Running With the Wrong Crowd: My Best (and Worst) Relay Race

by Sue Campbell
Originally Published: 

I had rashly joined a team for a new running event in Portland, Oregon, called the 8 Track Relay, a 24-hour relay race and music festival with a ’70s theme. My friend Lee Ann was the only teammate I knew. She’d posted on Facebook that her team wanted another member, even if it was for just one four-mile leg. Hell, I thought, I can run four miles.

When the Flying Pink Tacos met as a team, I walked into the midst of seven very fit fortysomething women, casually talking about their most recent marathons. The only reason I didn’t back out was that everyone insisted they didn’t want to win.

“We just want to have fun!” they chirped. Our team captain took a poll of how many four-mile legs each Taco could commit to; I was the only person who signed up for just one. Most Tacos were doing four legs, a total of 16 miles.

I took the captain aside and explained, as nonchalantly as possible, that I had diabetes. There was nothing special I needed her to do, other than be aware. She looked like a cornered animal, panicked and not sure how to react.

With Type I diabetes, if you don’t have enough insulin, your blood sugar gets too high, causing both short- and long-term problems. Too much insulin and your blood sugar gets too low, which can cause confusion, moodiness, sweating and—if untreated—loss of consciousness, seizure and death. I wear an insulin pump 24 hours a day and check my blood sugar about six times a day.

Exercise lowers blood sugar, which makes running with diabetes a complete pain in the ass. It requires insulin adjustment, food adjustment and careful monitoring. Thus, I’m only a casual runner; long runs are just too much work.

Now it was 4 in the afternoon, and my lap was about to start. I fretted that I didn’t have time to get back to our camp and apply Astroglide to my thighs in the 90 degree heat. Did I mention extreme heat lowers blood sugar?

I did a glucose test: My sugar level was lower than I wanted. I popped a few jelly beans and headed for the handoff area.

Squinting, I spotted the approaching hot pink t-shirt of my teammate. She soon ran through, smacking the timing chip—hidden in an 8-track copy of “The Hustle”—into my hand. I took off; strong legs, strong lungs.

Halfway through the course, things turned. I felt the familiar shakiness in my arms and legs. I reached for a GU pack and choked it down. Then I cursed myself for not trying a GU pack before relying on it in an emergency. It tasted fucking terrible, and now I was worried about vomiting as well.

It was all I could do to send a text to my teammates: MILE 3, WALKING. But I was barely walking. A passing runner did a verbal check-in, “You OK?”

“Yup!” I lied. My legs were wobbling. If I sat down, I was not getting back up. If I kept going, I might pass out. My pre-race goal had been a mid-pack pace. Now I whispered fiercely to myself, “Cross the line on your feet.”

Finally, the GU kicked in and I managed a slow jog for the final quarter mile. I was the only one who knew my shitty time was actually a triumph. I was still standing—and wolfing down the jelly beans I’d stashed with a teammate like there was no tomorrow.

Since I loathe being an object of pity, I volunteered for a second leg. It would start around 1:30 a.m. I stayed awake, lying in my tent, checking my blood sugar every half hour, and popping jelly beans to stay in the ideal blood sugar range. Around 1 a.m. I headed to the relay area and checked the leaderboard. I was astonished to find the Tacos in second place overall.

Lee Ann came through hauling ass. This was so not my crowd. “Holy shit! Why are you running so fast?” I shouted as she slapped the 8-track tape into my hand.

My blood sugar stable, I pounded the course in the cool night air under a huge full moon while listening to Radiohead’s In Rainbows. It was fucking magic. At mile three, I sent a text to the next runner to queue up. I finished with a PR, the best runner’s high of my life and the honor of being the slowest member of the fastest women’s team of the inaugural 8 Track Relay Race.

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