Exactly one week ago I was at Cannon Mountain Ski Area in the White Mountains of Northern New Hampshire, sitting through a safety briefing in preparation for my third running of the Reach the Beach long distance relay. I am a member of the team called the Rosie Ruiz Fan Club and Reach the Beach has become a major touchstone in my year. I love this race so much that I find myself looking forward to the next race from almost the moment the current year’s race ends.
Reach the Beach is one of those things that might sound like torture to an outsider, but is instead exquisitely pleasurable pain to the participants. It has many of the ingredients cult leaders use to brainwash followers: close quarters, physical challenges, lack of sleep, a brutal schedule, abnegation of self, and gallons and gallons of Gatorade.
In the past, I have been the seventh runner on our team of twelve. This means I have run the seventh, nineteenth, and thirty-first legs of the thirty-six-leg relay. Due to last minute changes this year I became runner number twelve, which means I was to run the twelfth, twenty-fourth, and thirty-sixth legs. I was going to be the runner who actually reached the beach, as the last 100 yards of the race cross the sands of Hampton Beach State Park. In spite of having run the race twice before and having a good sense of what to expect, this was the first year I have ever doubted my own ability to actually reach the beach.
To understand why, I should go back to Thursday night before we began the race. We stayed in a hotel in Lincoln, New Hampshire and I spent much of the night awake and suffering from a painful earache and sore throat. Once the sky lightened and day broke, I felt a little better, but I was already worried about what would happen if I got sick during the race. I tried not to worry my teammates or myself too much, so I kept a positive attitude and decided to hang out in the hotel parking lot, surreptitiously placing small magnets on the vans of other Reach The Beach teams.
Our captain, (and my wife), Erica had ordered hundreds of magnets that said “You’ve been ridden by Rosie Ruiz.” It was great fun to tag other teams’ vans with this little magnetic grafitto. As it turned out, several other teams had the same idea this year. One team, called The A-Team, had small magnets printed up with the image of Mr. T and the words “You been tagged, sucka.” By the time the whole team was up and we were having breakfast, it was clear to me that something was pretty wrong. My throat hurt like hell when I swallowed and I had what felt like a fever.
The rules of Reach the Beach are strict about what a team must do if a runner has to drop out. Rather than explain the process here, suffice it to say that everyone ends up with far more miles than they signed up for AND the legs they run are sometimes drastically different than what they are mentally prepared for. What I decided to do was take some Ibuprofin, find some throat lozenges, and buy an ear warmer. That, and wait to say anything to anyone until after my first leg was over.
Our first runner—a new member of The Rosie Ruiz Fan Club named Liz—started at Cannon Mountain at 2:00 in the afternoon. I knew that I would not be running my first leg until all the other runners on the team had done theirs—that gave me seven or eight hours to prepare. We got a late lunch, played Frisbee in a parking lot, and then started our legs when the baton got to us around 5:30. Being last to go of the six runners in my van, I didn’t start running until around 11:00 pm. So, tired, sick, anxious about the rest of the race, and worried about letting my teammates down, I set off alone down a dark stretch of trail through the pine woods of White Lake State Park. I wanted to go slow enough to have something left for my next leg, thinking I could at least finish two of my three—leaving my teammates in a small lurch rather than a giant one.
At this point in the race, teams are spread out pretty wide so there were only about five other runners in my 3.87-mile stretch of road. I kept what felt like a slow and steady pace and soon enough saw the flashing lights of the transition area up ahead and saw Liz waiting under the spotlights for the handoff. I gave her the wristband that acts as a baton and asked Erica for my time. She told me 29 minutes. I set off on a coughing jag that lasted long enough for me to do some mental math and came up with a pace of 7:30 per mile. Which is faster than I ever run.
Generally after a run it is a good idea to cool down by walking around a bit. But the rule for Reach the Beach is “Forget the cool down, get in the van.” So, I got in the van, coughed up half a lung, choked down a bottle of Gatorade, and settled in as we drove to a hotel 40 miles up the road. We had reserved two rooms to shower and nap for two hours before driving to our next rendezvous with our teammates from the other van. I took as hot a shower as I could stand, popped three more Ibuprofins, and crawled into bed, where I fell asleep wondering how on earth I was ever going to run my next two legs when I my right eardrum felt like it had been pierced by a rusty pin and my throat hurt so much I could hardly swallow.
The alarm went off what felt like two minutes later and we got up, got dressed, and got back in the van. I knew something was seriously wrong with me when I didn’t even want coffee. We drove to the next meeting point and our first runner, Christian, got out and headed to the hand-off zone. Our other van’s final runner, Damian, came up the hill and out of the darkness, handed the wristband to Christian, and disappeared into his van, off to get his own two-hours of sleep.
