September is one of the best months for running. The humidity lowers, the air is a little cooler and most of the tourists have left Boston. If it wasn’t for the fact that the sun is coming up later, it would be perfect. The second weekend in September is often my favorite weekend all year to run because that is Reach the Beach.
Reach the Beach is an overnight relay that begins at Canon Mountain in northern New Hampshire and finishes just over 200 miles south at Hampton Beach. A team of runners (usually 12, sometimes 6 or something in between) take turns running designated legs to reach the finish line at the beach running overnight and often through inclement weather. Teams are usually separated into two vans so while one van is running the other can sleep, eat and rest. We run through the night wearing reflective gear and headlamps and take naps wherever and whenever we can.
Participating in an overnight relay sounds a bit strange and unpleasant to a lot of people but if you can get past the lack of sleep, personal space and bathing opportunities, you’ll have the time of your life.
I have a beautiful history with Reach the Beach. In 2008 a friend of mine contacted me in a panic after one of her teammates dropped out (this happens to most teams most years) and asked if I could fill in. I had heard great things about the race and agreed to join them. I was not disappointed. The team camaraderie, challenge and atmosphere were everything I love about running. I was hooked.
Earlier this month I participated in my seventh Reach the Beach NH and my tenth relay over all (see RTB MA, Hood to Coast ’13, and Ragnar Cape Cod ’14). I have been lucky enough to be a part of team Chasing Tail who commits to the race every year and the majority of the runners are RTB veterans who know what they are getting into when they sign up. The group varies in age, experience and speed but everyone’s priority is teamwork and effort over speed. The formula has worked over the past several years and 2014 was no exception.
On Thursday afternoon Bob picked up Stacey and me to pick up the two vans that we would be spending the next couple of days in. The two vans drove up to our meeting spot in North Andover which happens to be the office of team mate and team dentist Dr. Brian Yoon (call today for an appointment!). At the office we met up with rest of the team including veteran April that we haven’t seen in 3 years since she moved to Alaska. Many of the teammates I haven’t seen since last fall and its always exciting to catch up and see how everyone is doing. On Thursday night we all head up to New Hampshire for dinner and then spend the night in North Conway before our Friday morning race begins.
We were thrilled this year to have an earlier start of 9:45 since the earlier we start the earlier we would finish on Saturday. Our carefully crafted spreadsheet forecasted us to finish around 5:00 pm on Saturday but we wanted to try and come in a little earlier. How much earlier would be determined by how well we perform during the race.
Chasing Tail arrived at Cannon Mountain Friday morning and it was chilly but dry. For the second year in a row, Karen was our first runner but last year it was pouring rain at the start. This year she was much more comfortable and ready to get started. We took some photos and spent a little time in the merchandise room before sending Karen off for the start of Chasing Tail’s race. After saying goodbye to Van 1, Van 2 headed in the direction of our first exchange stopping for lunch at the Muddy Moose and then decorating our van.
The wait between the race start and when it’s time for Van 2 to get started is the longest part of the weekend for me. It’s the only part of the race that I’m not either running or desperate for sleep. We were at Attitash for a while waiting for Van 1 and by now the sun was warmer and it was looking like a great day for a run.
This year I was runner 10, a leg I’ve never had before since it is responsible for less than 13 miles total. I usually take a leg that is closer to 17 or 18 over the three legs but I wanted to try a set I haven’t done before and ended up with 10. I decided since my mileage wasn’t super challenging I would push myself with pace and aim to average 8:15 minute miles throughout the weekend. My first leg was the longest and most difficult of the three I would be running but it was just 5 miles and I had been waiting all day to get started so I went out fast. I was really happy when I clocked a 7:54 minute mile and was certain I would be able to stay at my goal pace for this run…and then the hills came. I knew there were some “rolling hills” but the elevation chart didn’t seem to do this one justice. About a mile and half in we climbed a tough hill only to come right back down. It was so steep I did the best I could to use the decline to build speed but I was just waiting to fall and go rolling down the road. When it flattened out again we just went right back up and then back down. This continued until the last half mile or so and I felt as though I could hold a good pace if the course stayed flat. I turned onto the path that would lead me to the transition area when someone yelled to me that it was just one more hill and I should ‘dig deep’. Ugh. That last hill was on grass and when I saw the volunteer at the top I glared at him as if it was his fault. I was so happy to see Kate waiting for me at the transition and very pleased with my average pace of 8:26.
Kate followed me and then Stacey was our final runner. She finished at the Kenneth Brent School which is probably the most loved exchange on the New Hampshire course. Volunteers work with the 8th grade students to provide pasta and baked goods for the runners in exchange for a donation. All of the donated funds go toward the class trip to Washington DC in the spring. They kids greet us with high fives at the door and offer to take our plates when we are done eating. RTB wouldn’t be the same without their legendary mac n cheese. After we ate we drove over to our next transition area where we would be meeting Van 1 several hours later. We tried to get some sleep there but it was difficult with lots of vans coming in and out and people talking in the parking lot. Stretching out on a van bench I got about 2 hours of sleep before the other van let us know that they would be on their way soon.
