Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Power of Teamwork: Team Playmakers at the Bayshore Races

Last weekend I attended the Bayshore Marathon, Half Marathon, and 10k in Traverse City, MI. I was not running it this year. I was just there to cheer for and support my friends on Team Playmakers, which is a running club I belong to, sponsored by our local running store, Playmakers. Running is not usually thought of as a “team” sport, but the experience this weekend definitely showed that the “team” mentality can be a really powerful part of the running experience.

We had about 65 runners up there in the three races. For some of them, it was their “first,” whether it was the 10k, half, or full. There were also veterans out there trying to PR, BQ, or change from being a Boston “Squeaker” (a few seconds inside the time standard which may not be enough to guarantee a spot if demand is high) to being a Boston “screamer” (my friend Geoff’s word for his new qualifying time that smashed his previous PR).  

The Bayshore races are popular ones here in Michigan. The course is fairly flat and very scenic, running along the water with beautiful views in many places. The weather this year was perfect, with blue skies, sunshine, and the temperature in the mid  50s at the start to mid 60s at the finish.  The only drawback of the race from my point of view is the traffic. That problem was neatly taken care of this year, as a group of us were staying in the dorms at Northwestern Michigan College, just a hundred yards or so from the starting line. It was hands-down the best way to access the race and expo. On race morning, I walked right out of the dorm, across the parking lot, and onto the course just a little ways up from where the runners entered the track for the finish.

Now I have to say that I was at a disadvantage this year in terms of being a “team-player.” Because of my aversion to cold weather and early mornings, two things that training with the team requires one to face, I had not had a lot of contact with my teammates during the training session this time. In fact, I knew very few of the new members. If it would not have been for the Facebook group, I would have been even more out of the loop. This is not a problem, though, when it comes to Team Playmakers. We all have the red Playmakers shirts that stand out in a crowd, and almost everyone on the team was wearing theirs for this race.

Now, wanting to be a good spectator, I had stopped at Harbor Freight on the way out of town and picked up a cow bell for $2.99. (Who knew that all that tinny encouragement could be had at such a reasonable price!!) I also had my trusty cell phone camera, so I felt I was ready to fulfill my spectating duties to the utmost.  Unfortunately I slept in on race morning and missed being out for the start of the marathon and team picture. I did manage to amble out, though, in time to cheer in some of the 10k-ers and to see the first of our half marathoners come in.  I joined my friend Melissa, who was also up there to cheer, and we happily acted like total fools, screaming, cheering, clapping, and “cowbelling” for every red shirt that came into view (even a few that weren’t Team Playmakers who probably wondered who the crazy women were and why they were jumping up and down in front of them screaming).

Melissa, me, and the cowbell

As the runners started coming in, our group of cheerleaders grew, and we were soon joined by some of the Team P coaches. Coach Tim, better known as Mr. Beagle, and Coach Judy were on bike patrol on the course, going back and forth between the Team P tent at mile 22 and the finish offering encouragement wherever they could.  Coach Lynn probably ran a full marathon himself running almost all of the Playmakers marathon people in for the last mile or so, despite the fact that he likely has a metatarsal fracture.  Having run this race twice myself, I know how much seeing the Team P coaches and teammates in this last section of the race means. It takes your attention off the pain for a little while and makes you feel like yes you can make it.

The Cheering Crew

Coach Lynn: Supercoach!!

As more and more of the half marathoners and marathoners finished, the feeling of being part of a team grew and grew, as did our group of cheering spectators.  One by one the runners who had finished came out to join the group and cheer in their teammates. There were so many people there who were accomplishing goals and doing things that they at one point in their lives might not have believed possible.  As is inevitable in this type of race, there were triumphs and disappointments: times achieved, PRs set, and times missed.  The great thing about a team is that fellow runners are there to share everything, the good and the bad. We have all had triumphs and disappointments in running, so one never feels alone as part of the team.

