Frequent readers of this blog (Hi Dad!) will know that I’m a bit of a Reach the Beach Relay enthusiast. It’s possible that a large percentage of my close friends are people I met during this 24+ hour event in which you drive 200+ miles in a van while taking turns getting out of the van to run alongside it. Possibly true.
Normally these overnight running relay teams have 12 people in 2 vans and you split up the 200 miles so each person runs 15 to 20 miles in segments and each van gets 5 to 6 hours off between rotations to sleep and eat and do other life sustaining activities. From time to time at the transition stations where you switch runners someone barrels through without stopping. Sometimes these people shout out, “ULTRA!” and that means that they are on a team with only 6 people, 1 van and no rest. Each person on these teams ends up running 30 to 35 miles. Basically five 10Ks in a day. The next logical question is, “Why would anyone do that?”
I wrote about 1000 more words to explain that, so keep reading if you want.
For my friends, “Why would anyone do that?” translates loosely as, “Where do we sign up?”
And thus last weekend I found myself in a single van plus a support vehicle piloted by my friend’s equally crazy but also medically trained girlfriend heading out to Wachusetts for the start of RTB:MA and 200 miles of “fun”. We had some amazing sweatshirts and a plethora of fake mustaches. Because what’s a 200 mile foot race without a fake mustache?
Having done 3 previous RTBs I have to say that this was a completely different experience. It’s not for the faint of heart or sole. We started out a little nervous and a lot excited. Our first rotation went really well, it was a nice temperature heading into evening and everyone cranked out Leg 1 with no problem. Our second rotation was quick because most of the legs were pretty short (you know, 5 to 7 miles). But we arrived at midnight feeling just… ok. Still a little nervous about the road ahead, some pain starting to crop up and, worst of all, for some reason, we were totally alone on the road. This is still a mystery – we’d started at noon thirty and kept a solid to strong pace, but we were completely at the back of the pack. Something to do with staggered start times, I don’t know, it sucked.
Heading into the end of the second rotation and beginning of the third things got very dark both literally (it was the middle of the night) and figuratively (in our souls). We’d get to a transition area and find only a handful of other vans around. We really started to beat ourselves up. In the middle of my third leg I found myself contemplating the idea that we might not make it. It felt horrible. None of us are the kind of people who give up easily. Or, actually, at all. But we are all athletes and I was very worried about the amount of pain we all seemed to be experiencing. Athletes know when to push it and when it’s not worth injury. At one point I actually said “I’m not sure this experience is going to make me stronger.” Like I said, it was a dark, dark place.
But, we each kept going. All six of us were able to find some extra strength somewhere deep inside, which is absurdly cheesy, but really, there’s no other way to describe it. And as I finished my third leg and watched my teammate lope off into the sunrise it felt like our mood had shifted. It might have been the S-caps (ohmygodmiraclecure) or it might have been the daylight or the impromptu yoga session. Maybe we all found the right balance of carbs and protein. Maybe we hit the appropriate aural combo of Three Dog Night and Rihana. But around the middle of the 3rd rotation things took a turn for the better. Thanks to some fast legs on our team we started picking off other runners and by mid-morning were solidly up in the middle of a pack. Our awesome ultra medic made sure we stayed hydrated and fed and by the middle of the fourth rotation we were rocking out. Music blasting. Adrenaline pumping. Smelling absolutely, positively horrible.
I won’t say that the last rotations were easy. They still hurt a lot. But we had some amazing dance parties, some excellent laughs and laid down some solid legs. 28 hours and 22 minutes after taking off… we reached the beach.
And I was totally wrong. It did make me a stronger person. In fact, I can’t even really remember what exactly about the hard parts made them so horrid. All I remember is how much fun it was to see my teammates hand off at the transitions and head off smiling as they hit 20, 25, 30 miles on the day. I loved goofing off at the transition areas, making wholly inappropriate jokes and discussing bodily functions the way only a group of runners can do. I love that we each were able to find a way to get through the effing misery of being alone, hurting and tired in the middle of the night to give it everything we had until we touched sand and reached the beach. It was pretty amazing.
And that brings me back to the original question, “Why would anyone do that?”
Because it crunches so many emotions into such a short period of time. Because really difficult endurance athletic events are good and bad and hard and easy and fun and horrible all at once. It was also a powerful reminder that with the right team around (sup guys. you’re awe-inspiring. also smelly.) With the right team, I just had to keep moving forward and trust that everyone else would do the same. Even when it seemed like there was no possible way for things to get better and in fact that they might get worse… I was able to trust that if I could rally, my teammates would rally, too. And we did. And because we rallied things did get better, our muscles loosened up, our electrolytes balanced out and we got our groove back. Things got all the way back past better to totally awesome. And that’s why we do it.