Reach the Beach 2010: Better on the Way Down

Better on the Way Down © 2010 Pieter van Hattem

Last weekend I had the best running experience of my life. It was the most fun thing I’ve done since spending 3 months in the Patagonia backcountry over 10 years ago. The relationship, I think, is committing your whole self to a physical quest, testing your limits and achieving both an individual and team goal. Or another way to look at it, simultaneously putting yourself in the most pain you can bear while giving yourself a higher high than any drug can do.

Reach the Beach is a 209-mile relay race beginning in Franconia Notch and ending at Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. Once the team starts, you don’t stop until you get to the end. The running is only part of the challenge with total mileage per person up to 25 miles over 3 or 4 legs. Figuring out the logistics and then executing the plan on less sleep than you need brings added twists.

Our team was called Better on the Way Down and led by our Captain Staci and First Mate Pieter. Coach Doug was injured but came along anyway and provided greatly appreciated ballast for the team doing the driving for Van 1, keeping track of our times, and providing an expert eye and support as we ran. Other runners (in the order we ran and pictured above from Left to Right starting on the top row after Doug and Pieter) were Mike, Tom, Krishna, Janine, Pegleg (me), Kathryn, Mike, Cristine, and Chris. Pieter ran first and Staci was the anchor.

The course is 36 legs. Ideally a team would have 12 runners but due to injuries we ran with 11. This meant Pieter, Mike and Tom would run the first 3 legs of the race then also run the 34th, 35th, and 36th legs at the finish, each running 4 legs total.

Teams follow their runners in vans meaning New Hampshire is taken over with big, white passenger vans for the whole weekend. With over 400 teams and most teams having 2 vans, that’s a lot of vans.

Our expedition began on Thursday morning. Those of us in Brooklyn met one of our vans at Grand Army Plaza promptly at 10 am. There were ten of us and all our gear and supplies filling the vehicle to near capacity. With the driving skills of our leaders we made great time and got to our motel in New Hampshire just when our itinerary said we should.

Minimalist Subway Art, Van 1

On Thursday evening we went up to Cannon Mountain to register the team, get our packet, go through orientation and eat a rather unspectacular dinner not designed for runners about to embark on a 200 mile trek. We headed back to our motel with enough time for me to take advantage of the pool and Jacuzzi, of course my first concern when staying anywhere.

To cement his reputation as awesome, Pieter woke up first on Friday morning to go to Dunkin Donuts for 2 boxes of Joe. The team slowly gathered – of course I was last – in the lobby to wake up, make a plan, and decorate our vans (appropriately subway-themed). Our last 2 runners met us right on time at 8am, Tom and Mike coming up from Boston in the other big, white van.

The first teams start running around 9 am with waves of about 12 teams leaving every 20 minutes. Our start time was 1:40 pm so we had time to go eat a big breakfast before making our way back up to Cannon Mountain.

We took our official team photo and Pieter got ready to run. The start is exciting with music and crowds cheering and such. Fortunately the skies cleared by our start, too, having rained most of the night. Pieter took off and we all walked back to the parking lot and loaded into our 2 vans.

Pieter on the Starting Line

Van 1 held the runners of the first 6 legs and was driven by Coach Doug. As the 6th runner, I was the last to run in Van 1. Van 2 took off for the 6th transition area to rest and wait for us to get there.

Being in the van that was on the road running, we’d provide support to the teammate on the course. We would find a spot midway through the leg, maybe at the top of a big hill, and wait for our runner to pass by offering water and Gatorade and other support they might need.

Mike was on deck so right from the start he had to get ready for his run. Tom was “in the hole” so he’d need to get himself into his running gear and mentally prepare for his race. This was the hardest part for me. All the lead up, now people are out running – racing – and I’m still waiting for my chance to get out on the course.

As each runner finished their leg, they’d pass on the baton (a reflective slap bracelet) and cool down as they walked to the van. We’d need to load back up pretty quickly to meet the runner now on the course during their leg. Each person in the van would be at a different point of preparation – some people hot and sweaty, loaded with endorphins and muscles stiffening with others trying to loosen up before their run.

I finally got my chance to run 3 and a half hours after our race began. The first steps felt like floating. I wasn’t sure if I even remembered how to run and I thought I was going to trip over. (Read the narrative of my first run here) I finished at the first “van transition area” where our second van and the other half of our team was waiting.

There began the cycle of running, driving, eating, drinking, resting and maybe even sleeping for the next 24 hours. We’d transition in these small New Hampshire towns where the schools and churches would provide us with food for a donation and a parking lot big enough for the vans to stop, pickup and drop off runners, then move on. Time of day became irrelevant after a certain point, our schedule instead dictated by how fast we were running and how many miles each leg was.

(See the narratives of my 2nd grueling, ecstatic overnight run and my 3rd leg, a final dash to my finish, in the separate posts.)

On 2 occasions our van had an opportunity for a little bit of sleep, at the 12th transition and again at the 24th. The few hours of sleep we got were really helpful, especially to be sure we didn’t get into a car accident – and our van was lucky to have Doug drive the entire time, too. It was great to meet up with Van 2 at each of the bigger transition areas, too, though they would be at a totally different point in the cycle with either everyone just finishing their runs or about to start a 6 hour set.

Our final vehicle transfer area was at a big, new school just after I ran my last leg. For a $5 donation we could take a shower. That was paradise. Better even than my first shower after Patagonia because this one had hot water.

Better on the Way Down toasting Better on the Way Down after Reaching the Beach

After cleaning up, we loaded up Van 1 for the drive to finish at Hampton Beach. Van 1 got to the finish a few hours before team Better on the Way Down finished the race so we went to the beer tent, of course. Van 2 sent us updates on their progress and at just the right moment we chugged our beers and went to the beachfront finish. Tom came barreling onto the sand and we jumped in to join him. He went into an all out sprint to the finish passing another runner who made a wrong turn into the parking lot then shoved me out of the way. It was chaos and pandemonium and hilarious. After 27 hours 35 minutes and 58 seconds, Better on the Way Down REACHED THE BEACH, a 7 minute 55 second average for 209 miles. Not bad, not bad at all.

Afterwards, we drank too much in the beer tent and at the bar across from our hotel then slept soundly for the first time in 2 days. The next morning we woke up and had the biggest brunch in history from eggs benedict to fish tacos to roast beef. The breakfast alone could have made me sick but I also woke up with a cold and have been sick for the last week and haven’t run since. It’s been helpful, though, as it’s taken all week for my right leg (the pegleg) to loosen up and get back to normal. Once I’m healthy, I’ll be ready for the final 6-week push to Marathon!

Reaching the Beach

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