After 200 miles, two lost runners, a lost driver, a bloody, nighttime fall requiring a visit to the medical tent, and another fall resulting in the incapacity of a runner, the team of Ultra Front Runners NY battled our horrible luck and finished the inaugural 200-mile Spring Reach the Beach Relay in Third Place overall out of 150 teams, and 2nd place in the Men's Ultra division. It was tough, and at times it seemed that even just finishing the race would be hopeless. But we pulled together as a team, fought hard, and finished strong and proud of all that we had overcome. It was an incredible experience, one that I shared with the greatest of friends, and I will never forget how impressively my team ran and how proud I was to be a part of it.
The entire experience is even more meaningful because it almost never even happened for me. I was never supposed to be on the team, and, in fact, I thought Kelsey and Josh were nuts to do another Ultra Relay just two weeks after we did the Cape Relay. Then last Monday, I got a message from John saying that Rich was injured and wouldn't be able to run, and asking me if I could run in his place. My first reaction was, "No f---ing way." But then John, Kelsey and Josh tag-team-texted me to get me to join them, with the promise that I could just do five of the six legs, and Josh would run a 7th. I finally relented. I was planning on running the Brooklyn Half this weekend anyway, and I would only have to run about 21 miles, so I said what the heck.
I was a little terrified, though. Everyone else on the team was MUCH faster than me. And even though I've been running well recently, I'm nowhere near the same ballpark as they are, and I really didn't want to let them down. But, I was determined to do my best, and was excited about the opportunity to run hard and push myself, especially since I was disappointed that I didn't get to do that at the Cape Relay.
So, off we went to Massachusetts. It became a running joke throughout the trip as Kelsey, Josh, John and I recounted stories just two weeks prior of our very same trip. Every once in a while, someone would say, (a la American Pie): "This one time, two weeks ago..." Also, I realized that it was my fourth trip with Kelsey to Massachusetts in less than two months: our Boston Blue Line Run, the Boston Marathon, and the Cape Relay. I felt very fortunate to be able to share my big runs with such a great friend and Koach.
After a deja vu-inducing dinner at the Post Road Dinner in Norwalk, Conn., and a hearty breakfast at Denny's in Mass., we arrived at Wachusett Mountain in Princeton, Mass. for the start of the race. I was going to run the 5th set of legs, but just the first five times, for a total of 21.58 miles. Frankly, I was relieved that I had so few miles to run. I figured that even if I was significantly slower than the rest of the team, I would have a minimal negative impact on their overall time. I was also happy that all of my legs were relatively short, and my only long-ish leg was early on in the race, when my legs were still fresh.
What I was really nervous about, however, was the fact that there was another FRNY Ultra Team that had the same starting time as we did. Of course, both of our teams were out there to have fun, and it was great to have the company of other Front Runners on the course. But I couldn't help but think about the fact that Michael S. was on the other team, also running the 5th leg, and I was dreading, dreading, dreading the--in my mind, inevitable--moment when he would smoke past me and leave me in his dust.
So, for my first leg, I was a little nervous. Luckily, it was a short leg, only 3.3 miles, and we had amassed about a 7-minute lead over the other team. Still, I was determined (mostly out of fear) to not get passed. When I got the slap bracelet from John, I made a mad dash out of the transition zone and down the hill. That first leg, though, had a net elevation loss of almost 300 feet. And I was flying. But I knew right away that I was going too fast. I knew that I would come to regret flying down that hill and pounding my quads so hard. But I couldn't help myself, it was just so fun to go that fast. After a couple of minutes, my Garmin beeped to let me know I covered a half a mile. I looked down at my watch. Eeek! 2:43... or a 5:27 pace. What was I thinking?!?! I made myself slow down a bit. But I was still leaning forward to take advantage of gravity pulling me downhill. I tried to make my steps as light as possible to minimize the impact on my quads.
I was also (irrationally, I guess) convinced that Michael was right on my heals. I took a quick look behind me a few times and of course he was nowhere near me. I did end up getting passed by someone from Team Race Menu, the team that ultimately ended up winning the whole race. The guy just smoked me. He must have been going at close to a 5 minute pace for that run, because he completely whizzed by me and before I could even react, he was long gone. And I was still running fast, too. In the end, I finished that first leg in 19:56, or a 5:57 pace. It was my fastest road run ever except the 1.7-mile Norway Run that I did in 2008. If it was two-tenths of a mile shorter, it would have bested my 5K PR by a whopping 16 seconds per mile. I felt amazing, and I was excited about my other legs for the race.
