Sunday, September 14, 2008

We Reached the Beach!


This past Friday and Saturday have leaped to the top of my growing list of memorable running moments. Along with my first long run, some notable PRs, my first marathon, my only race victory and a couple of beautiful runs in different places, taking part in the 10th Annual Reach the Beach Relay, from Cannon Mountain to Hampton Beach, NH was something I will always treasure. Over 350 teams from all over the country (and some international folks) ran the 209-mile route, which is broken up into 36 legs. The intensity of this undertaking ranges from 2-person (yes, two, not a misprint) ultra teams, with each member running 100+ miles, to 12-person teams (like mine), where each member runs between 14 and 22 miles over three different stretches. Here's a report of my and my team's experience. Be forewarned that - much like this blog itself - it may be boring to everyone but me.


I joined a team which was formed 5 years ago, with two original members still remaining. The core of the team if from my local running club, but we had people from out of state, too. Our paces ranged from 6:00 to 9:00/mile, but there was not a single sense of anyone being "better" than anyone else. I fell somewhere in the middle, estimating that I'd run a 7:30/mile pace over my 21+ total miles. We had started out with 6 men and 6 women, but as a woman dropped out in the last week before the race with a stress fracture, we picked up a very fast guy from our running club. By not having at least 6 women, we had to drop out of the co-ed division, but since we weren't expecting to win any awards, it didn't really matter.

The chemistry of the team was very good, with several lawyers (as one I can say this was a drawback), a lobbyist, political policy-maker, a couple of systems analysts, a guidance counselor, crime lab supervisor and other decent, hard-working folks.

The entire team met at a local park-n-ride for the hour-plus trek to the start at Cannon Mountain, splitting up into our two standard-issue, white 20-foot 8-passenger vans. As runner #2 (of 12), I was in Van #1. Those of us who were newbies were jumping with excitement, just trying to imagine how it would all work out.


Upon arrival, I understood why we'd emblazoned our team van with our name and some other decorations, since at least two-thirds of the vehicles in the parking area were nearly identical white vans. The weather upon arrival in the mountains was lousy, high 40's and rain. It sapped my energy and made it unpleasant to stand around. I bought a fleece hat just for standing around in, and it was $15 very well-spent. We posed for a pre-race team photo, and the photographer looked at us and said, "Not too shabby." There was a discussion as to which word he emphasized and how exactly he meant it, but it became one of our team's little jokes.

After waiting around, drinking some coffee, using the restroom twice and changing into my running clothes under my heavier outer layers, our first runner and co-captain was off with about 9 other team members at 1:40 p.m.


While there were many unknowns about this race, I really could not wrap myself around how it was all going to work, with 12 runners, 36 legs, 35 transitions, fluids, nutrition, eating, sleeping, bathrooms, navigation, clothing changes, etc., and all of that multiplied by over 350 teams. Of course, our trusty co-captains had it all figured out, and most of the race went seemlessly. We were hurried a couple of times because the other van made up more time than we expected, and we took one or two wrong turns, but we never missed a single one of the transitions. We noted other teams who were not as well-oiled.

The transition areas were schools, churches, public facilities and other places with large parking lots to accommodate van after van after van pulling in to drop off and pick up runners. There was boisterous cheering, consolation over injuries sustained or goal times unmet, lots of bathroom-going and a fair amount of eating. One transition area at a school looked like a storm shelter, with rows of sleeping bags lined up on the cafeteria floor, while a bake sale went on to raise money for the student body. This was the same school where some exuberant teenaged girls high-fived every single person who walked past them. I got one set of hand slaps on the way in; a second on the way out. Their enthusiasm was contagious, especially as I geared up for my midnight run of leg #2. But, I'm getting ahead of myself.


This was supposed to be a pretty straightforward 8.9-mile shot. The good news was that it was cool (around 50 with occasional mist) and I started with a tailwind, buoyed by the adrenaline of being in the race after all the anticipation. Here's what my Garmin recorded for an elevation profile:

It was a steady climb and at about Mile 5, I turned into a headwind. Still, I hit my target pace exactly, though my time was a bit over because the leg was nearly 1/10 of a mile long.

My team provided water at Miles 3 and 6, but my Garmin froze shortly after that Mile 6 aid when I pressed two buttons at once. Though I ran blind, the Garmin fortunately did continue to record the run.

I had been passed by an unbelievably fast guy wearing racing flats who seemed to floating up a hill, but I managed to pass a couple of slower runners, too. I tried to encourage one woman who was struggling to run the rest of an uphill with me, but she just couldn't do it. I pushed it hard at the end, and was able to reel in a member of the Google team in the last 1/4 mile or so, kicking it hard en route to a 7:09 final mile. According to the Garmin, my pace topped out at about 5:15 per mile. I slapped the snap-bracelet which serves as the baton onto ST's hand, caught my breath and stretched, pleased with my first effort. Since the next leg was pretty short, we had to hurry to the next TA.


The energy level in the van was pretty high for a long time, but started to wane into the wee hours, as the exertion and exhaustion combined to sap our good spirits. No one on the team got cranky, just quiet. JM came up with the brilliant idea of a friendly scavenger hunt between the two vans, and that made for loads of fun, especially as we searched for amputees (saw them), mostly naked runners (not sure we really did), a runner vomiting (yup), etc. We saw a wooden Indian at about 4:45 in the morning, the huge carved mascot of one of the schools we passed.

