Alright, let’s talk about the GAP Relay! Our team had a blast. The organization of the race was a total shit show. So let’s get to it! More after the break (it’s a long one):
We assembled our team, named Pace Oddity (as an homage to David Bowie’s Space Oddity) and thankfully, we were an awesome, easy-going team. There were organization meetings (with less than a week’s notice from the race organizer) and lots of revisions to the Runner’s Guide and race maps. Granted, this was the first year for it, but still, there were problems. Additionally, P3R had written in the Runner’s Guide that headphones were strictly prohibited, and that teams should be on the lookout for other teams violating safety rules and to ‘tattle’ on them. We got e-mail confirmation from P3R that we could, in fact, run with headphones, but to just be smart (only use one ear, etc.) but the ‘tattling’ thing left us with a bad taste in our mouth. Ultra running has more of a ‘runners against the course’ feel, not ‘runners against each other,’ and especially since there is zero prize money, this seemed out of place and against the spirit of running.
P3R, the week of the race, also provided two, uneditable PDFs to track your team’s time (one that had a heading for 8 runners, one that had a heading for 4). By this point, we already had a spreadsheet created that would auto update as we put in each leg’s start time, had nearby gas and food options, and we were set up with a Slack channel to keep everyone up to date. We joked that P3R was too busy making TWO PDFs, so they didn’t have the time to properly organize the race.
But still, our team rocked. We sadly had one member have to drop out two weeks before, but we found a replacement that day, and with adding her, four of us were from my Ultra Running Team (PRorER), so that gave us a great base to build upon, mostly of doing incredibly stupid running things.
We also did two overnight runs, and I think that that helped us a ton! We met at 8 p.m. on two Fridays and ran different length loops until we were called it a night. The first night I ran three loops, about 16 miles and we finished around 1:30 a.m., the second I think we ran 18 until about 3 in the morning. We would run a loop, then back at the cars fuel, stretch a bit, try out different gear, and repeat. It was a lot of fun to run with friends at night, and gave us great practice for the evening legs. We even liked it so much we’re going to keep doing it! Starting in December, we’re hoping to make the Pittsburgh Runs At Night Klub Runs (PRANK Runs) a regular thing!
That week I finished packing up two totes, one for each van, assembled two binders with all the important information (as well as some fun car games to play), and we headed down to Cumberland. The drive down was uneventful, and we competed with the other van to see who could post the most beautiful picture in our Slack channel.
Cumberland is a beautiful little town, although the highways that cut through it make it a bit wonky to get around. Four of us stayed in a delightful little bed and breakfast, and as we found out, two members of a team we’d see a lot of, were staying downstairs. We walked over to packet pickup (after walking past it once) and got all of our gear, as well as a GoPro that we were asked to film with. The safety meeting was good, and afterwards we headed to the runner social at a local bar, which was a lot of fun. The bar had a tap takeover, and they ended up putting our team in their fancy, private dining room.
Friday morning, our team headed to the start line at 7 for an 8 a.m. start. We did a quick safety check and then cheered on the teams starting at 7:30. This is where some of the problems started. Our team was originally supposed to start at 10:30, but we got moved up. The idea was to have all the teams finish about the same time, so we all submitted our estimated paces. Our team was accurate (or at least as accurate as we could be, I suggested that we submit paces for each leg individually, an easy 4 mile leg will have a different pace than a hard 9 mile leg), but the organizer feared many underesteimated our times, so they moved many teams up earlier.
A group of (non race affiliated) cyclists show up to start a trek at 8 a.m., and P3R, instead of holding the three runners back, insist that they must start at 8 a.m. and after they head off towards Pittsburgh, the cyclists go past, creating a safety concern right off the bat.
The start line was neat though, with tons of coffee and donuts, and we met a few other teams we’d see throughout the day. We took off, having some time to kill before going to the first major exchange. We did our first Sheetz run, playing the calorie challenge. Each team was given one $25 Sheetz gift card…for two vehicles. So we decided to turn it into a game: how many calories can you get with your share of the $25? $3.12 per person (including all taxes on prepared food), or $2.77 for hard mode, including our driver/+1/amazing husband of Fox who was in our van. I thought the milkshakes would be a good bet, but couldn’t find the price. Twizzler’s ended up being the winner: 2 for $3, 1,000 calories. A bemused customer asked us what we were doing, and after explaining the game, he did mention that mayo packets were free, so he might have won on a technicality!
