The Cheap Athlete’s Guide To Overnight Relays

So there are a couple of topics I honestly feel that I am an expert on:

  • Riding a folding bike
  • Running through the winter
  • Participating in an overnight relay
  • Making fancy-pants spreadsheets in Excel

Only one of those I’ve been able to capitalize on financially, can you guess which one?

Much to Dahon’s liking I’ve saturated this site with articles on my folding bike so I won’t subject y’all to another one, yet. The cold weather running post is still in the works and building a Monte Carlo simulation in Excel is not athletic and a buzzkill of a post for this blog.

So, fresh off running 42 miles in my 7th relay race, I felt the timing for a post on how to tackle one was perfect.

So what is a relay race?

My favoritest race in the whole wide world is the Blue Ridge Relay – an epic 208 mile relay that starts in Grayson County, VA and tracks through the Blue Ridge mountains all the way to Asheville, NC.

It’s awesome sauce.

The BRR is a single event but y’all may be more familiar with Ragnar which holds similar events all across the country – one of which I participated in Utah.

Basically they are a super long race, around 200 miles, broken up into about 36 legs of various lengths. You and up to 11 (we typically roll with a 9 person team) of your craziest friends sign up, ride around in a smelly van for 24 hours or so and take turns running the legs.

No, it’s not stupid. Stop thinking that.

It sounds terrible, why would I do this?

A lot of reasons really: being outside, challenging yourself and hanging with friends and family just to name a few. In a world where people focus so much on their times (BQ, Kona, etc.) it’s refreshing to participate in a race where the times don’t make a whole lot of sense and the focus is not on individual achievements.

Let’s take leg 31 of the BRR as an example – the leg we lovingly call “The Goat”

The distance is only 6.5 miles but it consists of about 5 miles worth of switchbacks that add up to 1,400 feet of upness. There are no qualifying standards to meet and your pace goes out the window since you are just trying to run up this thing without walking.

As you near the final miles you come across all the resting participants, thankful they aren’t running this beast, lining the sides of the street and cheering you on like a tour rider about to summit Alpe d’Huez. Sorta.

Once you finish this mother of a climb you hand off that sweaty slap bracelet to your teammate and let them tackle the next ridiculous leg.

Was that a good time? I don’t know, what’s a good time for 5 miles of switchbacks?

The BRR was the start of something bigger

Six years ago I was slogging away my miles on the godforsaken treadmill. I’d get to work, put on my running shoes and run in place while staring out the window towards Manhattan.

Running on this treadmill was a physical representation of how I felt my life was going – aimlessly trying really hard but not really progressing anywhere. I woke up, went to work and drove home. My savings increased some but, aside from 4 weeks of vacation a year, that was life for the foreseeable future.

On the weekends my wife and I would do what typical 20-30 year old yuppies do – shop, eat out and handicap our financial future by mindlessly spending money on unnecessary stuff.

Thankfully about 6 months into my treadmill experiment my brother-in-law asked me if I was interested in joining a group of randos to run a whole buncha miles in the mountains of North Carolina.

Sure, I’m in.

It was in those Blue Ridge mountains with my 2 brothers-in law, soon to be sister-in-law and a couple of strangers that I discovered my passion for running and the outdoors. Suddenly all the frivolous things I did because that’s-what-grown-ups-do became unimportant and I found what was lacking in my adult life.

I missed racing and being part of a team.

My first BRR experience can be considered the tipping point for the next 6 years of my life and I can attribute all of the following to this race: becoming a marathoner, completing an Ironman, backpacking the Grand Canyon and truly achieving happiness. Even my quest for financial independence can be traced back to this race – if I didn’t know what I was saving for then it wouldn’t be so easy.

OK, I went on a bit of a tangent. Let’s get back on track.

Essentials for a relay race

Over the years my team has become a well-oiled machine. Our captain sends out an email, we all know our jobs (I create the lineup and build the spreadsheet to predict times) and we meet up and kick butt.

I’ve seen many people show up to the race with some wacky things only to never use said stuff.  About 20 minutes into the race the van starts getting messy and by 3 A.M. there are used socks, banana peels and empty water bottles everywhere. Trying to keep things in order is impossible so it’s in your best interest to limit the amount of crap you bring.

Unless you have a 12 person team you will probably not be doing any of the following: reading a book, thoroughly cleaning yourself, going #2 in a real toilet or sleeping more than 2 hours. So just give up on that stuff, focus on the necessities and don’t try to be cute.

