Two thoughts in my head as I ran along the mid-day desert: how I would describe this relay experience to my five-year-old when we got home; and whether I was ready to get back in an increasingly rank-smelling van, gamey with six sun- and sand-scoured runners’ stank.
Such was my mind in the depths of the No Shortcuts Time Trial, a 130-mile team relay from Santa Monica to Palm Springs, the brainchild of our friends at AMP Association, Santa Monica’s premier strength and conditioning gym. We’d partnered with them previously on their go at The Speed Project in May 2021, creating custom hats for their 12-person team in the 360-mile relay from L.A. to Las Vegas. We oohed and ahhed following their exploits over those 41 hours and change, with rnnr hats blocking sun from their faces and sponging away sweat as they trekked through the desert.
That inspired the No Shortcuts Time Trial, which went from concept to concrete in just three months, and brought 18 six-person teams to toe the line in Santa Monica (way) early March 25, 2022, zero-dark-thirty. AMP Association first asked us to design their exclusive No Shortcuts hat for the racers, which we were thrilled to do. Then they asked if we wanted to participate as well.
We were pumped. Justin and I started assembling the crew: Leroy, a must; Rebekkah, a new friend; our buddy Mo flew out from Atlanta; and rounding out the lineup, Edi, whom we’d met just the weekend prior at the L.A. Marathon expo. While he tried on different rnnr models, we told him about future plans, like how we were running more than 100 miles day and night through the desert. He said it sounded fun. And how would you like one-sixth of that fun, Edi? With an open spot, we reached out just days before the race and reeled him in.
Our dirty half-dozen assembled (plus our intrepid photographer, Elmer), we were ready. Except mayyybe we weren’t so ready.
There was a lot of energy and anticipation in that pre-dawn assembly before the race. Everyone loosening up, jumping around, making wise cracks, and cementing plans with their crews. Still one mile each? It was gratifying to see people swaggering around, laughing, wearing our No Shortcuts cap. Hi, we’re rnnr! You might remember us from your new favorite hat? Or the jibes and jokes in the group chat? Or the hey did the race just start?? We were a little delayed arriving, checking in, checking our cooler, and amping up the team, and it left me hustling to catch up and start rnnr’s first leg at the back of the pack: the little Caboose That Could.
The hundred-some relay participants were on a WhatsApp chat so we could all plan ahead, get hyped, trade thoughts, and talk trash. Team rnnr existed almost wholly in the last category. Shakeout run at our room the day after! You’re all sleeping in? [Consider putting in a few more, whatever they were for real.] We shared that we were all running about an hour each, which caused something of a stir. Seems other teams would be running about one mile each, then swapping out. One mile? Leap-frogging 125 times? We scoffed. But within the first two miles of early race chit-chat came rivals’ official and almost unanimous decree about our plan: it was stupid and we’d regret it. We were all seasoned runners: marathoners, ultramarathoners, even! Not sprinters. An hour a piece would be the way to go, we knew. And the tortoise beats the hare, right?
Individual race efforts take planning but relays are constantly pitching toward chaos. Six different people at sundry skill levels, deciding who’ll race which leg and how far, considering where you’ll eat meals and how much, when you’ll transition, anticipating the change from night to day and again to night. I was rolling the plan around in my mind during that first hour, occasionally running alone, sometimes with others, until they peeled off each mile and were replaced with a fresh-faced, bright-eyed teammate. Other than the route, there was precious little mandate about this unsanctioned race, so we were able to resupply teammates on the go, or, as Justin chose, to troll alongside at 6 mph hooting at them and cracking wise. Those early morning hours were full of excitement and energy, still cool, still confident in our Hour of Power per runner plan.
It was all fine until 11 a.m. Then came the high heat, and with it, chaos.
Some of that played out in AMP Association’s planned route, which was equal parts awesome and daunting. Leroy had the leg that went straight through a mall: past Nordstrom’s and Hot Topic and weekend shoppers, milling teenagers and power-walking seventy-somethings. Rebekkah took the longest pull on the team, 10 sweltering miles in the middle of the day. In San Mateo Canyon, Justin leapt over rattlesnakes that wound out of the sand to sun themselves.
In all this chaos, at some point we lost Justin, too. We stopped too long for snacks, getting punchy from the constant heat and long efforts, and were taking a much-needed break from too long on our feet and the claustrophobic confines of the van. Those mile-long jaunts were sounding better all the while. By the time we regrouped for the rendezvous, we were looking forward and backward for our missing man at the planned transition. Were we too early? Too late? Scrambling around we finally found him, swapped out and got the team back in order, but the thought hung over us: two runners misplaced, albeit briefly. That’s pretty good, all things considered.