By my second leg, we were about 26 minutes ahead of the other team, and the leading Team Race Menu was way ahead of us so we weren't going to be able to reach them. Kelsey suggested that we run this leg at about 90-95 percent effort, the idea being that we had comfortably settled into our spot and would save our legs for if we needed to really race in the later legs. So I took my second leg a bit easier. At 5.58 miles, it was my longest leg, so I didn't want to start out too fast. I tried to keep my pace around a 6:30-6:40. And in doing so, I ended up passing a lot of teams that started before us. It was a great feeling to slowly catch up to people and pick them off one by one. The van stopped for me halfway through to give me water, and it was good to see them. This was probably my favorite run, because I had no real pressure, my legs were still feeling strong, and I could run it at a comfortable but fast-ish pace. I finished this leg in 37:03, or 6:38 pace, right about what I expected.
It was in our third rotation that things took a turn for the worse. We got lost, for the first of many times. But at least we have a good story to tell. John and Kelsey stayed at the transition while the rest of us when to look for Gabe, our missing runner. We found him, about a mile and a half past the transition. Rich stopped the van, jumped out, and pointed Gabe in the right direction. But instead of putting the van in park, he put it in reverse! There we were, in the middle of the night, and our driverless van was speeding down the street backwards. I was in the passenger's seat, half comatose when I realized what was happening. I got up, dived into the driver's seat and reached for the brake pedal with my hand. The van practically screeched to a halt as we narrowly avoided certain disaster! And then all five of us started busting out laughing. It was the perfect way to break up the tense, somewhat frustrating feeling of getting lost on the course. And it was at that moment that I realized how glad I was to be on a team where even in the most difficult situation, we managed to have fun and laugh together. It reminded me that I did these relays not just to run and compete with other teams, but to have fun with my friends, and that was exactly what we were doing.
Before long, we were back on course. But this time, only about a minute or two separated me from Michael on our third leg. So, again, I was terrified. Kelsey sensed my trepidation, and pulled me aside to give me a pep talk before my leg. And he told me exactly what I needed to hear to put my nerves at ease. It's times like this that I realize how lucky I am to have a friend who's my coach who also has a background in social work. Kelsey always knows what to say to get me in the right mental place for a big race; just one of his many, many amazing qualities. :-)
And so, when I got the wristband from John, I busted out of the transition, determined not to get passed. As I was leaving, I think I saw Chris coming into the transition to hand off to Michael, so I knew that it was tight. But I just ran that leg as fast as I could. It was a bit scary because it was past midnight and in the pitch black dark. But I refused to let myself get passed. I also had the advantage of not having to run a sixth leg, so I knew I didn't need to save my legs for a long 7.3-miler at the end like Michael needed to. So I just friggin ran. Rarely have I ever run that hard, pushing both my physical and mental limits like that. It was exhilarating. It was also terrifying. But I wasn't about to let my team and myself down, so I just kept pushing, never looking back. Before I knew it, the 3.39 miles were over, and I was still in the lead! 3.39 miles in 21:50, or a 6:26 pace. Exactly the same pace as my Coogan's 5K back in March, a race that I was very thrilled about. So I was ecstatic that I ran the same pace for a longer distance after already running 9 very fast miles. And of course, I was very, very relieved that I didn't get passed.Over the next few legs, we started gaining some more time on the other team. And I was again relieved that there would be some room separating me and Michael so I wouldn't have to push myself so hard. But then we got lost again. We had ended up behind the other team, until Gabe and John was able to pull us ahead slightly. At this point it was actually Michael who gave me a reassuring talk, which I was really appreciative of. Still, I knew that I would leave the transition only about a minute or so ahead of him, so I knew I needed to push as hard as I could. I wasn't looking forward to that, and I had just about resigned myself to getting passed by him.
When I got the wristband from John, I couldn't see how far behind him Chris was, but I knew he would be coming in any second. So, again, I busted out of the transition and ran as fast as I could. This would be my most challenge leg of the relay--not because of the distance or the elevation, but because of the circumstances. It was 3:30 in the morning, I was extremely tired from both lack of sleep and having run 13 miles already, I was pushing myself to run as fast as I could, I was running with an almost overwhelming sense of fear that I would get passed by Michael, and to top it all off, I was running in the pitch black dark. I seriously couldn't see anything. The tiny headlamp I was wearing was no match for the thick fog and darkness of the night. I prayed that I wouldn't step on a pothole or a crack in the road.
And at this point I was getting a little delirious. I thought I was running on the sidewalk, which was separated from the main road by a curb. I jumped over the curb to run on the street--only to realize that it wasn't a curb, but just a painted white line separating the shoulder from the road. The last half mile of the leg was even worse, as I ran onto some sort of park trail for the transition. The trees overhead blocked out any possible speck of moonlight. As I turned onto the trail, one of the race volunteers told me to watch out for potholes. I had to let out a laugh, because how the heck are you supposed to watch for potholes if you can't even see them?!? But somehow, somehow I was able to finish that leg in one piece, and I was so happy to see Kelsey at the transition.