During this series of legs the runners in my van had some of their hardest work. Joe had a 9+ mile section with a 5-mile climb. Rodrigo ran an 8-mile leg with a short, steep climb that would kill a lesser man. Agata finished her leg looking strong and pumped up, (her tough leg had already happened her first time out.) Erica ran through a sore foot and managed a fast time for her leg, as well. As my turn approached I got out the course map book and took a final look at the elevation profile for my coming 6.87-mile leg. It was relatively flat with one 100-foot climb just before the end. The people in my van asked what sort of support I would need, and I asked them to drive ahead to mile 4.5 and wait for me with a bottle of Gatorade. That is exactly what they did and when I stopped for a moment to take a drink and hand Erica my long sleeve shirt, I knew that all I had left was 2.4 miles. Sure, there was that hill between me and the end of my leg, but 2.4 miles was something I could do even if I had a fever, you know?
Turned out the hill was not so bad. And because I had held a little bit in reserve in order to make it up a much bigger hill than I actually found, I was able to finish my second leg at a good clip. I came into Bear Brook State Park after 56 minutes of running and handed the bracelet to Liz, who took off for her final leg looking strong. I stood alone for a minute before my teammates came to me and in that minute I could tell that I had a fever. Shit. What was I going to do about my last leg? The second one passed at an 8:09-per-mile pace, which was still faster than I had wanted to go.
What I decided to do was stretch out on one of the van seats and try to sleep. Joe drove the van through some of the heaviest traffic those smalltown backroads of New Hampshire have ever seen and I managed to get a 45-minute nap. We stopped at a breakfast joint and got some food and coffee and used a VERY clean bathroom before piling back in and heading to the next hand-off point. All through the race the six runners in our other van ran faster than we expected them to and this time was no exception. Alex, Weldon, Liz, Tom, Tammy, and Damian were in the midst of their final legs and they were pushing hard to be done.
At some point in this transition from their van to ours I decided that I could hold it together long enough to run one more 4.09-mile leg. I knew it would be a long, hard, trudge, but I didn’t know it would turn out to be one of the hardest things I had ever done in my life.
To make it through, I broke the leg into many small chunks and then just tried to get through each chunk without stopping. At first it was something like, “Just make it to the next intersection up ahead in the distance.” With one mile left, when the course was running along the Hampton Beach Boardwalk, I was going from bench to bench, focusing two hundred feet at a time. As the course left the boardwalk and entered the sand I was down to just trying to make it from step to step. The people who lay out the course must have a masochistic streak in them to force runners across the sand after 208 miles and little sleep, yet this is what they do every year. When I hit the sand I muttered a foul word with every step.
When I crossed under the banner with the rest of Team Rosie escorting me in, it was all I could do to not collapse on the sand and break into sobs. It is certainly what my body wanted me to do. I had spent 40 hours keeping my shit together and my executive function was 99% depleted. There was no super ego and precious little ego left and my id had a fever and wanted to be home in bed. Yet I knew we still had a few hours at the beach to grab some food, take a dip, and celebrate a little before going back to our regular lives in Ithaca and Lowell and Boston and New Haven and Texas. Then there was the three-hour drive back to New Haven.
I managed to hold it together for a few more hours until Rodrigo, Joe, Erica, and I got into the van and started the drive back. I took a seat in the back and lay down curled up inside a sleeping bag. The other three were up front and they were talking and listening to music. Once I was sure they couldn’t hear me over the sounds of the van wheels and the music and their conversation, I gave up control and just let myself drop down into how utterly crappy I felt. It came out as tears and sobs and foul words and lasted a good while. When it was over and my swamp was temporarily drained I sat up and we pulled over to get a few vats of coffee from one of the several thousand Dunkin Donuts in Massachusetts.
The fever hit in earnest that night on the way home and lasted for six days, forcing me to miss several days of work. The doctor said it was the flu and laughed in my face when I told him about the onset of symptoms and how I had run 14 miles at an 8:21 pace AFTER realizing I was sick.
Erica and I have a euphemism for when an experience totally and absolutely sucks; we say, “I learned a lot.” In the particular case of Reach the Beach 2010, I can truly say that I learned a lot. As I say that, I am being only partially euphemistic. The camaraderie, challenge, and real joy of running Reach the Beach are as much a part of it as the pain, suffering and depletion. In fact, I imagine that if you ask me in a few months how the race was, I am pretty sure I will tell you it was great. And, honestly, it was.
I ran more than 14 miles at a fast pace (for me), met some great new people, helped set a team record by finishing in 26 ½ hours for a team pace of 7:35 per mile, and learned a lot about my own capacity for toughing out a hard situation. I held it together until I didn’t have to, and in a twisted way, that felt good. I learned a lot.
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