The other side of the chaos coin was all rnnr. We pit crewed the van at a gas station, filling the tank and wiping the windows, grabbing snacks, then tearing back to the road – with a fast U-turn back to the station, where we left Rebekkah. Distance runners though we all are, Edi also came with speed and tore through his segment like a terror. We barely caught up with him after a gas stop. My most-dreaded section of the race was along a highway, nothing on one side but an expanse of sand and its unrelenting furnace blast, and on the other, two-ton combustion engines barreling along at 55 mph. Other teams shared via the chat that they’d taken an option to bypass that stretch. When in Rome, do as the Romans do, right? Almost immediately after we made the decision to follow suit, we learned teams were giving it a go at the last minute, changing course yet again.
You have to gas the team up just as often as the van. Our team was at opposite ends of the nutrition spectrum. Leroy content to subsist on gummi bears, Froot Loops, fruit roll-ups; Edi organizing his nutritional supplements and looking toward greens, vegetables, and freshness. The rest of us split the difference. Pizza was a constant in the van, its nourishing triangles helping us replenish after our hours were up. We stopped to down Double-Doubles from In-and-Out. A roadside Cocos Frios stand was a godsend. (Cold coconuts, for those not in the know. Chill the coconut overnight, lop off the top, insert straw, enjoy. Best from a roadside stand found by chance during a 125-mile desert relay. If you don’t believe me, find out at next year’s race.)
One of the highest moments of the day was when Justin’s parents met us on the route with our kids in San Mateo Canyon. I know we looked harsh, worn by sand and sun. Miller, our son, didn’t notice it, though. He was just happy to see us, excited that we were on some adventure. We told him we were having fun, doing our best. He asked, “When you get home, can you tell me all about it?”
That stayed with me as we rolled into the evening. I watched out the window, slowly chewing another pizza slice, tired legs wrapped up in Air Max compression sleeves. We were depleted, if not defeated. The day’s early chatter and utrarunner bravado long since petered out. Occasionally I’d see another No Shortcuts hat flit by as a runner loped on. No shortcuts. No substitutes for the effort. The only way was to finish the distance, or quit. If we quit, we could go to the pool at our lodging. Have a few beers. How soothing that sounded.
We were this close, this close to pitching it in. We’d done what we’d set out to do and had nothing to prove. There was nothing at stake, right? Were it not for Edi, we’d have done it. But Edi stood solid, a bulwark against that bad decision. He made a passionate and convincing plea for us to stay on it, to push through to the finish. Forty miles, what’s that: a hefty 10K each? I wanted to cannonball in that pool. I wanted to surface to a cold beer. But Miller wanted me to tell him all about it, not about not 64 percent of it. The hats we made reminded us, admonished us, NO SHORTCUTS. No shortcuts to the finish.
The sun setting gave us cooler temps, and that, along with Edi’s pitch, gave us a second wind. We kept at the final 40 miles, switching runners each hour or so, which soon became the last 20, by which time our begrudging acceptance of Edi’s plea had turned to genuine gratitude for his foresight and passion. We were going to finish No Shortcuts: team rnnr, the little Caboose That Could, the tortoise, sweat-stained, salt-streaked, but still chugging. At last we arrived in Palm Springs, hitting the finish in 17 hours, 1 minute, about three hours behind the fastest team. But we arrived there officially and honestly, and, except for the brief Missing Persons status of Justin and Rebekkah, we did so together.
There wasn’t much left in the tank, for us or the van, so we finally called it a day 22 hours after we woke. The next day, we woke and went to the farmers’ market and got food to cook for breakfast. Edi had all the takeout, fast food, and mini-mart snacks he could stomach. And Elmer, our photographer, who put in some miles with us on the course as well, also happened to be a chef. It would be a waste not to make full use of this triple threat.
The day after was much easier and far less frantic than the race. We had a long jump competition in the pool, making the leaps and subsequent splashes about which we’d daydreamed so much the day before. We got team tattoos to commemorate the experience, and capped it off by eating our hearts out at La Bonita’s Mexican restaurant in downtown Palm Springs. There also may have been whispers through the day of maybe next time or next year. Sure, there were improvements we could make, to our strategy, our coordination, our whereabouts and runner tracking. I’d have to think about it. Maybe I’d drive the van. And didn’t I see a pool mid-way? It seemed such a bright blur, but would all be clearer when I thought it through and told Miller all about it, the full story from start to end, without interruption, and no shortcuts.