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Archive

A Tale of Two Vans (Chapter 1)

This weekend Susan and I competed in the Reach the Beach (RTB) relay. The 2010 course was 209 miles from Cannon Mt. to Hampton Beach over 36 legs. We ran as a 12 person relay team which means each runner ran 3 legs with a distance of 12.5 to 22.5 miles. Some legs are relatively flat and fast while others feature long multi-mile uphills and downhills. The terrain is varied enough that every runner gets a unique experience. If you’re interested in detailed information, the complete set of course maps and distances can be downloaded here.

Susan formed the team primarily with coworkers from her company. The other runners were spouses (me!) and some old friends. We ended up with a wide range of running speed (7:20 – 10:00 min/mi), experience (5 miles to ultramarathon), ages (28-40s), and sex (10M 2F). The result was a nice mix of personalities with old friends to catch up with and new friends to enjoy. This also meant there was also a set of legs that suited everybody pretty well. The end result was Team NEEP which had to compete in the Mens Open Division. We finished 173/430 teams, 58/118 in our division (top 50%!!!), and covered the 209+ miles in 28h 54m 04s for an 8:17/mi average pace.

Competing in a race like this requires a lot of logistics. We ended up borrowing a minivan from Brian Hone’s parents to contain runners 1-6 (Van 1). We then rented a Ford Flex to contain runners 7-12 (Van 2). Beforehand we made up first aid kits, bought water and gatorade, stocked up on various foods to snack on, etc. About 6:15am on Friday people started arriving at our house to leave their cars and load up the vans. The end result was 2 vans stuffed to the gills with 6 people, tents, sleeping bags, clothes, running gear, food, water, maps, course guides, etc… We ended up leaving about 15 minutes late but mostly intact.

When we arrived at Cannon Mountain 2.5 hours later we checked in, got our safety equipment certified (reflective vests, blinking lights, and headlamps for the overnight legs), sat through the orientation, got our race numbers, and got our team photo taken. This process took well over an hour in the light rain and fog that had descended on the ski area for the start of the race. The result was 2000+ cold and wet folks waiting around a muddy ski slope for their start time. Thankfully this was the worst part of the weekend. Once the race started and we got in the groove of things everyone dried out, warmed up, and had a lot of fun.

Safety equipment

Safety equipment


Runner 1 was Jamie who was easily our fastest runner. After he started at 11:40am we all raced to our vans. Van 1 headed to the next transition area while Van 2 had a 5 hour break before their runners were up. This was essentially the flow of the whole race — one van would drop a runner, see them start, and then immediately leave to drive to the next area while the other van was off for 4.5 hours and could sleep and/or eat. Since there was so much vehicle traffic (430 teams x 2 vans each) there was not a lot of time to dawdle.

I was runner #2 which meant I had to be ready to go as soon as Jamie finished. There was so much fog and rain we were required to wear our reflective gear so vehicles could see us. I suited up and waited in the runner transition area (cones on the side of the road) for Jamie to show up. Jamie ran a very fast pace (6:45/mi for his 8+ mile leg) and I grabbed the “baton” from him and took off. In reality the “baton” was a reflective wrist bracelet that could be handed to the next runner and easily snapped on.

Shirt, Medal, Number, and reflective Baton

Shirt, Medal, Number, and reflective Baton


My first leg was 8.96 miles, 279 feet of gain, and 132 feet of loss. The first 4 miles were mostly downhill followed by a 5 mile long moderate uphill. I was a bit worried about running too hard on the downhill and burning myself out for the uphill so I settled into a fast but easy pace and let the rain and fog roll by. After 1h 11m (7:55/mi) I rolled into the transition area and handed the baton off to Justin. The next leg was short so we had to hop in the van and get moving quickly. Despite my leg being my longest of the race it turned out to be the easiest. The hills were all moderate which meant the uphills didn’t take too much out of me.

I managed to dry off and change clothes in the car on leg 3 so I could drive the van for a while. I also knew I had approximately 9 hours before I’d have to run again so I got to just enjoy everyone else’s experience. The legs continued on and after our last runner (runner 6) was on the road we drove to meet the next van and prepare for our 4.5 hour off time. Our last runner came in at about 4:30pm and we loaded up the van and immediately drove to find a sit down dinner. Mmmmm chicken, black beans, and cheese in a tortilla wrap.

