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WVTC and the 1998 STITCH, by Jack Youngren
Team Ménage à Douze, by Jack Burns

by Jack Youngren

This year was supposed to settle it. West Valley's third entry into the Napa to Santa Cruz Relay was supposed to be akin to the third installment of the Star wars Trilogy. "The Revenge of the Dirty Dozen," if you will. The forces of Good, after a minor setback in the second installment, come back to kick some butt. Instead we have a moment that will live in infamy. An incident that will help escalate an uneasy rivalry into a yearly war.

These are, after all, the moments that remain frozen in time for all participants, the images we have seared into our brains whenever we give ourselves so fully to these competitive urges. For fans of the Oakland Raiders it was the Immaculate Reception perpetrated on them by the arch rival Pittsburgh Steelers. For Cal and Stanford, it was The Play, which turned The Big Game on its ear. And now, for every member of West Valley's Relay team that was there to stare in shock, there is The STITCH.

Next year, the 4th version of Ottaway's Dirty Dozen will be assembled by re-telling the tale of The STITCH. "What's that buddy? You don't want to waste your promising cross-country season on running three 10Ks within 12 hours? Tony, you were there. Tell this man about The STITCH." Nervous relay rookies, sitting tight lipped and tense in the rented vans heading toward the start of the '99 edition of Northern California's premier relay event will be fired up by a wild eyed Anthony Davies telling his version of The STITCH. And returning runner Paul Catherwood will revert to his college football days and spend hours at the chalkboard during pre-race meetings at Yancy's, using Xs and Os to diagram how The STITCH became The SWITCH, and drawing up possible defenses should 1999 witness the Son of A STITCH.

And the thing was, the team just wasn't going to get sucked into it this year. Everyone knew that this 196-mile relay for teams of 12 runners serves perfectly well as a personal challenge and an adventure in team spirit. The thrill of putting out your best on three separate races through the day and night, pushing your limits both for yourself and your teammates is the point of The Relay. In the hearts of the Dirty Dozen, they knew this, and they knew that there was no reason to get pulled into a hyper-competitive state with last year's champs, the East Bay Striders. Thus, the three goals for the team had been laid out simply by coach Tony Fong: first, try to take back the title of Relay Champs; second, try to finish under 19 hours; and third, but most important, HAVE FUN!

But there, in the parking lot of the Calistoga Mineral Water Company, it was starting as soon as the van emptied. The EBS team leader descended like a jackal. "So, who you got running? Is that Aaron in the van? Is Todd here? I haven't seen Fernando or Juan. Are they running for you?" It was decided then and there that the only way this would be tolerable was to leave East Bay behind early enough to avoid this crap at every checkpoint. The memory of becoming more and more fixated on "The GAP" last year, whether West Valley was ahead of or behind the Striders, was not pleasant. The sight of their van constantly staying back to check The GAP between their man and the West Valley runner as they pulled away in the last third of the race last year was coming back very clearly already.

The question was, did Ottaway's Dirty Dozen look like a team that could put away East Bay and save itself from this fate? The team had been finalized in the 11th hour. Coach Fong had enlisted two of his top high school runners to round out the team, Alex Mason, who had run for West Valley previously at the Capitol mile, and newcomer Brandon McClintock. Having run only 3 times in the previous 7 weeks, Jack Youngren was bringing little more than his previous Relay experience to the team. Other relay veterans John Heber and Anthony Davies were not in top form, but the rest of the team, returning runners and rookies alike, looked poised to do some serious damage.

But how can you understand the importance of The STITCH until you know about the preceding 180 miles, about the trials of 24 runners bringing a huge range of abilities but the same dedication to this race? You would have to have a sense of how 12 pairs of runners from two opposing teams hammered away at each other throughout the night, sometimes ahead, sometimes behind, but always (damn it!) aware of The GAP.

No, there is no way to understand the utter combustibility of the situation as the race for the championship and course record converged into an area of Santa Cruz Mountain roadway barely the length of a suburban front yard. As West Valley runner Colin Solomon closed on East Bay's Thom Trimble after almost 18 hours of running, as Trimble heard the footsteps of a presumed dead enemy like every bad slasher film ever made, the amount of pressure building on that stretch of blacktop was completely insane. It was as if every inch of Northern California landscape that had been covered by these runners as well as every bit of emotion poured out during the race was being compressed into this scene. No physics equations are necessary to understand the effects of balling up that much matter and energy into this tiny patch of asphalt.

