Most people think of running as an individual sport, just the athlete against the clock. And that’s usually true. Over the past few years, though, participation in camaraderie-focused team relays has grown rapidly, with more races popping up around the country and right in our own backyard.

“We wanted to do something a little different that wasn’t too far out of our realm,” said Brian Lyons, race director for the GO! Missouri KT82 Trail Relay, part of the GO! St. Louis race portfolio. “We determined we could handle 200 spots our first year [in 2014]. Four hundred and sixteen teams entered the lottery.”

The St. Louis Track Club Marathon Relay is the area’s oldest team run, clocking in at about 30 years. (The race directors aren’t really sure anymore.) Over the course of time, the registration categories have changed to keep things fresh, as has the route through Forest Park.

“When I started running, all the stuff was intimidating to me. The relay kind of saved me,” said Rae Mohrmann, the race’s co-director. “The Marathon Relay does that for people, it gives them confidence. It’s not an event just for elite or fast runners, or even runners at all. We have teams who come and walk. It’s inviting, low cost, low key, and fun.”

The fact that relays attract more than just diehards is just one benefit to the sport of running. Social interaction and community building is another.

“I think the camaraderie among and between the teams is what really sets a relay apart,” said Kerin Miller, race director of the Cowbell Uncorked Off-Road 100k Trail Relay. “You do it together, and that brings energy and a sense of shared accomplishment.”

As popularity grows, the relay format is evolving. Some races are designed as stand-alones, while others are combined with a marathon or half marathon. Team size, distance, terrain, and even the hours during which running takes place all factor into the “flavor” of a particular event.

Multi-leg races like the KT82, for example, require teams to drive from point to point in order to cycle runners in and out. “Imagine going on a road trip with your buddies. You drop one off and pick up another one who has just done something cool,” said Lyons. “You’re tracking the other teams, keeping track of ‘kills.’ It’s like you get a finish line multiple times during the day instead of only once. It’s pretty awesome.”

Pretty awesome, indeed.

“For me it was all about the camaraderie,” said Denzil Jennings, who recently completed the Illinois River to River Relay. “Being stuck in a van all day with seven other runners was a blast. For one day, the team’s universe consisted of finishing our legs and supporting and motivating our team members to finish theirs. It was probably one of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had.”

Here’s a look at some of the top team relay races in our area:

Cowbell Uncorked Off-Road 100k Trail Relay
“It’s all about the Base…the BaseCamp that is!” Starting and finishing at Klondike Park in Augusta, Mo., Cowbell Uncorked provides each team with a tailgate site that it can set up and decorate however it wants. (There’s an award for best tailgate.) A festival-like BaseCamp offers music, games, vendors, food and beverages, and even yoga sessions for runners to enjoy before and after their legs.

Teams of five cover 100k (62 miles) in three loops of 10k, 5k, and 5k on road, singletrack, and portions of the Katy Trail. Each team member completes each loop once for an individual distance of 20k (12.4 miles). The top teams in the Male, Female, and Coed categories receive 12 bottles of Missouri wine — hence the “Uncorked” title — while the second and third place teams will receive four bottles of wine. Held annually in May.

GO! Missouri KT82 Trail Relay
The KT82 is a one-day, 82-mile trail relay that starts in Creve Coeur and finishes in Hermann, Mo. In between, the race features 18 stops along some of the prettiest pathways in the state, including large portions of the Katy as well as other off-road trails in St. Louis and St. Charles counties. Teams are comprised of either six (regular) or three (ultra) runners, with participants completing three or six legs, respectively.

The big finish in the picturebook town of Hermann is a spectacle, with music at the Clara Eitmann Messmer Amphitheater as well as picnicking, wine tasting, dancing, yard games, and lots of shared stories from the road. Runners are encouraged to stick around, soak in the atmosphere, and stay at one of the charming B&Bs or guest houses. Scheduled for September 5 this year.

Midwest Active Katy80
Established in 2011 after one of its founders ran The Bourbon Chase (see the sidebar), the Katy80 pits teams of six against 80 miles of meandering rail-to-trail corridor stretching from the Edward “Ted” and Pat Jones-Confluence Point State Park north of St. Louis to the Treloar Trail Head near Marthasville, Mo., and then back to Augusta. Each runner finishes three legs for individual distances ranging from 11.7 to 13.5 miles.

What’s the kicker? Well, in this case it’s the “kicker leg” before the finish line at the Augusta Brewery. While 99 percent of the relay is run on flat trail, the final two miles include a “nasty little climb” and then a “fun downhill” to the finale. All team members are required to run this 19th leg and finish together. Now that’s team-building! Held annually in May.

Relay and Run for 21
This popular three-person relay along the streets of St. Louis helps raise money for the Down Syndrome Association of Great St. Louis, DADS Community Outreach Fund, and the Pujols Family Foundation. The 21 in the name represents the third 21st chromosome, which causes Down Syndrome, and 21 kilometers is the approximate distance for a half marathon.

The course starts in downtown Clayton and winds its way across St Louis County, passing through residential areas in University City, Olivette, Creve Coeur and Maryland Heights before finishing at Westport Plaza. The relay has three segments, averaging 4.3 miles, with some gradual and longer hilly sections. Held annually in March.

St. Louis Track Club Marathon Relay
The keys to the longevity of this race are variety and whimsy. Sure, this year’s categories include Male Open, Female Open, Mixed Open — but also 200+ (total team age is 200 years or more), 80- (total team age is 80 years or less), Corporate, Family, and Costumed.

Each of four team members must run a roughly 3.25-mile loop twice for a total of 26.2 miles. The course is on paved surfaces within Forest Park, with all exchanges taking place by the Lower Muny parking lot. It’s designed as a low-key, laid-back affair, with a lot of groups returning year after year to give it a “reunion” feel — with elaborate group feasts at the finish line. Scheduled for November 22.


The Out-of-Towners

Blue Ridge Relay
One of the longest relays at 208 miles, it takes place in the scenic Blue Ridge and Black mountains of Virginia and North Carolina. September 11-12.

The Bourbon Chase
A 200-mile relay race along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, across majestic horse country and into charming small towns. October 16-17.

The Hennepin Hundred
Starting in Sterling and winding 100 miles along the flat, fast, historic Hennepin Canal Trail in Northwest Illinois. September 12-13.

Illinois River to River Relay
Every April, teams of eight run the 80 miles of forested, rolling hills between the Mississippi and Ohio rivers at the southern tip of Illinois.

Kettle Moraine 100
Teams of four can tackle this 100-mile route along the Ice Age National Trail in Wisconsin each June. Be sure to review the special relay rules.

You and 11 of your crazy friends — or five of your crazier friends for an ultra team — run 200 miles, day and night, relay-style. Held year-round in 16 locations.

Author: Doug Simmons is a regular contributor to Terrain magazine
Image: Courtesy of Cowbell Uncorked Off-Road 100k Trail Relay