Gear list

  • Duffel bag – I highly recommend the standard duffel bag since you can line up your items which is easier than digging into the bottom of a backpack each time you need something.
  • Non race bag – All the post-race stuff you don’t want getting mixed up with them nasty race clothes
  • 2 more outfits than legs you’re assigned – There’s about a 85% chance someone on your team is gonna get sick, hurt, diarrhea or come down with a case of “I can’t do its” so prepare to run more legs than expected.
  • Warm running stuff – No matter what the forecast says make sure you have gloves, long sleeves and a hat in case it gets cold.
  • Warm post-run stuff – It gets cold at night and sometimes you can’t change out of your running clothes right away. Hanging out in wet clothes is a recipe for hypothermia so bring sweat pants and a fleece or down jacket to throw on to keep warm.
  • 1 gallon freezer bags – Pack each outfit (shirt, socks, shorts) into a different bag so you can simply grab one when it’s time to change. Then put that funky stuff right back into the bag when you’re done.
    • Pro tip 1 Leave that bag partially open when the sweaty stuff goes back in to keep it from getting super funky
    • Pro tip 2 – Keep all your night gear (vest, headlamp, blinkys, etc.) in their own bag as well.
  • Headlamp – A post in itself. Look for 200+ lumens and USB chargability. The Cheap Athletes own this bad boy and highly recommend it. It costs $15, need I say more?
  • Reflective vest – No recommendation here yet because both of mine have made the Hall of Lame Sauce. But you do need one so find something cheap on Amazon.
  • Lights – Runners are required to have front and rear blinky lights when running at night. Try to find something that won’t fly off 2 feet into your run and be careful of built-in lights (see hall, lame sauce)
  • Towel – I’ve seen some interesting setups for people to change but swimmers are the masters of the deck change. Finish your run, wrap the towel around your waist and change your shorts. Carry on.
  • Hand sanitizer –  208 miles of Porta Johns, ’nuff said.
  • Body glide – Everyone brings their own body glide and absolutely no sharing! Rub it all over in all them nooks and crannies. You’ve got a lot of running ahead of you.
  • Food – Look for salt, protein and carbs. My secret weapon is jerky since it’s lean protein with a buncha salt. You need a lot of calories to stay awake and run a million miles and don’t rely on there being stuff along the way.
  • Hydration – Make sure to have plenty of electrolytes and water handy. Be careful not to take in too much sugar from all the sports drink so consider some electrolyte tablets like Nuun.
  • Water bottle – Save a few bucks, and more importantly, the planet by bringing big ole water jugs and refilling your bottle instead of consuming a million plastic bottles.
  • Sleeping bag – Because it’s nice to think you may actually use it. Good luck with that.
  • GPS watch – My recommendation here
  • Race belt – Beats the heck outta safety pinning that sweaty bib to each shirt you plan on wearing.
  • Body wipes –  Closest thing you’ll get to a shower and they do an admirable job removing some of the funk.

Gear for the people

  • Decorations – The first year I did the BRR we marked up the van with paint and it looked awesome. But the next day we spent 2 hours in the heat scraping off that junk off with our credit cards. It sucked. Pro tip: magnets take about 1 minute to put on and 1 more to take off.
  • Leg maps – Right before my run I study the maps and memorize things like “climb from 1.5 to 4 and then from 5-8; downhill from 9-10”
  • Estimates – It surely helps to have an idea when your runner is supposed to come in.
  • Blister stuff/first aid kit
  • Cooler
  • Foam roller

How to train for one

It’s easy to think that if you’re going to run 26+ miles in a day then you should train like you would for a marathon. But I rarely go longer than 13 miles when prepping since the longest runs tend to be about 11 miles.

Instead, here are some tips for training for a relay race:

  • Run hill repeats
  • Run doubles to simulate running on dead legs. Or run after work and the following morning if you can’t sneak in a double.
  • Run hill repeats
  • Practice running with a headlamp
  • Run hill repeats
  • Run slow
  • Ride a bike to cross train. Uphill.
  • Run hill repeats


If you haven’t tried a relay race then you’ve been missing out and should sign up for one right now! It’s nice to not take yourself too seriously while challenging yourself and meeting all sorts of other weirdos. Just remember to try to keep the amount of junk you bring to a minimum because you probably aren’t gonna use it.

The absolute best advice I can give is: prepare to run more legs than assigned, expect it to be colder than what your weather app states, know you’re gonna crave unhealthy stuff like potato chips and, of course, have fun.

Happy relaying!