Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A Race for the Aged

Ok, boys and girls. This race report is a long one. But, like the race itself, it’s definitely worth your time. So, pull up a chair and pour yourself a cold one, a coffee or a shot of Jack. Because this is a story that starts in 2006 and you’re not going to believe how it ends …

5 years ago, some friends of mine and I decided it would be fun to put together a 12-person team for the Reach the Beach Relay – a 36-leg race from the White Mountains of New Hampshire to the Atlantic Ocean, 200 miles away. The 2006 team was made up mainly of Gate City Striders ranging in age from 24 to 54. We called our team the Mine Falls Milers (after one of our favorite places to run) and headed out on our 24-hour adventure together.

Needless to say, that first year was quite a learning experience! I never knew how hard it would be to assemble (and keep together) a team of 12 runners. Not to mention how hard it would be to run 3 legs (some in the middle of the night) over unknown terrain, with little recovery time and almost no sleep. We ended up doing pretty well (for a team of newbies) as we finished in 8th place (out of 296 teams) with a time of 24:08:43 and an average pace of 6:44 per mile.

The 2006 Team
Over the years, we’ve had quite a few different combinations of runners. But, our team’s core group of 4 stayed pretty much in tact. Myself, Steve Wolfe, Mark Wimmer & Denis Tranchemontagne. Only Mark & Denis have been on every single MFM team since its inception. Steve and I have each missed one race with the team due to injury – Me in 2010 & Steve this year.

In 2011, everyone on the team “aged up” which allowed us to compete in a new (and more accurate) age group – the 40+ division. And, from previous year’s results, it seemed like our projected 6:30 pace would win us the division (in a cake walk) by about two hours. Little did we know, another NH running club (the NH Athletic Alliance) also had their eyes on that same Super Masters prize.

After some last minute juggling due to injuries (and a major course change) our team was set. First-timer Dave Foster would lead us off, followed by another newcomer in Greg Hallerman. Next came two-time Mine Falls Miler Mike Castillo and another MFM newbie Charlie Bemis. Rounding out Van 1 was Tim Burke, who has run with us 4 times and Mark Wimmer who’s done all 6 RTB’s with us.

Van 2 started with 2-timer Jay Francis followed by 6-time MFM veteran Denis Tranchemontagne. Next was Bill Newsham who’s also run twice with us, then Greg Lombard - newbie #4. Wrapping things up for the second van was Myself – 5 time Mine Falls Miler & Tom Varick – two-timer #4. So, if you’re scoring at home, it’s 4 rookies, 4 second-year guys and 4 veterans. A pretty good mix!

Storm Clouds Ahead
What made this year’s race a bit more confusing than usual was the first set of legs. Hurricane Irene washed out a portion of the course (on Route 302) which meant that Van 1 would basically “dead-end” their section and Van 2 would start at a predetermined time at the next Vehicle Transition Area (or VTA) at Attitash Mountain. And, it was at that VTA that the real excitement would begin.

Despite the fact that our main rivals (NHAA) started their Van1 legs a full 20 minutes behind us, we were both scheduled to start our Van 2 legs at exactly the same time. And, as it turned out, from that Van 2 start time of  7:40pm on Friday evening until the finish line at about 1:40pm the following day (a full 18 hours later!), our teams were never separated by more than a minute or two - one way or the other.

Jay started that Van 2 leg for us and finished about 15 seconds behind NHAA’s first runner. Denis caught up to and stuck with their second runner and Bill pulled ahead slightly on his hilly 6+ mile leg. Greg increased that lead & I intended to do the same. All the while, we would see the other teams runners (both active & in support) at each and every transition area. And, each team kept busy trying not to give the other too much information on how things were going.

My 4.8 mile first leg started at about 10:30 pm and I sprinted off into the darkness. This was the first time I had done this set of legs (and only the second time I’d been in Van 2), so each leg would bring a whole new perspective on the race. I ran as hard as I could trying not to blow up on my first of 3 efforts in less than 15 hours. I huffed and puffed down Route 16 to the transition area at White Lake State Park. I finished strong in 30:09 (6:17 pace) or about 20 seconds ahead of schedule and handed off to Tom.

We raced ahead to the next VTA to pick up Tom and to see how far back our rivals were. Tom came through at about 11:15pm with their runner almost right behind. So, through 6 grueling, head-to-head legs (and 34 miles of racing) we had only managed to open up a minute and a half lead. As we headed to the next VTA to try and rest, it became increasingly clear: It was going to be a loooong night!

Mike's Wounds
The 2:30am wake up call came all too early. And, the news wasn’t good. Van 1 had increased our lead, only to give most of it back when Mike tripped and fell (smashing both his knees and one ankle) on the way to BEGIN his run. So, as we roused ourselves from the grounds of the NH Technical College in Laconia and got ready to run, Van 1 was limping in (literally) with only a 45 second advantage. Here we go again!

