A Survival Guide to Overnight Relays with Coach Brian Comer

In the running event landscape, overnight relays truly stand out and are unique like no other. Where else can you go from running in a busy city at rush hour to running on a dirt country road in the middle of the night? It truly is stimulating for the runner’s soul to see the wide range of picturesque scenery you will encounter. Like all unique endurance events, there are unique needs that a runner has when embarking on one of these relays.

What is an Overnight Relay Race?

As I live in the Pacific Northwest, there are many notable overnight relays of various length ranging from the largely popular Hood to Coast Relay to the less crowded yet equally fun and rewarding relays like the Ragnar Relay and Cascade Lakes Relay. They all tend to follow the same format, teams of up to 12 runners, 36 legs of various lengths and difficulties, and a full team with everyone running 3 legs, and two vans that switch off every 6 legs. Most relays tend to have an “ultra” option for hardcore teams with 6 or fewer runners but even with a team of 7-11 runners, though the legs may not divide up evenly, it still can be quite a manageable task given proper preparation in training and packing.

So buckle up as I give you a first-hand tour and guide you with some tips for how to prepare for an overnight relay.

The (Humorous) Challenge

At the forefront of the challenges these events impose is the long amounts of time spent in a van. This ranges in everything from making sure you don’t stiffen up from sitting for a long period of time, to dealing with being piled into a tight space with your smelly teammates for long durations.

  • Pack your running clothes in Ziploc bags, putting one running outfit in each bag. Not only does this help mitigate the smell that gets easily amplified when you just throw your used running clothes in the van in your bag uncovered, but it also helps you keep track of the minimum three outfits you brought along.
  • Regarding clothing choices, though overnight relays are a hallmark on the summer running calendar, expect to feel a chill when donning your headlamp and reflective vest for an overnight leg at elevation or in the rural countryside.
  • Bring along multiple pairs of shoes. Often this looks like a pair of sandals for when you’re not running and at least 2 pairs of running shoes. It is always good to switch up running shoes and rotate during training and the same applies here.
  • With Ziploc bags, this helps you keep track of where your clothes and shoes are, which ones have been run in already, and it gives you easy access to your next outfit so you’re not scrambling for it right before your leg is about to start.

Putting items in Ziplocs may not seem like a big deal beforehand, but not only will you be thanking yourself for doing this, your teammates will be thanking you as well. It can also make a difference having a pair of trail shoes for a trail leg or a pair of flats when you have a short road segment.

Tools to have On Hand

On the topic of long durations of time spent in the van, it can become very easy to tighten up in between runs. It is important to bring along tools that can help alleviate the tightness and to utilize them often such as massage sticks and foam rollers.

  • One may want to include massage guns in this category but it’ll be more trouble than it is worth. It’ll only be good for how long the charge is and there is no guarantee of being able to charge it again.
  • Charging adapters in overnight relays should be reserved for phones since while these events often occur in remote locations with minimal or no cell service at times, phones are a way for you to keep in contact with your other van for important information such as the major van exchanges and how your teammates in the other van are doing.
  • When your van is on break is a good time to utilize foam rollers while massage sticks are good to utilize any time, especially when on the road.
  • Make sure to stretch often, whether warming up for your next leg or your van is at a designated rest area along the route.
  • Overall, keep things simple and don’t overthink things.

Warming up for Each Relay Leg

One may rightfully ask the question of how you are supposed to warmup for such a unique event. I recall at the 2019 Cascade Lakes Relay (see team photo below), I ran 5 legs for my team instead of the standard 3 but we were smaller than a full size team. One of my legs was in the dark starting at around 4:15 AM and I finished it around 5:00 AM. My next leg was in that same rotation and started at around 7:00 AM, 2 hours after I had just finished the previous leg. While our team didn’t originally plan that, as I had to fill in for a teammate, I remember simply getting dressed in my running attire, hydrating, curling myself in a blanket in the van, doing the same outside at the exchange until the last possible second, along with some vague resemblance to stretching, tossing a teammate the blanket and receiving the handoff.

This wasn’t the greatest leg from a performance standpoint but I took the first couple miles as the warmup to get my body into it and to start picking up from there if I was able. I did what I needed to do so I could carry on as I still had one more leg to run after this one. Under normal circumstances I do said lighter warmup jog followed by a set of drills and stretching along with the periodic hydrating and last minute bathroom trips. Things to remember when it comes to warming up:

  • The best warmup could sometimes be doing nothing at all and conserving your energy.
  • If you are planning on warming up before a leg, think in terms of a marathon warmup to ensure you don’t overdo it.
  • Don’t go for too long of a jog – you can take the first couple miles of your leg as a warmup.
  • Runners are habitual creatures, keep to your routine as best as you can.
  • You need to be ready for anything in these events, flexibility is a must.
  • At the end of the day, you know your body best and what it wants and needs.