I'm not sure how I did it, but I managed to fend off Michael for that fourth leg too--although just barely; I think he came in about 10 seconds after me. And somehow, I managed to post another fast time: 4.31 miles in 27:53, or a 6:27 pace. I was, again, so happy that I was able to run as fast as I did. And I only had one more leg to go!
But after I ran that leg, we got lost a third time. After four rotations, we were 9 minutes behind the other FRNY team. And in his leg before mine, John had fallen in the dark, badly scraping up his hands, arms and torso. It was looking like we just weren't meant to have a successful race.
The fifth set of legs was probably the hardest one for the team. For the first time during the relay, we were several minutes behind the other team. We were all starting to feel the toil of our bodies, and some of us had already run more than 30 miles. We briefly saw some of the other team's runners on the road, and they looked like they were still going strong. It was disheartening.
And then John came running into the transition. And I was off, one last time. I think this was the hardest leg for me mentally, as I knew that no matter how hard I ran, I would never be able to catch up to Michael. Not that I was able to run very hard at all... My legs were beat, my spirits were low, and I just wanted my run to end. I don't remember a whole lot about this leg except that I ran over a rickety little bridge; and each time a car would drive over it, it would bounce and send shockwaves up my legs. I couldn't wait for that run to be over.
And then, 4.47 miles later, it was over; I had finished in 30:18, or a 6:46 pace. It was my slowest leg of the race, but I was done! I had finished my five legs, totaling about 21.58 miles in 2:17:00 or 6:20 pace!!! (My Garmin says the course was only 21.1 miles, so it would be 6:29 pace; either way I was pleased!). I was so happy I was finished. And I was so glad that I had run strong for all of my five legs. It was an amazing race, and I felt great to be done and be able to rest.
But that feeling didn't last long. Kelsey, running right after me, ended up falling too. As he limped into the transition, shorts tattered, with a pained expression on his face, our hearts sank. Kelsey had sprained his ankle, badly, and wasn't going to be able to run his 6th leg. I think it's fair to say we were pretty devastated at that point. Not because we weren't going to win the relay, but because our good friend and coach Kelsey, who has never had an injury as long as any of us has ever known him, was suddenly unable to walk without assistance. Finishing the relay seemed at this point to be a lesser priority than taking care of the team's members. But still, we soldiered on, determined to finish despite being kicked while we were down.
It was during that very last set of legs that I really was so proud to be a member of the Ultra Front Runners NY team. It was pretty evident at that point that we weren't going to win. Our team was exhausted, broken and bloodied. But with our amazing and inspiring resilience, we pulled ourselves together, and made our way to that finish.
I ended up having to run that sixth leg of mine. And it was brutal... 7.29 miles in what was then the mid-morning heat. I felt like I was running in slow motion, like the leg would never end. But despite it being my longest and slowest leg by far, I knew that I had the support of my team carrying me along the way. They were there at the halfway point, ready with a bottle of water for me. And then, a loooong 55 minutes after I started, they were at the transition area. And I could hear them ecstatically cheering for me way before I even set foot in the zone. Those cheers meant that we had really accomplished something. Running 200 miles despite being kicked down over and over again. Showing our strength and unity as a team when all of the forces seemed to want to pull us apart. And being able to laugh and have fun amidst a disappointing string of bad luck.
About 7 miles later, Josh finished the last leg, and we had REACHED THE BEACH! Our final time was 22:25:29, or a 6:41 average pace. We had finished 3rd overall out of 150 teams, and 2nd in the Men's Ultra division. The other FRNY team, A Case of the Runners, finished about 20 minutes ahead of us, and were there to cheer us in.
According to my Garmin, I ran a total of 28.39 miles in 3:12:18, for an average pace of 6:46. The official RTB course maps say I ran 28.87 miles, which would come out to a 6:39 pace. Either way, I am super thrilled with my performance.
And then we got to celebrate with a nice New England Clambake, complete with a lobster roll, mussels and chowdah. Our first real meal in 24 hours, and it was a tasty one. :-)
In the end, although the race had not gone quite as we had hoped, we were all very proud of our accomplishment, and happy to have been able to run together. I, for one, was so honored to have been included on the team, and so inspired by everyone's resilience and determination. And most of all, despite everything that happened, all of the bad luck we experienced, I had some of the most fun I've ever had. Congratulations to A Case of the Runners for a great race, and thank you, Josh, Tyler, Gabe, John, Kelsey and Rich, for making Spring Reach the Beach 2011 an experience I'll never forget!