Monday, September 21, 2009

A Running Orgy - RTB 2009 RR

That's the best way I have found to describe the festival of running which is the Reach the Beach Relay, unless you go with the overused "The most fun you can have with your [running] clothes on". 420 teams of up to 12 runners covering 209 miles from Cannon Mountain to Hampton Beach, New Hampshire in anywhere from 20 to more than 30 hours. This was my second year as part of "Long Time, No Sea" (I take no credit - nor blame - for the name), a co-ed team consisting mostly of members of my local running club and some members of our extended running circle. While getting my BQ this year is indubitably 2009 Running Highlight #1 (not that I'll make an ESPN end-of-year montage or anything, but you get the drift), RTB 2009 was a close second.

I'll try here to do what I do not normally do, and spare my faithful reader the endless prologue and cut to the Race Report.


Having missed the organizational team meeting, I asked merely for any runner position totaling 20+ miles, to be run in three legs. Consequently, I was given the first position, and thus assigned to run an 8-mile leg (#1), a 3.9-mile leg (#13) and a 9.4+-mile leg (#25). The race involves a staggered start, with the expected slowest teams starting early Friday morning, and the fastest teams starting late Friday afternoon. We started at 2:00 p.m., rather late for a team coming off of a top-third finish in 2008, and who lost two of its fastest runners.

LEG #1 - 8.2 Miles from Cannon Mountain to Beaver Brook Wayside Rest Area

Having stood around in the cold rain, I decided I needed a warm-up mile, so I took an easy jog around Cannon Mountain and previewed the start of the course, a screaming downhill on a loose dirt and rock trail. Add the rain into the mix, and you could almost imagine the oddsmakers figuring out the probabilities of who would fall. About 15 runners lined up, and with the announcers proclamation, we were off. I felt my legs scrambling beneath me on the steep descent, as a couple of guys slingshotted ahead. I tried to find a rhythm until I saw that I was running a low 6-minute pace, unsustainable for me over 8 miles, even with a generous elevation drop. I reigned myself in, and ran the first mile in about 6:30.

At this point, the wind and rain would come and go, and the second mile had a killer hill. I was just on the wrong side of 7 minutes, but kept telling myself that there was a whole heck of a lot of running left.

On the right is a pic of me during Leg #1 courtesy of one of my teammates:

Around Mile 3, I saw my team (the non-running members serve as crew and leap-frog the runner along the route), drank some water and ditched my gloves. As soon as I did, the rain picked up and the temperature seemed to drop 10 degrees, feeling like it was in the 40's at this. I reminded myself about the similarities to Sugarloaf (even the scenery was comparable), and how well that turned out for me.

The miles ticked by, and I talked to a guy running with a team of kayakers. He was moving pretty well and asked me about the pace. I told him we were running around 6:45-6:50, and he said it was too slow. He took off ahead.

As we passed the 6-mile mark, I realized I might have been flirting with my 10K PR. I didn't confirm that, but it was a good feeling. Kayak-Guy and I were still close, and somewhere around Mile 7+, he stopped to tie his shoe. I caught him, we chatted and we decided to make a move on the guy in the red shirt ahead of us. Kayak-Guy was fading, and I tried to push it, but the cruelty of the leg was that the last mile climbs, making it tough to pick up the pace. So, while I left Kayak-Guy behind, I only closed about half the distance to Mr. Redshirt.

Still, I was very happy with the run: 8.2 miles in 55:16, a 6:45 average pace.

Leg #2 - Brett School to Community School

After completing Legs 1-6, we passed off to runners 7-12, a.k.a., Van 2. That gave us time to eat and re-group for our series of nighttime runs. Having learned from last year's dining errors, I went with simple food, eating a Caesar salad with grilled tuna and sweet potato fries. I skipped dessert (no brownie sundae for me this year) and drank two iced teas, along with some water. We finished dinner and headed for the next transition area, which looked all-too-familiar to me, since I believed I had taken the baton there in 2008, when I was in the #2 Runner position. I mentioned it casually, but did not insist that I was sure that we were ahead by one transition area. Sure enough,a s we waited and waited for Runner #12 to show up, we got the dreaded call from the other half of our team, wondering where the eff we were. We drove the 4 miles back to the last area, and my teammates all but pushed me out of a moving van to get me going. I heard a Van 2 member call out, "You guys officially suck!" I took off way too fast into the night' dark chill. Around a half-mile in, I realized that I was running about 6:20 pace, and this leg had some decent climbs. I passed a few people, tried to say something encouraging, and motored on to the next transition area, making up a little bit of time from my projected 7:00 pace.

Total: 3.93 miles in 26:56 for a 6:51 average pace

Leg #3 - Bear Brook Park to the Deerfield Fairgrounds

This was not only the longest of my legs, but it was also the longest of the whole relay, slated to be around 9.4 miles. The distance didn't worry me (much), but the elevation profiled was daunting, with big hills at miles 1 and 3 and what looked like a killer climb in Mile 5. After that, I knew it was downhill most of the way to the handoff at the Fairgrounds.

Several runners started as I waited for my teammate to arrive, including a hip-looking "dude" who took off in the wrong direction. He was wearing oversized 80's-style sunglasses, and had the hair to go with it. After what seemed like a long wait, I took the snap bracelet from B at the park and took off, consciously trying to pace more slowly than I had during my first two legs.