Nutrition and Hydration: The Meat and Potatoes

Speaking of knowing the needs of your body best, we have the meat of the challenges you face in overnight relays with nutrition and hydration. As in day-to-day life, you want a good mix of nutrition. I’ve found the following to be helpful for me in prepping and racing these kind of running events:

  • While snacks can be helpful in these events, don’t rely too heavily on snacking as this can quickly lead to overeating.
  • Bring a decent supply of food for yourself, complete with simple foods to prepare such as sandwiches, while allowing snack food to supplement from there to ensure you’re actually getting balanced meals.
  • Don’t try experimenting on race day, opt for your go-to, more routine foods for the event.
  • With no intra-run nutrition to worry about, the bulk of nutrients come when not running, placing an even greater weight on both the pre and post run nutrition.
  • A lot of people have trouble eating right after they run and this is a good time to have healthy snacks on hand as well as in the times right before a run when you’re hungry but don’t want to fill up too much right before your run and feel sluggish.
  • There usually is food that can be found in some form at the various team rest areas, but it can be likened to playing roulette as you may pay for it later on.
  • If you were to utilize the rest area options, do so quickly after arriving to allow maximum time for digestion before getting back on the road and running.
  • Also if van space allows, bring a small cooler along to keep things like sports drinks and lunch meats cool and fresh.
  • It may make sense to have two communal coolers, one for each van, to bring along to eliminate clutter and allow some extra space.
  • When it comes to hydration, make sure to hydrate often even when not feeling thirsty.
  • Not hydrating enough and sitting for long periods of time in the van are a recipe for cramps, which aren’t a pleasant experience under normal circumstances let alone during an overnight relay.
  • Warmups and routine stretching can also help.
  • Make sure to bring along sports drinks as well, either through powder mixes or by bottles of Gatorade or Powerade. I’d recommend the latter for convenience and packing.
  • Allow yourself some leeway in the foods you pack. You will inevitably encounter some weird hankerings so do pack those cookies, chips and peanut butter pretzels to satiate those desires, but hold off if you think it would be better suited to fulfill after you’ve finished running.

The Million Dollar Question: How am I supposed to get any sleep?

I’m going to be honest, regardless of how you cut it, you;re not really going to get much sleep in these events. Sure, there are the designated rest areas when you’re the “off van”, but that is the best opportunity for sleep. Take advantage of those when you can. Here are some tips to get as much shut-eye as you can:

  • While sleeping in the van isn’t always great, you can also roll out a sleeping bag or hammock in an open field at the designated rest area.
  • Be sure to bring your phone in order to communicate with your other teammates to ensure you get back to the van when it is time to leave.
  • With all the stimulus both around you and within, you’re likely not to get any deep sleep.
  • At the end of the day, if you feel tired, then you should sleep.
  • You will have to make due with the little sleep that you can get. This makes the latter legs interesting, or the middle of the night legs interesting as it truly sums up the fun of overnight relays to the core and makes them more memorable in the racing calendar.
  • In the off-chance that you have a teammate with a cabin or the like on the route, take your rest break there if possible. It makes a huge difference to sleep in a comfortable setting and to have a somewhat personal bathroom setting compared to sleeping in the van and waiting in bathroom lines. The comfort level is indescribable and carries over into the next set of legs your van runs.

In Conclusion: Have Some Fun!

While these events have some unique and one of a kind demands, you should make sure to enjoy yourself. These events are prone to be ones where you make an abundance of memories along the way. So make sure to smile amidst all the tired miles you accumulate. The team fellowship is truly unique. As a former high school and collegiate cross country and track athlete, these events conjure the same feeling of running for a greater purpose, running not just for yourself, but for your team. That in itself speaks volumes to the various sensations you will encounter during overnight relays. They aren’t always easy, but the finish line tape is all the more rewarding as you cross it twelve a-breast and get a finish line team picture that lasts a lifetime. This has been Brian’s Survival Guide to Overnight Relays, thanks for reading, and I hope to see you out there.

Brian Comer is a coach with Team RunRun. To learn more about him or to work with Coach Brian, check out his coaching page.

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