Once more, Van 2 was on the job and each runner did their part to put some distance on the other team. Denis, in particular, had a monstrously hilly 9.2 mile leg but finished at a dizzying 6:39 pace while increasing our overall lead. And, even though Bill struggled a bit in his equally tough 8.5 miler that immediately followed, we still held about a 2 minute advantage at the start of my 6.2-mile leg.

My second leg began at about 6:00am and ran right down Route 28 from Pittsfield to Epsom. I flew through the first 5k then started to slow in the second. Each step grew more and more labored as I fought to stay on track. I pushed through and picked up some steam towards the end finishing in 40:17 (6:27 pace) or about 20 seconds behind schedule (even on the day) while Tom headed off to the next VTA.

Just as was the case the previous evening, we bolted ahead to the next checkpoint and waited for Tom. However, just getting out of the van turned out to be a real chore for me, as my legs had tightened up on the ride down to Bear Brook. I tried to hide it from our competitors (who were waiting for their guy to come in as well) but my limp was painfully obvious. We all waited nervously for Tom to arrive and when he finally did, their runner was just 30 seconds back!

Crap! I hope we’re not starting to fade here, I thought to myself as we headed back to the van. Little did I know, this was just the beginning of our struggles. As we wearily drove ahead to meet up with Steve Wolfe (and some much-needed breakfast at the Candia Fire Station) we saw Dave getting walked down by one of NHAA’s fastest runners. At that point we knew it was going to come down to a dog-fight over one final (brutal) set of legs.

We met up with Steve and gave him a run down of the race to that point. Once we finished breakfast we headed out to find Van 2 just pulling into the lot. Mike, our next runner due out on the course, wandered over to us and it look like he had just stepped off a battlefield. Both knees we’re bandaged and he had an ice pack on his ankle. Through it all, he was planning on giving it a go. So, we patted him on the back and wished him luck. But, as we drove off to get some “rest” my scrambled eggs & pancakes were doing back flips in my stomach.

Fortunately for us, Steve chose to stick around and take pictures along the route while updating us on Van 1’s status as we waited at the VTA for them to arrive. His text messages were coming in fast and furious. Mike through first mile - 2 minute lead. Mile 3 - 1 minute ahead. Mile 5 – Mike struggling, NHAA 30 seconds back. Mile 6 – Mike’s out, Charlie’s in and NHAA leads. So, in a matter of minutes (and for the first time since the previous evening) we were behind and our competitors were pulling away! Later, I found out that Charlie ran himself unconscious catching back up and had to be pulled in favor of our next runner (Tim) who then needed to finish Charlie’s leg, plus run his own!

I quickly let the rest of Van 2 know what we were dealing with and headed off to take a much needed shower. When I returned (refreshed and revitalized), our first runner (Jay) looked like a caged animal pacing back and forth waiting for his chance to strike. He would be starting in about a half hour and it looked like he was ready to bust through a wall. It seemed like everyone else was starting to come around as well. Giddy up! One leg left. This was going to be fun!

Since Jay’s leg was less than 2 miles in length we needed to jump ahead to get Denis ready for his 7 mile last leg. So, by the time Van 1 got to the VTA we were long gone with no clue how far ahead (or behind) we were. As Denis prepped for his final “road-duel’ we saw Jay screaming down the course – ahead of his NHAA counterpart. He had popped off a near 6:00/mile performance (which for a 3rd leg is unheard of) and we were on our way.

Denis started with a mere 45 second advantage and we met him at the half way point. As he came chugging by he said “I can’t hold him off” - referring to NHAA’s Curt Fischer. But, in fact, Denis was starting to pull away from Curt who was no doubt hurting as well. These are the kind of mind games that the dreaded third leg of Reach the Beach can play with you. The previous two legs (not to mention no sleep or recovery) have caught up to you and you feel like you’re moving backwards in a very bitter & painful fashion.

By the time Denis handed off to Bill our lead had grown to over a minute. But, as Bill took off, we thought we’d be giving it all back (and then some) as our Van (with our next runner sitting inside) was stopped in a mid-day traffic jam in downtown Exeter.  Eventually, after a dozen painful minutes, we broke free and caught up to Bill who was more than halfway through his 4 mile leg. At the transition, Greg jumped out, Bill jumped in and we headed to my last starting line.

Once we got there I did my best to get ready. I rolled the legs with my massage stick, popped a couple Advil, popped a couple more electrolyte tablets and applied a thick layer of muscle cream to my overworked pegs. But, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get those last two legs (and 11 miles of racing) out of them. So, I jogged meekly over to the start and awaited my turn to suffer.