We headed back to the first major exchange, we went there before Sheetz just to check it out, and when we returned, there were other teams there waiting. We parked, hung our Pace Oddity banner on the back of the van, and joined in some cardboard cutout dancing with another team. A very angry goose from the farm across the road was upset there were people here, and it wandered over to us to honk angrily. When we arrived at the exchange point the first time, we found a clue left in an envelope to some sort of treasure, and we took the extra time to look on a map where we think Fox would be able to find it. We also met a cyclist who bemoaned the idea of running something just to complete it, instead of competing to win. “Back in my day,” he told us, “I competed in Ragnars, I didn’t just run them.” We gleefully replied that we were there just to have fun.
The other van arrived, and we waited for Cat to come in, after having crossed the continental divide. She made some friends on her run (after having to chase her coat due to the wind) and they passed around some high fives as Fox took off. We said goodbye to the other van and hopped in, heading to the next exchange, where I’d be running.
Leg 6: Meyersdale to Garret
This was my first leg, and the exchange point was this really neat railroad museum! We took a few minutes to look around, and I wish I had picked up a GAP decal, so maybe if I’m down in that area, I’ll stop by again. There was also a local woman giving out free maple candy to the runners, which was awesome! And this exchange featured the largest port-a-potty I have ever seen in my life. There was a cordoned off section inside it was so big.
One of my goals at any race is always to get some sweet high fives, and this leg helped me check that off my list. Fox came in (thank goodness for RaceJoy actually working, the rest of the crew in the van got an alert she was close and came over to see me off), slapped the bracelet on my wrist and off I went. The trail was really pretty, and it reminded me a bit of the trail from the Buffalo Creek Half. As I was headed down the path, there was a middle school class out on a hike, so I got a whole line of high fives from the kids, and only one snarky remark! Which, to be fair, was a lot less than I expected!
I passed over the Salisbury viaduct, which is over 1,900 feet long, which was also much higher than expected. Have I mentioned that I’m afraid of heights? This will come up again in Leg 22. It was still super windy at that point, and I took off my hat to avoid losing it. Once you cross the viaduct, there is a small family cemetery on the right, just four headstones, a bench and a small fence around the perimeter. I wish I would have stopped to take a photo, but I kept going, I wasn’t too far from my exchange.
Just to be safe, I didn’t put my one earphone in until well after I left, and I pulled it out (and hid them both) as I made my way into the exchange. I passed on the slap bracelet, with exuberance, to Mike, and he took off. I ran this leg significantly faster than I predicted (knowing I would, but also knowing my time would even out with the next two legs), and as a team, we were posting in Slack to update our spreadsheet, so it wasn’t an issue.
I refilled my water bottle and we headed off to meet Mike at the other end of his leg.
The exchange where we picked up Mike was really cool, and I got some good time talking with some of the other teams. I changed out of my running gear and Mike came in pretty quick. Jill took off an we headed towards the second major exchange at Markelton. This area was scary, mostly due to the fact that the owner of the land directly next to the trail decided this was the time to play with a giant rifle, which sounded like a canon each time it fired.
The parking lot at the exchange zone however was right next to a small river, and we spent some time playing on the rocks, which was a nice distraction. As a team, we volunteered to run with a GoPro to help P3R get some footage, and we believe at least one other team was doing the same. At check-in, they gave us a GoPro set up in Spanish, so we had to exchange that out. Then, as we discovered, it was set to such a high resolution that even after we charged the battery (it wasn’t full when we got it), we weren’t able to record all that much. So Fox, who had her laptop, downloaded the footage, and we reset the resolution to something lower. As we hung out at the exchange zone, we had some impromptu interviews and some footage of us enjoying the area.
Jill came in and handed off to Elizabeth and the second van was off (after taking down a hammock Jason had set up, which was genius). We wanted to grab something more substantial that Sheetz food, so we headed towards Ohiopyle and Confluence, eventually finding a restaurant that was open. The food was great, we read some children’s books about nightime animals and we saw four other teams all eating there too. We used their WiFi, and finally grabbed a picture with David Bowie on the deck before we headed to the next major exchange at Bruner Run.
Bruner Run was split into two, the lower lot next to the trail, and the larger, upper lot. We hung out in the upper lot and tried to catch some sleep, and as we got closer to when we were expecting Cat, we drove down to the lower lot. Because of the rain and space concerns, we were the last vehicle they allowed in, and the volunteer parked us in a mud pit. After getting two other cars to move, and with lots of pushing, we got unstuck and settled back onto firm ground.
Remember when P3R moved up all the runners? Well this is where shit started to hit the fan for us. Since we were moved up, we were now at the point in the race where we had caught up with the teams setting up the next exchanges. So along with us, 11 other teams were also held at the exchange and then all released at once. Fox took off, with Pooh Bear strapped to her back, along with the other runners. The rain continued, and we headed up the hill with Cat to drop off into the other van and then we headed to my next leg.