I took the first mile pretty smoothly, enjoyed the downhill in Mile 2, and saw my team as I crested the hill at the end of Mile 3. I took a Roctane gel and girded myself for the next couple of miles.

Mile 4 was mostly uneventful, though I did pass Wrong Way Guy. He told me his quads were hurting, especially on the downhills. I suggested that he shorten his stride, and I wished him luck. When I bumped into him a few transition areas later, he told me that he'd done that and that it helped a lot.

Then came Mile 5. I had been moving pretty well until that point, averaging around 7:20/mile. That mile took me over 8:20, and the last stretch of the last steep hill climb bordered on power-walking, but once I crested it, I got the spring back in my step. I passed couple more people, saw my team again at Mile 6 (where I yelled, "I love running", probably much too loudly) and then pushed the pace as much as my legs would allow past horse farms and stately rural homes.

With about 1.25 miles left, I came up on a muscly guy who seemed to be struggling. I ran next to him and we chatted. He was from Boston, and he was at his limit. I told him it would be far more satisfying if we could run it in together. He seemed agreeable, and I tried to psyche him up. When I asked him if he was ready to "do this", he said yes. When I said we had less than a mile to go, he seemed happy. When I said, "Let's pick it up now!", he said "Okay". But his pace didn't change. He had nothing left in the tank, a feeling I know all-too-well. So, I left him behind and picked up the pace.

When my watch told me that I'd passed the 9-mile mark, I knew I was close, and that my RTB 2009 experience was coming to an end. I gave it what I had left, and I ran the last 0.4 miles at 6:48 pace, finishing at low-5:00 pace, my arms pumping and my head pointed straight ahead.

As I reached the hand-off area, I raised my hands as if I'd just finished a marathon (and placed well - lol). It was great - and a bit sad - to be done. I received a nice complement from one of the teams we'd been passing since the night before, with two vans decked out with lighted gnomes on top. "The gnomes say you run well", one of the guys told me. High praise indeed.

Total: 9.36 miles in 1:09:25 for a 7:25 average pace, & 2200+ feet of elevation gain

One More Leg - Keeping J Company

With marathon training in mind, and feeling surprisingly functional after 21.5 miles at half-marathon pace (or at least effort), I offered to pace one of my teammates during her final 5.5-mile leg. She's a newer runner, and seemed tired and a bit intimidated by this final leg. We took off from a small local arts college, and within a half-mile someone yelled to her, "You can take him!" We laughed and chatted as the hills came and went. The wind picked up, and I had her tuck behind me. She was running very well, until somewhere in Mile 4 when she stopped chatting and started digging deep.

I kept talking, but asked her if I should shut up. She said I should keep talking, so I did. We were passed by a tiny Asian woman moving gracefully along. I said that she should be handicapped for having no body fat. J thought the woman resembled her cousin's wife. She learned later that it was her cousin's wife.

J held on strong during the final mile, then the final hill, then less than a half-mile. I did what I could to "pull" her along, and she get an extra boost as the exchange area came into view. I left her with about a quarter-mile to go, peeling off to the right and re-joining my teammates a moment later.


Summary/Conclusion

After our van runners finished, we went in search of food. The consensus was that pizza and beer would be perfect, so we found a divey local restaurant/bar in a strip mall and ordered up. The waitress was a rugged woman, with tattoos all over her arms. She basically barked at us from the moment we sat down, but she seemed to warm up to us. The draft beers and Mediterranean pizza was like manna from heaven. We all agreed that it was the best we'd ever had, though we don't expect to return to that establishment to test whether our opinions would hold true under less extreme circumstances.

Fed and "rehydrated", we made our way to Hampton Beach State Park for the end of the race. We got the ETA from the other van, negotiated awful traffic and got there in time (unlike last year). We walked out onto the beach and soaked our feet in the cold water of the Atlantic Ocean. We waited for B to arrive amidst music and throngs of tired, sweaty, happy people. B came motoring in, and the rest of us valiantly tried to get our creaky, stiffened bodies to match her pace. We all crossed the finish line together, received our medals and posed for team photos.


We finished in the top third overall and in our division. As I checked the results, I chatted with a guy with a heavy accent. Turns out that he's Italian and that he found his team amidst the results exactly one spot above ours, having beaten us by 4 seconds over the course of 209+ miles. We laughed about it, and my thoughts drifted to the blown transition. Still, it's hard to imagine anything more fun than this event.

The things to love about RTB are that it brings together some 4000 or so runners in a way that nothing else does. There are near-elites and people who are not sure they can complete their three legs. But everyone is striving to be healthy, to test their limits, to share their passion with friends (the kind they know and the ones they meet along the way) and the overall feeling is nothing short of joyous. For a guy who blew off Rosh Hashanah in favor of a running event, the thing bordered pretty closely on a spiritual experience.

For as long as I'm fit enough to do it, I hope to be able to enjoy taking part in the Reach the Beach Relay. Perhaps some other athletic experience will rival it, but right now it's tough to imagine.

Thanks for reading. -ESG

1 comment:

Mir said...

Relays are SO FREAKING fun. I do a 100-mile overnighter (with six teammates) each July and it's definitely a highlight of my running year. You really rocked that pace! By the third leg I'm pretty much a zombie. Doing the longest leg last is brutal. Great job! And so awesome that you helped your teammate out on her last leg.