THE MAGNIFICANT 11: TWISTED SISTAS AND GRATIS DUDES (By Paul Cooley with contributions from Bill Tommaney and Sam McMurtrey)
Paul in Pasadena
It is about an hour before our 7:44 a.m. start time for the Texas Independence Relay and coming out of La Grange heading toward Giddings I take a wrong turn in our lead van, Van A, and end up in a church parking lot. Van B is behind us, we both execute U turns and get back on track. I was thinking this may be a premonition of things to come over the next two days as we make our way to the start of the 203 mile relay run from just outside Bastrop, Texas to the San Jacinto Monument. As luck would have it, we did not make too many wrong turns after that, we did have some adversity, but the strong will and strong legs of our 11 member team pushed us through to the end in 32 hours and eight minutes.
Our team, the Twisted Sistas and Gratis Dudes began taking shape in the fall of 2011 and at a team meeting in January of 2012 we came up with the concept for our team and the name, modeled loosely after the "Twister" game. We even employed a mat from the game at some of our relay exchanges and in the photos on the steps of the San Jacinto Monument at the end.
Our team was divided into two parts: Van A - Sam Pace, Deborah Touchy, Michelle Castro, Mark Miller, Rosie Schmandt and myself; Van B - Bill Tommaney, Gloria Mahoney, Lara Allen, Sam McMurtrey and Keesha Erickson.
The start of our journey began with a prologue run of a third of a mile, with Texas and "Come and Take It" flags fluttering around us in the early morning wind. Michelle Castro was our first runner and she was off down a rocky gravel road with our first van in eventual pursuit. She was followed by Rosie Schmandt and Deborah Touchy. Rosie ran through stretches of Bastrop State Park that had been incinerated during the fire there this past year after it had been ravaged by the infamous drought of 2011. The majority of Deborah's leg was on some substantially hilly portions of Bastrop State Park, which she ran with great strength and enthusiasm, which would latter come back to factor in her heat related problems in the afternoon of the relay's first day. She handed off to me. I was fortunate enough to have a leg of the race where the first several miles went through Buesher State Park, apparently untouched by fire and drought, with beautiful lakes and branches overhanging the road in such density that they blocked my GPS device for several periods at a time. I finished the run in downtown Smithville, where Lara, Bill, Gloria, Sam and Keesha were on hand and gave me a great welcome. I handed off to Sam Pace. She and Mark Miller had to persevere some very rough roads on the portions of their first legs, Mark especially had to eat the dust of several vans leap frogging ahead of their runners to the next exchange point.
At the end of Mark's leg, he handed off to Lara Allen and Van B began their first segment of the adventure, we would not see them again until the exchange about 4 miles west of Weimer. This was our first rest period and we drove to Schulenberg and ate our lunch. We then drove to the exchange point outside Weimer to wait our next turn and try to get some rest. It was now noticeably warmer and the sun had risen high in the cloudless sky. Not good signs for runners. Mark and I found an abandon building at the exchange point (there were several) and camped out on the porch, in the fashion of several other runners from other teams, and laid down for about an hour. Rosie, Sam, Michelle and Deborah were resting in the van and on a tarp we had brought that was laid out in the shade of a nearby tree. Bill Tommaney, Sam McMurtrey and Lara Allen were sharing the driving duties for Van B. Bill called to let me know that their last runner on this segment, Gloria Mahoney, was on her way. It was now close to 5 p.m. and seemed to be growing hotter. Gloria finished her leg in good spirits and we all gave her a hug. I could tell she was very glad to be off the road for now. Our first runner on this segment was Sam Pace, she is a strong and savvy runner, and she opted to take a water bottle with her on her run. We stopped along her route into Weimer to make sure she had the liquids that she needed. Next it was Mark Miller's turn again. This day was special for Mark because it was his birthday! As we did with Sam, we stopped along his route to provide not only liquid refreshments, but we all sang happy birthday to him as he approached and ran past us on the side of highway 90 east. It seems Mark is always smiling, so it was hard to tell if we made him any happier on his run and on his birthday with our singing.