Our runner #7, John, had to wake up and get ready to run 7 miles around 2:30 in the morning. This was a very difficult leg so we stopped a few times to check on him and it was one of the ‘wild card’ transitions with no official transition area so toward the end of his run John just jumped into our van and Brian took over to run the next leg. It was a lot of coordinating and confusion for the middle of the night on barely any sleep. Dennis was next with another long run of almost 9 miles. This was another tough run with a monster hill and then a few more rolling but nothing ever seems to bother Dennis and he never complains about anything – making him the world best Reach the Beach vanmate of all time. Although the run was tough Dennis did have the honor of enjoying a stunning sunrise during his leg.
I took over from Dennis but my run was a quick and easy 3.5 miles. By now, the sun was coming up and we were all starting to wake up a little more. My run started with a downhill that I took full advantage of and clocked a 7:09 minute mile right off the bat. The air was nice and cool that early in the morning and I was excited for this speedy run. As I passed each runner I greeted them with a ‘Good morning!’ and everyone responded…except for one girl that I startled coming up behind her. Sorry! The second mile evened out a bit so I slowed down to a 8:34 but picked up a little more speed to average 7:57 for the 3.5 run. I came racing into the transition area with Kate waiting for me and was really happy with my run.
Kate’s next leg was labeled ‘easy’ but it was long at 8.8 miles. She had been feeling strong all weekend and was looking to push herself so we arranged to be at a couple of spots along the way with some Gatorade to keep her hydrated but we had to be careful to keep up with her! She came in to the transition just as strong as she went out and Stacey took off for her 2nd leg of the relay.
The next transition area was at Bear Brook State Park where New Balance sponsors Tent City – a ton of tents set up at the park for runners to rest. There was also breakfast is offered for $6 courtesy of the Allenstown fire fighters. The hot coffee, pancakes, eggs and sausage were all delicious and exactly what we needed after running through most of the night.
We made our way to Kingston, NH where we would meet Van 1 for the last time before reaching the beach in Hampton. We spent some time cleaning up the van and preparing for our last legs of the race. Most of our runs were short for our third set so there would not be a lot of time to change in between. The rest of the race was going to by quick.
John’s last run was less than 3 miles so we had to race to the transition area to get Brian there on time. Brian’s leg would be the longest of this set at 6.7 but he was cruising so we met up with him along the way to have a little dance party (available on my instagram page) and then took off for the next transition area. Dennis was up next with a 4 mile leg that we knew he would run quickly so we went straight to the next transition area. I was ready for my last run of 4 miles and knew it was mostly a flat course so I was shooting for an average of under 8 minute miles. I was working hard but felt good until I hit an intersection where the police had to hold me back until the light changed. I didn’t like that at all. When running a relay through many towns at all different hours of the day (like this Saturday afternoon) you have to remember that they can’t shut down the roads for us all weekend but I had such a strong pace and was ready to finish up my run. I stood there and pouted until they told me to go ahead – I did say thank you. It was exciting to finish up that last run and hand off to Kate for the last time. I averaged 7:50 for my third leg but admit that I turned my watch off when I got stopped. After my 3rd leg I had run a total of 12.66 miles for Reach the Beach averaging an 8:12 minute mile. I was really happy with that and I think it motivated me to push a little harder in all my upcoming runs and races.
Kate’s last run was only 3.5 and she was running so fast that it was over before we knew it and it was time for Stacey to finish up our race for us. We headed to Hampton Beach and met up with Van 1 who was already on the beach along the finish line shoot waiting for her. The rain which had been threatening but held off all weekend was just beginning to come down so we were bundled up getting ready for her. The last leg is just about 4 miles and flat but the end portion is on the beach and running on sand is not easy. We were thrilled to see her coming and joined her for the last stretch of the race crossing the finish line together.
Chasing Tail finished Reach The Beach NH in 31 hours, 4 minutes and 26 seconds – an 8:59 average pace. After a few team photos we opted to skip the soggy finish line party and head to dinner together before going our separate ways.
This particular year was a little different because everyone on the team was a returning member of Chasing Tail. Some runners were meeting each other for the first time because they have never run together but we all knew the routine of RTB and how to make it the best experience possible. I’m so proud to be on a team that is supportive of one another as well as every runner that is on the relay course. Our goals are to do our best, encourage each other and have fun. Once again for 2014, all of those goals were accomplished.
Thank you to all of the race organizers and volunteers and a big thanks to all of the towns that generously allowed us to use your roads, schools and parking lots to make this special event a success. Chasing Tail is already brainstorming for 2015 and can’t wait to be a part of this again.
Congratulations to all my teammates and everyone who completed Reach the Beach NH 2014!!