”
“Well, that would be a mistake because then I’d have to deal with snake poison issues, and that seems like a hassle. Plus, my family would probably be sad.”
“This is a great song! I’m going to sprint!”
“Sprinting was a bad idea.”
“I am regretting so many decisions I’ve made in my life right now.”
“Is that the finish line?? I think it is! And it’s a downhill slope? Awesome! Maybe I should sprint!”
“Okay, note to self: stop sprinting.”
“But I’m so close!”
It felt amazing to finish my first leg and hand off to the next team member. We were on a roll!
The nighttime run about five hours later was so exhilarating for everyone in our van. The air was crisp and cool and we’d all had a chance to shower and eat. The night was pitch black except for the thousands of stars in the sky, the occasional passing car’s headlights, and the glow of other runners’ head lamps.
When I ran at 1 a.m., I felt isolated from the rest of the world. The only person I was competing against was myself. I’d never felt this type of peace and calm before, and I didn’t even care when other runners passed me. Did I just fall in love with running?
Okay, I think I fell in love with nighttime running. I ended up getting about an hour of sleep between our second and third legs, but it was on the floor of a teammate’s apartment wrapped in my University of Texas snuggie with my duffel bag as a pillow.
Sunday morning came way too quickly. If you had seen our team stumble out of the apartment, you would’ve thought we were trying to survive the zombie apocalypse (minus the weaponry). We were sweaty, unwashed, and wearing the same clothes we slept in, limping on tired legs and struggling to get into our van to meet up with our comrades for the next handoff.
That last leg was brutal. Everyone cramped up at some point, some of us felt nauseous, people got lost, and I’m pretty sure the guy with the flu started hallucinating. We ran past all of the dedicated morning runners in Houston, along the treacherous downtown sidewalks, and through some “interesting” neighborhoods. I’m almost positive I walked more than I ran during that leg, but it felt amazing to finally reach the end of my last leg, with my teammates and other participants cheering me on.
Redefining My Perspective
During those two grueling days, everyone on the fun team ran at a better pace than expected. We all stopped along the way to give water to our runners and cheer them on as they blazed through their mileage under the hot Texas sun. Everyone got out of the van at each exchange point to congratulate the runner who just finished and start the next runner off on a high note. The entire team bonded, and it was really amazing to be a part of it.
At the end, we ran, walked, hobbled, or stumbled as a team toward the finish line at the San Jacinto Monument. I was proud to hand medals to my teammates who worked so hard to earn them. We even finished second in our division!
Because of my background in team sports, and as the oldest of four daughters in my family, I was in my comfort zone leading and coaching the team. I love encouraging others to reach their full potential, break through mental barriers, and achieve what they may consider unachievable. One teammate later described me as:
The Organizing/Updating/Run Hating (and Loving?) Glue of the Operation – Ashley used her organizational skills to get everything moving and stable. She constantly had the whole group connected by text messaging while we were on the course. She also seemed to hate life and embrace the run all at the same time. Ashley did all of this while never having run more than five miles at one time (until TIR).
What a privilege to have been part of a team that achieved so much in one weekend. I am grateful that HCSS gave us the opportunity to take on this challenge, and that they trusted me to anchor the team.
I must be crazy because I’ve already started planning for next year and have a goal to improve my pace time significantly. I guess that means I have to trade in my I HATE RUNNING tank top for one that says I LIKE (LOVE?) RUNNING.