If you asked me to describe Reach the Beach, I would describe it as part road rally, part slumber party, part foot race, and part road trip. Throw in some masochistic behavior, amazing team building, mutual support, and personal challenge. That comes close to describing what is a 207.2 mile relay race run in 36 segments by 12 runners. Run, sleep (?), repeat.
In short, the most fun I’ve ever had running. I had the privilege of being invited to run with the team from Google, as they had a couple open spots on their roster of 12, and I had run Boston with one of their team. A random Facebook post was all it took, and I was signed up and ready to go. My training involved a lot of 30 mile weeks, many with two-a-days on the weekend (run in the morning, wait 9 or 10 hours, and run again). Oh, and a lot of hills. The Reach the Beach course loses 14,000 feet in elevation from start to finish, but it’s not all downhill. 11,000 feet in elevation gain is thrown in for good measure.
The night before the relay, we met for dinner and decided which legs we were going to run. Here’s how it works. You pick what order you will run in, and then you have to keep that order for the rest of the race. With 12 runners, that means if you run leg 1, you wait until everyone has had a turn, then you run leg 13 (and then leg 25). I had this idea that it would be cool to run from darkness through the sunrise, so I did some math. Based on my teammates’ projected performance, I decided the 11th runner had the best chance of running through the sunrise, and requested that part of the rotation. No one else asked for that as their first choice, so that’s what I pulled.
Friday morning I was up before 5:00 to finish packing. A set of comfy clothes; track pants, both a long sleeve and short sleeve shirt, plus a hoodie comfortable enough to sleep in. Three complete sets of running clothes. Various toiletries, some spending cash for food along the way, a big towel, my trusty Garmin, and a few other things all made it into the bag. Actually, I over-packed. My packing list had over 50 items, not including my running clothes. On the way up, Claire offered this observation:
I drove up to Durham where I connected with teammates Mike and Becca. Mike’s wife Carol drove us over to Concord, where we connected with part of our team and headed on up to Cannon Mountain. The other half the team arrived shortly thereafter, and at 10:50 AM, Matt started us off.
An interesting note about start times. When you register for Reach the Beach, you give your projected pace, and the race organizers use that to determine when your team will start. Every 15 minutes another group of teams takes off. Essentially, the slowest teams start first, and the fastest teams start last. It makes for an interesting race experience. When you get started, the roads are not very crowded, and the transition areas (where you switch from runner to runner) are not tightly packed. As the race wears on, the faster teams start to overtake the teams in front of them, and it gets much more crowded. The net effect is that while we start running at all different times, the finish times are much more tightly packed.
Anyhow, back to team Google. The team is divided into two vans at this point. Van 1 is on the course running legs 1 through 6, and van 2… well, we went and ate breakfast. Since I knew I wouldn’t be hitting the road for at least seven hours, I ordered French toast, ham, eggs, and coffee. Delicious. Then we wandered over to another shop where I enjoyed an Italian soda and a chocolate chip cookie. Yum!
Several hours later, we were up. Jan (sounds like “Yahn” – rhymes with John) was the first runner from our van, followed by Craig (Jan and Craig shown here), then Becca, Bob, and then at 7:19 PM, Bob came cruising in to transition area 10, and it was my turn to run. I had a 4.69 mile run, which I completed in 39:37, or 8:27 per mile. Knowing I was going to be out for less than five miles, I pushed myself, and finished over 30 seconds faster than my projected pace!
It came at a cost. Roughly a mile in, I got side stitches, which you rarely see me discuss in this blog. Why? I just don’t get side stitches. I remember thinking, “huh… someone else lost their side stitches, and they ended up with me. How did that happen?” I tried to ignore them, ran hard, and by 8:00 PM I passed the baton to Dounia. It was a huge relief to finish that leg and let her take over!
When she finished her leg around 8:40 PM, we were off duty for about 4.5 hours. That was at transition area 12, which was at a middle school where the 8th grade class (and many of its parents) were hosting a fundraiser in the form of sandwiches and pasta for sale. I bought a couple meatballs and some pasta, grabbed a Gatorade, and ate one of the best meals I’ve ever had in my life.
