Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Report from My (and the) 3rd Annual JRunners Relay Race

Report from My (and the) 3rd Annual JRunners Relay Race
Martin Bodek

The third go-round of the JRunners Relay Race was, by far, the most fun, invigorating, challenging, exciting, supernal iteration of any of the races JRunners has thus far staged. There was something inherently electric and fantastic about it. At the writing of the piece below, I’ve not yet put my finger on why this was exactly, but perhaps upon reading, the nature of the why of the race’s excellence might filter through.

Leg 1: Boom! We’re out of the cannon following a resounding rendition of the national anthem. I removed my cap, as usual, but my trustworthy mother covered my Mariano Rivera-bald pate with her hand while I respected the Star Spangled Banner. Our man Zevi Jaffa was first out of the blocks. The start looped back on itself after one mile, to add to some of the excitement of the start proceedings. Ten minutes had passed before the first man through, Levi Gutwein, made an appearance. Perhaps they had traffic issues. Our man Zevi followed close behind, by less than a minute. A great start to our race. After the last man was through, Car B (me, Mordechai Ovits, Yossi Pancer and Abraham Lebovits) was off to Fort Lee to rest our legs for our legs.

Leg 2: While Car B was en route to Fort Lee, Car A(Zevi Jaffa, Jonthan Pittinsky, Aaron Panzok and Yitz Ovits)’s Zevi handed the baton to Jonathan Pittinsky in second position. Jonathan was passed by one runner in the first half mile. Later, Adam Orlow caught him just before the Brooklyn Bridge (Jonathan prevented Orlow from going straight to the Manhattan Bridge, a time-honored JRunners practice). Our man Jonathan Ran the 7.7 miles at an 8:17 clip, three seconds faster than his 10K PR. While scorching the earth with his new speed, he saw one of the race support vehicles got into a minor accident/incident with a biker, right in front of a police car on Myrtle Avenue. Ouch.

Leg 3: While Ovits managed to get forty winks in, I sold all of the books I brought with me, making my prediction to regret not bringing more, come true. Meantime, Aaron Panzok was kickin’ it for our team and putting on a good show, finishing with a 7:56 pace and maintaining our fourth place position, six minutes off the lead with plenty of time left in the race.

Leg 4: As the fog lowered on Fort Lee and all the Car B runners were schmoozing or sleeping or keeping loose, Mordechai’s younger brother Yitz was out there in pitch blackness, running for miles without seeing a soul. Animal souls were a different story, as he saw plenty of those, in the manner of skunks all along the Hudson River Greenway, one of which forced him to a full stop. Another full stop came in the form of an unleashed dog who apparently wanted to eat him. He had to beg the owner to call the dog inside. Memo to dog owners: place your unleashed, rabid wildevermin behind the runners to improve their times!

Leg 5: Yitz stormed into the exchange and handed off to Zevi Jaffa, who eclipsed PRs for the stretch and came in well under his self-deprecating prediction of “really slow.” He also refused all assistance vis-à-vis water or sustenance, instead asking for pics and video of him out on the road. Hey bud, whatever floats your boat, so long as you keep settings PRs!

Leg 6: Zevi cruised in to the Fort Lee exchange in a chipper mood, holding on to our fourth-place position and handing over to Abraham Lebovits. Car B locked and loaded the car and headed out to support Abe, who was running in to a fog something fierce. Abe paced himself excellently, and finished his leg with Mordy ra-rahing a Marine Running Song alongside his buddy. Abe tore into that leg with gusto, annihilating his 10k PR by five minutes! Five minutes! We were in fifth place now, 41 minutes off the lead, but our speedsters were coming up.

