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My heart pounds, and I struggle to ignore the dull but steadily building pain in my left hip. My mouth is dry. I stare down the woman in pink who’s got ten years on me, but she’s putting distance between us. Doggedly, I keep running. Only two more miles. To distract myself, I swivel my head and take in the scenery on this stretch of Bay Shore Drive. Sister Bay laps gently on the shore, cars mosey lazily down the main road, and tourists zigzag along the sidewalks. I sidestep onto a patch of grass to avoid two shoppers; they look surprised, then smile in recognition of my race bibs and cheer me on. I never tire of this part of my regular running route, and to other out-of-town race participants it must be impressive. This bayside village is so perfectly bathed in reds, oranges, yellows and browns it could be a postcard.
I’m approaching the end of my 11-or-so-mile leg of the relay, and I am anxious to be finished. Before I can gulp a much-needed Gatorade, though, I have a big hill to climb, the one that will take me up and out of Sister Bay and toward my teammates. The sidewalk rises before my eyes. I can see other runners ahead, defeated. They’re walking. I won’t give in. I charge across the intersection with highway 57, loathe to walk while all the waiting drivers are watching. I make it to the other side and drop a gait to avoid losing my breakfast. I finish the steepest part of the hill at a walk before picking up speed to complete my portion of the 2016 Door County Fall 50. I hand the slap-on bracelet to my teammate Justin, and he takes off on the next leg of the race. I rejoin my teammates and release some choice words about the hill I’ve just conquered, or rather that nearly conquered me.
Door County has plenty of silent sport events to choose from, and the Fall 50 has become an annual ritual for me. The 50 mile-relay from Gills Rock to Sturgeon Bay has called me back for a third time, and this year I am thrilled to share it with some out-of-state friends. My sister has organized the five-person team, and they drove the six hours from St. Paul the night before the race. Despite dubious sleep on air mattresses, we are all wide awake at 8:30 a.m. when we arrive at the starting line in Gill’s Rock, very near the tip of the peninsula. We eyeball the competition: 449 other teams, to be exact. Other teams have decked out their support vehicles in war paint, sporting team names like “Spice Girls,” “Rum Runners,” and “Smells Like Team Spirit.” They list the ten relay legs on the windows and rear windshields, to be checked off as the teams progress. Naturally, we do the same, though our team name, “hch - St. Paul,” is decidedly on the tame side. Many teams sport costumes to match their titles. People chat in line for the porta potties, commenting enthusiastically on the perfect weather.
We gather with the other runners starting in the nine o’clock wave to listen to our national anthem. Introduced as a fellow runner, the gentleman singer bravely launches into as beautiful an acapella rendition as I’ve heard sung at a local sporting event. He loses the lyrics somewhere between “the perilous fight” and “o’er the ramparts we watched,” but the momentary silence serves as an invitation for the whole crowd to join in, and join we do, pushing those patriotic words somewhat feebly from our runners’ lungs. The song ends with whoops, and the race is on.
Energized by the unity of the crowd and the pop music in my headphones, I set a fast early pace moving south. Some of the roads are familiar and others are new, but all are spectacularly wooded and bursting with colors. On my first major uphill, the woman in pink passes me (she’s been practicing hills every week, she tells me), and we yo-yo back and forth like this until she takes her decisive lead. At nearly every crossroad, a smattering of support vehicles waits to cheer their teammates on, though they hoot indiscriminately for all the runners. One really exuberant team, whose van is marked “Ghostbusters,” dances wildly in beige coveralls and inflatable ghoul disguises each time I pass them. All of this merriment brings me through the first leg of the relay, into the home stretch, and to the aforementioned hill.
After my run, my teammates instruct me to check off the first two legs of our race on the rear windshield of our vehicle. We pile in and are off to catch up to Justin, who’s carrying the race bracelet to the third checkpoint in Peninsula State Park. We wind up South Bay Shore Drive into Ephraim, and pass Justin, honking and waving. Down a hill the trees part and my teammates get their first glimpse of Ephraim Harbor, glinting in the sunshine. We take in the calico of bright hues on the bluffs across the water and are inwardly glad that we aren’t the ones to run the seven miles leg around the harbor and up the bluff to Nicolet Beach. Into the park we follow a support vehicle whose campaign sentiments are unmistakable, and we cheer on friends we see on the course.
The next bracelet exchange will be smack in the middle of Fish Creek, which is a bottleneck of shoppers and team vehicles. It’s here that I begin to marvel at the depths of the hearts of the race volunteers. They’re directing two directions of traffic and hordes of distracted pedestrians is my friend Rachel. She’s waving team vehicles into the parking area and protecting teams as they emerge anxious to find the next exchange. She says an excited hello and asks about my run, never taking her eyes off of the line of cars awaiting her signal. A block down, Rachel’s brother is doing the same thing, and so animated are his directions that I think he’s working harder than the runners. We reach the exchange and look hopefully for Audrey, but she doesn’t come. Someone jokes that she’s already arrived and decided to keep running. Then she appears behind us; indeed, in the confusion Audrey missed the exchange and continued running almost half a mile before realizing her mistake. She came back and gratefully passed the bracelet.
In Juddville, a local restaurant offers us chicken noodle soup for lunch at the exchange tent. We wait in line and accept the warm liquid from still more volunteers; it’s like gold warming our sweat-glazed bodies from the inside. Our appetites bolstered, we jump back into the car and a gentleman volunteer directs us out of the parking area. We race to Egg Harbor to encourage Emma as she passes. There one of my colleagues is volunteer-traffic directing. She’s busy the entire time.
The final legs of the race go smoothly, and after the last exchange we head to Sunset Park in Sturgeon Bay to greet our closer Lauren as she finishes the last eight miles. We wait for Lauren about a quarter mile from the finish line. The sun is sinking, casting pink light over the park. The bass of the party tent is in the distance. We’re all tired, stiff, and sore at this point, some unsure of our abilities to jog a quarter mile to the end. Lauren shows up on time and we set off, running together for the first time that day. We cross the finish line at about 5:30 in the evening, and after an obligatory photo-op, we beeline for the party tent for all-you-can-eat pizza and some local brews. Inside the tent are thousands of sweaty, costumed runners and many of their families. This after party has a reputation as one of the most fun. Eating gives way to socializing and it seems every time I turn around I run into a co worker or a familiar face from the Y. My teammates, though new to this scene, are loving it, and we hit the dance floor when the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe” comes on. The team by this name takes the stage and entertains everyone with their spot-on costumes and moves.
The day, all 50 miles of it, has flown by. Though it takes some training, lots of plodding, and plenty of patience, this race is without a doubt my favorite Door County event. Each year I am amazed at how many adults make the trip to take part in this crazy race. I am equally awed at the support the community gives the race; without the dozens of local volunteers, the Fall 50 could never be the safe, well-organized race that it is.
To my teammates and me it feels like midnight, but around seven we leave the tent. We prompt Lauren to mark off the final legs of the race with window paint and head back home to Sister Bay. My husband Tim has a campfire waiting for us, and we recap the day around it, loads of stars twinkling above us.
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