From there, the group drove out to transition area 18. We got there around 10:00 PM and grabbed a quick nap. And I mean quick. I spread some plastic on the ground, rolled out a sleeping bag, and tried to fall asleep. I think I got about 2.5 hours. Lying on hard packed soil and grass in between rows of parked vans, with vapor lights shining at volunteers telling vans where to go to park is not very restful… but I did get some sleep. At 1:05 AM, Bob shook me awake. It was time to pack up, because van 1 was coming in hot. It was time to go get Jan ready for his next run.
The next few hours were a blur for me. I fell asleep a couple times in the van, but was up and out at most stops helping my teammates at the transition. Then it was 5:20 AM, and time to head for my longest leg. It was cold, 39 degrees when I took off. I accidentally wore my glasses, and within a quarter mile, I was regretting it. I immediately started watching for my van to pass by. If I could flag them down, they could take my spectacles from me. After two miles, I pulled my phone out of my running belt and, using the magic of Siri, sent the team the following text:
Yeah, that helped. I followed it up:
Keep in mind, we’re out in the middle of nowhere. Bad cell phone reception. Text messages that go through anywhere from 1 to 15 minutes after you press send. Still, ten minutes later, I got a text back and the team was on its way to me. They grabbed my glasses, and I misread my watch in the dark and told them that I was running a 9:45/mile pace. At that point, I settled in for the grind. I tried to find my rhythm, but it was hard. I started to get side stitches almost immediately after my team grabbed my glasses. Again, I very rarely get side stitches, but for the second leg in a row I was in pain. I dialed the pace a little slower, and tried to keep my breathing at a 2/3 rhythm. For me, that’s inhaling for two steps, exhaling for three. If you can maintain that rhythm, your diaphragm is starting its work on the alternate foot with every other breath, and that’s supposed to help. It did, but then I was running too slow, so I struggled for a while. Sometimes I was breathing 2/2, 2/2, 2/3… 2/2, 2/2, 2/3… every now and then an odd count to flip the muscle impacts. It wasn’t perfect, but I ran faster, and I settled into my groove. I’m learning how to welcome pain while I run, and I decided to treat this as a learning experience. How to run in pitch black conditions, just above freezing, wearing shorts, with horrible side cramps, and not ease up on your pace for nearly nine miles. Not something I know how to do… can I figure it out?
And after a while, the sky started to lighten… and I got lost in the beauty of central New Hampshire, mixed with the sound of my breathing and my feet slapping the pavement. Then I saw that just up the hill, the sun was touching the road, and I could see my fellow travelers running out of night’s shadow into a glorious new day. I crested the hill, and raced into the sun. It was amazing.
This photo does it zero justice, but it’s what I have, so it will have to do. The feel of the sun on my face Saturday morning is a memory I will cherish for a long time. It turned out that I finished the leg at a 9:01 pace, just one second shy of what I registered at. Pretty good considering how much my side hurt. As you can see, I was in a pretty good mood at the end of that leg! Fortunately, Dounia was ready at the transition area, even though I got there early. 45 minutes later, we picked her up and headed out for breakfast again. We ate at Me & Ollie’s, which serves lunch all day, and I had a turkey avocado sandwich along with a mocha to perk me up.
From there, we waited. This was a tough wait, because I had already bagged 13.5 miles, and had really run them hard. I had enough down-hill running on my legs that my quads were feeling beat up. Fortunately, the runners of van 1 were fast, and we were back on the course in due time. I stretched a lot, and was worried about how I would fare My last leg came at 2:17 PM. I psyched myself into feeling strong (with a little help from my J Walking Designs running kilt), and my 3.4 mile run lasted exactly 29 minutes. That was good for an 8:32/mile pace, and felt really good about that. Also, Claire and Vivienne were there at transition area 35 when I pulled in, and it was great getting to see family before heading off to the finish line.
Our team finished in 28 hours, 34 minutes, and 24 seconds. That was good enough to put us in the top 25% of all teams, which means something to some people, but not so much to me. What mattered to me was I got to participate in a race I had wanted to run since before I was a runner, I met some great people, and I am proud of my effort. I heard about Reach the Beach the first year we lived in New Hampshire, and always thought that it sounded like a tremendous amount of fun. Now that I’ve done it, I can attest that it is. I can’t wait to try it again!
Below are more photos from that day. Most of the bad pics are ones I took. Eric brought a nice camera, and he took the good shots, with a couple more from Becca’s mom thrown in for good measure. To everyone I ran with, what an adventure. Thanks so much for letting me run with you! Couldn’t have asked for a nicer bunch of runners to hang out with for a couple of days.