24 Hour Relay Race, Parts I, II and IIIPart I – The Ortegas in Modesto
How disheartening is it to have to write a story twice? That’s what I’m doing now, and I have only myself to blame. Its happened to us all, the computer crashes and takes out the entire manuscript, one completely and frustratingly finished. I should have blogged it as a draft, or I could have saved it into an email, but after three years of no problems whatsoever I let my guard down. I should have known that Microsoft would eventually screw me – THAT is the moral of THIS prologue. Anyway, on with the show.......
It was mid-June 1977 when Ray Ortega, a fellow marine in my squadron, asked if I wanted to run a relay race with his twin teenage brothers in Modesto, a small city about two hours southeast of us. The prospect of such a thing intrigued me. It would be a 24-hour relay with nine runners doing a mile at a time. I had never heard of such a thing, but it sounded like a great way to test one’s will and endurance. It took me all of 5 seconds to agree to do it.
Ray drove me out to Modesto the following Friday. We got a delayed start, so by the time we got out on I-5 it was late evening. Ray and I were not close; we had very little in common other than being members of the same squadron on Alameda Naval Air Station. We served in MAG 42, a composite outfit with two very different types of aircraft – heavy lift helicopters called CH-53 Sea Stallions, and single seat attack aircraft, the venerable A-4 Skyhawk.
What I remember most about that Friday night is my relief that we made it to Modesto without dying or ending up in jail. Ray had a late model silver TransAm and he flew it more than drove it. I spent much of the trip scrunched down in the bucketseat with my eyes closed or looking anxiously over at the speedometer, which mostly showed us going well over a 100. At one point I peered over at the dash and could see nothing but darkness. A sick realization came over me, and I confirmed my suspicions asking him, “Ray, did you just turn off your headlights?”
He answered matter-of-factly, “Yep, that way the cops can’t see me, and if they can’t see me, they can’t clock me.”
I suppose it made sense to him, and I must admit that it did get us there a few minutes faster than otherwise. THAT was Ray.
I felt like I had returned from the Twilight Zone once I entered the normalcy of the Ortega home. They were a wonderful family, originally from Guatemala, but you would never know it to be around them. They lived in a typical American split-level house in an ordinary American subdivision. It was warm and bustling and I was immediately made to feel quite at home.
I met most of the other runners including Gus and George, the Ortega twins. They were a breath of fresh air, not at all like crazy Ray. In just a few days they would head down to San Diego to submit themselves to the rigors of marine boot camp, an ordeal only slightly tougher than what was to come the next day. They wanted to be marines just like their brother; well, I hoped not EXACTLY like him.
Actually, I was the one who wanted to be like THEM. They were quite the ladies men. Both had bookend little blonde high school sweeties that followed them around like lovesick puppies. On second thought, I DIDN'T want to be like them, I wanted to BE them. I had turned 20 just two days before and still hadn’t been on a date. I know, I know, it’s hard believe!
We ate lots of spaghetti and drank lots of fluids to get our bodies' reservoirs stocked up for the next day's "impossible" exertions. Even so, I knew no matter how much I ate that it could never be enough, but I gave it a shot and shovelled it down. It was after midnight before the place quieted down some. It was a very lively household! With the race not starting until noon, there was no need to get to sleep early, the plan being to sleep in as close to the start as possible. That sounded fine to me; I love my sleep.
Part II The Ordeal Begins
As planned, we got up late the next morning. For breakfast we continued where we had left off the previous night, eating heaps of pancackes, eggs, bacon, toast, jelly, and washing it all down with quarts of milk and orange juice. Our tanks were definitely topped off as the time to head out to the track approached.
Most of the 9 runners were soon regathered there at the Ortega house. In the naked light of day I watched them scope me out as I did the same to them. All athletes do this. Put more than one in the same room and watch them size each other up. All they knew about me is what Ray had told them and I think he had bragged my running abilities up pretty good. My impression of them was that they all seemed to be in strong lean shape. I judged myself to be in the company of some fairly serious runners, although they sure looked young.
With just over an hour before the crack of the starter’s pistol, we loaded up the vehicles and caravanned out to the college track. I helped unload coolers of food, ice, water, and drinks. Soon, we had an out-and-out camp on the grassy infield area just on the other side of the pole vault lane. We had everything we needed to make us and our camp followers comfortable for the next full day: Three or four beach umbrellas, a couple dozen different types of lawn chairs and recliners, folding tables and chairs, and a dozen blankets spread out on the thickest grass.
Being an outsider, I hung back and tried to figure out what was expected of me. I pitched in where I could, but mostly I stayed quiet and observed. To everyone’s credit I was rarely left by myself for long; folks were always coming up to me and introducing themselves and wishing me well. Everyone asked me about my being in the Marines and how well I knew Ray. Mostly I got lots of “good luck out there” concerning the relay, and “is it hot enough for you?” concerning the weather. My impression: Modestoites are nice people.
Speaking of the heat! If you have ever been to the valley areas of Central California in summer you know how intensely hot it gets. The sun is a fearsome blast furnace and clouds, when they dare to make a showing, are soon reduced to hazy wisps. Being outdoors in Modesto in late June causes the human body, even at rest, to give up its moisture by the gallons per hour, and by midday, a normal person’s energy level is about the same as that of a lifeless rag doll. Rational people swim in their pools or stay indoors huddled around their air conditioners, but not us!