Probably the best example of the power of teamwork came at the end of the race. As I was waiting at the finish line, I got a text from Anna. You may remember Anna. She wrote a guest post for the blog a while back on running after a kidney transplant. She was running her first marathon, and she was in trouble. She was at mile 19 and was thinking of quitting. She was at a real low point.  Of course, when we heard she was in trouble, the first worry was if it was a health threat for her. However, a few texts back and forth made me relatively sure that in general she was fine, just really suffering from leg fatigue, soreness, and a serious head-on collision with the famous “wall.” 

I encouraged her not to quit yet and asked Coach Judy if she could bike up to help her.  Anna said she would try to keep going but she was so discouraged because she was only able to walk. I again encouraged her to keep moving.  Over the next  ten minutes or so we exchanged some texts, and it became clear to me that she was going to have a very rough time sticking it out alone. I also knew how much being able to do this meant to her, so I decided to head out to run her in. I felt like if I could get to her, we could work out a way for her to finish.

I texted her to hang on, that I was heading up to help her come in. Luckily I had dressed for running that morning, just in case. As I worked my way up the course, I noticed that they were starting to open the course to traffic, that some of the aid stations were packing up, and that the remaining few runners seemed to be in pretty bad shape. I stopped every mile to text Anna, letting her know I was on my way, mostly hoping that it would keep her going if she knew I really was making progress to get there.

We finally connected at Mile 22.5. She was in much better shape than I had feared based on some of the other runners I had passed who were in various stages of physical and mental breakdown.  She assured me that physically she was doing pretty well except that her legs really hurt and that she couldn’t run. She was also feeling “a little spacey” but not too bad.  Her hydration pack was empty, but she had been taking in fuel and electrolytes.  We were coming upon a beautiful home where a group of people were out partying on a deck. We asked if they could fill Anna’s hydration pack. They were super-nice and filled it for her. With the water she started to feel better, and we were able to push on.

At this point, I was pretty sure that Anna would finish. In true competitive runner fashion, she was beginning to get irritated that some of the people she had passed earlier in the race were passing her back. One group in particular bothered her, a group of about a half dozen or so runners. As they went by she said, “Oh no. Now I think I am last.” I looked back up the road and thought that she might have been right. No matter – the key thing was that we had to finish.

Now here is where the team aspect comes into play again. At that point I got a text from another one of our group, Paul. He had just had a not-so-great day himself running the marathon, made difficult by some sort of yet to be accurately diagnosed breathing problem.  “Where are you?” he asked. We were somewhere around Mile 23.5 at that point. He said, “I am coming up.”  He was coming up the course to help keep us company and walk Anna in too.

He arrived a while later and the three of us pushed on to the finish. As we approached the 26 mile mark, I was so happy to see that a core group of Playmakers teammates were waiting there for Anna to finish. She was hooted and hollered to the finish with the same enthusiasm they had shown for the first finishers, several hours earlier.  Amazingly, not only was the group there to cheer, but one of the group, Mike, had thought to make arrangements with the dorm staff so that Anna could have her room for a few extra hours. How thoughtful is that!!

As we ran down the track to the finish, the clock said a little over 7 hours.  Jake, Anna’s partner, was waiting at the finish, as well as her running partner Jesse. They had split up earlier when Anna had told her to go on.

Anna at the Finish

The group that had passed Anna was also at the finish and were happy and excited  to see she had made it. It turned out that Anna was not the last finisher in the race. There was still one guy out there behind her.

I have been thinking about that one guy. Running is often a solitary endeavor. I am one of those people who most often prefers to run by myself.  However, I cannot deny the value of the support of a team when the going gets tough. I was hoping that guy had a team to support him. I have seen over and over again how it can transform the whole experience.

If you are a solitary runner, if you have never had the experience of running with a team or a group, I highly recommend that you explore the possibility of joining one. I have had the great fortune to be part of three really outstanding and supportive running clubs: the Loma Linda Lopers, the Redlands Runegades, and now Team Playmakers. Each of those experiences has enriched my life and my running in more ways than I can count. Some of my most lasting and most treasured friendships have come from these experiences.   

To my teammates who ran Bayshore this weekend, thank you for letting me share your experience. You are all an inspiration!