23 September 2010

Reaching the Limit

[ Ed note: This is the first of at least two articles on Reach the Beach. This one focuses on the event logistics. I cover my actual running fun in the near future! ]

If there’s one word that describes last weekend’s Reach the Beach Relay, it’s not Strategery, it’s got to be Vantastic. Vans, vans, nothing but vans as far as the eye can see. Vans to the left of me, vans to the right, here I am, stuck in the van again.

Four hundred and thirty teams, each with two big vans, most looking almost eerily alike, being bred from the same rental fleet stock, plying the absurdly rolling hills of New Hampshire, 209 miles from Cannon Mountain to Hampton Beach in a decidedly not straight line. A few rough guesstimates hints at about 15,000 gallons of fuel toasted, which sounds ugly until you do the same guesstimates for a typical NFL game and get a far larger number, then multiply by the number of games in the league each week and by the length of the season. Reach the Beach (RTB) is a drop in the proverbial bucket.

But I digress. It was all about vans everywhere, and so a little explanation is in order here. This relay is a logistical masterpiece, until the end, when it degrades to a logistical disaster. RTB consists of 36 legs ranging from three to nine-plus miles. The standard team is twelve runners (there are also “ultra” teams with only six, but let’s keep this simple, kids…), so each runner takes three legs over the course of the race. For each team, Van 1 sets out with runners one through six and leapfrogs from “Transition Area” (or “TA”) to TA, arriving ahead of their runner to queue up the next one, pick up the last one, and head out again, often with a stop or two along the route to cheer on or re-supply their teammate. After six legs, Van 2 steps in with runners seven through twelve and does the same thing, giving Van 1 a few hours R & R until they meet up again six legs later to trade positions again. The magical van swap-over spot is known as a “Vehicle Transition Area” (or “VTA”), and as you might guess, there are twice as many vans at these stops.

Did you get all that? It’s complicated. Read it twice, there will be a quiz later.

Obviously, sending off four hundred plus teams and 800 plus vans at once wouldn’t work, so the wise overlords of RTB devised a staged start. Based on your team’s estimated pace, you’re assigned a starting slot ranging from early Friday morning to late Friday evening, the slower teams starting first, with twenty or so teams heading out every twenty minutes. The plan is that everyone gets to the beach more or less at the same time.

It almost works. But thank God it doesn’t work entirely. We’ll get back to that.

Since each wave of starters spread out pretty quickly, the net effect of this is that there is a never-ending stream of runners, spaced mysteriously evenly, spreading probably over at least sixty miles, slowly congealing as the convoy heads south. There is also a steady trickle of vans, which in their own odd way create a safety barrier as no midnight drunk driver could get up much speed before taking one of these rolling behemoths out. Yes, midnight drunk drivers are a concern, as are 2 AM drunk drivers and 4 AM drunk drivers because this thing does indeed go all night.

Now, where the problem arises is, as I noted, that their system pretty much does work. The plan is that everyone reaches the beach Saturday afternoon, and they pretty much do, which means that as you get closer and closer to the end, the pack contracts and the van density per road mile creeps ever upward. Of course, if the timing were perfect, at the finish, that van density would spike to infinity, creating a singularity that would spawn not a black hole but a white one (since all the rental vans were white), which would swallow up all of the known universe. Fortunately, the timing’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good, and that means one thing: traffic.

You start to see it about mid-way through at the VTAs. At about 10 PM Friday night we arrived at the New Hampshire Technical College near Laconia. Not only is this a VTA, but it’s a place where you can pitch a tent on the lawn or roll out your sleeping bag in a hallway and try to get some sleep. I of course failed miserably on that count, but more on that in a future posting. What strikes you about this VTA is that the vans really start to pile up, since not only is this a VTA, but it’s a VTA where people stay for a while. Hundreds of them. And of course you have to find yours.

By the time you reach the final VTA, the Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, the enormity of scale has sunk in. By that time – the completion of leg 30 – you’re into the routine. You find nothing unusual about volunteers waving at you with those little orange sticks like the ones they use to guide aircraft on their roll to a stop at the terminal. The zippy little rotating flashing lights marking the actual runner hand-off zones at the TAs are old hat. All of this seems so, so normal by now, but here you are among many hundreds of vans, and while the number of people doesn’t touch an event like a major marathon, the dance they all perform, knowing just when to be where, when to run, to hand-off, to hop in the van, well, it’s amazing, and it’s getting thicker.

After TA 32, the traffic had grown so thick that I beat my van to the next handoff and had to hang around cooling my jets, awaiting our next runner. After TA 33 they sent the vans down a different route than the runners to keep the roads moving. And after TA 35 it’s the home stretch, and the dreaded singularly happens. The last mile through Hampton Beach comes to a standstill. Crawling at best. They simply can’t get all those vans into the parking lot at the beach fast enough. One of my teammates and I actually got out and walked just to be sure we’d be there when our last runner arrived, so as not to miss the ceremonial team run through the finish chute.

I’ve got to suggest that Reach the Beach has Reached the Limit.

What’s a race organizer to do? This thing grew out of nothing, and the unique aspect of the adventure has attracted such a following that it keeps growing and growing. But my experience this week says it just can’t grow any more. Many of the TAs themselves are at their bursting point, barely able to stow the vans transiting through. It can’t get much bigger, but nobody likes to be shut out.

The organizers seem to have figured this out and have announced the launch of a new RTB here in my home state of Massachusetts next spring. Perhaps it will take a little of the pressure off the original RTB. Or maybe it will just cause the popularity to explode that much more. Not that getting that many more people out to run more miles is a bad thing – no, far from it. It’s just an interesting thing to ponder. Could the amazing scale of RTB be replicated many times over, and in doing so, become ordinary? What does this say about our society? Our sanity?

Right, let’s stop that train of thought; it’s getting a bit too deep. Next time, stories of my running adventures at RTB.

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