Deborah took the handoff from Mark, it felt blazing hot, and as we drove along watching her run, I commented that she was running very strong. I was to take the handoff from her. As we watched from the exchange point for a sign of her, someone said they saw her off in the distance and it looked like she was walking and holding her side. As she got closer I could see that she was still trying to run, but she would hold her side and bend forward at the waist. As she got closer I knew she was having real trouble, and as she attempted to hand the baton off to me she was throwing up. Our other teammates were now intently concerned about her, I felt deflated when I took off on my leg, but was certain that she would be appropriately cared for. My leg was 5.93 miles and ended in downtown Columbus. It started in the bright sun, but by the time I finished, it was dark. I handed off to Rosie and saw Michelle, Lara and the Van B teammates. I asked about Deborah and they said she had been taken to the hospital. I was shocked, I started thinking that I should have not continued on my run but stayed with the team to make sure she was o.k. They also said that Mark was with her at the hospital. Our problem was this: we wanted to go to the hospital to look after her, but we also had Rosie out on the highway headed south. Our initial plan was to take Michelle to the next exchange, wait for Rosie, then go to the hospital to see after Deborah. That plan changed when Mark called on the cell phone and said that the hospital needed Deborah's ID before they would admit her, and it was in her purse in our van. We made our way to the hospital, delivered the ID and actually got in to see Deborah for a short visit. It looked to me that she was recovering well, and I was thankful for that and for the fact that she was being professionally cared for.
Sam, Michelle and I left to take Michelle to the exchange and to find Rosie. Sam had been alternating with me all day sharing the driving duties in Van A. It felt pretty lonely in Van A at this point. We were without 3 of our teammates, tired and still very concerned about Deborah. We did not see Rosie along the way to the exchange, we called Van B and they said they had been keeping track of her for most of the way and she would be along shortly. The wind had picked up and Michelle was beginning to shiver as it had cooled off quite a bit as well. When Rosie arrived, Sam and I and Rosie left to go back to the hospital, Van B was going to take Michelle's belongings and Michelle would ride with them for the foreseeable future, as after Michelle's leg, Van B would be taking over until about 2 a.m. Rosie finished her leg at 9:10 p.m. We were able to visit again with Deborah at the hospital, afterward, Mark, Rosie, Sam and I ate some pizza for our diner (sitting on the sidewalk in front of a Medicaid dental clinic) and then headed to Wallis for the 2 a.m. rendezvous with Van B.
In Wallis we parked across from the relay exchange, and when we arrived it was quiet, peaceful and just the spot for us to try and catch a nap in the van. That was until the first diesel engine train went through town, roughly 200 yards from our van. It blasted its horn all the way through town - and then some. Just as I was really going to fall asleep, another train came, I believe going north, as he finished, a third one came through going south. I ended up counting 4 trains while we were there, each blasting their horn going through town. Needless to say, I did not sleep at all. When we made contact with Van B we found out that Michelle was also ill and her husband, Bernard, had picked her up and she was at home. Van A finished the next 7 legs in George Bush Park at around 7:15 a.m. We had two hotel rooms at the Extendedstay on I-10 near Wilcrest. That is where Van B had been while we were running from Wallis into Houston. We made it the hotel by 8:30 a.m. and cleaned up and had some brief but needed sleep.