Leg 7: Lebovits handed off to Pancer, who bounded into the night and descending fog, sashaying in his familiar style (which, interestingly, makes him more visible to traffic). The fog was causing Car B some problems, and despite the combined brains of Bodek and Ovits, we couldn’t exactly figure out all the physics. We managed, however, and while fumbling with the heat and windows, caught sight of the Tappan Zee bridge, which I consider to be a beautiful architectural jewel. Back to Pancer, who was tearing up the road at an earth-grooving pace, emboldened by Mordechai’s exhortation to beat his time of 6:53 from last year – and that’s exactly what he did, blasting into the exchange having done the leg at a 6:44 pace, coming in seconds behind Ariel Kohane. We were in a virtual tie for fourth place, 37 minutes off the lead. We had a hilarious moment when rolling into the exchange, passing Ariel, who shouted, “Holy @#$%! Your runner’s catching up to me!” Yes he did, but he paid for it. Yossi’s hammy went whammy, and Chesky Rand tried to provide therapy, but the pain was present, and we now had a problem on our hands. He ran his brains out, but may also have run his legs out.

Leg 8: Mordechai was so completely surprised by the hard-charging Pancer that he wasn’t quite in position to begin his run, but begin he did, at a very fast pace. While driving by in support, we asked him if he needed anything, hoping to hear “water” or “Gatorade.” We heard something that rhymed with “chest,” and I commented to the guys in the car that neither water or Gatorade rhymed with “chest.” What was he talking about? So we cruised by and asked again. He said, “Vest!” Ohhhh! Vest! So I slipped that on him deftly as he nearly bowled me over.

Leg 9: Mordechai handed off to himself, rip-roaring through the night, while I was deposited at the next exchange to await his arrival. I left my phone in the car, and started fretting. Moishie Gamss was nice enough to offer his, without knowing when I’d have an opportunity to return it. He’s a helluva guy. Car B did roll in ahead of our runner, so I retrieved my phone quickly and got into the exchange. Mordy came steaming towards me, having finished 9.8 miles at a 6:49 pace. Wowsers.

Leg 10: My turn! Off I went with a successful exchange, Mordechai having carved into the lead of the team in front of us. The fog had lifted and the sun was rising, and I was in excellent spirits with lots of energy. I ran hard, I ran fast, I climbed monster hills as best I could (by using the skitter-step log-rolling technique), I ran up unfair right-angle hills that shouldn't be run, I climbed 702 total feet, all while having in mind to come in under 8:00 per mile, which was the time that was fastest last year. I wanted that, bad, so on the downhills, I absolutely let it all go. I was flying so fast at one point, that my curiosity got the better of me. I plucked my phone from my hip, and discovered that I was zipping along at a 4:36 pace! Whoa! Slow down! So I did, but not by much. A deer crossed my path, sending my heart rate through the roof. Some other JRunners cars passed by, offering me assistance, I told them all I needed was a shotgun for the deer and dynamite for the hills. I came storming into the exchange, handing off to Car A’s Aaron Panzok, and was pleased as punch that I completed the leg in 7:44. Woohoo! I sliced six minutes into the lead of the team in front of us, and we were just 20 minutes behind the lead team. I then ate the biggest breakfast of my life, prayed to the Lord, then had another massive breakfast for dessert. While at Bubba’s, I would learn that a fellow named Joel Mandel had completely nuked my time on leg 10 with an astonishing 7:08. No fair! I worked so hard!

Leg 11: Aaron Panzok’s boots on the ground, exhausted after spending a stinky sweaty four hours in an unventilated van. He imbibed an espresso power gel as breakfast and got his second wind at my handoff to him and ran another super-proud sub-8:00 pace, while shouting that he was having the best time ever.  Aaron was so pumped over his times, he was ready to disrobe if it meant picking up the pace. His words, not mine.

Leg 12: Jonathan Pittinsky on the prowl, chewing through the very difficult leg like a champion. He actually overtook third place temporarily while climbing 593 net feet at a thrilled-to-bits 9:13 pace. Nice going, Jonathan!

Leg 13: Zevi Jaffa now, refusing water again and demanding pictures again for posterity. His reasoning? “Water you can get after you finish running. Pictures and video you have to capture the moment.” Hey, like I said, if posterity is your food, eat away! Aaron Panzok served as trusty videographer. At this point, Car B misheard that Car A had just started leg 14, which meant we might not make it in time to leg 15 to accept the handoff! Yikes! Everybody in the car! Lickety split and vroom vroom! I made some quick calculations and determined that we’d have to make it to leg 15 traveling approximately 245 miles per hour. Wouldn’t you know it, with Pancer driving (and in obvious pain, something we needed to address quickly, but were avoiding the elephant in the room, or uh, injured runner in the car), we were likely going to pull it off.