Leg 14: Connellsville to Dawson
This was my night run. At Connellsville, they had a spread of pizza set out for the teams. And by spread, I just mean a room of pizza, it really was just an obscene amount, so points to P3R for that. The volunteers at this exchange took a bunch of light up armbands and made running lights heading into the exchange zone, and I saw Fox come through the arch, slap me with the bracelet and off I went.
I was running with the GoPro, although there wasn’t much to be seen. I remember picking up glowsticks that had fallen off a runner in front of me, but otherwise, enjoying the stillness of the night. The trail took me next to a campground, as well as near some very large houses lit up by spotlights. I kept going, enjoying the mission of Zombies, Run! I was listening to, and loving the extra atmosphere. About a mile in, I looked behind me to see another headlamp in the dark, and I resolved to not let that runner pass me, so that kept me going. A different runner eventually zoomed past both of us, giving me “looking good” as he sped past, but otherwise, it was just the two of us on the trail.
There were campers out and drinking around a couple fires, but otherwise, it was just me in the woods, and I really loved it. My runner brain didn’t do math correctly, so by the time I thought I still had a mile left, I came around a bend and was at the exchange zone! I slapped off to Mike, and the volunteers gave me some warm apple cider! I stuck around to thank the runner who was behind me, telling her she kept me going, and she said the same, she kept close so she knew there was another person out there, so we ended up helping each other without realizing it!
We headed to Whitsett to pick up Mike and it is was my favorite exchange zone on the whole trail! Much like Homewood on the Pittsburgh Marathon, the community at Whitsett came out in force and welcomed us with open arms! The exchange zone was set up at a pavilion, and even in the rain, they had a big bonfire going right next to it, as well as a nice space heater under the shelter. The local Boy Scout troop made sandwiches and wraps, and there was homemade cocoa, hot coffee, drinks and chips waiting for us. The community members there even asked us to come band visit when we weren’t racing! While we waited for Mike, I talked with the rep from the trail alliance a bit who we had met at the safety meeting. Mike came in, Jill took off and off we went to the next major exchange.
This major exchange was also a cluster. At this point, even more teams were ahead of the race setup crew due to the changing start times. I believe it was 15 teams that were held at this point, all in a very steady rain. As we huddled beneath the pavilion, we learned we had to wait until 3 a.m. to start, along with all but one other team (one team wasn’t starting until 3:30 since they were even more speedy!).
The teams finally took off, and we headed to a Flying J for a bit of a break. We had first thought about sitting down and getting some real food at the Denny’s, but realized we’d just fall asleep in the booth. So instead, we headed to the next major exchange at Boston and grabbed some sleep in the parking lot. We were one of the first vehicles there, and I remember opening my eyes and suddenly the place was busy!
The Boston fire department was awesome! They had a huge spread of food, and of course a warm area to be inside, as well as a DJ who was playing music in the hall. I stopped over at the PA American Water truck and talked with the guys, who were very impressed with all of us runners, and I got a free water bottle!
We eventually walked down to see Cat come in and Fox go out: van 1 was done! It was fun to see which of the other team’s runners were done, they were the ones really relaxing (one man, very smartly in a big robe) inside the hall. David Bowie got back in the van (I walked him down to the exchange zone to cheer on the runners) and we headed off to my exchange.
Leg 22: Boston to Duquesne
We got to the exchange zone and parked. And then a volunteer came over and told us the exchange zone had been moved and we had to go back to Boston hall (we were maybe four blocks away at Boston ball field). Sighing, we went back and waited, in a parking space close to where we had been.
Between the confusion of a moved exchange zone, as well as the fact that two legs were starting from Boston, but in different directions, it was a bit confusing at the exchange canopy. Some writers I know from NaNoWriMo came to volunteer just as Fox was coming in from her ‘bullshit loop’ (to get the course over 150 miles, they added this leg, half of which I would run on my leg), but I quickly said hello before I took off.
I headed out at the same time as a runner I had met at the poorly planned informational meeting before the race, and she was just checked out mentally. I spent about a mile with her, running with her when she could, and walking when she couldn’t. Finally she told me (enough times) to just go ahead without her and I took off.
This leg took me through Dead Man’s Hollow, which was really pretty, and I actually got to see some fall foliage. The rain had stopped, although everything was slick, and we were finally out of the time when we didn’t have to wear our reflective gear. The trail dumps you out onto an industrial road before running across the 15th Street Bridge. Remember from my first leg how I hate heights? Yeah. Why did I do this to myself?