I didn’t have to wait long as Greg was there in a flash - running 6:19’s for his last 4 mile leg. He gave me the baton and I was off - way off. I moved my arms like a real runner, but my legs just wouldn’t respond. They only felt numb. After a while I looked at my watch hoping I had covered at least half of my 3.4 mile distance, but to my dismay I had only been running for 6 minutes! At that moment I felt for sure that Captain sissy calf was going to give up our hard-earned lead - for good.

I kept moving forward and eventually my legs started to loosen up a bit. At a corner I snuck a peek back and saw no one, which made me think I just might get to the line with the lead. It took forever to work my way around the access road to Winnacunnet High. I made the last dash to the finish, handed off to Tom and waited for my pursuer to arrive. A mere 60 seconds later he came through and now each of our team’s last runners were on the road. I had run a 22:10 (6:30 pace) or about 8 seconds behind schedule and had given Tom a 1 minute lead. We hoped it was enough.

Yours Truly
I staggered over to the van, hopped in the back and we raced to the finish at Hampton Beach. This year, for the first time in the 13-year history of the race, the finish line was actually on the beach. So, in addition to fighting off his attacker for 4 grueling miles. Tom would have to cap it off with a half mile run on a sandy beach. This was going to be a nail biter. Could Tom hold him off? Only time would tell!

As we scrambled over the dunes to meet up with our runners from Van 1 (for our final run-in to the finish) we could hear the announcer call out our team number – “the runner for team 276 is approaching”. We sprinted to catch up with a hard-charging Tom, crossed the line (just ahead of the NHAA runner) and crumpled to the ground, completely spent. All of us. And, the only thing we could do now was wait. Because, even though we had beaten the other team to the finish, we still weren’t sure if we’d actually won.

Tom vs. The Beach
As mentioned in the beginning, NHAA started their Van 1 legs 20 minutes behind us and since we weren’t there when they finished we had no idea how their teams Van 1 time was compared to ours. As their last runner collapsed across the line and landed on the sand (a mere 45 seconds behind Tom) we all went over to congratulate their team on a race well run. We had pushed (and pulled) each other to our limits and beyond! And, now all that was left to do was wait to see if their Van 1 was less than 44 seconds better than ours after the first set of legs.

A few minutes later, after catching our collective breaths, Denis came over to us - smiling. “20 seconds” was all he said. We had won. 20 hours, 48 minutes and 11 seconds for us and 20 hours, 48 minutes and 31 seconds for them. It wasn’t until we all sat down together (their team and ours) to enjoy a great post-meal spread that it finally sunk in what had taken place. We’d battled with NHAA for over 20 hours and 200 miles and came out on top by a mere 20 seconds. 20 seconds! That’s the time it takes to tie your shoe, drop & pick-up your baton or (ahem) relieve yourself. Heck, it’s like a 1/10th of a second per mile! Simply amazing!

The Results
I'm incredibly humbled and awed by the effort put forth by our team this year. We certainly couldn't have pulled off our narrow 20 second victory without everyone working together. We ran a little more than a minute faster than predicted and needed every single second. We hit our average predicted pace of 6:30/mile exactly - tying a MFM record pace in doing so. And, what's great is that you can look at each runner (and each leg) and see individual heroism all along our 200 mile route.

In Van 1: Dave - kicking things off in great fashion by running 6:19's for the lead 8m leg. Greg - crushing all his legs and being quick on the text updates as well. Mike - toughing out some sick looking, self-inflicted wounds over two hard fought legs. Charlie - literally running himself into the ground over his final, brutal leg. Tim - picking up two extra (leg 3) miles without a word of complaint. Mark - managing his vans last leg like a seasoned vet and running the only sub-6 leg on the team.

In Van 2: Jay - hammering the fastest leg 3 of the day to give us van a great kick start. Denis - taking (and delivering) body blows by NHAA's best over the courses toughest tests. Bill - suffering though 19 bumpy miles on a bum foot and finishing strong. Greg - jumping onto the team at the last minute and running consistently strong legs - mile after mile. Tom - waiting patiently for his turn and making the most of it - including a 1/2 mile of sand running!

Not to mentions Steve who (despite being out this year with an injury) stuck around to be with the team during our epic battle. I mean, who do you know that would spend a beautiful Sunday morning following around a bunch of washed-up old guys on their last legs (literally) as they hobbled their way through the back roads of New Hampshire? Not many, I can tell you that! Steve was a real team player this year and we’re looking forward to welcoming him back next year when we defend our title.

Both Teams at the Finish
Unfortunately, we couldn’t stick around the finish line (for four more hours) to pick up our awards since we all had families (and lives) to get back to. But, as far as I’m concerned, there is no greater gift in sport than being fortunate enough to take part in a competition which lifts both teams to completely new levels. I feel honored to have competed against (and with) our brothers at the New Hampshire AthleticAlliance. And, I can’t wait until next year when the 24 of us toe the RTB line and do it all over again!

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