To understand where the power of the situation came from, to understand how 180 miles of head to head racing gave actual matter and gravitational force to the runner's emotions, you would have to ride along with van 1 for at least some of the race. You would have to see Nate Knuth handle the pressure of the leadoff leg with intelligence and composure, and handle the pressure of having to chase down the East Bay runner in each of his last two runs. You would have to see high schooler Alex smoothly pass his Strider counterpart on both his first two legs, both on the rolling Silverado Trail, and in the middle of the night on the backroads of Nicasio. Alex then came up with his strongest run on his third lag as he smoothly turned out 5:30 miles.

Maybe for the full visual representation of what each individual was investing in this effort you would need to watch Tony on his third leg. Running behind for the first time in the race, Tony gave so much in his effort to catch the East Bay runner before the race turned up into the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains that he could only collapse at the exchange, and helped to his feet, could only wretch up whatever was left in his stomach. Or maybe watching the gradual change in Brandon as he went from focusing on destroying the team from his rival high school to understanding the need to finish ahead of the Striders would demonstrate how the fever was inescapable.

Perhaps nothing would help you understand the emotion of the West Valley comeback like being able to read Jack's mind as he struggled up the 10% average grade of Redwood Gulch Rd. Any observer could see the pain in the motion that could only generously be described as running. But what would it add to your understanding of the Relay to feel the despair choking him as he imagined what awaited him at the upcoming exchange? After giving up big minutes to Strider Bruce Goode in each of the first two runs, Jack started out well over 2 minutes behind Goode on this final, brutal leg. As he was cracking badly in the final mile, he could only imagine that he would be greeted with a look in his teammates faces that would reveal the painful truth, that after 155 miles of running the race was, in fact, over, The GAP was finally just too large.

With Aaron, who wears his fierce competitiveness on his sleeve and his face, witnessing the fury with which he caught East Bay's startled John Magasin, a 32 minute 10K runner, on his first leg would show anyone how much desire any runner might bring to this event. But the frustration Aaron showed when he failed to bring back Magasin across the Golden Gate Bridge after taking enormous offense to comments from East Bay runners watching him pass (hanging back to once again put a clock on The GAP) was something else. His anger showed just what was building as these runners took each other on in round after round of battle.

You could watch Paul Catherwood chomping at the bit on his first leg as he took the wristband from Aaron and blasted off on his leg, only to be brought to a dead stop a few feet later by a red light at a murderously busy intersection. Aaron's hard earned lead was quickly erased as Paul found himself toeing the line against East Bay's Steve Ruegg, waiting for the green light like it was a starter's pistol. Then cut to the scene at the summit of Highway 9, where an exhausted Paul (moved up a leg after Aaron was forced to withdraw from the race after his second leg) mulls over the hardest race of his life. His great effort against East Bay's Superman Magasin had still left West Valley seven minutes down as the race headed downhill to the ocean.

Watching van 1 however, only set the stage for the comeback. It was up to van 2 to bring the race back together through the mountains, to get all the players in position and to overload the situation with rebuilt tension. All these elements were necessary for a slight pain in a runner's side to start glowing white hot. The force of every bit of the ridiculously close event was necessary for that small ball of worsening pain to explode in terrible sound and fury.

To get there, to bring all these elements together, Sherman had to do his best impersonation of a visiting Kenyan in the first 10K of his life. He found the steep downhill on the backside of Highway 9 so compatible with his natural speed and quick turnover that he cranked down the 6.2 mile course in 29:23, cutting deeply into the East Bay lead. John Heber then had to be completely oblivious to the extreme danger of cutting every tangent of the serpentine highway as he pushed downhill to his absolute limit. Jake Neibaum had to run his most impressive leg of the race, blistering 5:30 miles along a rolling course with virtually no room to run against the whizzing traffic. So focused was Jake that a mild collision with a female runner he was passing barely registered. Her teammates took quite an interest in the incident, however, but we've got a story to tell here, and were just at the good part. You see, after moving up in the rotation, Jake was finally enjoying the liberty of not going head to head with East Bay's Trimble, and was putting a serious dent into The GAP as he chased down a runner he couldn't yet see. It would be the terrifying Colin who would finally bring East Bay back into sight as he reeled in Trimble at a relentless pace.

