The following is a guest post by Jillian B. Murphy contributor to Into the Storm: Lessons in Teamwork from the Treacherous Sydney to Hobart Ocean Race about running a relay race that brought home the lessons in teamwork she had written about in Into the Storm.
It’s not quite a 723-mile offshore ocean race like the Sydney to Hobart, but this past May I set out to complete the Cape Cod Ragnar Relay—running a 200-mile team race from Plymouth to Provincetown, M.A. It turned out to be a great experience, and it was also a compelling case study on teamwork.
The race was timely, as I was in the process of writing Into the Storm: Lessons in Teamwork from the Treacherous Sydney to Hobart Ocean Race with Dennis Perkins. The book captures the story of the AFR Midnight Rambler—overall winners of the 1998 race—a year where the fleet was hit by a deadly storm. Out of the 115 boats that started the race, only 44 crossed the finish line—and tragically, the storm claimed the lives of six sailors. The book reveals “Ten Critical Strategies for Teamwork at the Edge,” which I kept in mind during the Ragnar Race.
With my team of 12, I packed our SUV and left Connecticut for the start in Plymouth. Per official guidelines, we had room for six runners in each vehicle, but for the duration of the race, one person would be, of course, running. Although our team was technically 12 people, we had a “partner” team that we signed up with as Caped Cod Fish 1 and 2, so the grand total was 24 runners, four vehicles, and a dog—just because things weren’t interesting enough already.
I’ve run the NYC Marathon, the Philadelphia Marathon, and five half marathons, but I was drawn to this race for different reasons, and the race definitely had its own unique set of challenges. We would be running through the night, and sleeping, eating, and living in the van. I quickly realized that there wasn’t going to be much sleeping over the course of the weekend. All runners can appreciate the importance of a good night’s sleep and “fuel” before a race, so the expectations for the Ragnar weren’t to “PR” (set a personal record) or to try and win the race (which had hundreds of teams), but to have a good time with old and new friends, enjoy the Cape Cod views, and keep a good pace.
We would each run three legs of different distances, alternating so that Runners 1-12 would complete leg 1, and then repeat the same cycle for legs 2 and 3. The legs ranged from short distances of 3 miles, up to 9 miles. I got lucky with the highest total miles, with legs of 9, 9, and 6 miles—just a couple miles shy of a full marathon.
I was fortunate to have a fabulous team—and I actually enjoyed spending more than 24 hours living out of a van (with smelly, exhausted runners!). But as I observed other teams who weren’t as lucky, several things stood out to me:
- Preparation is hugely important in races like this. We planned for months—going over logistics with excel spreadsheets—calculating everyone’s paces and expected run times, organizing sponsors, and we even had a pasta dinner the night before so that everyone would meet one another before we started the adventure. (We had two fearless leaders who had experience from the previous year, and did much of the organizing. We would have been lost without them!)
- Support your teammates! This sounds obvious, but I observed so many occasions where team members didn’t even get out of their van at exchange points to cheer their runners in. Our team got out at each switching point—congratulating our runners coming in, and encouraging our runners going out. When you are finishing a 9 mile run at 2am and your teammates could have snoozed in the van instead, this means a lot!
- Watch out for your teammates and maintain a connection. Many of the roads we traveled didn’t have streetlights, and it was difficult to follow the routes—even with our headlamps (we also wore reflective vests). At times, it was frightening. We followed our runners and maintained a connection, whereas some teams went to grab a burger instead (bad idea for a number of reasons!). It felt amazing to be running and have the van pull alongside you shouting encouraging words—and it also made us run faster, because you don’t want to be caught running slowly—or even worse, walking!
- Celebrate at the end—and along the way too! Our team made a point to have fun along the way—200 miles is a long way to wait for a celebration! Each leg we finished was a small victory which was crossed off on the side of the van.
- Make the Team the Rock Star! We stayed unified as a team—wearing shirts that we had printed with the Caped Cod Fish name and logo, decorating our vans with team names and inside jokes, and even securing a large handmade and brightly colored fish to the roof our car. And when we finally made it to Provincetown, we waited for the entire group of 24 to run through the finish line arches and receive our medals together.
Jillian B. Murphy is Director of Client Services at The Syncretics Group, a consulting firm devoted to effective leadership and teamwork under conditions of adversity, uncertainty, and change. She contributed to Into the Storm: Lessons in Teamwork from the Treacherous Sydney to Hobart Ocean Race and Leading at the Edge: Leadership Lessons from the Extraordinary Saga of Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition with Dennis N.T. Perkins.