I stood on the roadside, breathing steam into the starry night of Laconia, New Hampshire. I was peering down the road, back the way we had just driven, looking for Tammy. Runner after runner came up the hill, red lights blinking, headlights bobbing—more, or less--depending on the runner’s form and efficiency of stride. They all looked equally like Tammy in the dark. The headlights of the oncoming support vans were blinding, making it all the harder to spot my teammate.
As runner after runner plodded or trudged or jogged or sprinted up the hill, a teammate would pop out of the crowd and take the team wristband, slapping it on his or her own arm and heading further down the road, further into the night. But still no Tammy.
I had met Tammy only 30 hours earlier at an Appleby’s in Lowell, Massachusetts and now here I was, wanting to see her more than any other human being on Earth. Funny, what life does. Just that morning she had been moving to loud club music as our team registered, and I kept expecting to see that same vibrant woman come dancing out of the darkness and into the transition zone with a big smile on her face.
Which is why I didn’t recognize her for a moment, even when she stood five feet away yelling, “Where’s my runner?” The woman calling in the floodlit roadside transition area was wrapped in some sort of white blanket or something. She was sweating and looking somewhat disoriented. It was then that I saw our team number, 269, on the woman’s bib and realized this was Tammy standing right in front of me, eyes swiveling with increasing panic as she searched the crowd for me.
“Here I am—I’m here,” I said as I squeezed out of the crowd and became myself to Tammy. Right away her face cleared and she smiled and she was that same dancing-on-the-grass girl I had seen back in the morning on Cannon Mountain at the start of this craziness. She handed me the wristband, I slapped it on, adjusted my head lamp, and trotted on up the road, in the same direction Tammy had been heading.
“This craziness” is officially known as Reach the Beach 2009. It is a team relay race that starts in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and ends 207 miles later in the sands of Hampton Beach, on the Atlantic Ocean. The race has been run every year since 1999 and each year there are more teams running through the night and through the state. There were more than 400 teams this year, including our team, the Rosie Ruiz Fan Club.
Team Rosie has now run the race three times and we are building a small but dedicated fan base who mostly appreciate the humor of our name. Rosie Ruiz is the woman who won the Boston Marathon a few years back by cheating and taking the subway for some of her miles. We have adopted her likeness and name, if not her ethos.
So, there I was at 2:30 a.m. running along the shoulder of Route 106 South, heading for Belmont High School, 4.3 miles away. My running shorts and shirt were already damp from my previous leg, (a 7.2 mile, moderately hard run just before sunset the previous day), and I was shivering. My vanmates and I had just woken up from our only sleep of the race—a two hour nap in an anonymous hotel room in Laconia—and my mind felt as addled as Tammy had looked at the end of her leg just moments before. I really did not know how I was going to get through the next few miles of my life.
So I did he only thing I could do while I tried to figure it out—I ran. The cold air quickly went from adversary to friend and my muscles, already warmed up from my earlier run, settled me into a smooth, fluid stride without me having to even think about it. It was a clear night and there were far more stars than I usually see in New Haven, Connecticut, where I live in my regular life. But if I looked up at them too long I strayed off the shoulder or onto the road—neither of which is a good thing to do. So I focused on the shoulder just ahead.
My headlamp threw a blue-white circle of light onto the tar in front of me and that well-lit circle quickly became my world. It mesmerized me and so I chased it. I wanted nothing more than to step into that circle, but as I followed, it receded. I sped up a little, but so did the circle. My legs and my breathing settled into a pace that felt good. I was pushing myself, trying to give what I had without wasting myself for my final 6.8 mile leg still to come that afternoon. By the end of the first mile I was in the best rhythm of my running life.
The feeling of moving smoothly through a three-dimensional space that suddenly seemed alive and filled with darkness and cold and life inflated me. I felt bigger. The layers of commentators that live in my head and my heart all shut up for a few miles and left me in peace and in that peace my body did what it wanted to do.
And what it wanted to do was to run. So I went after that little circle of light until the end of my leg, which seemed to come far too soon. I truly believe I could have gone on for hours. When Tammy called me out of that crowd 32 minutes earlier she somehow worked some magic. When I stepped out onto the road to answer that question, “Where’s my runner?”, I feel like I stepped fully into who I am. I am not the fastest runner on the team, nor will I ever be. But when it is right—and it most certainly was right in New Hampshire this weekend—running fills me up and quiets me and makes me feel what it is to be fully in the moment in my own skin, doing what I need to be doing.
As a postscript for those who care about the details: The Rosie Ruiz Fan Club ran 207 miles in 27 hours and 32 minutes--an average of 7 minutes 57 seconds per mile. We came in 25th out of 127 teams in our division. My average time per mile over my 19.2 miles of the race was exactly the same as the team's.