Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Tyvek Is the New Black

I had finally crested the hill…okay, hill is an understatement, when describing a 6 kilometer climb, with an elevation gain of 395 meters. I was on the way down, a precipitous descent, during the course of which I was going to lose all the elevation I’d gained in less than half the distance. Night was falling. In the gloaming, I could still make out the Cape Breton highlands crowding in around me. The sky was pre-navy blue, with smoke-dark cloud motes. The temperature had gone from wet-chill to warm-still and cloying as we’d turned the corner and begun to lose altitude.

I was high on exertion, but I could feel my energy was leaking away, and there was no little Dutch boy to staunch the outflow. Then I saw the van-top LED display, scrolling its bright red message, just for me, “Run Like a Girl!!” And standing beside the van were my can’t-miss-them-in-those-outfits teammates, cheering me on. Just in time. I felt the swell of peacock energy that comes when you know someone’s watching; more still, I felt the grace of support, and was supremely grateful.

I was halfway into my second leg, Leg 9 of the Cabot Trail Relay. A gorgeous 24-hour, 17 leg relay race around the Cabot Trail on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, which took place this past weekend. My team, Seventeen Runners, are longtime veterans of the race, but my partner and I were newbies, recruits by a friend of a friend and so on.

I didn’t do much by way of team sports when I was growing up, and so I’m not accustomed to team events. I’ve gravitated more to solitary sports, which, I suppose, is not surprising, since I’ve also chosen a somewhat solitary career, as well. So this event was something new for me in more ways than one, not to mention that I’m not an all-nighter kind of girl either. There was more…

In the days and weeks leading up to the event, the “reply all” emails had been flying around with increasing velocity. Food. First Aid. Vans. Accommodation (other than the vans). Leg distribution. So much to coordinate. And, in the midst of the flurry, Tyvek suits—yes, full zip-up coveralls, with hoods…made of Tyvek…available at your local hardware store. Just kidding. Not. Apparently the Tyvek suits were the team signature, as it were. Plus, my partner David and I were assured, they were efficacious at warding off the damp, chill, which was about 100% likely to descend at some point during the race, if not persist for the duration.

“That is so not happening,” was my first thought. This is a level of un-cool to which I can’t sink. I read an Op-Ed piece by Jonathan Franzen today, in which he admits to being a birdwatcher, despite the pursuit’s uncoolness. I’m not sure where each of birdwatching and Tyvek suits are on the cool-ometer, but probably reasonably close to each other. David bought us Tyvek suits. I vowed to return for refund after the race. Team spirit-shmirit.

I boarded the plane to Halifax with some trepidation; this wasn’t really “my kind of thing.”

How little I need have worried. First, there is the Cape Breton landscape—impossible to resist. Then there’s the purr of the hangover Scottish accent the longtime Nova Scotians still have. Then there’s the race.

I soon realized that it was all a moveable party, progressing from one start/finish line to the next. We learned the drill (and we’ll be much better next time!) of drive, identify teammate, pull over an ample distance ahead, cheer, and repeat cycle. In between, were the “lockdowns,” when we were not allowed to drive on the course, giving the runners a chance to get into the rhythm of their legs, before the flow of cars and vans clotted up beside them. Lockdowns were a relaxing time to chat, have a bite to eat, put your feet up in the van, or perhaps find yourself dancing to the music emanating from someone’s speakers. And the Tyvek suits…it turns out that they are highly visible, night and day, a huge bonus when you’re trying to find teammates at the beginning or end of a leg, or spot them on the road. Oh, and yes, the suits were protection against the bone chilling cold and misting weather. More practical and equally as visible as the one team whose “uniform” was tighty-greenies, as I thought of them—shamrock green men’s briefs, with little else.

To spot my Tyvek-garbed team, in the waning light, as my running zeal was fizzling, was exactly what I needed at that moment. No gel or gu or fortified sports drink would have done as much for my spirit. I was suddenly all-too-keenly aware of what a privilege it was to be part of the team. To be a teammate. To be an energy-source for another person. Now that’s cool. Maybe it’s what a bird feels like when it’s being “watched,” by Jonathan Franzen, or anyone, for that matter.

I won’t be wearing a Tyvek suit around Manhattan anytime soon. But you’ll be able to spot me easily next year at the Cabot Trail Relay…just look for the strange, white coveralls.