The right hand turn from Highway 9 to San Lorenzo Ave occurs 4.3 miles into the 6.2 mile course that is the 34th of 36 legs. It is at this spot that this leg turns ugly, as both runners knew from tackling it the previous year. It was at this spot that vans from both teams sat waiting to cheer their runners on. As Trimble approached the turn he did not look good. And just behind him was Colin, who made the turn about 30 seconds after his prey. There was fear in the eyes of East Bay, as they took after Trimble to find out what the problem was. And for the first time the West Valley runners allowed themselves to imagine the unimaginable. If Colin goes ahead, could it happen? Could Anthony then hold his own against Rob Flatland, a faster 10k runner? And what about the final leg into Santa Cruz? With leg 1 runner Nate back in Palo Alto, would high schooler Alex have to run his 4th leg of the day? No one wanted to even think it, let alone believe in the possibility if it was not to be. Misplaced hope would be too much, too cruel.

But as the road turned dramatically uphill, Colin dug in fiercely for the final two miles that would gain over 500 feet of elevation. Colin took off after him like Trimble was the dingo that had stolen his baby. And that is where it all came together. Three vans packed full of runners rabid with excitement. Colin, moving up and now 15 seconds behind Trimble, dragged hope reluctantly out of some dark corner of his teammate's souls until it exploded into a frenzy of yelling and jumping. Trimble, now grabbing his side after a surge to fight off Colin dissolved into a look of helplessness, was being surrounded by his teammates, whose panic was palpable. The emotional and physical pathos had reached insane proportions, and these forces culled from 180 miles of exhaustive effort were now compressed into a space that surely could not hold them, as Colin was now right on Thom's heels, a few seconds back.

Maybe the first thing to blow really was the pain in Thom's side. Maybe he really couldn't continue the leg. Maybe it had to happen this way.

To the West Valley runners, who had just allowed themselves to reach delirium, who had just realized that the 1.75 miles of tough climbing ahead would leave Colin minutes ahead of Trimble, who began to visualize a GAP that would hold up to a glorious finish in Santa Cruz, it all happened in slow motion. The East Bay Striders swarmed around Thom. The wristband was removed from his arm. Flatland, the next scheduled runner for East Bay, took off to try to shake the stunned Colin and rebuild the lost GAP.

The STITCH then became the spark that blew everything sky high. Runners piled into vans and raced for the next exchange. Tempers flared as accusations and rationalizations flew. The next exchange was barely noticed as East Bay's John Lehman took over for Flatland, who had been able to use his (relatively) fresh legs to put almost a minute on Colin. The rotations now back in synch between the two teams, Anthony took off after a familiar foe that had already disappeared into the dusty climb out of the rock quarry.

The arguments carried over to the final exchange point. Without knowing what the GAP would be when the two runners arrived, the Dirty Dozen could not decide how to answer the move by East Bay, which though technically legal, seemed to run against the spirit of the event. The ability of teams to replace a runner mid-leg due to injury or illness allows a team to continue in the event should misfortune befall one of their ranks. But to SWITCH to preserve a lead, to prevent a runner from being passed, seemed simply wrong. No one seemed robbed more than Colin, who only 30 minutes after finishing a devastatingly hard leg, his third in just over 12 hours, wanted the stick. The New Zealander wanted to run down any Strider who dared try to cheat him out of the win.

The DEAL was brokered to maintain peace, to try to calm down something that the nature of racing head to head for 18 hours had exploded out of control. The teams would finish together. Regardless of the GAP at the final exchange, the two runners would cover the final 4.7 miles together. Twenty four runners would cross the line in the sand together, symbolic of the true spirit of the event. The East Bay runner only had to wait about 20 seconds for Anthony to finish, as the wiry Brit was not cheated out of his chance to lay it all down in a heroic effort. The fierceness of the competition was observable in the confused anger of Lehman who couldn't understand why he had given the wristband to a teammate who merely stood there, staring at the approaching Anthony. "What are you waiting for?" he shouted, "RUN." It took quite a bit of work for his teammates to talk him down.

The DEAL helped salvage the most important goal for the Dirty Dozen. After all, the team was still co-champion, and crossing the line in 18:58:48 ensured that the time goal was reached, but without working out the differences with East Bay, how much fun would anyone have had at the finish. The DEAL allowed the two teams to drink beer and swap stories together at a post race bash. They could interact like runners who had gone through something together, rather than separately and in conflict. And as Coach Tony reflected at the awards ceremony, that after all is really the spirit of the event. Everyone goes through this together. The event is challenging for everyone involved, whether on a record setting team or the last team to reach the beach. That's what makes it so special.

So in the glow of accomplishment, the bad feelings could be put away, for now. But the STITCH will live on. Oh yes it will.