After dinner we sped ahead to transition area 12 where we would be meeting the next van and starting our 2nd set of legs. We got there in enough time that we had about 2 hours to kill. Most of us grabbed our sleeping pads and sleeping bags and sacked out in the soccer field at the school hosting the transition area. The sun had just set and there were a ton of stars out along with a gorgeous moon lighting up the surrounding mountains. I managed to sleep for about 30 minutes before some rude other team drove into the driveway with a speaker on top of its van blasting Barracuda by Heart. It wasn’t technically quiet time yet, but it’s crap like that that gets the race kicked out of certain towns forcing the organizers to re-route the race every several years. Plus, it’s just inconsiderate to the 4000 other runners who may not necessarily want to hear your music. Once awake I stayed warm in my sleeping bag and watched the night sky and rested my legs.

My 2nd leg went off about 10pm. This leg covered 7.79 miles but featured a very hilly 610 feet of gain and 563 feet of loss. This was very different than my first leg in that I started on 4.5 mile long uphill followed by a steep downhill, another steep uphill, and a long steep downhill into the finish. Moderate downhills are nice, but at a certain point downhills pose their own challenge as you try not to hurt yourself either going too fast or hurting yourself trying to slow down.

This leg was part of the transition from the mountains where we started to the hilly lakes region of NH. Every low area was marshy and very foggy. At times I could only see about 20 feet in front of me with my headlamps. At other points the fog lifted and I could see a long string of blinking red lights going up the long hill in front of me. I don’t run a lot at night so it was a very surreal experience. I really enjoyed this leg despite it being more challenging on my legs and required paying a lot of attention to not twisting my ankle in a pothole or falling off the shoulder of the road.

After my leg I took over driving until runner 6 finished again and we could think about sleep again. We finished about 2:30 am and immediately took off for Bear Brook State Park for sleep, food and ultimately transition area 24 and our final running legs. We arrived about 4am, found a flat spot in the trees upwind from the portajohns to lay out our sleeping bags. Despite the noise of the generator (running the lights in the makeshift kitchen and runners transition area), the banging of the portajohn doors, and other runners arriving in their vans we all were so exhausted we easily slept for 1.5 or 2 hours.

Once awake it was time to grab a quick breakfast (they had pancakes for sale although I just ate a bagel PB&J from our supplies), take care of any other biological needs, and get ready to run again!

My final leg started at 9:30 in the morning. The day was bright and sunny which was quite a contrast with the previous day’s fog run. This leg was only 5.12 miles but was very steep featuring 552 feet of uphill and 331 feet of descent. This was broken up into 2 long uphills (2.5 and 1 miles) and 1 long downhill (1.5 miles). I’m not sure whether it was the sun, the long steep hills, the lack of sleep, the previous days 17 miles, or some sick combo of all of these but this run was very hard for me. Since I knew this was my last leg for the race, I worked very hard on the last hill and managed to pass 6 or 7 people in just that mile. I ended up running a respectable 8:08/mi pace and was more than happy to be done for the day.

After van 1 finished our legs we were close enough to my house that we could drive there, get hot showers, and sit down food before heading to the finish line to meet Team NEEP’s last runner. Jason hit the beach about 4:30 pm on Saturday afternoon and Van 1 joined him to cross the finish line in one large group. We found Van 2 (who was stuck in traffic) and handed out our finishers medals and recounted some stories. To give you some idea how bad traffic was Jason ran the 4 miles from transition 35 to finish faster than the van could drive the same distance. I’m very glad van 1 managed to meet him so we could celebrate as a group.

When all was said and done I covered 21.87 miles in 2h55m (8:00/mi pace) with 1441 ft. up and 1026 ft down over 20 hours. Every leg was different and challenging/rewarding in its own way. There were hills, exhaustion, lack of food, lack of sleep, long legs to overcome but it all combined to form an unforgettable experience.

The other really fun part was the 27 hours I spent in a minivan with 5 other people. I didn’t talk a lot about what went on in the van because I’m not sure how well it would translate to paper. Let’s just say that 6 guys in a minivan all running hard and trying to meet their biological needs spawn a lot of interesting conversation (and smells). Everyone seemed to have a good time and despite not knowing everyone to start I think we had a good mix of personalities in the van so everyone could enjoy the event.

Thanks to everyone who put on RTB and all of my teammates who helped organize and pull off this event and make it fun!

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