Editor’s note: I wrote this article for the Patriot Magazine following my first Reach the Beach Relay in 2010. The 2011 RTB starts today (9-16-11) and is now my third RTB (I ran the 2011 Spring RTB in Mass.). I highly recommend this race to all runners. Enjoy!
The moment it ended, I wished it hadn’t. Even though I had run 21 miles of hilly New Hampshire roads, been crammed in a van with five other sweaty runners and barely slept in 24 hours, I wished the Reach the Beach Relay could go on longer.
The distance relay is the longest in the country, and I participated in it for the first time Sept. 17 and 18, 2010. As part of a 12-person team, I ran 21 of the 209 miles of the race that starts in Franconia Notch, NH, and winds its way through the state to Hampton Beach.
My wife, Julia, and I are avid long-distance runners with 12 half and full marathons between us. We’re always seeking new distances and events to try. So, when a friend of ours from the local Fellowship of Christian Athletes organization approached us to run on his team, we quickly paid the $95 entry fee.
Our 2010 running season was lackluster compared to a usual season, with my activation and some health problems with my wife, we ran two races, compared to seven or eight in a good year. That said, we went into the RTB with apprehension. The feeling abated at the team meeting, when I realized no one was out for blood. Everyone sat in the late afternoon sunlight laughing and joking about how slow we’d be.
The morning of the race we met up with the rest of our team in Hooksett, NH, before heading north to the White Mountains.
The weather was cool and wet when we arrived at noon. The relay has a staggered start at the Cannon Mountain ski area, with the slowest teams starting at 7:30 a.m. and the fastest teams starting at 4 p.m. As our 2 p.m. go-time approached, my team rallied by our vans and Don Veilleux, the team captain, read a passage from the Bible on running a race and said a prayer for safety. Jason St. Jean, our first runner, took his place on the starting line with the other runners.
The race started. Runners blew past. Teammates cheered.
The relay is broken into 36 legs. Each runner is assigned a position, one through 12, and the team goes through the rotation until all legs are complete. Teams are split into two vans to give runners a chance to rest when they aren’t on deck. I was in position two, which meant once things got started I had to be waiting at the first transition area in about an hour. So, after cheering Jason, we drove to T.A. 1 where he passed the fluorescent-yellow slap bracelet-baton to me.
With no mile markers along the course, I could only guess at how close I was to unwrapping the slap bracelet from my wrist and handing it off to Julia. The winding, hilly road prevented me from seeing too far ahead, but as I rounded the last bend and saw Julia standing in the T.A., I quickened my pace and finished strong. I wished Julia good luck as I handed her the baton.
“It comes so quick you hardly have time to be nervous; you just go,” said Julia about the hand-off. “That first time it was new, so it was really exciting.”
As we rode in the van through the White Mountains, the sun trying to burn through the clouds, cast brilliant rays of late summer sun on the changing leaves and up the sides of the steep, rocky notches. As dusk approached, we cheered our last runner, Sharon Fredette, as she came into the T.A. and passed the baton of to our second vehicle. We took a break to eat and relax. Four hours later, we arrived at T.A. 25, donned our night gear and started again.
The night run was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever witnessed. It is pitch black, the only cars on the road are the colorfully-decorated team vehicles, and all you see up and down the road is a row f headlamps and reflectors bobbing through the dark. The sky had cleared by the time the night running started and the scenery was stunning, with the half-moon shining brightly across the mountainous landscape.
By comparison, running was much uglier. After running hard, then sitting in a van for five hours my calf muscles felt like they were on fire. In addition, the hills in this portion seemed to grow longer and steeper. At one point in my night run, my support vehicle passed me and I just watched as it climbed the hill and disappeared into the trees, still climbing. With 610 feet of elevation gain, I was happy to complete that 7.79 mile
leg, even though I ran it slower than my first leg. After handing the baton-bracelet off to Julia, I had to lay on the grass and laugh at how crazy the whole endeavor suddenly seemed.
After going through our second rotation, I drove my half of the team to Bear Brook State Park where we parked and slept for a few hours wherever we could find space in the van. I slept two hours before getting up at 7 a.m. to prepare for the final rotation.
As we waited for our turn, Jason’s phone rang. There was a problem. Don, the number 12 runner, had a groin injury and wasn’t sure if he’d be able to run leg 24. In RTB, if a runner drops out, then the rotation gets bumped up one runner, which meant Jason would have to run.
“If he can at least run half of his leg, I can pick up the last three miles and then do my leg,” said Jason.
A text message came: “Don’s started his leg. Will keep you posted.” Our van stood ready to go if that message came. It never did and soon we were all cheering as Don rounded the corner and came into the T.A.
“It took about a mile for the pain to go away,” Don said with his characteristic smile. “Once it did, I felt pretty good. I’ve got this duct tape wrapped pretty tight, though,” he added, turning down the top of his shorts to illustrate his point.
The second half of our team arrived at the state park just before 9 a.m. and Jason was off again, running through the cool, sunny September morning. The climbs through this portion were long, steep and gradual, and our runner needed us to get him water several times as the temperature rose. A traffic jam near my T.A. made me get out of the van and race past the line of support vehicles to be in time for the hand-off.
While this five-mile leg was the shortest of my three runs, it wasn’t easy. The climbs continuedto come, with 552-feet of elevation gain, and 200 of them in the last half-mile. As I passed the baton off to my wife, I knew my part of the race was done, but I hadn’t quite realized how great a sense of camaraderie I had experienced with her and my fellow athletes and how much I would miss it once we parted ways.
Later that day, we met the second half of our team at Hampton Beach for the final leg of the relay. Don finished strong, despite his duct-taped groin injury. We enjoyed a post-race supper together there on the beach 26 hours, 45 minutes and 55 seconds after starting. Thousands of other racers who had also just completed the relay surrounded us. We later learned we finished 58th out of 429 teams and the winning team finished in less than 20 hours.
As we prepared to leave the beach, Don asked “How about next year?”
Julia and I looked at each other. We already knew the answer.