I used two tricks to get through my three legs of the Reach the Beach relay from Cannon Mountain Ski Area in north-central New Hampshire to Hampton Beach on the Atlantic coast. One of the tricks is old and I have used it many times to get through long distances that I am not feeling particularly good about, but the other trick was new to me and it helped me learn something about myself.
The race is described by organizers as 209-ish miles-long and it certainly feels that way. I got a good draw from the captain of our team—who just-so-happens to share an address with me—so my total mileage was only about 14. Others on our team ran anywhere from 15 to 21 miles, altogether.
While the running can be grueling—up looooong hills in the dark with heavy rain—it is really the relentless pace of the race that makes it tough. There is little time to rest for 30 continuous hours. When runners are off the course, they are riding support in a fifteen-passenger van for their teammates, who are running. When a long, hard leg is over, the sweaty, panting runner climbs into the van which then leapfrogs ahead to meet the next runner who may need water or Shot Blocks halfway through her leg.
A pattern develops quickly and that pattern leaves no room for downtime.
By hour # 25 I was tired, but still excited for my last leg. My first two legs, (7.2 miles through intermittent drizzle at 6:30 pm and 4.4 miles through the dark at 4:00 am) both went well—I was keeping an 8:20 pace per mile and feeling good.
The old trick I used during these first two legs was to pick a landmark in the middle distance and make reaching that landmark my immediate goal. And to then do the same thing again and again and in this way keep myself moving forward. It worked quite well and I was feeling good about how those two legs had gone.
My final leg was only 2.5 miles long, but in the meantime I hadn’t really slept for a long time and I had been spending much of my time riding in a van. As my teammate Merle appeared in the distance I made up my mind that I wanted to give everything I had to my final chunk of the race.
Even reading the words now it sounds meaningless and cliché—“give everything I had”—but it meant something very specific to me in the moment. It meant that I would not let my pace slacken nor ease up to give myself a break. It meant that I wanted to cross the line on my final leg of the race on my last legs—like I couldn’t even run another 100 yards, let alone another mile. It meant that I wanted to see what I had left in me.
As I already said, 2.5 miles is not very long, but given the circumstances I knew it would not be a jog in the park. As our team ran the race this year, we kept track of what team member Matt calls “puppies and bones”. You score a puppy every time you pass another runner. A bone is counted against you every time another runner passes you. I hadn’t been focused much on puppies and bones in my first two legs—I just wanted to run well. But for the third leg I decided that the whole puppy-and-bone-thing might make a great tool to help me with my commitment to really pushing myself.
As soon as I got the sweaty wristband from Merle, I saw another runner who had just taken her first few steps away from the hand-off zone. I sped up and passed her. One puppy, right off the bat. After about one mile I pulled in behind a runner who was moving at a good clip. Normally, my style would be to tag along behind this runner and match his pace. But this time I made myself speed up and pass him. It hurt, but now I had two puppies AND I was pushing myself. In fact, I continued to push because I didn’t want to become the bone of the puppy I had just passed.
I don’t wear any kind of timing device when I run and the course did not have distances marked in any way, so it was hard to know how far I had left to go or even what my pace was. Normally I am a good judge of both, but the special circumstances of this race played havoc with my interior odometer. I came around a curve in the road and saw two runners up ahead who appeared to be coasting through their final legs. I knew I had at least a mile in which to catch them, so I ran a little harder and hurt a lot more. I caught them both and passed them with about a half-mile to go. Four puppies. I was pretty pleased. And pretty certain that I had nothing left to give to the race. I felt finished. Done. Kaput.
But I still had more than 2000 feet left. This is where I tried the new trick. I decided to count how many steps it was between when I felt like I had nothing left to give and when I actually crossed the line, ending my leg. I began counting. I got up to about 620 when I noticed a shirtless guy lumbering toward the finish line ahead of me. He was not moving very fast. I decided to try to collect one more puppy. I stopped counting steps and started running harder. Erica and my other teammates were cheering me on as I made a final push and overtook the puppy in the last few yards.
It hurt a lot. But it felt so good. It wasn’t that I had passed some guy I didn’t even know. Rather, the good feeling came from the fact that I had gotten off the course with exactly nothing left in my tank to give. I was spent. Turns out my last leg was 2.5 miles in 20 minutes, for a pace of 8 minutes per mile. Objectively, that is not very fast. Subjectively, I don’t care.
I felt, (and still do feel), great about that last short leg of mine. It gave me insight into what I am capable of—which it turns out is at least 620 steps and a burst of effort more than I thought I was capable of. So now when I think I have done all I can do or given all I can give, I will know that there is a secret reserve tank somewhere very near my heart that might still have something left in it.
Pictured above is our entire Rosie Ruiz Fan Club team at Cannon Mountain just before we began our run. The temperature was in the fifties and there was a light rain falling.
Below is the group of six runners who shared the van I was in. We are holding the car-magnets we used to decorate our van. The green poster is where we kept track of "puppies and bones", a.k.a. our Road Kill Counter.
We all look very happy because we were.