Leg 14: Fortunately, the 245 MPH requirement was brought down to 17 MPH when we received news about where exactly the Car A runners were on the course.  So we took in the scenery while Yitz Ovits was out on the course, PRing yet again with an “easy peezy lemon squeezy 8:00 minutes per mile on the nose.” Gravity did the work. All he had to do was not fall down. He succeeded, much like Douglas Adams’ secret to flight: throwing yourself at the ground and missing.

Leg 15: Yitz handed off to Panzok, who powered through his leg once again while beginning to suffer some uh, TMI issues and needed to use an entire bottle of TMI stuff to take care of it. Aaron also had diet issues, as the jitters kept him from eating fully just before or just after his legs – which was the whole time due to the fact that we were just eight runners! Then he needed to do some TMI things off in the woods. The temporary reprieve for him and Car A came at the right time, as the exchange was successful with Car B arriving in time to receive the baton.

Leg 16: Car B now on the move, supporting Mordechai once more on the “teepee” course (500 feet up for two miles, 700 feet down for 2.4). He ran through its brutality at a faster-than-last-year pace of 6:39. It was probably too fast, as it took a lot out of him.

Leg 17: Speaking of having a lot taken out of you, Yossi Pancer was out on the course on the most difficult leg of all, especially because it targeted the one muscle that was giving him a lot of trouble. He used it as a testing ground to see if he could continue racing, using the short distance (2.1 miles) to his advantage. He gutted and grunted it out, grimacing mournfully throughout; ambling slowly to the end, when he declared that he was done. He did his best, but when a 25-year running veteran says he’s hurt, he’s hurt. He’d live to see another day. Yossi took over driving duties and we started planning for the two tough legs still left on his itinerary. This was not going to be easy.

Leg 18: Lebovits out there now, on some psycho-steep downhills (600 feet down in 1.5 miles, anyone?) so treacherous, he was scared he was going to fall over. He may have been the only runner on the course thrilled to actually see some uphills for a change. We got him through it with some good team support. Abe looked solid all the way.

Leg 19: I took the baton from Abe and screeched across the Warwick roads at breakneck speed, determined to put in an awesome time. I was familiar with this leg, having run it last year. I knew its contours, turns, even where all the gravel spilled, and I was rolling. My first mile was 6:51. Whoa, that was way too fast, so I slowed it down to survive the next 10k in front of me. I barreled into and through the next exchange having finished the leg at a thrilling 7:33 pace while climbing 500 feet. Awesome!

Leg 20: I could not keep up the pace here, and ran into some hills that were so steep, I swear my chest was only five inches off the ground. My teammates found me on my grunting phase. I couldn’t have appeared in good shape at that point, but as soon as I had a downhill, I rocketed. At another uphill juncture, my team offered help, I asked for ice in my cap, got it, plopped it on my head and was immediately refreshed. When I started to not be able to perform basic algebra due to the brain freeze, I figured that was enough, and dumped the remainder down my shirt. Ooh, felt good. Later on, another team sprayed water on me and I was refreshed again. My goal for the 7.2 mile stretch was sub-8:00. I did it in 7:59. That's what I'm talking about. I handed the baton over to Yitz, and proceeded immediately to the car to huddle with Mordechai about what exactly we were going to do about the legs that needed to get done in face of our team injury. We could not give any to Car A because they were about to run themselves silly. We could not give any to Car B because we’d be in middle of running the surrounding legs and wouldn’t be able to take the additional pounding! What to do? We looked over the leg maps and the assignments in depth, and we had only one solution: we’d have to run the legs by committee. The director was at the exchange, so Captain Ovits went over and asked for permission. The answer was no, so we huddled again, went over everything again, tried to find a creative way to get the legs done by singular runners. It couldn’t be done. Mordechai went back to the director, begged, no. We huddled again, called Car A for input, looked it over this way and that, bent ourselves silly trying to find a way through this. It just wasn’t possible. We’d be asking too much, risking grave injury of already-beaten runners. Mordechai went back to the director, pled our case, laid out the facts. We got permission to run by committee. Oh thank heaven. We had a plan. We’d finish unless we had another catastrophe.