We obviously talked a lot about running, but we also got to know each other better. We shared stories; those of us with kids talked about them; one woman articulated her struggle about whether even to have children. Those of us with kids didn't give her much hope.

There was minimal dozing, a fair amount of snacking, lots of good-natured ribbing and some well-orchestrated clothing changes. My Nathan "Power Shower" wipes (essentially baby wipes for runners) evolved from oddity to useful accessory. After a series of legs, the stench in the van became palpable. It was nice when the weather allowed us to open the windows. We hung white Christmas lights so that we could spot the van in the dark . . . that is until the power adapter died. That was one of the tricks the team had picked over the years.


We went to dinner at a local apres-ski-type restaurant, with what I'd term limited runner-friendly options. The atmosphere was great and the draft beer seemed to be screaming our names, but we all held back. I ate a chicken sandwich, baked potato and salad, and ended up spearheading the drive towards dessert. We had time to kill, and since no one was drinking, that turned out to be the group's indulgence.

An adjoining table had another group of runners, but we were definitely in the minority in the pub section, with locals casting intrigued glances in our direction. The table right next to us kept the whiskeys coming, while plates of buffalo wings and other friend appetizers teasingly went by us. The robust patriarch of the table ordered a very large steak, which he seemed to season with half a full shaker of salt.


As an early-morning runner, I'm no stranger to running in the pitch dark, especially in the winter and when I head out the door a few minutes after 4:00 a.m. Running in a race during the night on an intimidatingly hilly section, though, is new to me. My second leg was about 7.7 miles, with a small climb early, then a big hill at around mile 4 and another even bigger hill at around mile 5.5.

With temperatures warmer than during the afternoon leg, I left the transition area lit up like a Christmas tree: headlamp, reflective vest, and at least 3 blinking red lights. An older male runner set out about 15 seconds ahead of me. He had a distinctively flashing vest, which I could see for most of the run.

I knew that this leg would be harder, and I was psychologically prepared for the hills. What I wasn't prepared for, though, was that I'd be feeling sick from dinner. The brownie sundae was a mistake, and when I saw my team at around mile 3, I


Once our 6th runner had finished her second leg, we took off for one of the co-captain's homes for a couple hours' sleep and a shower. It was about 5:30 am on Saturday morning (later than I'm used to getting up during the week), and I decided to go straight to sleep without a shower, saving that pleasure for after I got up. For a guy who often lies in bed with his mind racing for hours, I think I was asleep before I finished zipping up my sleeping bag.

Despite thinking I'd need to be awoken, my eyes opened at 7:30, and I went straight up to the shower. That was a Top-5 lifetime shower, given the grit and grime which had accumulated on me after those first two runs.


After a replenishing two hours of sleep, we were up, showered, drinking coffee and eating bagels with what we thought was time to spare. When JM called the other van to check in, it turned out that they had banked even more time, and we ended up cutting our arrival at the transition area pretty close. We saw our #12 runner about a mile-and-a-half away, so JM had a few minutes to gear up for a tough 9+-mile leg. He had both some steep uphills and downhills on his leg. I confirmed my adequate hydration levels by using a porta-potty (which became less and less . . . er . . . "fresh" as the event wore on) for the umpteenth time.


The race directors in their hyper-organization provide maps of all 36 legs. They include distances for each one, and elevation profiles for those with significant hills. Thus, one might imagine my surprise when I learned that the 4.2 -mile final leg which included no elevation profile had two major climbs. So much for banging out sub-7:00 miles in order to get my overall average pace down to under 7:30.

As the temperature rose, I set off from the Deerfield, NH fairgrounds (incidentally the only spot with a grumpy race volunteer, who yelled at everyone pulling in or out of the fairground parking area). the leg started straight up, with me trying to keep a tall, shirtless runner in my sights. He had about a 20-second head start, so I'd lose him when the hill rose or the road curved. I was hot and tired as I neared the mid-way point, grinding out a 7:45-ish pace as best I could. My team was waiting with water at mile 2. I passed a nice woman (see photo at right), stopped to drink water, and passed her again a few moments later. She was encouraging as I passed her, just as I was earlier when a couple of folks passed me. Oddly, like during my prior two legs, I saw very few people, so had little chance to pass anyone, which makes things so much more interesting during such a long race.

After my last leg, I had the pleasure of meeting one of my RWOL forumates, "dogpound" who unfortunately twisted her ankle badly during her nighttime leg.


Having not yet learned the lesson that shooting one's mouth off can get one into trouble, I'd told the teammate to whom I'd be handing off after my final leg that if I felt good, I'd run a part of her leg with her. She faced a hilly 8.6-miler, and I thought my leg would be a flat 4+-miler which I could bang out and finish feeling good. Turned out I was wrong, but my teammate seemed very much to be counting on me to make good on my offer.

While I was spent when I finished my third leg, I recovered pretty quickly and when the van stopped to give ST some water, I asked her if she still wanted company for a mile. She said yes, so I ran with her, giving her some encouragement up the hills and trying to shield her from the wind which had picked up a bit. I knew that my fellow van-members would think about driving ahead and making me run more, just to be "funny", but I also knew that they wouldn't go too far ahead, since ST would need water in light of the climbing temperatures.



1 comment:

Billy said...

This is awesome! I've always wanted to do one of these relays...glad I can live vicariously through you.

Great write up!