Editor's note, January, 2000: Unfortunately, after months of therapy, the members of Ottaway's Dirty Dozen, after setting course records in the 1996 and 1998 Relays, never recovered from The STITCH. The runners from the West Valley Track Club failed to show for The Relay in 1999 and were never heard from again.


by Jack Burns

Another year, another Relay? Ho Hum. Cool temperatures, clear skies, good support, organized race. Just another day in a pair of running shoes, right? Well, nothing could be farther from the truth! The logistics involved in both organizing and staging a 193-mile race make this event anything but usual. Participating in it is not just another day either. Ask the teams that show up and expect to figure out the course as they go. Most of them quickly find out that it takes the wits of all 12 runners, and then some, to negotiate The Relay course if they expect to get to Santa Cruz with a minimal number of mistakes. In fact, the diversity of the course is one of the things that make The Relay so interesting. To do well and enjoy yourself, it pays to have some course knowledge, the more the better.

Team Ménage à Douze figured out in our rookie year (1996) that this is not just another race. For starters it is three, 5 to 12K+ races in less than 18 hours, PER RUNNER. Because there are so many elements to the race, we begin our preparation in late March. That may seem early for a Fall event but if you're serious about doing well there is a lot to do before race day, not the least of which is some training.

By May 15th we had assembled the 1998 edition of Team Ménage à Douze, consisting of Gayle Murphy, Jamie Berns, Michelle Holman, Catherine Filippone, Michele Small, Jennifer Starkweather, Tom Berns, Bob Miller, Dave Covey, Frank Jones, Don Taylor, and Jack Burns, from the San Francisco Bay Area. Our team included six veterans from 1996 and 1997 plus six newbies, who helped drop our team average age by 8½ years for 1998.

Once we had the team together we began strategizing on how we were going to approach the race. First we looked at the strengths and weaknesses of each runner so we could match them up with the various relay legs. We consider who likes to run long, who likes the up hills, who likes the downhills (whose knees do we not care about), and who really wants to be the one to cross the Golden Gate Bridge. Since we all live within a few miles of the bridge, you wouldn't think that would make any difference, but it does. Running across it virtually alone in the middle of the night is magical and there is always someone on the team who wants Leg 18.

I don't want to leave you with the impression that leg assignments are only as simple as matching up ability with terrain (and preference). No sir! We have to also consider the two couples on the team who MUST be in the same van with their mate. The rocket science that goes into the early leg assignments is factored by a requirement for certain people to be in a particular van. Ah, love! But what the heck, we can overcome this obstacle. With a little extra thought and compromising, runners are assigned to their legs/vans.

At this point the team captain starts paying attention to how his teammates are running, how much and what type of racing they're doing, how they're recovering from injuries, what injuries they have that they're not telling him about, things like that. A lot of serious encouragement from the captain begins to surface, mostly for the team to go out and drive the course and run the legs they have been assigned. Also, there is encouragement to train harder.

In 1998 we trained, raced, partied, trained, raced, and partied some more. We had group runs and photo sessions for the newspaper and we transitioned to email for our Ménage à Douze News (except for one person who was email challenged). All of this, plus general harassment from the team captain, kept us pretty busy and made time pass quickly.

But finally, it was race day, October 2nd, a long time in coming but, as usual, it was fantastic! The weather was true to El Niño form, that is, not what was predicted. But that was good news because it was perfect. Partly cloudy skies and cool temperatures in the Napa Valley were a major departure from past Relays. And as a bonus, the final six legs of the race were cool as well. This no doubt contributed to our improved performance and definitely to our overall enjoyment. It also kept us from drinking our entire supply of water in the first six miles like we had done in previous years.

Having won the Submasters Mixed Division in '97 we were looking to repeat in '98 and planned and trained accordingly. As part of our final preparation we did a leg by leg prediction of how each of us would run the race. These predictions then became our "plastic Jesus." They were taped on the dashboard and referenced continually during the race. Even though most of the team thought there was some evil involved in coming up with their predicted per mile pace estimates, every one of us checked the prediction sheet as soon as we finished our run and were back in the van. It became a challenge to meet or beat the time set for each leg. We had a few other methods that helped keep us motivated but those will remain secret since we are planning to three-peat in 1999.

On race day, we arrived in Calistoga around noon to sign in for our 2 pm start. After picking up our shirts, Cliff Bars, numbers, and extra water generously provided by The Relay sponsor, Calistoga Mineral Water Company, we got to the task of painting our vans. Having started off with stencils of running figures moving around the van, our extra time and nervous energy was put to work in embellishing our artwork to make the figures a little more anatomically correct. This, by the way, paid dividends along the course as female civilians would pull up along side the vans, check out the artwork, and then ask who Tom was. "We want to meet Tom," they cried. The embellisher had overdone her work on certain parts of Tom's picture. I guess it could be said that Tom's figure was NOT completely anatomically correct (unless you talk to him).

