Editor’s note: Joshua Spooner is a Sierra High graduate and incoming junior on the St. Mary’s College NCAA Division 1 cross country team.
I along with current and former NCAA cross country teammates participated in the 52nd DeCelle Memorial Lake Tahoe Relay on June 11. The race is far from a traditional fun run or collegiate race. It’s 72.3 miles are divided between seven legs running on the shoulder of open highways. Each leg had its own particular challenge to add to the altitude.
Our entire team, which we dubbed “Moraga Distance Project” after the hometown of our college (Saint Mary’s), had previously experienced the distance, altitude, and incline found in the relay. My own leg was the 8 mile run from Zephyr Cove up to Spooner Lake in Nevada, the second leg of the relay. This run’s challenge was not the length: it was the shortest of all seven. Instead, it had the greatest elevation gain. The last three miles were a constant incline up a windy ridge where Highway 50 stretches. However, the toughest part was my position in the race. The closest teams in front and behind were completely out of sight.
The relay was filled with a unique collection of teams, 66 in total. The competitors varied from elite runners who ran in the Olympic trials to recreational runners taking on their greatest challenge. In between, there were successful high school teams and elite Masters’ age teams.
We in the Moraga Distance Project had the advantage of being NCAA runners, but the bad fortune to be a month into the offseason. From the first mile, our team was at the tail end of four that pulled away from the rest. As a result, for the majority of the relay we ran out of sight of other competitors.
The most unique part of this race was that the officials’ sole duty was to record the time at the handoffs. Each team was completely responsible for transporting and supplying their runners. The Moraga Distance Project drove around in an old van, which occasionally took a few tries to start, and followed the whole race.
With the van at our disposal, we were able to drive ahead to see the leaders and tell our runners how close behind we were, allowing us to stay in the race even if we couldn’t see the other teams. We were allowed to pull over periodically to give our runners water, drop of the next leg to warm up. In some areas with less traffic, we were able to briefly run alongside. Having to follow the runners ourselves turned out to be the best part of the relay. Whether we were running or not, we felt like we were part of the race for the whole 72 miles.
Having the van passengers to track the other teams helped, and so did the distance of the legs. Over 8 to 12 miles, a small difference between runners’ ability translated to a huge amount of time. The top two teams had consistently faster runners, but the Moraga distance Project was locked in a battle for third place with a team of widely different abilities. While they were out of sight for most of the run, the team drivers kept the runners posted and the race progressing.
The team that led the field on my own leg and ultimately had a 10-minute lead over us was suddenly passed on the fifth leg and fell behind two minutes. From the van, we saw the race shift to another huge deficit in our competitor’s favor. Our final runner, an NCAA tournament qualifier, changed the race again and cut the other team’s safe lead to a narrow margin. They held on for third place. Over roughly 7 hours, 19 minutes and 72 miles of running, only 27 seconds separated us.
The Lake Tahoe Relay, one of the oldest races in the nation, is a tradition carried on by dedicated volunteers and teams that return every year. The seven current and former Saint Mary’s students that competed may have turned this into a tradition of our own. While racing in the middle of the offseason was quite a painful ordeal, the overall experience was unquestionably great. All seven of us wish to return, and others from our team will likely follow. The “Moraga Distance Project” will try to build on this year and run to win in the near future.
While we are competitive enough to want the win, the tradition of the Tahoe Relay appeals to us because of how enjoyable the race is. The relay is a unique challenge for dedicated runners of all talents and backgrounds. It is the challenge of the relay that lures teams back every year.