Running in the Dark: 36 Hours at the Cascade Lakes Relay

Cheering Andrew up the What the Hell climb to Mt. Bachelor.

It’s a crazy recipe… Load people into decorated vans. Add a couple hundred miles of running. Toss in a dash of sleep deprivation, a splash of after-midnight running, and a crap-ton of laughing and team spirit.

Voile! You’ve got an overnight relay race. Let the fun begin.

The Cascade Lakes Relay (CLR) forms a giant S-route from Diamond Lake to Bend. If you’ve heard of Hood to Coast, this is Central Oregon’s equivalent. The most popular approach is a team of 12 split between two vans, with each runner taking three legs totaling around 15-20 miles. The total distance is 216 miles.

Sound complicated? It’s not. People run. And cheer. And run. And try (/fail) to sleep. And run. Did I mention running?

Extra points for dancing by the side of the road and forming enthusiastic power tunnels. I wore my ridiculous retro spandex tights; Chelsea rocked a cow costume. Wrangler, Fat Brad and Wayne sported Hawaiian shirts to win style points. Lauren dressed as Thor (carrying an enormous hammer) for the costume leg. We don’t mess around.

Dancing and cheering like fools along the Cascades Lake highway.

Wait, Why Do People Do This?

You’ve got to be a bit nutty to stay up all night and run at random times of day. Surely not many people run these?

Wrong! There’s something alluring about these relays – Hood to Coast draws 20,000 participants each year and turns away another 40,000 (!). All for the opportunity to drive overnight in a van with buddies and their cramping quads, all wearing sweaty socks. If that’s not a good time, I don’t know what is.

Cascade Lakes Relay attracts 3,500 people and is capped by event organizers, resulting in a quieter, less crazy, less sit-in-traffic experience. I ran Hood to Coast years ago and highly recommend CLR for anyone looking for a lower-key, more scenic relay with fewer logistical headaches (traffic, traffic, traffic).

Chelsea instigated the idea (of course). The suckers she talked into it? The Plant-Powered Runners, the vegan running group that Chelsea and her buddy Emily started last year, are always game for the adventure. Sadly, C sprained her ankle 10 days out, but our friend Fat Brad jumped in to replace her.

Fat Brad and Chelsea

Our genius organizer, Lauren, managed to herd the team into two groups: Van 1 and Van 2. Let’s just say that Van 1 bought food in advance and planned a lot, and that Van 2, ummm, knew there was a race… (Yes, fine, I was in Van 2.)

All the Antics

The night before the race, our team downed a pasta dinner, painted our nails slime green, and decorated our vans. Rather than focus on logistics, Van 2 came up with nicknames (Shiv, Fat Brad, Lil’ Yeasty, Waffle, Wrangler, and Taco).

Meanwhile, Van 1 loaded their vehicle with carefully planned gear and shook their heads at our van and the STUDENT DRIVER plastered across the windshield. Whatever – we got this.

Loading van 2. (Ok, screwing around.)

Van 2 with game faces on.

“Wait, what time are we meeting tomorrow?” Waffle asks. Captain Lauren shoots small puffs of smoke out her ears. Van 2 huddles and sorts it out.

Race day dawns. Van 1 is at the starting line at Diamond Lake early and ready to rip. Van 2 slowly assembles at my house at noon and packs up. Medkit, water, enough food for a week backpacking to Everest Base Camp. Relays are easy.

Text message: “Lauren and Emily, Van 2 is mobilized. ETA 3:45.”

“Juuuust kidding, we’ll be there as planned at 2:15.” (Is there anything more fun that flipping shit at organized people?)

Van 1 and 2 debrief in Silver Lake.

Running Through the Night

So it began: Van 1 ran six legs and handed off to Van 2 for our six, then flip, flop, a flippity flop…for 36 hours. There was heat, dust, scenic views, a cold night, quad-pounding downhills, and one consistent theme: at all times, we had a runner smacking rubber on earth, moving us toward the finish line, step by step.

To make things more interesting, Lil’ Yeasty suggested our van do 25 penalty pushups each time we used given names rather than nicknames. Sure! Sounds easy. Hundreds of pushups later, we weren’t so sure…

He didn’t do enough pushups, but Fat Brad cranked out some 6:15 miles!

My favorite leg came after midnight in the middle of nowhere east of La Pine. First, we pretended to sleep in a floodlit high school parking lot with 500 other runners. People set off car alarms, stage whispered at 120 decibels (HEY SARA, WHERE’S THE SLEEPING PAD?!), and so, despite earplugs, I caught about 1.2 seconds of sleep before it was time to run again.

Somehow, it all worked out. We made it to the dusty exchange, where bleary-eyed runners wandered in from their race leg, hoping to see a team member. I heard someone yell DAKOTA and then Andrew zoomed in, slapped the bracelet on my wrist and sent me off into the night.

Andrew rolling in to hand off to me at 1:30 am. (Shot: Fat Brad)

Blinking lights bobbed in the distance. Nothing to do but track them down! They call passing other runners “roadkill,” and people keep track of the tally on the side of their van. That 7.3 mile run yielded 16 for me, as I couldn’t ignore the incentive of catching the beacons in the night.

We continued, on and on through the night, into the morning, and around Mt. Bachelor. Our van snagged an amazing 7 a.m. nap in the shadow of the mountain, then rallied for our final legs down the Cascade Lakes highway all the way to Bend.

Lil’ Yeasty getting some power tunnel action (and a slap) heading down toward Bend.

The Results

Out of 165 teams, we placed 13th overall and 5th in the co-ed open division. Not bad!

The Plant-Powered Runners

It took us 28 hours and 22 minutes to run the 216 miles, a 7:53 min/mile average pace.

Andrew coming in hot and a cold stream of water about to cool him off… (Photo: Fat Brad)

Van 2 tallied a couple thousand pushups. Lil’ Yeasty and I each ended with 500 (all completed during the race, ow). Fat Brad did only 50 of his 550 (the karma police will find him). Taco banged out a few hundred, whereas Waffle and Wrangler each demonstrated remarkable mental control and kept their totals under 100.

Taco sneaking some winks in a high school parking lot to get ready for more pushups.

Across the board, even though the event wasn’t easy, the team stoke after the race was high. There’s already talk of racing again next year. (Too soon, my aching calves say. Next time, I’m not doing a bike trip right before.)

For anyone considering an overnight relay race, I highly recommend Cascade Lakes Relay. The lack of sleep, the organizing headache (thanks, Lauren and Emily!) and of course the running are entirely worth it for a cool experience. What cements friendships faster than sleep deprivation, bumping loud rap and cheering suffering runners up hills, after all?

More pictures below!

Waffle during downtime between legs.

Lil’ Yeasty doing his best walrus impersonation.

Fat Brad and Waffle hanging in our (well-decorated) van.

Fat Brad coming in hot with the handoff to Taco.

Someone slapped this magnet on our van…

Fat Brad stretching it out at midnight.

Powering through my final leg near Mt. Bachelor.

Cheering on another team along the way. Power tunnels are the best.

Part of the fun…

Wrangler stoked after her night leg.

Wrangler handing off to Lil’ Yeasty.


Lil’ Yeasty and his flip-flopped security detail.

Fat Brad dropping the hammer at the end of his first leg.

Fat Brad turning up the heat at the end of his final leg for some more roadkill. Both his feet are off the ground, folks!

Pushups…so many pushups