Chasing the Dragon

Chasing the dragon is a slang phrase of Cantonese origin from Hong Kong referring to inhaling the vapor from a heated solution of morphine, heroin, oxycodone, opium, or ya ba (a pill containing caffeine and methamphetamine). The ‘chasing’ occurs as the user gingerly keeps the liquid moving in order to keep it from overheating and burning up too quickly, on a heat conducting material such as aluminium foil. The moving smoke is chased after with a tube through which the user inhales.”

The meaning of our 2019 Moran Constitutional Relay (MRC) team’s name came as a surprise to most of our members, until the namer, my sister JoDee, clarified, “Another more metaphorical use of the term ‘chasing the dragon‘ refers to the elusive pursuit of the ultimate high…” 

And runner’s high is real. “Years ago, our ancestors’ survival likely depended on chasing down food. The desire to live was possibly their motivation to run and run fast, and the feel-good brain chemicals released when they did so may have helped them achieve the speed and distances required…Nature’s home-brewed opiates, endorphins are chemicals that act a lot like their medically engineered counterpart, morphine…[in 2008]…scientists found that during two-hour-long runs, subjects’ prefrontal and limbic regions (which light up in response to emotions like love) spewed out endorphins… Endorphins get all the attention, but your body also pumps out endocannabinoids, which are a naturally synthesized version of THC, the chemical responsible for the buzz that marijuana produces.”

Last October, four women in our forties and fifties completed the best trail relay in the world. This year, half of our original team backed out, so we formed a slightly less badass, two-thirds new, one-third veteran, six-person women’s team. We were chasing the dragon in more ways than one, hoping to: return to the state of runner’s high that we experienced last year, and achieve a similar overall finish place–about mid-pack out of the event’s fifty teams that compete independent of age, gender or size.

Now in its fourth, most popular year (it sold out within 36 hours), MRC was better than ever. Well…almost. The one change to this year’s route, made in order to improve safety, was to move the checkpoint between leg three and four to one already in existence for a later handoff. Much to the dismay of those affected, something funny happened to a pair of arrows placed at the point of divergence of two partially overlapping routes, indicating that the Leg 4 runner should head west. They disappeared. Runners passing by before the sabotage were unaffected, while those passing it afterwards continued along the shorter, easier, switchback-y Leg 10 route, some, all the way to the end. Others, like our runner Nina, returned to the point of divergence and continued correctly. The sabotage was eventually fixed, but not before about one-fourth of the participants ran a route other than intended. Ultimately, race officials decided to throw out the data from Leg 4, which seemed fair to the teams (like ours) disadvantaged by it, but came as a big disappointment to the fastest teams that ran it correctly.

As Nina explained to the rest of us why she arrived at Little Summit later than expected, the clouds parted long enough for us to glimpse the spectacular beauty below. Then returned, and remained for the rest of the event. After the Leg 4 snafu, the three remaining runners completed their distances without incident. Even in a place as serene as Moran State Park, with its scenic thirty-eight miles of trails, it’s possible to lose sight of the “remember to have fun” goal when you are participating in a relay race where six friends try to run their hearts out for themselves and the good of the team.

During day one, each team completes eight legs for a total of 43.5 miles and 8,543 miles of climb (an average of 196 feet of climb per mile). With the exclusion of the Leg 4 data, our team was in fifteenth place, with each of our runners finishing between 5th and 8th place out of the females for her assigned leg. Afterwards, we celebrated our performance, skipped the post-race meal and ate dinner out. Then, two of us walked onto the ferry and off of Orcas Island, leaving the remaining four to return to the Environmental Learning Center for the night and complete one leg each the next day.

The weather on day two started out significantly worse than the first with both wind and rain, which left the trails muddy and slick in places. Erin, tasked with running to the top of Mount Constitution, was still limping from her day one run. But it came as no surprise to any of us that she and the three others rallied. Although left with fewer miles to run on day two (28.1 versus 43.5), the average distance per leg is farther (7.0 miles vs 6.2) with 61% more climb per mile than on day one. Our runners’ average finish place on day two was from 6th to 17th with an average of 10th out of the female finishers, which is very respectable considering my difficult to confirm theory that teams typically assign the tougher legs on day two to the stronger runners. This means that the women who run Legs 9-12 are competing against more men. In support of theory: 38 women/12 men (76%) were assigned to unarguably easiest leg (3), while 22 women/28 men (44%) were assigned to one of the more difficult legs (9).

The Final Feet Before Little Summit

In the end, we caught the dragon in both ways: by moving up the finishing team ladder from 25th to 18th, and (based on conversations with the others) experiencing runner’s high. The beauty of the surroundings along the trails at Moran State Park is unsurpassed. And in spite of experiencing some adversity during the event, only a few hours into the race, we were already planning our return next year.

JoDee, Nancy, Erin, Nina

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