Running can change you. All you have to do is get out the door.
I’ve learned this firsthand, having laced up and run for the better part of a decade. Early on, I ran high school track and cross-country, and then continued as a walk-on for my college team. While my talent for running didn’t see me breaking any records, my love for the sport is arguably elite status. That passion ultimately led me to work for Saucony, where I get to be a part of a different kind of team—one that works together to make runners’ lives the best that they can be.
I feel right at home working for this brand, and I really thought I’d seen it all. I’ve traveled to Kona for the Ironman World Championships, cheered on runners at Heartbreak Hill, and sat in the famed Hayward Field stands supporting our athletes at the Olympic Trials, but nothing could prepare me for the most memorable trip yet: Saucony’s Race to Kinvara (RTK).
BEFORE THE TRIP
This past May we had the pleasure of rewarding 70 run specialty employees from around the world with an all-expenses paid trip to Ireland to compete in a relay race from Dublin to Kinvara, the namesake of one of our most beloved shoes.
For anyone who has participated in other relay races, you can take that experience, put it on steroids, and that’s what you get with RTK. It’s a VIP experience from the moment you step off the plane until you arrive back home, complete with Saucony gear, luxury team vans, complimentary massages, incredible accommodations, and all the Irish countryside your heart could desire.
The race takes place over two days, starting in the outer suburbs of Dublin, making its way to historic Kilkenny on day one, and finishing in the seaside village of Kinvara on day two. There are ten teams representing six countries or regions: five USA teams, one Canadian, one Austrian, one Nordic, one from the UK/Ireland, and one from the Netherlands. As a captain, I would have the immense pleasure of experiencing this trip through the eyes of my team, all of whom were strangers prior to uniting as one to accomplish our goal.
In the days leading up to RTK our crew at Saucony’s headquarters assembled gear packs for each participant. Their superlight backpacks included custom apparel, socks, sunglasses, a water bottle, and a limited edition pair of the Kinvara 8. Meanwhile, participants from around the world were packing and gathering their passports, excitedly awaiting the green entry stamp from the Emerald Isle and the beginning of their adventure.
Full disclosure: This was not my first trip to Ireland. I’d been fortunate to visit twice before on vacation, but this journey felt different. I was more excited knowing that this trip would truly show me Ireland through a new lens – and, for that matter – some new shoes.
The teams began arriving Wednesday morning, jet lagged and a little reserved in their new surroundings. As captains, we gathered them up and headed into the city for a day of exploring before the kick-off events that evening.
I put on my tour guide hat and lead my team on a bustling walking tour of Dublin by way of Trinity College, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin Castle, and the Old Jameson Distillery.
From there the entire RTK group met at the Guinness Storehouse for a private tour, ending at the infamous Gravity Bar on the 7th floor and topped off by a complimentary pint. (Spoiler: It really does taste better in Ireland!)
Back at the Citywest Hotel, the Opening Ceremonies commenced. We were introduced to the other teams and captains, and learned more about the 2-day relay course and rules of the road.
DAY 1: RACE DAY
Race day kicked off bright and early as teams boarded their buses to head to the starting line. Any jetlag that remained quickly dissipated as race jitters took over. Teams huddled for last-minute pep talks before lead runners jogged their warm ups around the starting line.
As the gun went off, 10 runners bounded up the hill through a tunnel of cheering teammates for the first leg of the journey, kicking off an action-packed couple of days. From there, buses leap-frogged from stage to stage, exchanging runners along the way.
I’ve never felt so much energy from what was, really, just a 70-person race. No matter where your team ranked throughout the day, there was friendly competition and community to be found. From tagging each other’s buses at runner exchanges, to pounding on the windows as you drove by a runner mid-stage, the energy was electric.
The scenery on the first day took us through some of the most beautiful Irish countryside. The winding roads and rolling hills, which carved through the Wicklow National Forrest, were the perfect backdrop for a run. The roads were lined with stone walls and thatched-roof houses. Sheep grazed on the hillsides as the clouds rolled in, and at some point midday, in true Irish spirit, the sky opened up and the rain came.
Day one wrapped up outside of Loughlin’s Pub in Kilkenny after teams completed 61.7 miles. I remember waiting with my team in the pouring rain as our last runner of the day came through. It didn’t matter what place we were in, we all stood together in the rain, cheering him through the finish line where he was greeted by a team hug and a Guinness.
The night wrapped up with an incredible dinner at the Lyrath Estate Hotel. Team captains shared stories from the day that were everything from inspiring to hysterical. We laughed and talked about our experiences while each team strategized for the next and final race day.
DAY 2: THE FINISH
There was one word of advice the Saucony team gave everyone the night before Day 2: “Don’t look at your weather app.” Of course I did, and to my dismay, the radar showed a beautiful color palette of greens and reds all across western Ireland. That is to say, more rain, and lots of it. But the race went on!
We kicked off the morning with a stop at the iconic Cliffs of Moher. Despite the high winds and rain, we left the cozy warmth of the buses to see the sights and take some requisite selfies.
And then it was on to the start line. Ten runners lined up, once again, to kick off the first stage amidst an absolute downpour. We had traded the countryside for the dramatic coastline as runners powered through the eight remaining stages into Kinvara. For someone as fiercely competitive as me, it was easy to get caught up in chasing the next team, but what I loved about this event was hearing more than once that runners were getting choked up mid-run. It was hard not to looking around, letting the beauty and incredible nature of the experience sink in. I was no exception.
Somewhere in the middle of my five-mile stage I realized I was all alone. I’d lost hope of catching the runner in front of me, and, well, there was no one behind me as my team (at the time) was in last place. It was quiet and the sun began peeking through the clouds.
I started to feel tired. My training leading up to this trip was sub-par and my legs were feeling the effort from the day before. I started this stage much too fast and was feeling rather defeated with 3 miles to go. But then I started thinking about my teammates.
Each of them willingly got on a plane to travel to another country where they didn’t know a single person. Collectively we were injured, tired, and giving it our all. I knew that only three miles ahead they were checking their watches, waiting for me. I knew they were saying things like, “She looked good when we passed her!”, “She’s going faster than she thought she could!”, and “She’s totally got this!”. I knew because that’s what I was saying when it was their turn to run. So I persisted. And seeing their faces as I came through the last 100 meters of my stage was one of the happiest moments I’ve had in running. My team had my back.
And that’s the thing—there was a pretty solid chance our team was going to come in last place, but it didn’t matter. We were each going to give it our all on the roads of Ireland and have a hell of a time doing it!
One of my favorite parts of the entire race was the final kilometer, which each team had to complete together. The clock stopped once the last member crossed the finish line, but at that point nobody cared what the clock read. Team after team came bounding around the final turn, down the hill to the pier, and into Kinvara where the finish line awaited amidst cheering teams and race staff. I felt like a champion coming through with my team, USA flags waving… This was my Olympics.
As I sat in the pub with my team that night we laughed, retelling stories from the past 48 hours, feeling more like a week had gone by than just two days. I looked around the table smiling at this group that started as strangers, became teammates, and ultimately felt like family.
This was a group of runners hailing from Kansas City, to Austria, to Chattanooga and everywhere in between; runners ranging from elite caliber to the casual jogger. It didn’t matter from where or how their lives brought them to Kinvara, this trip meant the same to everyone. It meant coming together as a team to learn about each other, share stories, and support one another on the road. And really, isn’t that what the running community is all about?
So thank you to my teammates for reminding me why I love this sport so much. You cheered me on when I ran well, you motivated me when I was exhausted, and your spirits carried us all as we completed the fifth annual Saucony Race to Kinvara. Slainte!
By: Erin Cooper