No running required

We’re getting into Relay For Life season, depending on what part of the country you live in.

Here in Bedford County, the Relay will be held May 31 into June 1. In some warmer parts of the country, Relay events are already being held.

Please, PLEASE, note that we need ANYONE, not just registered participants, to attend and support their local Relay events. It’s not too late to start a team, or to find an existing team and join one, and I’d love you to do that – but even if you don’t do that, find out your local Relay event’s schedule and drop by. Spend some money at the concession stands run by the various teams. Try to be there for the luminaria ceremony, a deeply-moving tribute to those who have been touched by cancer.

A lot of people – and three years ago, I was one of them – don’t really understand what Relay is or how it works.

Relay is both an event and a year-round grass-roots fund-raising campaign funneled into that event.

People form and join Relay teams, often based at a particular employer, church, club or school. They don’t have to be connected to an organization, though; for example, if someone in your family or circle of friends is struggling with cancer, or has been lost to cancer, you can just put together a team based on your friends and family.

Most teams do some sort of fund-raising prior to Relay. You can raise funds as a team and/or individually. Your team members sign up through the Relay For Life web site, and once they’re signed up there are tools to help them send fund-raising e-mails (and “thank you” e-mails after the fact) to friends and family. You can also post Facebook or Twitter messages. Donors can give money online and it gets credited to the proper participant and the proper team. Or if someone wants to hand you cash or a check, you can turn it in and make note of it online.

The Relay organizing committee may also have its own community-wide advance fund-raisers, such as the “Hee Haw & Howdy” revue which was held this weekend.

Then, on Relay night, several different things happen.

* The Relay venue is built around some sort of track. Each team must have at least one walker on the track at any given time during the entire Relay. (Different communities have Relay events of different lengths, usually 12, 18 or 24 hours. Bedford County is 18.) Teams may be of any size and can divide up the responsibility of walking any way they wish. No one individual, especially at 18-hour or 24-hour relays, is expected or required to be on site the entire time. But the teams must have someone on the track at all times. This is a walking event, and  it’s not a race. If it’s your turn on the track and you want to run or jog, you can do so, as long as there’s room to do so safely, without running into walkers or people standing in line to get sno-cones.

* Each team has a “camp site” or base of operations, with the team members bringing some sort of small party tent or canopy for this purpose. The camp site serves two functions. It is a hangout for walkers when they aren’t on the track, but it also serves as a concession stand. Teams raise money during the Relay event by selling food, or souvenirs, or operating a bouncy house, or karaoke, or a carnival game, or what have you. The organizers of the Relay may have a theme and ask that the camp sites be decorated to match it. For example, in Bedford County, this year’s theme is “Dreaming In Color,” and each team has the signature color of a particular form of cancer and has been asked to decorate its camp site using that color. Last year, we had a board game theme, and so on.

The concession aspect of the camp sites is one reason why we want members of the general public – not just registered walkers – to attend, at least during “prime time” hours. (We don’t expect the general public to be there at two or three in the morning, although if you want to come and cheer people on, that’s great.)

* There are often special fun activities, geared at increasing public attendance, such as live entertainment, an auction, or what have you. We hold our Relay events at the county fairgrounds, and one of our teams holds a tractor pull to coincide with Relay night, giving the tractor pull audience the chance to wander over and get their concessions from the Relay.

* There are traditional ceremonies and moments observed at every Relay, and these can be tremendously moving for registered participants and the public alike. The Relay begins with a “survivors lap.” Before the team walkers take the track, all of the cancer survivors who are present are asked to take a lap of the track so that we can honor them for their perseverance and celebrate their survival. After the survivor lap comes the caregiver lap, where anyone who has taken care of a cancer patient is honored. Then, at least at our Relay, the teams are introduced one by one, not unlike the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, and march around carrying an identifying sign or banner.

At some time after dark, as I mentioned earlier, comes the luminaria ceremony. The luminary – a candle in a paper bag – has become the symbol of Relay. Donors purchase luminaria, on which are written messages of tribute (“In memory of Carrie Carney”), support (“Keep up the fight, Don”) or what have you. When it’s time for the luminaria ceremony, all of the normal lights are turned off and the track is lit only by the luminaria (and related items, such as torches, LED balloons or sky lanterns, which some Relay events may use). There’s a special recitation or ceremony in honor of cancer victims. Balloons or sky lanterns may be released in tribute.

Another Relay tradition, held at different times depending on a Relay’s schedule, is the “fight back” ceremony, in which participants pledge to make lifestyle changes, support cancer research, and so on.

A Relay, even the 12-hour kind, is always held overnight, for symbolic reasons – it symbolizes the dark night of a cancer patient’s experience, and the procession from darkness into light (hopefully remission, or at least an end to pain).

In practical terms, the wee hours of the morning are often punctuated with fun activities to try to keep walkers’ spirits and energy up. In Bedford County, one such activity is an enormous game of musical chairs, all around the perimeter of the track.

At the end of the Relay, there may be awards given, for the team that raised the most money, or had the best camp site decorations, or the most team spirit or what have you. Our Relay gives each team a pedometer, which is to be worn by whomever is the team’s official on-track walker at any given moment. We give an award for the team that records the most steps on their pedometer. Sometimes, overall fund-raising awards may wait until the fall, because technically the Relay For Life year runs from Sept. 1 to Aug. 31 regardless of when a community’s Relay event is held, and some teams hold fund-raisers even after the Relay event.

If you live here in Bedford County, you can find out more about our event right here. If you’re from elsewhere, follow this link and look up the closest Relay event to your area.

I know that you’ve been touched by cancer. Someone in your family, your church, your circle of friends, or your workplace – and maybe someone from each of those places – has either survives or been lost to cancer. The American Cancer Society helps fund life-saving research, and provides or supports programs like Hope Lodge and Look Good, Feel Better to address the needs of cancer patients. It’s a worthy cause, deserving of your support. And it’s a heck of a lot of fun, as you can see here: