Two weeks ago, I flew from France to New York in order to compete in the second running of the Reach The Beach: Massachusetts, a 200-mile footrace from Wachusett to Westport. For various reasons, I was not able to resurrect the same team that I had last year, but we kept the most important part of the team — the name. A Case of the Runners would return again!
A Case of the Runners was probably one of the few returning “Ultra” teams to the MA RTB event. If you’re not familiar with RTB, it is a team-based relay event. Between 4 and 12 runners pile in a van (or two) in an effort to run to the beach as fast as possible using small local roads and sometimes trails. There are 36 legs, which are divided amongst the runners.
Most teams who transverse the 200 miles do so in teams of 12, which means that each runner has 3 segments to run (36 segments divided by 12 people = 3 per). The “Ultra” category was created for teams who compete with 6 people or fewer. In my case, the team had 6 people, which means that each runner had 6 legs to run.
Returning from last year were Chris F., Mike S., and myself. Replacing Mike W., Lavar C. and Ramon F. were Jonathan W., Thomas H., and Jerry McD.
Chris S. would be our den mother, and driver extraordinaire Mike O would be returning as our driver, this his 7th time doing so. I doubt highly that there is another driver in all of RTB who has more experience than Mike, and his ability to be a little (ok, a lot) bitchy when time is short means that he runs a tight van. And with a team so fast, you need someone to keep the meandering runners from losing focus.
The runners in their running order and their mileage were as follows:
Jonathan (27.1 miles)
Chris (40 miles)
Jerry (34.1 miles)
Mike (33.5 miles)
Me (31.57 miles)
Thomas (34.3 miles)
A quick description of our runners, in order of rotation:
The case of the first set of legs (1, 7, 13, 19, 25, 31) was one of the shortest distance overall (only 27 miles) but with the most elevation gain. I had to take myself out of even considering this leg because I knew I would burn out my legs after two legs. I just don’t have the legs to go uphill very well but thankfully Jonathan did. He was one of only two people who volunteered for this short-yet-intense leg, and while his strength lies in longer distances we had to take advantage of his abilities and willingness to run uphill almost every leg.
The second rotation was all Chris. Chris was a part of my team last year and I was quite happy to have him on the team again. He’s a strong runner who doesn’t shy away from running long distances and he was one of three who volunteered to do the long 2nd rotation, which totaled over 40 miles. He was in perfect shape, having trained for Boston 2012. Unfortunately, everyone who knows the horror story that was Boston 2012 knows that no one had a good race. Regardless, he was in as good a shape as we could have asked for and was probably in shape for a low 2:40s at Boston.
Our third runner, Jerry was a last-minute replacement for our van den mother Chris. Jerry is a very strong distance runner, and I think the only time he hasn’t broken 3 hours in a marathon was Boston 2012 in the near-90 degree temperatures. Most importantly, he’s finished numerous RTB ultras and he knows how to manage his running over the course of 24 hours without blowing up physically or mentally. He’s also one of the most pleasant people in the club to be around, and if I’m going to be stuck in a stinking van for a day then I may as well choose people who all get along with each other.
Jerry passed off to our 4th runner, Mike. Mike wanted the 40-mile leg but got stuck with one of the normal legs because too few people were willing to take certain rotations. Just two weeks earlier Mike had competed in the Bear Mountain 50 Miler after making the decision just a week before to compete. He ended coming in the top 10% with no specific training for this 50-miler. Insane.
Mike passed off to me, and while normally I might be considered on the faster end of the spectrum, on this team I was on the slower side. That would be because of…
…Thomas Hammer, our final runner. He’s fast as the dickens and he knows how to pace himself. There are a lot of people who run their first Ultra RTB and end up wanting to (or actually) walk their last leg or two. They run so hard their first 3 or 4 legs that they don’t have anything to finish up with. I knew Thomas would be smart, and that even as our runner who had to run the last leg — and thus, actually reach the beach — he would maintain a strong and even pace throughout the race.
On to the event!
Last year was the first year of the event, and we were able to take advantage of a few crucial opportunities and win 1st place in our (Ultra) division, and 2nd overall. Our goal this year was to again capture the 1st place Ultra category. However, competing with us from New York were 4 other Front Runner teams in the Ultra division — two of which we’d be competing directly with. Both teams were fast, but one in particular, headed by Koach Kelsey, was extremely fast.
Not unexpected, the race organizers seeded us in the last group of teams to start. While the teams who were expected to take the longest time to finish started the race at 8am, A Case of the Runners started at 2pm — 6 full hours after the first teams had departed. This may seem like a bad thing, but to be honest there’s a certain egotistical side of me that enjoys starting dead last and passing so many people throughout the race, especially when some of them ask what time we started and they realize we started 5 or 6 or 7 hours after them.
At 2:00 PM when the gun went off, Jonathan started for our team and did so starting with two other FRNY Teams — the “Ultra Gays” captained by Dave L. and “Ultra FRNY” captained by Kelsey. Both were fast teams, but we knew the real threat to us was Kelsey’s team. While he had made a team of only 5 people, they were all ringers. It’s sort of like the first Olympic basketball Dream Team. Relative to the rest of the field, they were just *that* strong, even with one less person than the other Ultra teams.
Not too surprisingly, all three FRNY teams who started at 2:00 PM kept fairly close to each other the first set of 6 legs. I think that no one wanted to go out too hard; the race is really won or lost in the last 10-12 legs. While this made me happy to be somewhat close (but still behind) Kelsey’s team, it did make me want to start putting some distance on Dave L’s Ultra Gays. While I love them, I still wanted to beat them. And if I couldn’t beat Kelsey’s team, I sure as hell had to beat the Ultra Gays.
My first leg would be my longest, at 7.7 miles. I started off conservatively, trying not to worry about the possibility of one of the Ultra Gays hot on my heels. Annoyingly, the first half of my first leg was uphill and I had to temper my ego when the first set of splits started coming through in the high 6:40s. But as soon as it leveled out and I warmed up, the 6:20s came ticking and I had already started passing people who were on teams that started a half hour ahead of me. I played it all by feel, and finished off feeling great. By the time I had the finish line in my sights, I was still ready to keep running. I was happy to have kept my ego in check as I passed the bracelet to Thomas, who scampered off to run his first-ever RTB leg.
As the rotations kept coming, Kelsey’s team slowly but steadily pulled away from us. By the middle of the race we were probably a half hour behind them, and they weren’t showing any signs of slowing down. Still, we all wondered aloud: They only have 5 team members. It’s hard enough to run 6 legs each, but what must that 7th leg be like? It sounded horrible.
Surprisingly, we had also put a noticeable lead on the Ultra Gays. While I was secretly relieved that they probably wouldn’t be beating us this race, I was a little bit disappointed that they didn’t run faster because I do enjoy everyone on their team and it’s always nice to mingle a bit with the other teams once you get sick of your own. I flew over from France for this race and hadn’t seen many of these people in months. I had been looking forward to making off-color jokes in the middle of the night and trading gossipy stories of what was happening in each others’ vans.
As day became night and we were well into the lightless hours before dawn, somehow we all managed to keep knocking off our legs without drama. Normally it seems that in every van, in every year, there are one or two people who start to struggle or doubt themselves after the 3rd leg when it’s 3am and no one has seen the sun for 7 hours. When there are 3 legs and 16+ miles still ahead, thoughts of, “oh god, can I even finish this,” start popping into your mind and you try to keep it a secret for fear of disheartening the rest of the people in the van (one or two of which probably have the same thought but are too afraid to admit it).
This year, however, was a strange success : everyone kept ticking off those miles without any problem. No one finished a leg and came back into the van looking like a sweaty zombie. No one slowed down more than maybe 10 seconds a mile even on the harder legs. It was strange, and it gave me a small sliver of hope that if Kelsey’s team started to struggle, we might be able to make up some time on them when they were on their 6th, 7th, and even 8th legs per person.
Sure enough, as the night passed on and we continued our rally, I noticed we were started to catch up with Kelsey’s team. First it started off with sightings of their van leaving transition areas as ours arrived. But as day broke we found ourselves waiting with Kelsey’s
team for each of our runners to come into the same transition area. They were no longer a full leg (40+ minutes) ahead. They had only 20 minutes on us, and we were closing in with 10 legs left to run.
It was around that time when we were driving to a transition area when we spotted one of their runners — walking. Our first thought when we saw someone walking ahead was, “oh god, more roadkill.” Then we realized it was someone from Kelsey’s team. Not good. While we’re all very competitive with each other and everyone wants to win, no one wants anyone to have to walk or get injured. We pulled along the runner and passed them a Gatorade to finish the remaining mile of their leg, and continued driving to the transition area to let Kelsey know that he had a runner who was walking. This was when we learned that Kelsey had pulled out of the race, after an ITB issue. I felt a bit bad for Kelsey, because this would be his second RTB:MA race that he had to end prematurely. This also meant that the team was down to 4 people, one of whom was now walking.
Mike was on deck for us, and had to chase down an on-form Josh. While Mike couldn’t have caught up with Josh, he could certainly keep pace. He’s got the ability to keep ticking off tempo-paced miles, leg after leg without slowing down. After a few more rotations, I noticed that we were still gaining on Kelsey’s team, but not by much. We had narrowed the gap to maybe 15 minutes, but I estimated that at the current rate it wouldn’t be enough to catch up with their team with only one rotation left to go. While a few of them had slowed down, a number of them were still churning along without problems.