It was almost 12, and despite the heat, quite a few spectators came out to support us. Admittedly, most of them were parents, friends, and girlfriends; although a reporter from the local newspaper showed up. I began to feel like I was a part of something noteworthy. Here’s a portion of the article he wrote entitled “World’s Record Effort…” It was published on June 27, 1977, in "The Modesto Bee" the Monday after the run.
“What is this compulsion to set a world’s record in long-distance skateboarding, raw egg eating, see-saw riding and telephone booth stuffing?
Whatever it is, the season has started and for many, the Guinness Book of World Records can be credited, or blamed, for the inspiration that can lift an ordinary person into fame, however fleeting.
As the weekend heat pushed above 100 degrees, nine Modesto runners kicked their heels into the cinders at the Modesto Junior College track…Calling themselves the Modesto City Runners, they are Rick Simental, 14; Philip Spear, 20; Steve Hurst, 14; Jeff Pezniak, 16; Rick Salas, 16; Tony Bettencourt, 16; Jesus Alberto, 18; and twins Gus and George Ortega, 19.
The running was almost upon me and as always in similar situations, I became edgy with nerves, my stomach jumping and bobbing from proverbial butterflies. All nine of us anxiously kicked our legs out, first one, then the other, all while shaking loose our arms at our sides. I’ll bet Neanderthals did the same thing tens of thousands of years ago as they restlessly prepared to run down and spear to death wooly bison. It seems to be the natural action of any man before attempting something extremely physical, especially when it involves running.
The first man to toe up to the start line of course was one of the twins, George. The boys' high school track coach called down the time and when it reached exactly noon he pulled the trigger of his starter’s pistol. “Crack!” George was off and the 24-hour relay had begun.
Part III – Nine runners On a Quest…
George set an amazing initial pace for such a long-term endeavor. I’m sure he was showing off for our little crowd of spectators, and as one of the primary organizers of the event it makes sense that he wanted to set the bar high for the rest of us runners. The heat seemed to have little effect on him as he just about strutted his 4 laps around the track. He passed on the baton to the next runner with an impressive time of 5 minutes 10 seconds. I nodded approvingly and applauded his effort thinking, ‘Okay, I can do that. No problem, ….I think.”
The other runners sought to continue to run with George’s élan and their times were also all under 6 minutes. When it came time for Jesus to run I took even greater notice. I had been looking forward to watching him run; the guy just looked like a natural. Sure enough, he flew around the track, throwing cinders behind him with every muscular stride, and passed off the baton UNDER 5 minutes at 4:54:6. ‘I wonder if he plans to run many more of those over the next 24-hours?’ I thought.
I was eighth in line to go and my guy was out on the track. “Spear, Phil Spear! YOU are next up!” one of the moms was keeping track of the rotation and calling out the names of the next to run. I soon saw that a lot of logistics – thought and planning went into something like an officially timed relay race. Without all the volunteers, there was no way we could have done it. We needed people to man the stopwatch, to log our times and yell out lap splits, to keep us stocked in snacks and drinks, to watch the runner’s order, and to make sure each finishing runner was not in physical distress. The runners needed to concentrate exclusively on running, and all those people made it possible for us to do exactly that. On that note, my first time in the relay barrel was fast approaching.
When the 7th runner started into his “bell lap,” I took my place out on the cinders about 10 yards before the start line. My butterflies immediately exploded into full-blown adrenalized eagles. I couldn’t wait to get that baton and do what I’d come there to do. It was time to earn my free victuals and drinks. I bounced around on my toes, adjusted my glasses and reset my baseball cap low over my eyes. When the 7th runner was half way through the final turn I became stationary for him to see as his “target.”
I held my left hand directly out behind me, toward the approaching runner, his grimacing face a vision of concentration and pain. My fingers were tight together, my thumb stretched out from them to give him the ideal receptacle for him to slap the baton into. When he was almost upon me, I took off into a run with my arm still stretched toward him. I could easily hear his rapid and noisy breathing. I kept my position to the outside of his so as not to interfere with his finishing strides, all the time trying to match his pace. He slapped the baton into my hand just as we crossed the finish/start line and I began the first of my many miles.
Even now, 29 years later, I recall the joyous feeling of being in perfect shape and taking off powerfully into that first of many miles. The track was wonderful – not too soft with just the right amount of bounce. I breezed through the first lap in 68 seconds; in awe of my own speed, I realized that it was much too fast. Excitement and adrenaline was doing its work well, so I decided to let it. My half-mile split was quick too, on pace for a 5 minute mile. By then, I knew I was going to have a decent first mile time, so I decided to “float” through the last two laps. With my pace in energy saving “overdrive,” I easily loped through the final half-mile and handed off the baton to Gus Ortega with a respectable time of 5:16.
My straining stride turned into a stiff-legged amble as I watched Gus dash off with the baton around the first turn, and THAT is when the full impact of the 100+ degrees of heat beat its way into my senses. As my breath came under control I made a beeline for the hose and its cool stream of water. Two other runners were still taking turns under its gentle splashing flow. I knew from our times that our physical shape was not going to be the question, no; it was going to be the insidious heat. Whoever managed to deal with the heat would manage to finish the relay. I realized then that we would never have a shot at any record times, and instead we would be lucky to simply finish the thing as a team.
Part IV.... To be continued....