Leg 21: With the plan in place, Mordechai now had to deliver the bad news to Car A. They’d have to help out with some additional miles. They said yes. What awesome teamwork. With the matter settled, we pulled up stakes, and headed for exchange 25, enjoying the scenic (according to Mordechai), beautiful (according to Abe), pastoral, and bucolic (according to me and the Thesaurus in my head) landscapes of lush greenery, farms, cornfields and domestic fauna. I demanded we stop and patronize the first farmstand we see. Abe was on board. Unfortunately, all we found was a maple syrup stand, and we had enough of that at Bubba’s. Meanwhile, Yitz was out there enjoying as well, finishing at 10:00 minutes per mile on the nose. And I quote: “I was passed by a runner, but he was so damn polite. He just said 'good luck' as he passed, and he wasn't even being sarcastic! Jerk.”

Leg 22: We rolled into exchange 25 and chilled. Literally: we iced up, our bodies and our coolers, while our respective Car As were doing hard work in the sun. Panzok was out there, suffering more TMi issues, but he never gave in despite two bleeding toes and some serious TMI. He simply would not quit when chances were excellent that we could overtake third. He pounded out another mid-8 pace on an empty stomach, festering TMI problems, and happy feet, running hard all the way and handing off to Zevi Jaffa.

Leg 23: Jaffa ran his brains out, gaining on the team ahead of us in third place, closing the gap to three minutes. Again, Zevi refused assistance and demanded photos.

Leg 24: The Pittinsky machine was loosed yet again upon the mountains. He challenged the same runner as he did on leg 12 and tried to psyche him out by showing him the towers on the top of the hill they were about to climb. Jonathan closed the gap on the team in third place from three minutes to one minute, and probably would have overtaken him and climbed into third (while climbing 300 feet) if he didn’t have to preserve his energy for leg 25.

Leg 25: What did he have to save his energy for, exactly? The 800 foot drop. Eight. Hundred. Feet. In 2.5 miles. Yowza. Jonathan was all over it though, finishing the 7.7 total mountain miles at an 8:51 pace. The gap between us and third was now just three minutes.

Leg 26: It was the committee’s turn to huff and puff through their difficult leg. Before heading out, I gave Panzok some TMI stuff for his TMI problem, and he was off. The strategy for each runner would be to run at a respectable rate, and hand off once exhaustion and flagging set in. No matter what the committee did, they couldn’t equal one Pancer, and inevitably, we’d lose our grip on making headway towards third place and would cede ground to the team behind us. So be it though, we were undaunted and all we wanted was to finish proud. Aaron’s continued diet issue got curiouser, as he fed off the music Car A and B blasted for him. Car B (Pancer’s car) only had kiddy music, which put a huge, bewildered smile on Panzok’s face. I had a hearty laugh as well with the most hilarious run of my life. I stepped out of the car to run alongside Aaron to provide encouragement, and he outran me! I felt a bit stupid, but man was that funny! Aaron kept running bravely at an 8:30 clip, but got winded, handing off to Zevi for a mile and change before Jonathan took the remainder. Great teamwork all around. Both cars were filled with pride.

Leg 27: Lebovits’ turn. The man is tough, and he was tired, but he powered through. At one point, he doubled over in pain, and it caused us some concern, but he regathered and kept climbing the ridiculous hills. Yitz joined him at his side for the support, pacing him through, and semi-mooning him for motivation. At the end of Abe’s leg, after handing off to me, he laid down in the gravel, completely spent. Both runners achieved the venerated Runner’s High: Yitz declared it his favorite leg despite the fact that it wasn’t his; Abe said he’s never been so happy to be in so much pain that he couldn’t move.

