I don’t consider myself a particularly competitive person. And yet, as I crested the last grassy rise at Como Park and heard quick footfall and steam-engine breath overtaking me for the fourth time that evening, I thought, “Not today.”
The final meters of the Olympic 1500 race pale beside the titanic effort and thrilling theater of the human spirit on display as my nemesis and I battled — knees flashing, mortgages forgotten, heads blown back by the sheer force of our astounding speed — all the way into the plastic-flagged finish chute. We each received a blue ribbon: Mine had 38th place written on the back. Dripping sweat and laughing at the inherent silliness of two adults running, literally, as fast as we could in a public park, we made our way to the throng of other chatty, damp ribbon-winners laying waste to the traditional watermelon and Duplex Cremes.
Como Park Relays is a series of cross-country races held every Wednesday evening in August on the rolling grassy field between Horton Avenue and the Como Park Conservatory. The relay format means the distance is accomplished by teams of two runners taking turns at an amoeba-shaped, kilometer- or milelong course until each has run three, four or five laps. The total distance increases each week — 4x1 kilometer, 3x1 mile, 5x1 kilometer, and finally, 4x1 mile. The progression used to end with 5x1 mile, back when the event catered to a more competitive clientele.
Now in its 42nd year, the Como Relays arguably has been the hardest workout since 1974. It’s one of the oldest races in Minnesota and the longest running series in the state.
Sponsored by the Minnesota Distance Running Association, Como Relays was established by longtime MDRA member John Cramer in his first year out of Minnesota State Mankato where he’d run competitively. Cramer has been the event’s director for 27 of its 42 years.
“I’d run the MDRA mixed doubles cross-country races at Como Park in 1973,” Cramer said of his inspiration for the Como Relays. “Thinking about a way for kids to get in shape for the high school cross-country season, the series, the progressive distance, the Como location — it was the perfect tool.”
Cramer typed up an entry form and advertised it in the MDRA newsletter. The 25-cent entry fee got contestants a measured course, post-race refreshments and T-shirts for winners of the final championship race. He’s proud of the fact that, from the beginning, the Como Relays encouraged women to enter by offering separate girls’ and boys’ categories. At the time, gender-separate categories didn’t exist, and few women entered races. Focusing on high school runners, the age groups for the Como Cross Country Races in 1974 were 13 and under, 14 and 15 years old, 16 and 17 years old, and 18 and older. “That first year, we didn’t get a lot of high school kids; we didn’t get a lot of anybody,” Cramer said. “Maybe 100 people total for the four weeks in August.”
From 1974 to 1976, the event was held every Tuesday night in August — Cramer’s day off from delivering Master Bread — but it was not always a relay. Some Tuesdays featured traditional 3- or 4-mile cross-country runs. It was a low-budget affair: No city permit or insurance was involved, the MDRA donated orange cones to mark the course, and Cramer recruited friends and family to help with registration, and solicited donations of cups, ice and water. He used the entry fees to buy watermelon and cookies.
From 1977 to 1990, Cramer lived out of state and, at times, out of the country, so the Como Cross Country Races were put on for a few years by his college roommate, Mark O’Donnell, and then by another local runner, Tony Domiano. When Cramer returned to the Twin Cities in 1990, he was surprised and delighted to find the event still viable. Domiano moved away, so Cramer resumed directorship in 1991.
“People liked the relay format. It was more fun than running as an individual, so we changed to relays every week,” Cramer said. “Offering categories for men’s, women’s and mixed gender teams, again, got more women involved. And we had a quarter-mile kids’ race because, without kids, you have no next generation.”
Participants, including adults and kids, have grown from 394 in 1991 to 695 in 2014, the highest for a four-Wednesday series.
Cramer still delivers bread, his day off now being Wednesday, so the Como Relays are on Wednesdays. He has got it down to a science, with a seasoned cadre of volunteers and local donors. He pays $300 for insurance and $600 for a park permit, but says he’ll continue to put on the event, for the bargain basement $3 fee, as long as it doesn’t lose money.
I was never fast or competitive but, nonetheless, put on running shoes nearly every day when I first ran the relays in the mid-1990s. I was drawn by the cheap factor (entry had skyrocketed to $1), the inclusiveness, the convenient midweek schedule, and the curious Como recipe that makes it at once low-key, intense, fun and crazy difficult. A happy solo runner, I soon discovered there was no way I could push myself as hard as I did at the relays on my own, and have as much fun doing it. Whether this was a good thing, it was also impossible to run the relays “easy.”
The scene is familiar and pleasant: With the sun toaster-orange in the west, runners of every age and ability gather on the field at the corner of Horton Avenue and Lexington Parkway. Parents with diaper bags spread blankets and babies on the grass. School-age kids toss a football, and high schoolers stand around in knots, demonstrating the massive chasm between senior and freshman. Impossibly fit college runners warm up and change into spikes, while working stiffs duck into park restrooms to make the transformation from accountant to athlete. Veterans are merely happy to be there another year, rocking gear that’s been around almost as long as the relays. Runners queue up to write their own and their partner’s name on a clipboard, and hand over some crumpled dollars (entry went up to $3 in 2007). Cramer can be heard hollering someone’s name, finding partners for those who need one.
Runners (about 50 of them) line up between some cones, Cramer sounds the bullhorn, and any intention of maintaining a controlled, easy pace is abandoned as wild horses make for a copse of trees. Second runners keep an eye on their partners, stepping out into the exchange zone as their significantly redder and less-fresh partner nears, tags off and totters to the water station to recover as best she can before her partner comes back. Within two laps, place order is hopelessly muddled as teams of sub-five-minute milers cycle furiously, chaotically, with veterans and high schoolers and young parents, alternating running with toddler duty.
Certainly, faster runners breeze by me with perplexing ease, but by the end, they’re bent over, red-faced and dripping, too. Normally, college runners work out with other type; teens work out with other teens, and moms run with other moms. Throwing everyone together in Como Relays’ crazy, swirling, circling, mixed-up blender is fun and inspirational, and if you’re not careful, you’ll end up faster.
An example of the relay format, I tag off and start my lap just ahead of a guy in blue shorts, three times. And three times, he blows by me on the last hill in the one-mile course, so a rivalry has developed. My partner slaps my fingers the fourth time and says, “Last one!” Out to the trees, I swing left, go by the backstop, up the hill, then up and up the suddenly steeper hill. Then I duck under the tree branch and fall downhill, past the bench, with a sharp right around the pine, trying to make time on the downhill, before a sharp left and the long gradual rise where he passed me three times before. Then, I hear my rival coming .... .
Sarah Barker is a freelance writer. She lives in St. Paul.