Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Best Bad Idea Ever: Reach the Beach Relay Race Report

Alternative Title: Embrace the Suck

Let's get the obvious out of the way: the idea of running from Cannon Mountain down to Hampton Beach is absolute idiocy.

Now, let's break this down further: over 400 teams. Minimum of 4 runners. Maximum of 12. Hundreds of people, all racing like hell over the hills of New Hampshire. Run through the night. Have a dancing toilet start you off from Attitash. Get through the whole night, and have to slog the final half mile on the beach.

This. Is. Awesome.

I mean, there's no getting around it: you will hurt. A lot. But I've never had more fun during an event than this. At some point during a race, the thought usually crosses through your head:

"Wait. I'm doing this for fun? This SUCKS. I am an idiot! I paid how much to do this? AND I THINK THIS IS FUN? Somebody needs to shoot me."

This does not happen during Reach the Beach. With all of this out of the way, let's hit the running diary of this insanity.

Thursday: Travel Day
Tara, Adam, and I headed down to meet our New Balance sales rep Colin at his place in Hampton Beach. This is where we would dump off Tara's car, for an easy exit from Hampton Beach on Saturday morning. After a quick change into some Team New Balance: Maxing Out Our Minimus gear (including the 1190 reviewed previously here), we headed down to Boston to pick up other members of our team.

After touring about the New Balance Boston campus for a bit, we loaded up the first of our two vans (the remainder of the team would meet us the following day) and headed north. We made a pit-stop at the Hannaford in Concord, NH for groceries. After all, we'd be running all through the night! So what, you may wonder, makes it into the shopping cart for an RTB Relay team?
  • Loaves of bread
  • Peanut butter
  • Nutella
  • Bananas
  • Oranges
  • Gatorade
  • Water
  • Beef jerky
  • Pretzels
  • Fig Newtons
  • More beef jerky
  • Red Bull
  • Swedish Fish
  • Sugar Babies
  • Three more pounds of beef jerky get the idea.

After this stop, we headed up to our hotel for the night, relaxed, and then got ready for the run ahead.

Friday: Let the Running...or Waiting Begin
We woke up, had breakfast, packed up, and headed on over to Cannon Mountain, and started to piece together how the race would wind up working.

This year's version of Reach the Beach was really more like two races combined together. Due to Hurricane Irene, part of the run course was washed away, and so we would unable to run the typical route for the course. The race directors came up with a cool plan: the first six runners would run a looped, six-leg course, that was timed. They then estimated how long that would take, based on your seeding time, and factored in the expected 2 hour drive to get around to Attitash (where the 7th leg started). This was your start time at Attitash.

Well, this worked out extremely well if you were an ultra team (6 or fewer runners): you got a little break from your first legs and the rest of the work involved. For those of us with larger teams, though, it meant a lot of waiting. Our first team started at 12:10 from Cannon; we didn't head out until 6:10 from Attitash.

So we meandered, wandered, and waited. After a delicious "last meal" at Moat Mountain in North Conway, it was time to get ready to roll. I was runner 8 on our team, which meant that I was the 2nd person out of the van each time our van was "on duty" to run. Van 1 would run legs 1-6, Van 2 7-12, Van 1 13-18, Van 2 19-24, etc. So I was running legs 8, 20, and 32.

Now, as I had previously mentioned here on the blog, I had NO IDEA what legs these were; I just knew the total mileage was 22.53 miles. Little did I know what was in store in the middle of the night.

But first, it was time to step out and run.

Friday, 7:10 PM--Leg 8/1st Run
6.60 miles, 49:48 time, 7:33/mi pace
Kills: 1

Preston, our first runner (or Man 7) headed in from his leg. Transition here was at Echo Lake State Park in North Conway. I took off like a shot, heading out at a blistering 5:26/mile pace. Whoops.

This leg was relatively quick and flat along West Side Road (the main local road that avoids the strip of North Conway). I found my rhythm relatively quickly, and just tried to settle in. Nerves were up there, as evidenced by my heart rate (average 174 the whole way!). The legs felt good. I made it through 5K in 22:10.

Then I came to a realization: have more than 19 miles left in this thing. Don't try to put everything you have in now. You'll be DEAD otherwise. So I backed off a little, just trying to be as smooth as possible. It felt great overall. I made the turn onto Rte 16, and then crossed over to hand off to Adam.

Side note: The "Kill" number is a term related to the number of teams you pass during your leg. So I only made one pass on this leg, which makes sense: we were racing numerous teams at this point that were at our expected pace; the race had yet to accordion. (Slow teams start first, fast teams towards the end. We were in the last 50-60 teams starting from Attitash, to give you an idea.)

10:30 PM--Off Duty
Our last runner made his hand off around 10:30 that night, and we were then off. We made the decision to drive down to the Transition for Leg 19 start, so we could catch some sleep.

15 passenger vans are large, but not quite large enough for 6 people to sleep. It's perfect for 5. I drew the short straw, and did not really sleep.

2:15 AM Saturday--The Phone Call
"We'll be there in 20 minutes."

Oh SH!T!!

Poor Preston had to really scramble to put himself together, as he had the distinct displeasure of immediately throwing on the shoes and getting ready to run. I at least had the 20 minute wait, plus Preston's 4 mile leg, to prep myself. I built myself a snack of Nutella, Fig Newtons, and Red Bull (hey, I needed some caffeine) to provide a little bit of fuel.

