In the middle of Tim Cantrell's first 5K, he had one thought.
When will this ever end?
A former track athlete, distance wasn't his thing. But he persevered, and now he can say he's a distance running champion, along with about a dozen teammates, collectively known as Northern Kentucky's Most Interesting Men.
On Sept. 16, Northern Kentucky's Most Interesting Men, a running team based in Union, Kentucky, won the Ragnar D.C. Relay with a time of 25 hours and 23 minutes.
That's right -- 25 hours of running.
The relay is a 207-mile race that starts at Rocky Gap State Park in Cumberland, Maryland, and ends in Washington, D.C. It's divided into 36 segments, which are completed by teams of six or 12 runners, and more than 300 teams participated in the race.
Northern Kentucky's Most Interesting Men won it all.
"Taking the top spot was not really in my realm of thinking," said Cantrell, a 46-year-old who lives in Florence and works in marketing. "I and others on the team had been battling some nagging injuries leading up to this event. It was nothing short of a miracle that we not only showed up at the starting line healthy, but to go on and win it -- I was in shock."
Like Cantrell, the athletes on the squad have some type of running background. But what could motivate a person to keep running for such a long distance?
Each athlete seems to have a different inner motivation. For seven years, the team has competed in 200-mile relays across the country, starting in Kentucky with a race that follows the famed Bourbon Trail. They've fared well in some of these past races -- but they'd never taken the top prize.
"(It's) the theme of challenging myself with something new," Cantrell said, and several others echoed the sentiment.
Cantrell enjoyed the idea of seeing how far he could push himself in terms of distance and endurance. Bob Jones, a 53-year-old regional bank manager from Union, had run track since the sixth grade, but he switched to the road for stress relief. Brian Jordan, 52, works at Toyota in Erlanger, lives in Union and started running on a lark -- a co-worker needed someone to take on the first leg of a relay team for The Flying Pig. Jeff Miller, a 54-year-old CEO from Walton, said he was tired of smoking and being overweight, so he replaced cigarettes and food with running.
"We have placed well in our division in previous races, and even got second place in 2013 at the Ragnar Tennessee relay from Chattanooga to Nashville, but since we get older every year, I never thought we would be the outright winner of any relay," Miller said. "I was quite surprised."
But the road to a championship actually began in a church parking lot.
"The roots of our team center around the Richwood Presbyterian Church in Walton, Kentucky, or more specifically, the parking lot for that church," Miller said. "I started running from that location with a friend. Around the same time, two other members of our group used that parking lot as the starting point for their runs."
Years passed, and each of the pairs added more members, until it became awkward when the two groups would set up on opposite ends of the parking lot. That's when they decided to merge, and the creatively named Saturday Morning Running Club was born. They all trained for one thing or another, from marathons to Iron Man competitions.
Northern Kentucky's Most Interesting Men is a subset of that Saturday Morning Running Club. The relay team's name is a take on the Dos Equis beer advertising campaign with the Most Interesting Man in the World.
They used his catchphrase, "I don't always drink beer, but when I do, I prefer Dos Equis," as inspiration for the back of their race shirts, which read, "We don't always run 200 miles, but when we do, it's in less than 24 hours."
"We also co-opted the ad campaign's convention of making outlandish statements about our prowess," Miller said. "Whereas the most interesting man in the world ‘won the lifetime achievement award, twice,' we paint the following on our race vans: ‘Only our shoes get blisters.' "
There's more to the race than just running, though. Team members plan out routes, match up runners' strengths, and assign which athletes should participate in which legs. There's a science to it all, the team says.
"To win, you've got to finish the race," Brian Jordan said. "And with over 200 miles through the Appalachian Mountains to downtown D.C., with temperatures fluctuating from the 50s to the mid-90s over 24 hours, a team has to deal with a lot of adversity. And sometimes the team with vastly more life experience deals with that adversity most effectively, and wins the race. Never thought it would happen and it still feels great!"
Miller is excited about the future of the team, too.
"The future of our group is bright," Miller said. "I'm particularly excited about next year, as our youngest member turns 40 this year, so we can compete in relays as a Masters Team. So, even if we slow down a little bit, we still have a good chance to place highly among other such teams. Our process for deciding next year's race will begin very soon. While we don't know where we will be next year, we can be assured that we will still be very interesting."
Another first-place finish would surprise no one on the team.
"No matter how tough the training or race conditions -- this group finds a way to persevere to the end," Cantrell said.
"Toughest bunch I've ever known."