After the bridge, the previous leg (the loop to get to 150 miles) goes one way and mine went another. There are signs for the GAP here, but I suppose if you’re not looking for them, you could miss it, as it goes along the streets of McKeesport for a while. My captain was happy that I had this leg, as it has the most road crossings and I am a very safety conscious runner. At one of the turns, the rep from the Trail Alliance was there in his car, just to make sure no one missed it, and I stopped to chat for a minute or two.
He was so happy to see me, and said how much he loved our team and the amount of fun we were having! I set off and got to a point in McKeesport where I had run on the GAP before, so I knew it would be an easy end to my last leg. A lone cyclist was coming towards me, and as I got closer, I realized it was a friend from college! He recognized me too and he turned around, pedaling with me for a little bit as we caught up! His wife had given him a ‘Daddy’s Day Out’ for his birthday and he was just biking along the trail and seeing where it took him. Catching up with Aaron, as unexpected as it was, was such a neat moment, I was so happy for it.
The GAP continues through McKeesport and I caught up with three other runners who were all stopped due to a train crossing. Only one other was from Pittsburgh, and one I had met before at a couple of the exchange zones, so we all chatted for the next mile or so. We hit the big uphill to the bridge to go over the Mon and we were caught by another runner. The three I had been with all slowed down and I took off with my new friend.
One we got over the bridge she took off, but still, so many new (and old) friends in one leg! The last couple miles took me into Duquesne, and at the exchange zone, there was even a doggo! I slapped off the bracelet to Mike, used the bathroom inside the Food Bank (thank you!) and we were off to the last exchange zone!
There was (probably still is) major construction going on and so we ended up taking a bit of a detour to get to the exchange zone, but once we were at the Waterfront, we figured we were good. We weren’t.
All the maps had said that the last exchange zone was in the Costco parking lot near Sandcastle. Well, about a mile and a half before that, we see the signs for the exchange and turn in to the bike rental place at the Waterfront. Thank goodness we saw the sign!
At this point, I finally got the rest of the treasure hunt story (remember that from yesterday at the first major exchange?). I had asked Fox a few times, but we kept going off on tangents, like we do. Sadly, she found the spot, but whatever the treasure was, had already been claimed. The other van met us here for an impromptu reunion, and we made plans for where to meet at the South Side. Mike came in, and he left with Jill, they were going to run the last leg together, and we were off to the finish line!
The finish line was a lot of fun, some of the other teams we had become friends with were crossing the line very close to when we were, so we got to cheer them on as well. Fox’s mom and dad came with Fox and Michael’s dog, Layla Grace (who was a hit) and Mike and Jill crossed the line, and we got to walk to the ceremonial line as a team: including our banner, David Bowie and Space Oddity playing on a portable speaker.
The post-race party was decent, I do have to say. The pierogies (which I sadly could not eat) looked amazing, and the pretzel was really good. I appreciated getting a free beer, but my stomach is always bonkers after races, and this was no exception, so I only had about a third of mine.
This was about the time we saw that there is a typo on the medal itself (also on the background image of our bibs): Pinkerton was spelled “Pinterton.” We also had trouble finding any of the P3R staff to return the GoPro to. I saw some of them, but they were huddled with themselves at a table, ignoring the runners.
This is a huge pet peeve of mine, and I hit them hard for this on the post-race survey. I worked in non-profits for 11 years. I worked very long events, so I get it, believe me I do. But myself or my staff would have never acted like that, especially since the race was still going on. That mindset, along with the ignoring of the queer community and an empty ‘apology’ has really led me to believe that P3R has a corporate culture of not listening or caring to their runners or communities, and that is a shame. Pittsburgh deserves better.
I met up one last time with a couple other teams and we finally decided to call it a race. We packed up our things (the parking garage lobby smelling oddly of pumpkin spice- either it was a special edition parking garage lobby or we assume someone threw up a PSL), headed home, cleaned up our vans and I finally grabbed a four hour nap.
There was a lot wrong with this race, but in the end, our team had an absolute blast. We were a great group of people, knowing we were going into a race to have a good time. Had you asked me that day if I would do it again, I would have said no. Now, I’d probably say yes. If we do the GAP again I’d want to do different legs, or there is a Ragnar race (points for being better run) that runs the C&O Towpath from Cumberland to D.C., so we’d get to see the second half of the trail!
Either way though, it was a great adventure, and I’m so glad we did it!
See the whole gallery (the gallery below doesn’t show them all for some reason, and the vertical images might be cut off, sorry about that!), here’s the link if you want to see all the pics with their original ratios!: