The KeyBank Vermont City Marathon has "legs" -- and we're not talking about the nearly 7000 pairs of quadriceps registered to run the race on May 28. More and more participants are choosing the relay approach to the marathon; instead of one solo runner, up to five divide up the 26.2-mile route into portions, or legs. Selected by a computerized lottery, a record 1000 teams -- a total of 3500 runners -- got the green light on February 1.
Inspired by this year's race theme -- "Summer" -- teams have chosen such names as The North Beach Diet; Fools Out for the Summer; Lazy, Hot and Human; and Suns of a Beach. Some have designed uniforms or found gimmicky hats to help them stand out in the sea of runners. Others have simply identified specific time goals. But unlike individual athletes who essentially control their own finish-line fates, relay runners must give the reins over to camaraderie, competition and a bit of cluelessness regarding the day's outcome.
"The relay is such an adventure," says Williston's Karen Bohmann, a 34-year-old runner, schoolteacher and mother of two. "You never know what's going to happen."
When organizers founded the marathon in 1989, they couldn't have anticipated the explosive popularity of the relay aspect of the race. According to RunVermont Director Andrea Sisino, VCM was the first marathon to include a relay portion so that athletes could tackle stints of 3 to 6 miles instead of the whole 26.2-mile shebang. "We were it," says Sisino, adding that the unique "cloverleaf" design of the race route has also helped Burlington's race stand out among the 900 or so marathons that take place around the world each year. No other event relies so much on the relay, or maintains such loyalty to locals -- RunVermont guarantees that 75 percent of relay participants are Vermonters.
"The marathon is national," says Sisino. "But the relay is Vermont."
The relay has become such an integral part of Vermont's corporate culture that when a company announces layoffs, says Sisino, the departing employees sometimes beg to remain on the relay teams.
At WCAX, the "Station Breakers" are prepping to once again compete against the "Nor'Easters." And at Ben & Jerry's, so many staff members clamor for a team spot, according to spokesman Sean Greenwood, that names are thrown into a hat to decide who will represent the business on Burlington's streets.
In 1989, there were 125 relay teams; by 2003, there were 625, most of whom nabbed an entry by nearly beating down the doors of RunVermont's One Main Street office early on registration morning. "The line was down the hallway, down the stairs and out the building -- it was like a rock concert," recalls Sisino. "We thought, 'If we don't get a handle on this, people are going to start camping out, and then it won't be fair, because it will only be those people who literally are camping out who are going to get a slot.'"
Since 2004, relay entries have been determined randomly. At first Governor Jim Douglas fished forms out of a bin; now, a lottery company assigns each registrant a number, and then electronically chooses digits to help manage the disproportionate demand for spots. (By contrast, individual-runner slots took four months to fill up this year.)
Training strategies, meanwhile, can be equally fierce, both among team members and between different teams. "That's where the real competition is -- in training," says New Yorker cartoonist Ed Koren, 70, who has run the VCM relay some 10 times with friends from Brookfield. He trains alone, running about 6 miles a day in the rolling hills around his home.
Koren's fellow runners aim to be the most senior team finishing VCM this year. "There's evidently only one other relay team of our general antiquity," he says, "and we're hot to beat them -- they don't know it, but we are."
According to RunVermont, there are actually three other teams in the "Grand Mountaineer," or 55-plus, category. One of them is captained by David Hershberg, 73, who suffered cardiac arrest near the 6-mile mark while running the marathon in 2003.
Williston runner Bohmann, who is part of a two-person relay team named Good Neighbors, preps for her 13-mile portion of the race by hitting the roads around South Burlington High School, where she works, as well as in Charlotte and Shelburne. "I'm actually pretty religious about it," she says. "I started on March 14 and I maintain a training log to keep track of everything."
Bohmann recruits just about anyone who will run with her. But for the Knewstubs of Ithaca, N.Y., it's a family affair. The FamDamily Runners head out en masse two to three times per week. "Training together makes it much easier," says Fred Knewstub, 58. "It's a great way to reduce stress and socialize."
Mark Paulsen, part of Colchester's team iPlod, prefers to leave the rest of his family teammates behind when he logs his 6 or 7 miles. "Running is very solitary," says Paulsen, adding that instead of jogging in a group, iPlod meets to strategize about how they'll handle one of the most stressful parts of the race -- the relay transition zones. That's where runners must hand off their "batons," which are actually bracelets, to the next teammate.
"We worry about that," says Paulsen. "It's always a heart-sickening feeling when you see some runner come into a station and be unable to find their teammate, just panicking."
For relay runner Margaret Holden, however, the handoffs represent one of the main reasons she's been running VCM for seven consecutive years. "Oh, gee, when you're out there waiting and your team member comes in, it's this rush of adrenaline," says Holden, 67, who competes as part of the Galloping Grannies, all aged 60-plus. "We're all just jumping up and down, waiting for that person to come in."
Holden is often given what's considered the plum leg of the relay: the last 5.6 miles, which slope downhill along the Burlington Bike Path toward the finish line. The second leg, which involves chugging 5.5 steamy miles on the shade-free Beltline, is known as the Frying Pan, and is often the short straw for relay runners.
"All the different legs have different personalities," says WCAX meteorologist Gary Sadowsky, who runs as one of the Station Breakers and is often credited with, or blamed for, the weather on marathon day. "Whatever leg I'm doing, people will yell out something -- nothing too mean, all in fun. When it's a good day, though, they're giving me the thumbs-up and saying, 'Great job!'"
Shortly after unpacking at City Hall last month, new Burlington Mayor Bob Kiss was persuaded to run among the politicos on the Mayor's Marathoners team. He says he used to watch the race from the corner of Pearl and Willard Streets, an area he'll now be pounding on the first, 3.1-mile section of the VCM relay. "I definitely wouldn't be prepared to run a marathon, but I think I can be prepared to run the shortest leg," says Kiss, a pick-up basketball regular at the Burlington YMCA. "I bought a new pair of shoes and have only just started running, but it's already less painful. It's amazing how when you start using new muscles," adds the mayor, "they do adapt."