The end of summer means many things to New Englanders -- cooler temperatures, halloween decorations showing up in local stores, and apple picking. For triathletes, it means triathlon season is quickly winding down as days get shorter and open water gets colder. This also marks the transition to fall running classics.
For many years now I've been running in Reach the Beach with a team of friends. For those of you who haven't heard of it, this is a running relay up in NH that starts at Cannon Mountain and finishes up roughly 200 miles later at Hampton Beach, drifting across the back roads of New Hampshire and crossing the "rolling hills" that NH brings with it. The race course is split into 36 legs. The vast majority of teams do this with 12 runners and two vans, and you must rotate runners in sequence. That means that each runner runs three times. The legs vary in distance from 3 to just under 9 miles, and most runners end up doing 12-18 miles.
Now I've been doing RTB for about the past 10 years, and we've always done it with a full team (usually 12 people, occasionally with 11 when someone gets sick at the last minute). But last year we were talking during the race about putting together an "ultra" team. In RTB, an ultra is a team with 6 or fewer people. This finally came together last winter when my team from last year's RTB was getting together at Red Bones, and we realized we had enough crazy folks to stand up an ultra team!
Fast forward to last week...we had our six people ready to go and we had our legs selected for who was going to run what. Now being an ultra team, we chose to run two legs at a time to give us a reasonable amount of rest between our "ups". Unfortunately, one of our team members had to pull out at the last minute for a family medical emergency. Now if someone backs out of full team, that means three people will have to run an extra leg. With an ultra doing two-up legs, that means that three people have to do two extra legs. For me, that meant I was bumping my mileage up from a personal record of 32 miles in a 36 hour period to 41 miles! Luckily we had a strong bunch of runners!
Now back to the actual race start! Being an ultra team, we started pretty early (11am), and I was on deck as runner #1. As we were driving up (with a dry weather forecast), and came into Franconia Notch, it started to rain heavily. It couldn't have been all bad, because we saw a full rainbow! When we arrived at Cannon, there was actually sleet bouncing off the roofs of the vans! (It's still summer on the calendar!)
Needless to say, the weather gods were looking down on us! Before my heat went off, it dried out a little bit and the fog lifted. I got a little wet, but it wasn't too bad. Now I was up for legs 1 and 2. Leg 1 was largely down hill at the beginning, but then it leveled out. Now, I had to pace myself. Most of the other runners out there were picking it up at the end, but I had to keep reminding myself, that I had another 3 miles to go (nevermind the 6 more legs to come later)! Once I came up on the transition area, one of the coolest parts is being able to run through transition without stopping and yelling "ULTRA!" Once I was on leg #2, I got passed more than a few times! Most everyone else was doing a single 3 mile leg on fresh feet. But it's just an amazing feeling knowing that you're in this doing an ultra for the first time!! One of the highlights for me of these first two legs was seeing Kate O'Malley (Blumberg) a few times during my first run. The second time I saw her, she was waving her BTT transition towel!!
After finishing up my first couple legs, it's time to hop back in the van, get some food down (pretzels, fig newtons, bananas, etc) and then help with some of the driving. Oh yeah, and I took a lot of pictures of my teammates!
One of the differences on an ultra team is that you only have one van! This means a lot! It means you're always ON! Someone is always running; you don't get a chance to go off course and grab some dinner, and you can't pull ahead and get a few hours of sleep while the other van runs their legs. But it does mean you get to spend a LOT of time with your friends! And you never have to worry about getting in touch with the other van to let them know that they're going to be starting in 20 minutes!
My next leg came up at 8:20pm. I was up for my shortest pair of legs #11 and #12 (4.8 and 3.9 miles). So it was nighttime and this means it time to don the reflective vest, front and back blinkies, and a headlamp. This pair of legs was downhill for the first mile and then mostly flat. So I just hammered it with everything I had. The nighttime legs are a lot of fun because you can see the bouncing blinking light of the runners in front of you! It feels like a video game! And you're in NH, so you look up and the stars are just amazingly vivid!
So after finishing up my second pair of legs, I'm halfway done!! Four legs down, four legs to go!! Then it's time to cool down and support my teammates. A couple hours later, I pull my sleeping bag and ear plugs out and setup camp in the back row of the van! I was actually able to get a good solid 3+ hours of sleep in! That's better than I've done on a normal 12 person team!
Next thing you know, I'm lying on the back row, and I hear Bert and Tom wondering aloud when they should wake Matt up! So now it's quarter past four in the morning and I have a half hour to get my stuff together and get ready to run one of my long legs. Legs #21 and #22 totaled 12 miles together, and were labeled as hard and easy. Again, this was my second set of nighttime legs. The first leg was really hard (two big hills), and I just kept hammering it on the second half. This was a really neat leg though. I had some tough work at the beginning, and then, about an hour in, dusk broke and as I was cresting one hill, I was overlooking the valley and there was a cloud hovering below as I looked down.
Oh, I forgot to mention, my first three pairs of legs were more or less winter runs! Before legs #1/#2, I was sitting around in my heavy down hooded parka. And in legs #11/#12 and #21/#22, I was wearing a t-shirt, arm warmers, thermal long sleeves, hat, gloves, and tights! Temperatures were in the upper 20s! (in the summer!!)
Ok, so I'll skip ahead to my last set of legs. I was up my fourth pair of legs for #31/#32. I was up to run again at 1pm. This time the weather was very different -- I was back in a t-shirt and shorts and it was very warm! At this point, I didn't have any more legs coming up, but I still had to finish another 9 miles. My legs were feeling it at this point! But I hammered it with everything I had left!
Once our last runner, Michelle, was on her way to her final two legs, we headed straight for the beach and got there with just enough time to meet her at the finish! And at the finish area, I was able to catch up with some other BTTers who were on team Schwetty Shortz!
Running RTB as an ultra team is a really cool experience! It's a great bonding experience with your team! And it's a great test of your personal stamina and physical endurance! And now I think I've caught the RTB bug all over again and I don't think I can go back to full 12-person team! I'm already excited to do it again in 2012 as another ultra!
Best of all it was great running with my friends Tom, Michelle, Bert, and Carrie!
-- ultra hard coarr