By 10:30 a.m. we were back on the road, headed to the Wortham Center to meet up with Van B. Keesha was running Van B's last leg of this segment. We waited for her in the shade of Fish Plaza and were delighted to see her come bounding up the stairs from the walk along Buffalo Bayou, through the plaza and to the exchange at the corner of Smith and Texas where she handed off to Sam Pace. We knew from our experience on Saturday, that it was absolutely necessary to stay in contact with our runners because of the heat. We leaped frogged along her route providing water and Gatorade, and were joined in doing so by Van B and Bernard and Michelle, who had now rejoined us, Michelle feeling much better. In fact Michelle was going to run her remaining leg. She took the handoff for that leg from Sam in Mason Park. We made our way to Chavez High School were I was to take the baton and run 5.99 miles. It was hot. We all were tired. Michelle ran well, I put on a Fuel Belt with water bottles full and took the handoff from Michelle. I felt pretty good for the first two miles. I was traversing Pasadena to Deer Park and was in unfamiliar territory. I had studied the map of this area and was familiar with the street names and the turns I would need to make. They had ranked this run in the top 10 of the hardest runs because of the number of turns. What I found to be a great help was the fact that at the many intersections I did have to cross, they had law enforcement personnel present to stop traffic and make my crossing safe. I handed off to Keesha. I was tired, but happy, I was through and there were only two legs left until the finish!
Keesha was the brightest star in our Galaxy. She had run 3 legs of the relay that were rated in the top 10 as the toughest legs. When she got to the last exchange, she was bounding along with enthusiasm! The rest of us showed our enthusiasm by just being able to get out of the van and walk to the exchange, as opposed to staying in the van wishing we were home bound! When Sam McMurtrey started off on the last leg, we all were worried that it was just too hot and that the distance (5.32 miles) seemed too long. The leap frogging began in earnest. We stopped for her, but saw that Bernard and Michelle had stopped for her, so we pulled out, stopped again and than saw Van B stopped for her. We all were looking out for her, and I was pleased that we had now journeyed over 200 miles together, and though some of us had started as strangers, we were all caring for and looking out for one another.
Sam crossed the finish line with a big smile on her face and looked like she was extremely happy to have reached the end. As were we all at that point. We marched in a procession up to the Monument, had our photos taken, and then gathered together for pizza and sodas and some last time together as a group. Bill pointed out that we should take the photos at the Monument and photoshop Deborah into them, a great idea! When I got home Sunday evening I sent an email to Deborah and told her we had been very relieved to hear that she had made it back to Houston and was doing well. Even though Deborah was not present with us at the finish, we did finish as a team of 11.
Van B contribution from Bill:
"My momma always said, "TIR is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get." This seemed to hold true for the 2012 version of the Texas Independence Relay. When you stop and realize what your team is tackling, it does make you question the sanity of the whole endeavor. Somehow, the craziness of having your routines and comforts turned inside out turns into a wonderful weekend of fun! Some memories that stand out for this Twisted Runner... embracing the silliness by shoe polishing our van, running the prologue with our twister mat flying high, watching Gloria spring into action and assist our runners with their hydration, using my flashlight to alert my van their runner just went by (to which Sam M explains: We were sitting in the van on the side of the road drifting in and out of sleep forgetting Bill was out there just for a split second right at the time he runs by......and Lara says..."Shit there goes Bill", and Sam M says, "ooops". I believe the rest of the van were asleep. Man was Bill upset when he got back to the Van!! - editors note: Bill says he was not upset); getting Sam to break a smile by showing her the peeps, checking into our hotel at 3:00 AM – then realizing that 3 hours of sleep actually helps, and most of all – sticking together through the difficult legs and encouraging one another."
This story would not be complete without mentioning two things: (1) the fact that at various locations along our 203 mile adventure, Lara Allen performed perfect cartwheels to the joy and amazement of not only her teammates but to the local citizenry that had come out to see what this race was about. With Lara, they received some extra special entertainment!; and (2) the fact that Rosie made and brought along the best peanut butter chocolate chip cookies I have ever had along with a bevy of other baked goods, I commented that this may be the only relay race of 200 miles that I may run and put on weight while doing so!
We had great support in this adventure from Bernard Castro, Jan Cooley, Kate Philbrick, Peter Birckhead and Stan Coburn and I want to thank them for their contributions. I also want to thank Lara Allen, Sam Pace, Sam McMurtrey and Bill Tommaney for their driving and navigational skills along the way.