As we entered the 6th and final rotation, with 6 legs to go is when the race became about finishing as strongly as we could without killing ourselves to win. We were still making up time on Kelsey’s team, but not enough. With only a few legs left to go we knew we couldn’t beat them. It wasn’t realistic to try and chase down Kelsey’s team. And worse, we didn’t want to push ourselves so hard that we would be delirious and potentially injured. I was a bit concerned seeing one of Kelsey’s runners finish a leg barely able to stand, yet still with one more leg to run. How would it be possible? Is it even worth it?
After Jonathan finished his last leg (leg 31), the volunteers at the transition area told us that only two teams had even come through at that point. That means that of the 185 teams that had started, we had thus passed 182 of them despite having started dead last. We knew that one of the teams ahead of us was Kelsey’s team. The other team we were told had started much earlier than us, and that in terms of overall time we were well ahead
of them. We were in 2nd place overall. Hot diggity! This was a bit of an ego / morale boost for me. While winning the Ultra category was important, if we couldn’t do that then we could at least repeat our overall finish from last year — beating all but one team in the field.
Like gears turning, my team all finished their final legs with a smile. Mike had a bit of a long leg before passing off to me, and it gave me a few minutes to wait for him and consider how fun this had all been. Waiting for him and waiting to start my final leg, I didn’t want it to be over yet. It’s amazing how fast 20+ hours go when you’re sleep-deprived and physically exhausted. I still remember how long my first RTB seemed. But after my second and now this third, they seem to go by faster.
My 6th and final leg was a bit of a doozy — 7.29 miles, with rolling hills. I’m not a fan of hills (who is?), but to have a relatively long distance as the final leg and with hills? I wasn’t a happy camper. The entire race I had managed to average around 6:35 pace, and I didn’t want to humiliate myself by blowing up this last leg. So I took the bracelet one last time from Mike, yelled a quick congratulations to him for finishing his last leg, and started on my way toward handing off to our last runner, Thomas. In an effort that surprised me, I was able to fade the hills and average a 6:49 pace for that last leg.
What I didn’t expect was that there were more than hills to worry about — there was that little voice in my head. It was asking, rhetorically, if I had to keep running fast. I couldn’t catch up with Kelsey’s team with only one leg to go, and we were so far ahead of the other teams that I could have walked the entire leg and we wouldn’t have given up a spot finish-wise. But to slow down at this point would be wrong in so many ways. Any good runners knows that we run for more than to win or to compete. We run for ourselves — a selfish and egotistical reason, but true. I wanted to keep my pace up and my splits down, because that’s what we do. We compete against ourselves. I’m never going to win a marathon or even a New York Road Runners race, but if I perform less than what I’m capable of then I’ve lost something even more important. I reminded myself of this the entire duration of that last leg, and managed to finish in fine form to hand off to Thomas. And just like that, my race was over.
Thomas had the 36th leg, a 10km distance that would be over in around 36 minutes or so. As much as I wanted to sit down and take a break, we had to all get in the van to wait Thomas’s arrival. After a quick stretch of the legs for me, we hopped into the van at the beach and eagerly waited for Thomas. There we saw Kelsey’s team who had finished just minutes ahead, and soon we were given the signal that Thomas was approaching. The entire team, including driver and den mother, assembled 100 meters from the finish chute and picked up speed to match and finish with Thomas.
For the second year in a row, we would come in 2nd overall, finishing in 21:28, an average of 6:25 per mile (4:00 per km). Unfortunately, we did not take first in the Ultra category as we did last year. That honor would go to Kelsey’s team who took 1st overall and 1st in the Ultra in a time of 21:17. They ended up ahead of us by 11 minutes, or roughly 3 seconds per mile. If I had to lose to a team, I’d want it to be Kelsey’s.
The Ultra Gays were a bit behind, finishing in 23:28 (7:01 pace). I had hoped they’d be more competitive, because then we could have blocked out the top 3 Ultra spots with FRNY teams. Unfortunately there was another speedy ultra team out there who finished in 22:35, relegating the Ultra Gays to 4th place Ultra. It should be noted that the top 4 teams overall were all Ultra teams. This is a little bit amazing, and it’s a great accomplishment on the 4 teams for fielding such strong runners. There are so many things that can go wrong, but this year it seemed like everything went right.
There hasn’t been any direct discussion about next year’s race just yet, but I’m hoping that we can return with the same team. There are almost always small changes to the line up, but I really enjoyed each of the personalities in the van. As a credit to them, I never once wanted to strangle anyone (too much).
I always get a little sad when epic races like these end. They’re so much fun, no matter how much I secretly want them to be over when I’m actually running. The camaraderie, the stories, the sense of accomplishment are highs that keep me going for a long time. I don’t want them to end, but it’s inevitable. Thankfully, I seem to stack my years with big races every few months. In July I have the Silver Rush 50 miler in Leadville. Then in September is yet another Reach the Beach (of course), through New Hampshire. And my A-Race for the year, I have the Chicago Marathon in October with a truckload of other Front Runners. As a means to keep my sanity, I can’t wait for them to come.