This past Saturday, July 30th, Gap International fielded a 7-person team in the 16th Annual “River to Sea” relay race across New Jersey. The relay starts in Milton, NJ, which is on the PA/NJ border, and then winds 89 miles across mostly secondary roads to the ocean in Manasquan, NJ. Each runner must run one of the first 7 legs and one of the second 7 legs. Teams are given a start time based on their collective 5K time, so slower teams start earlier in the morning and the faster teams – which include local track clubs and college runners – start later in the morning, sometimes 2-3 hours later than the first team. The idea is that the fast teams will gain ground on the slower-team runners far ahead of them, and all the teams will generally converge at the ocean at nearly the same time for an exciting finish at the end of the day.

The legs for the race route vary from 2.5 to 9 miles over different terrain – some very flat, some very hilly – and of course those runners running the legs later in the day sizzle in the heat of New Jersey mid-summer. Each team is allotted two support cars which either supply the current runner with water, encouragement and navigational help or transport the next runner ahead to a future exchange point. It’s a crowded course with a ton of rules and details, so it’s the kind of course where things can easily go off track.

A core team of us at Gap had participated in the relay for the last two years, so we had some experience navigating the course and an idea of what worked and what problems to avoid.  Different friends of ours had joined the team based on whether they were around or available, and we’d fielded two pretty decent teams. In fact, we won the “Open Mixed” category last year with a team of 4 men and 3 women.

This year was a little bit different. This year the team came together very last minute, and two of our runners had run only a few times, neither having ever run a big race. Even with a couple of weeks to go before race day, we welcomed our final runner, a very experienced runner and good friend of one of our teammates. We all just met her first thing Saturday morning as we drove to the race start!

So here we were, a bit of a hodge-podge team, with a couple very fast runners, some medium-speed runners and a couple brand-new beginners. Having run the last two years, we devised a strategy to have our best runners run the four hardest and longest legs, which they were happy to do. The two beginners ran the easiest and shortest legs, which they were happy to do. And the rest of us filled in the remaining legs and found our place. It was like working a puzzle and determining how each piece could fit. It was a great strategy and well thought-through, although it’s safe to say that none of us had any expectations whatsoever of doing anything but successfully finishing.

Being part a true team is one of the most amazing experiences in life. The seven of us bonded instantly, and as we started the race, we were all feeling a sense of camaraderie and joy that lasted throughout the day. We took care of each other on the course, encouraged each other, laughed and laughed together in the support vehicles, solved the minor problems that came up and just kept pushing forward to the finish line. In a day that reached a high of 94ºF, we didn’t have one argument or any flaring tempers…even when we temporarily lost the keys to one of the vehicles, and one of our runners drove ahead to the next leg without shoes and had to come back.

As the day went on and we got into the second half of the race, the field of runners and cars from the other teams started to thin out a little bit. We’d been passing runners all morning, but hadn’t really been seriously keeping track of where we were. During Leg 9, one of our strong runners bravely fought through a couple of bad blisters on her feet and passed the last of the teams who were in front of us. All of a sudden, it became a true race to the sea to hold off the teams with the fast runners who would be on the hunt to catch us. We kept pressing on together, navigating the tricky roads, the traffic, the extreme heat, working as a team even with just one person running at a time.

We won the whole thing.

We got to the ocean a few minutes before the second place team could catch us. The final 2.5 mile leg is called “Final Sprint to the Sea,” and our least experienced runner ran it like a champion to bring us in – exactly according to our strategy.

In the past couple of days, all of us on the team have talked about how special the experience was to do this together. We devised a great strategy, but more importantly, we all were aligned on the strategy we would pursue. And we were in it together, every minute of every step. Each of our individual identities dissolved into being one team, where each had the chance to express his or her individual talents, but completely in the context of being in it together.

It taught us all something about winning and focusing on winning. Every single one of us on the team is highly competitive, there’s no doubt about it. But maybe a direct focus on winning distracts us from tapping into the greater source of power that happens when we operate as one. Maybe the place to focus is having those around you win, be at their best, be their most expressed, and then all of you being together in search of the best outcome.

In the grand scheme of things, running a relay across New Jersey at the height of summer heat to win some plastic buckets and shovels (the trophies) is irrelevant at best. But it’s the best reminder we all had that the journey IS the reward, and the greatest experiences come from being together on the journey.

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