Once the race started it was nonstop activity for the next 23 plus hours. In the active van there is no time to rest, even when you aren't running. It is amazing how fast three hours goes by. Keeping track of your runner, making sure they are on course, supplying them with water, while at the same time getting the next runner ready to go, plus keeping accurate leg times, is very time consuming. While one van is in action, the second van has to find food early, eat, and travel the approximately 35-40 miles to the next van exchange. It doesn't sound like much, but this time passes quickly as well and, in fact, there is really very little time to get any sleep unless you're the type of person who can sleep through a tornado.

As we left the Napa Valley and entered the Sonoma Valley in the second series of six legs, we transitioned to dusk, and then darkness. The various legs each person runs are much more interesting after nightfall. The Relay includes traveling through wine country, backcountry, past lakes and golf courses, over the Golden Gate Bridge in the middle of the night, through the Presidio of San Francisco and past Ocean Beach at 2 am. Finally, dawn arrives about the time we get to Woodside and Palo Alto. Ahhh, a new day, and along with it the realization that even though you've been doing this since 2 pm the day before, you're going to have to get out and run again.

So off Van 1 goes into the early morning, heading south, past Stanford University, through the Silicon Valley toward the Santa Cruz Mountains. Getting from the Santa Clara Valley to the coast requires climbing two serious ridges and negotiating traffic in the very popular town of Boulder Creek, which lies in between. Most teams would agree that this is above and beyond the call of duty for your average, sane, out the door runner. Thank God we're not one of those! No matter how much training you've done, the third leg of The Relay for every runner is challenging. In fact, the only three "very hard" legs on the course are in the final stretch, legs 29, 30, and 34. If you are the lucky runner who drew these legs, you're finished when you complete them, in more ways than one.

Despite the obstacles, we eventually reached our goal the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. Our entire team joins the last runner to cross the finish line on the beach. This brings a great sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. There is also a great feeling of relief; relief that we don't have to run anymore. Three legs are enough! We finished the race this year in 23 hours, 27 minutes, just five minutes over our predicted finish time, and more than an hour and a half faster than our 1997 time.

After hanging around and bugging race officials about the arrival times of our competitors, and toasting our accomplishment with a little champagne, we headed up the coast to Duarte's in Pescadero for dinner, drinks, and war stories. This is where everyone finds out what was going on in the other van. Even though we are in constant communication and see each other at least five times during the race, it is almost like you're talking to a different team when we start exchanging information. Some of the things you hear makes one wonder how we made it to Santa Cruz at all, let alone winning our division in the race.

Team Ménage à Douze is definitely about winning, but we are about fun, too. When we formed the team in our rookie year we decided that if we were going to train this hard and do The Relay, we wanted to be competitive. But, we didn't want to be so competitive that we didn't have fun. That means that in addition to finding twelve interested, capable, available, fit, healthy runners, they had to have a compatible personality, too. Compatibility is a big factor when you're jammed together for a couple days and under pressure to do your best every time you get out to run.

Another success factor for our team is supporting our runners. Everyone on the team is a serious runner and they have expectations of receiving a certain amount of attention. Support for our team comes in the typical form of supplying water, cheering, songs, words of encouragement, loud music, slaps on the back, name-calling, demeaning comments, and other creative things. But as our name might imply (Ménage à Douze is four times better than a Ménage à Trois), it also includes beer and wine for hydration, mooning, flashing, more flashing, loud and obnoxious comments, and other good natured examples of exhibitionism.

But to sum up all of the fun, pain, joy, and misery, The Relay is a fabulous race and an even more fabulous experience. You couldn't find a more beautiful course anywhere and no matter how many times you run the race, it just keeps getting better. You develop lasting bonds with your teammates and make new friends all along the course with the other teams. Once in a while you find yourself offering support to those you may be competing against. But you don't care. The whole thing is just a complete blast.

We can't end this story without thanking The Relay staff for planning another fantastic event, and all of the volunteers who actually made it happen. Mother Nature took care of the cool weather, cloudless skies, and harvest moon, but it would have had less significance if we had not had help with all the logistics. Frankly, it is amazing that the volunteers remain so committed for such a long period of time, especially when they have late shifts, a replacement doesn't show up, or some unthinking runner/team gives them a rough time. Their efforts are extraordinary and very much appreciated by Team Ménage à Douze. They, and the facility owners who provide for the exchange sites along the course, really contribute to the success of The Relay.