Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The GLR: The Gypsy Caravan of Michigan Runners

I struggled with finding the correct metaphor for the Great Lakes Relay (the GLR).  There are a few other possibilities of itinerant events: 
  • a wagon train (we do carry our own food and some carry shelter, but we don't circle the wagons in the evening for protection)
  • a traveling circus (yes, there are performances, and a three-ring atmosphere at times, but there are few, if any, spectators.)
I settled on the Gypsy Caravan, especially after reading some of the descriptions of the Romani/Roma people (the politically correct name for “Gypsies”).   From a website devoted to understanding the Roma: “In travelling communities extended families travel together and share resting sites. Regardless of type of dwelling, the extended family is the unit within which resources are shared, work is organized, and food is prepared and shared.”  And from a Romani Proverb:  “You cannot walk straight when the road bends.” 
So with that preamble I hope to illustrate why so many of Michigan runners spend the third weekend of July, year after year, running and racing in heat, bugs, and storms on questionable trails and dirt roads with just a sheet of paper full of directions in our hands to tag the next runner on our team. 

The Gingerbread Girls, end of day 2, Grayling, MI, 2013
For the all but one of the last ten years, I have participated in the Great Lakes Relay. I try to describe the event to people, especially non-runners, with very mixed results. 
  • We run from one end of Michigan to the other with 9 other people and 3 cars in 3 days to cover over 275 miles of roads and trails
  • We get up at 4 am every day to make it to the start at 6 am
  • We don’t have organized places for bodily functions to occur
  • We compete with other teams, but at the same time cheer them on as they finish, especially after the tough legs
  • We sometimes get lost in the woods (but hopefully not for long, but sometimes for a LONG time)
  • We are sore and tired and pushed to the limit of endurance
  • We do this every year and vow at the end of the event to come back next year and run better
In my long running career (almost 40 years at this point), there are few experiences that come close to the GLR in terms of reward.  Yes, I remember my first marathon in 1982, and my marathon PR at age 44, and running on my cross country teams in high school and college, and coaching a few special cross country teams, but there is nothing that compares to the feeling of community that surrounds the GLR.  Each year’s team has a different chemistry (some better than others—2013 was one of the best), and the Gypsy Caravan of the GLR has the feeling of a small town on wheels. 

There are co-mayors (Bob and Nick) and sheriffs (Punch, Sue, Jackie and the rest of the race officials) and other characters that give rise to legends, stories, and myths associated with the GLR.  (Each group has its own ‘characters,’ and many of these tales start to overlap as the web of teammates grows from year-to-year.)

There is a set of rules and customs associated “The Relay.” Some of these rules are written down:
Other rules are not written down:  Faster teams should not run concurrent, but should cheer on those concurrent runners as they fly past on the later legs of relay.  (‘Concurrent’ is a method for teams to finish before nightfall, by breaking the relay chain, and running the legs at the same time as their teammates, and adding the splits together to find a finish time.)

Another feature of the GLR is the lack of service on our phones.  It is a wonderful thing to be disconnected from the “real” world as our little town with its 700 participants, and 200 vehicles, moves through the north woods of Michigan.  It is a culture shock to wake up on Monday morning after the GLR and realize that the weekend is over and we have bathrooms, clean beds, and an alarm that rings at a reasonable time.
So why is this event so special? 
  • The amazing sights:  the woods and fog in the morning, a view from the top of a hill on a nasty trail, the Empire beach.
  • The unique experiences:  having a tank flying past you as you run through the sand of Camp Grayling on the “Graveyard,” a run through a lightning storm on the top of a sandy hill, the final sprint to the end of the last miles of the weekend on those oh-so-tired legs.
  • The wonderful people:  teammates who inspire you to run better than you think possible, folks who understand that running is not an odd obsession, and dedicated athletes of all shapes and sizes, young and old.
These are all pieces that make the event extraordinary.

It will be 360 days until the next GLR. 
I am not sure what will happen to “The Gingerbread Girls” in those days, but I hope we can stay together in some form. 
I DO know that I have seen many a straight road, and many a bent road over this past weekend, and I intend to come back next year to follow them yet again.

Relay hand-off, 2007


  1. Great story! I Love GLR for many of the reasons you listed. Cant wait til next year to see what adventures await me!

  2. Well said, Julia! It was great to meet you and your team this weekend. I loved being a part of the GLR and can't wait to do it again! I wrote a post as well if you'd like to check it out sometime. (Not quite as eloquently written as yours!)


  3. Thanks Veronica and Amanda--
    It was fun to write the post. Especially because of the many 'characters' that I have met at the GLR over the years.

  4. Loved the blog, Julia! You are so right when you say that it's really hard to explain to people exactly what this event consists of - they just don't 'get it'.... and thats what I love about the camaraderie of GLR: everyone 'gets it'. You're out there in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by 800 people that are as crazy as you are. I likened the whole experience to having a baby; it sucks while you're going through it, but after about a week you say "that wasn't so bad, I could do it again". haha.

  5. Great blog. Those who do not run really don't know what they miss. GLR and the Crim are two must runs for all.

  6. Thanks DJ and Rueger! I don't think my legs are even yet fully recovered from the GLR, but it was worth it.

  7. I am looking for a team that needs a runner for the GLR 2014
    I really want to be part of this one. Do I sound desperate, well I am.

  8. Looking forward to 2018 GLR... hope to see you there!

    Love, Nasty Boys Classic and Nasty Boys Too