3:15 AM--Leg 20/Run Leg #2, aka The Run From Hell
9.13 miles, 1:16:59 time, 8:27/mile pace; 868 feet elevation gain; 757 feet elevation loss
Kills: 7

This is where I thought, "Colin, I could kill you. But this is AWESOME." (He was the one who arranged the legs for this thing.)

Leg 20 was the leg that, when people found out that I was person 8 on a 12 person team, told me, "That is going to suck." And no lie, the running was tough. But there's something cool about stepping out at 3 in the morning, and looking up and seeing nothing but the stars and the reflecting red lights of fellow runners, further above you on the course.

I took our reflective band from Preston and just tried to bank some time. I wanted to keep my effort even throughout the course. I didn't care about pace at the time. I figured that I'd run somewhere between 74 and 80 minutes for this leg, and I could not care how I got there.

I tore out of transition, and started with a half-mile downhill. Well, OK, I guess this is my "warm-up" before the hill. And then it begins: a wall uphill to head across Rte 106, and then continuing on forward through Belmont and Gilmanton.

It is 6 miles of relentless climbing, gaining all of that nearly 900 feet of elevation. It typically was: run uphill for a mile, get a quarter mile of false flat or mild downhill, and head straight back up again. I just focused myself on turning those feet over, and noticing that a lot of those lights were coming back to me. Awesome! Let's keep pushing!

One of the coolest parts of RTB is that your team pulls off the side of the road to cheer you on as you go further in the event. So I had our team stop at the mile 3 and 6 mark, just to help break it up. I took a walk at mile 6 to put some water in the system. It was only 33 degrees, but I was working and sweating hard.

Then the Earth falls away from you. The next two miles lose almost all of that elevation gain. Holy crap! Time to fly on down hill. It was crazy; your perspective got so skewed from going that hard downhill that false flats, or certain grades downhill, looked like you were going back UP. Weird.

My watch was set with alarms every ten minutes. I heard the watch beep for the 7th time (marking the 70 minute mark) and just decided to push as hard as I could to the finish. I saw the transition zone, and just broke into a dead sprint. "Adam! Adam! Adam!" Time to hand off the band.

This is where I started to feel some of the running in my legs. I was a little tight, but overall still felt pretty fresh. I wanted to get 8 kills, but couldn't reel in one last one. Time to climb back in the van. This is where you REALLY get tight. Thankfully, we brought some stretching tools to help out.

7:20 AM--Off Duty
Again, we decided to head on down to our final vehicle transition zone, located at Sanford High School. I'll never forget pulling in here, and seeing that the back half of the parking lot was just covered with people, passed out on the asphalt. No blankets. No pillows. Just exhausted, laying on the warm asphalt. I nearly joined them, but knew if I did that there would be no return.

We headed down to a greasy spoon to load up on some breakfast before the final slog. We chatted for a bit with some of the other teams that were there, and just got ready to run again.

I couldn't get my hips to unlock. I was extremely tight. I just kept trying to warm up, but couldn't get anything going. Uh oh. Looks like we're banking time on this leg, till I run head first into the wall.

11:34 AM: Van On-Duty
Preston merely had 2.2 miles to run. Great. Where's the Red Bull?

11:52 AM: Leg 32, Run #3
6.71 miles, 56:17, 8:23/mile pace
Kills: 4

Again, I rocketed out of transition. It was the only thing that felt good. This was the rule of this run: if it feels good, push hard; when it feels like garbage, well, embrace the suck.

I went through two miles in 14:30. Colin, from the other van, pulled around, and told me later: "I knew you were in trouble. Things did not look good." I knew there was a hill coming up, and I knew it would hurt like hell. I just wanted to keep the effort as even as I could.

At this point, I remembered a rule from racing tris: productive walking. I was walking up some of the hills faster than I was running them, and then could really push the downhills to make up some of the lost time. Well, time to employ the strategy, because you are just getting demolished right now.

I finally found my rhythm again around mile 4, when the road went from either "straight up, straight down, or straight flat" to rolling. This allowed my stride to open and close at a more natural rate for me (mechanics are different based on the road terrain), and hence my pace and effort levels were more consistent.

I finally got to mile 6, and had somebody both come back to me from ahead, and then come from behind. There was no way in hell I was getting passed at this point. The guy from behind had made the mistake of settling in at my pace. I could tell he was hurting, so we chatted for a second. We decided that, well, how many times have you had to suffer for less than a mile? Let's GO.

I hammered that last bit, saw the transition zone, and have never run that hard in my life. Well, outside of the Beach to Beacon sprint. "Adam! Where you at bud?" Time to hand off.

Here's the thing about running that many miles in 24 don't stop well. I had to keep running. For a little while. I could not stop. I ran an extra half mile, just to slow down and finish.

3:01 PM: Food tent demolished
3:02 PM: Headed back to Colin's house
(Note, these times may be exaggerated here.)

Made it back to Portland around 5:30. The most telling thing, for me, was when Hannah called me at 6 leaving work, and I was so dog-tired I reached up from the floor and put the phone on speakerphone to talk to her. I was laying on the hardwood, just done for. Time for pizza (the classic post-race food in this house.)

Overall, I highly recommend racing this once. We're already putting together an Ultra Team for next year. Team names to be determined, but it will indeed be a crazy time. Thanks to all those who made it possible: race directors, New Balance, Hannaford foods, and every fellow idiot who was out there.

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