[ Ed note: This is the second of at least three articles on Reach the Beach. This one focuses on my running fun. Yeah, it’s long. So was RTB. One more RTB posting follows! ]
I admit, I lied in that title, just for a cheap pun. Reach the Beach doesn’t go to Seabrook. It ends in Hampton Beach, but humor me and grant me a little poetic license. Seabrook is, after all, a brief swim from the terminus of our 209 mile odyssey, and while I may not bear any resemblance to Tom Hanks, a shameless pandering to my beloved by citing one of her favorite movies might make up for my absence from the family compound and sleep-deprived grouchy state on return. And “Sleepless in Hampton” just doesn’t sound appealing at all.
So let’s start there, at the end. In my pre-race post, I noted that Hampton, to my memory, did nothing for me. With all due respect, meaning no insult to your Aunt Jane who’s had a family cottage there for fifty three years, after finishing one of the larger and oddest meanderings of my life, even on the emotional high of done-ness, it still did nothing for me. Overbuilt beach town, a bit worn. Even the state park beach at the end of the sand spit which constitutes the town – worn. When, just before we left, I made my team wait three minutes while I dashed from the finish zone tent complex through the dunes and out to the actual beach, where the dunes sheltered one from the view of said worn-ness, it was a lovely beach. But I had all of twelve seconds there. Dip the finger in the sea. Finish the journey. Return to my team, to our vans, to home.
So Hampton didn’t win a boost toward my Top Ten Places to Visit, but that didn’t dampen the adventure. I’ve spent plenty of time in the Granite State, having completed hiking the Four Thousand Footers back in ’95, and I felt like I knew the place. But what became apparent is there is a lot more of the state besides the White Mountains and Interstate 93 to get you there. While the first legs of RTB traversed my beloved Whites (and of course I didn’t get to run any of those), we subsequently covered parts of the state that neither I nor most living residents of New Hampshire knew existed. Even with my finely tuned sense of direction, I still have to look at the map to figure out where we went, but with this came a very real feeling of having mastered the vast landscape with our legs.
Our team, known as Outer Body, a name borne on a play on words from an attempt to refer to an out of body experience with a Boston accent, left Massachusetts Friday morning bound for the start at Cannon Mountain at the top of Franconia Notch – where it was, of course, raining, muddy, and just plain miserable, though thankfully that transformed to perfect weather within hours. We were photographed, processed, ingested, inspected, and all that stuff, and launched just after noon in the 12:20 wave. And I did? Well, nothing. Being runner number nine in van 2, I had no other task than to wait. So we did what anyone else would do in a situation like this: we went out to lunch, of course.
While I was recruited for this by a friend from my club, he ended up in van 1, so I was paired with six complete strangers – five runners, and because we were exceptionally lucky, a dedicated driver. Having a pilot was a godsend as the hours rolled on and the miles faded past; hats off to Jack for staying awake and in good humor while navigating through countless leapfrogs and TAs. Filling our van’s contingent were a married running couple, a pair of lovely lasses, and Jay, a Lutheran pastor, who proved to be the wildest of the bunch, a credit to his calling and a hoot and joy to have along for the adventure. All great people, and the long rides and shared meals helped me integrate with this crew, but it was hard not to find myself a bit in the outsider role. Jay’s humor helped break those barriers; thanks to him, the word “pigtail” will never be the same.
Finally at about 7:45 PM, more than twelve hours since leaving home, I took the snap-bracelet relay ‘baton’ from teammate Caren and hit the road on RTB Leg 9 in the rapidly fading daylight. I’d hoped the dusk would carry me through at least half of my segment, but blackness fell rapidly instead. The RTB overlords are rightly strict on safety. From well before dusk to well after dawn, each runner must be equipped with a reflective vest, headlamp, and, using the highly technical term that became the watchword of the event, blinky lights, attached both front and back. So equipped, the line of runners parading down the road created a weird red blinky parade, typically spaced a few hundred yards apart, never ending, blinking, bobbing, peaceful. We knew those blinky lights were critical because we wanted to stay alive, thus my concern when early in my shift I neared a lady who’s blinky light had failed. But we had a pastor in our van and therefore God on our side, so there on the road in front of me, like manna from heaven, was a dropped, broken, yet still functional blinky light – not hers, but clearly delivered in the time of need. A quick swoop, catch, and surprised handoff as I loped past, and I had re-equipped her for the coming climb.
By two miles into my 6.4 mile leg, any hopes of remaining daylight were dashed. When the big hill climb started at three, it was already dark. Really dark. And I’d put my headlamp on upside down so I couldn’t tilt it down. And I’d put it on dim to save batteries and couldn’t find the (bleeping!) button to turn it up. And the road had no shoulder and busted pavement. And an ambulance or something went screaming by – twice – making me worried that one of our ilk had gone down (so far as I know, that wasn’t the case). And the headlights were blinding. And I didn’t even spot my team out to root for me, it was so, so dark. And I had a ball.