Leg 28: Before taking the handoff from Abe, the mood was relaxed at the exchange. I chatted with the director and found Chezky Rosenblum petered out in the grass. I approached him and said, “What the @#$% did you go and create this race for? We’re all dying out here!” He took it in good humor, which is how I meant it. We were having the time of our lives. I then went to do some TMI in the woods, and returned to find Chesky sprawled out on my seat in the car. So I ventured over to another parked car, only to find, where runners were supposed to be, three kinderlach, a lady in the driver’s seat (apropos) and Steven Weber in a state of delirium and exhaustion. In a pan, the lovely Mrs. Weber brandished some delicious-looking cinnabuns (I rewrote that sentence twelve times to avoid sounding like a naughty cad), which I scarfed down with delight. Yum. Thank you, Mrs. Weber! Perfect fuel! I then got into position and took the baton from Abe. Just before heading off, Captain Mordechai cautioned me to take it easy, in light of the heat exhaustion I had suffered the year before. I said I would, but I also needed to head off Yaakov Bressler’s team, who was closing the gap behind us. He said, “Oh, then run your brains out.” He was kidding of course, so I obeyed his initial advice, gunning for an 8:30 at a measured pace, hydrating properly along the way. This leg was the best of legs and the worst of legs; the best due to the scenic run through various bungalow colonies (one named “Mountain Hill” something, ironic), the worse because it was the dog-barking (and therefore unnerving) route. While cruising past Damesek Eliezer estates or something, I came across a daf yomi chabura. I recalled that last year, I wanted to pull off the road and lie down in a ditch. Now, I wanted to pull over for some learning. What a difference a year makes. I was taking it easy, but gaining on the team ahead of us, and keeping Team Death Zone at bay. A DZ vehicle pulled up alongside me and advised that Bressler was way back. I didn’t believe them. Then my car pulled up and said to take it easy, Bressler was way behind. I didn’t believe them. Then DZ’s next car pulled up and said Bressler was nowhere close. Finally I believed them and took it a bit easier. I climbed 460 feet and was strong on all the hills. I did it in 8:09 while holding on to our position. I would have been slightly faster had the last stretch not been a Vibrams-unfriendly gravel pit. I handed off to Jonathan, runner 1 of The Committee.

Leg 29: Jonathan piled on 2.78 more miles into his exhausting day. This was technically his sixth leg!. While out there, Bressler’s team pulled off a clever prank by dumping Bressler out of the car to zoom past Jonathan and pretend his team had caught up to us. The look on his face has been described by historians as “priceless,” but Death Zone owned up to it immediately. Well played. Zevi took over from Jonathan for some downhills, Yitz then ran for about half a mile, Panzok took some more lumps on the lumpy route, and Jonathan closed it out in good form and in fourth place, placing the baton in the hands of Mordechai for the stretch run.

Leg 30: Car B provided support for Mordechai until it was clear that a) he didn’t need us, and b) we had to double-time to the finish area to meet him for the final team dash to the finish line. We met the members of Car A, thrilled to be holding on to fourth place and bewildered at how close we were to third, having spotted the runners headed for the finish line as we pulled in with our car. Mordechai came charging in, with the hammer down at a 6:53 pace, outrunning nearly everybody. Pancer joined us, and I accompanied him to the finish, where we got our medals, did pushups, gobbled down garbage food, enjoyed a nice, cold beer, and disbanded in excellent spirits. We finished fourth. Last year my team finished fifth, the year before: sixth, so next year I podium. Pittinsky was nominated unanimously for team MVP. Others may have run faster (Mordechai Ovits did his 20 miles at 6:48!) and more (Aaron Panzok’s final total was about 24 miles, Jonathan’s was 22.6), but no one ran more legs or climbed higher or dropped steeper or said “yes” more than did he. Great performance, Jonathan!

So I think this year was the best ever because of the increased teamwork, coordinated support, excellent camaraderie, unselfish brotherhood, motivated performances, loose atmosphere, and agreeable weather. I can’t wait for more, of everything JRunners – and my beloved band of running brothers – has to offer.

Martin is the beat reporter for and the future author of "54 Runners, 54 Stories: The Tale of the 2012 JRunners Relay Race." You can see his other books here: Yes, they're all available on Kindle for bupkiss.


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