I grew up in a small Midwestern town in the early 1980s, where I ran cross-country in high school. I was a middle-of-the-pack runner but the discipline of running and the experience of being part of a tight-knit team were major formative experiences for me. Early in my junior year, one of us got the idea of organizing a 24-hour relay as a fundraiser to help cover the costs of our summer cross-country camp. Nothing like it had ever been tried at my school before, so just the thought of it captured everyone’s attention.
The event was set for a weekend in early November and took place on the gravel track around the football field. The drill was simple: 10 of us from the team participating, with one person at a time running a mile holding a baton and then passing off to the next in line. Rinse and repeat — from 12 noon on Saturday to 12 noon on Sunday. Our head coach and assistant coach were there, too, with a stop watch to keep track of the times and the total mileage and to provide their support.
The weather was unseasonably cold that weekend and we got the first snow of the season. The running gear of that era, at least in our town, was not so advanced, so most of us were just in various layers of cotton, with our warm-up sweats as the outer layer. I just remember being damp and cold and largely unable or unwilling to nap at all in between runs.
Despite the weather, we were generally cheerful and enthusiastic, at least for the first 14 hours or so. The wee hours of the morning, though, were just a numbing slog. It was certainly a much more grueling kind of physical test than our weekly 400-meter interval practices that (mercifully) lasted only 60-90 minutes.
Some of our friends came to cheer us on, and a few parents played a crucial role by providing hot food in the concession stand. I remember that the crock pot with the hot cider was critical to keeping us going that night. When we weren’t running, especially at it grew dark and colder, we retreated to the press box at the top of the bleachers to try to rest.
We tried to keep up a reasonably fast pace – the funding pledges that we had secured from our families and classmates were per mile, providing some extra incentive. As I recall, our times during the relay ranged from roughly 5:30 to 7:30 minutes per mile. So, we all ran about once per hour, well over 200 total miles for the group. When the event finally drew to a close, we all ran the last lap together. I never remember being so exhausted, but with a deep sense of accomplishment.
The best part is that the relay became an annual tradition that extended well beyond my own high school years. And the event brought everyone in the cross-country program closer together. The extra attention and morale boost that this event brought with it may also have played a small part in turning the team into one of the best in the region in the coming years.