My team was very casual, not concerned with racing or finishing times or really anything other than a fun time and raising some coin for their cause (checks to the Central Food Ministry, thank you, I’ll email you my address). But I’d decided to run my legs not at full race pace, since there were three and little sleep expected, but pretty close, to make them good hard workouts. I told the team I’d run seven minute miles, but I planned to beat that. And for my first leg, I did, dropping my pace well below my public target while making eleven “confirmed kills” (runners passed) with nobody returning that favor. And finished happy, though in notable pain from that left shin injury.
Around 10 PM, our van handed the game back to van 1, and made a beeline for the next VTA at New Hampshire Technical College to get some sleep before taking the helm back at 3 – yes, AM. Remember that I was with six total strangers, and I should also note that our team sweatshirts were black – rather hard to spot. Sleeping bag in hand I headed into the building to find a place to sack out, and rapidly lost track of my teammates. Inside the building was darker than outside. Dead bodies lined the hallways (OK, sleeping, but it was like walking through a morgue). And I realized I had a big problem: my team had no idea where I was, tucked in a side spur hall in the basement. If I didn’t wake up on time, they’d never find me. You can’t exactly walk through a building of sleeping people and shine lights in their faces to find someone. And I wasn’t sure they knew me well enough yet to recognize me if they did happen on my bones. And if 3 AM came around and I wasn’t there, they’d have no choice but to head out. So it was bad enough that I didn’t settle in till midnight, but worse that with this tension, I slept perhaps ten minutes before my alarm went off – and I did rise – at 2:30. No soup – or sleep – for me.
Soon after, 5 AM, at a place I’d never heard of called Gilmanton, colder than expected, made that much colder by my exhausted state, overdressed against the cold, jacket, gloves (already!), still shivering, thank God Caren arrived and I could get moving on 8.5-mile RTB Leg 21. Within a mile, time to strip down, a real feat when you’ve got a reflective vest over everything, and for additional safety I carried an extra headlamp I’d shine backwards. But this happened to be the only stretch where I paired up with a partner, Mike from Kingston NH, who offered up spare hands when needed. My van passed by shortly after the strip-down, took the hand-off of unneeded clothing on the fly, and we hit the big climb – four hundred feet in about a mile and a half – in darkness now moonless and even darker than before. Mike and I stuck together to multiply our headlamp power till he faded halfway up (ironically, of all the ~5,000 people in this event, I found myself chatting with his wife in the port-o-john line ten hours later at VTA 30). Over the lung-busting hill, onto what should have been all downhill on in, but instead the last two or three stretched on and on with several more rises, but also with a huge reward. As I topped the last rise, the sky was lightening, and though still quite dark, enough light crept forth to create an eerie beauty. I spontaneously belted out a few lines of, “There’s got to be a morning after!” to amuse another runner as I picked him off. Goofy, but having lived through that night, the sight of the pending dawn was one of those deep moments. Really. Leg two, probably about thirty confirmed kills (lost count) again with nobody returning the favor, and again well under my stated seven minute pace.
Back to you, van number one. Off to a local nook for the hungry-man breakfast. On to the final VTA. Brief nap – no, of course I didn’t sleep – on the lawn of a school on a truly delightful afternoon – all too brief, and van one was back, and we were off to the beach on our last legs.
I’d looked at my caseload leading into this – 6.4, 8.5, and 4.2 miles, 19 in total, but spread over three runs and twenty-some hours, and more or less said, “Piece of cake!” And had I run them pleasantly, that would have been the case. But I ran the first two hard, and I had to admit, combined with no sleep, I was hurting pretty good when I took the baton from Caren one last time. This one, RTB Leg 33, was short, so I just determined to get it done. Hammer down.
By this time the pack had compressed and traffic increased to the point that I was running considerably faster than those poor blokes traveling on fossil fuels. My team was to have met me halfway through for a cheering stop, but along came one, two, three miles, and they hadn’t passed me yet. I wasn’t surprised when I pulled in to the end of my RTB miles to find no Shelly waiting. I’d beaten them by a good four to five minutes. Under the rules of the race, I could have continued on, taken the next four-mile leg, but in a 28-hour race on a casual team, you can’t be serious. So it cost us four minutes? So what? Leg 3, well under my pace for the first two legs, another eleven confirmed kills, but my perfect streak was broken: one guy passed me. Oh well.
And then? A few more TAs, a few more leapfrogs, the walk to the end when the van was hopelessly mired in Hampton traffic, and that was it. Somehow our van pulled in just in time (only Jay and I had hopped out to walk) and our other van found us and most of us were there to make the ceremonial run through the chute when Bill arrived, RTB’s equivalent of riding in on the Champs-Élysées alongside Lance Armstrong. And then, a little fellowship, a little beer, a little chowder, and the gift of an indelibly etched memory of a unique odyssey owned forever.
Next: A unique moment worthy of a column all its own, coming soon.