Reach the Beach Relay, a Road Trip for Adults
Teams of 12 tackle 200 miles of New England countryside in a 24-hour, all-night runfest that is one of running's most social events.
Posted Wednesday, 1 May, 2002
It was just after midnight in rural New Hampshire, and Kevin Dorr was running up what may have been the steepest hill he had ever seen.
"It was very dark, pitch black, and the hill was so steep that my nose was touching the asphalt," Dorr recounted. "I was struggling, but that's when I started to hear them: 'Mooooooose... Mooooooose... Mooooooose...' I could hear them before I could even see them."
At the top of the hill, Dorr's family and a group of runners were cheering him on in somewhat unorthodox fashion. With thumbs to temples and hands waving as makeshift antlers, the group bellowed moose calls at him.
These were Dorr's teammates, the Bull Moose team, one of nearly 100 teams of runners in last year's Reach the Beach Relay. The team's signature moose call, it turns out, is what cheerfully passes for adult behavior midway through a 200-mile relay.
"When you come over the hill and you hear your teammates yelling, 'mooooooose,' how can you not just laugh when you hear that?" asked Dorr, 47, of Alpena, Michigan. "You say to yourself, 'Okay, I can slog out another mile.' It's just fun, and that's the most important part. We're all out there to have fun."
Two hundred miles over 24 hours, through the middle of the night -- fun? You'd better believe it. The typical team size for the Reach the Beach Relay is 12 runners, making the work of the race less about the actual running and more about supporting the others on the team. While each team has its own competitive goals, every one of them is out there for the social aspect.
A road trip for adults
"It's like when you were in college, and you'd pile into a car and go on a road trip," said race co-director Michael Dionne. "This is like a road trip for adults."
"That's exactly what it is!" Dorr enthused. "As an adult you just don't do this kind of thing very often -- and it's great to be doing it. I've been running since I was 16, and this is the most fun I've had as an adult runner. It's a big social outing for the weekend. The athletic part is important, but it's just a great social event."
Reach the Beach is a young event, in its fourth year, but it has grown quickly thanks in large part to the enthusiasm of its runners, who describe the event as well-organized, beautifully scenic, and one hell of a good time.
The relay breeds an infectious enthusiasm, powerful enough in one case to attract the race's primary sponsor, Kana, after the company entered a corporate team in the first year. "There's a running culture at our company, and when Reach the Beach first started we fielded a team, including our CEO and CFO," said Sheila Walker, a Kana vice president who has run the relay every year. "That first year was such a great experience for us, and the next year our CEO said, 'Absolutely, let's sponsor it.'"
Dawn unfolds in the last quarter of the relay. Photo Jonathan S. McElvery.
A late-night baton pass. Photo Jonathan S. McElvery.
A team snacks at a transition area near the halfway point. Photo courtesy Sandwich Central School PTO
Held in late September (Sep. 27-28 this year), Reach the Beach's point-to-point course showcases the richly varied terrain of New England in its most beautiful season. The course starts in northern New Hampshire at the Bretton Woods Ski Area and winds its way southeast through mountains, foothills, pastures and New England villages to the ocean, where the relay finishes at Hampton Beach, New Hampshire, about an hour north of Boston.
"This course is spectacular," said Dionne. "It's quaint New England: little towns with white church steeples, tons of lakes, pastures, barns, running brooks, little cemeteries, mountains and hills."
For many runners, the relay is their first time running in the late-night solitude of the New England countryside. "It's peaceful," Walker said. "All you hear is your own feet, and there are no other distractions."
The teams negotiate the course in shifts, cycling through the relay's 36 legs, which vary from 2.4 to 8.6 miles in length. For the typical 12-person team, each runner takes three legs over the course of the relay, averaging a total of just under 17 miles. (Teams may have between eight and 12 runners, and there is also an ultra category for teams of six or less). Finishing times range between 20 and 30 hours.
"This is for the everyday, run-a-few-miles person," said Dionne. "People think, '200 miles, I'm not up for that, I'm not a marathoner.' But that's the beauty of it: you can have marathoners and joggers together on your team, and it all works out."
"We've got guys who can run at a 7-min/mile pace, and we've got guys who run at an 11-min/mile pace," Dorr agreed. "The really good thing about it is that as long as you're in reasonably good shape and you've been running a reasonable amount -- not even a lot -- this race is doable, especially if you're careful picking which legs you run."
The relay starts in stages -- slower teams first, faster teams later -- so that most teams finish within a few hours of each other. That means that for a few magical miles in the middle of the night, all of the teams, fast and slow, converge on the course.
"It's 1 or 2 in the morning," Dorr described, "and you're out there in the dark running all by yourself in the middle of nowhere. The moon and the stars are out, it's very still, very peaceful, and it's just you. All of a sudden, like fireflies, you begin to see all of the flashlights of the runners ahead and behind. It's extremely cool."
The next time all the runners see each other is some 10 or 12 hours later, oceanside at Hampton Beach, where all the teams cheer each other to the finish line amid a festive air, some teams plunging enthusiastically into the chilly ocean water at the end. "Our whole team runs the last leg together with our last runner," Dorr said, "moosing everyone and everyone moosing us."
Some planning required
For all of its fun, running Reach the Beach does require careful coordination. Teams travel in two vans: the runners in one van complete all of their legs while the other van has a few hours off. The active van shadows its runners, leapfrogging from transition area to transition area, cheering runners on, giving them water, keeping them going. Meanwhile, the runners in the other van are left to their own devices, free to sleep, get a bite to eat, whatever -- as long as they're there to meet the other runners when their shift is up.
"Some of the funnest part is the logistics," Walker said. "Last year we were so much more rested at the end of the race than ever. You get in a pattern, you figure out the driving, you learn how to get sleep, you start to know the course, and everything just starts to go easier. But even then, you can never anticipate the curve balls that are going to get thrown at you."
"The biggest thing is making sure that a runner doesn't get lost, and that's part of the race," said race co-director Dionne. "A bunch of runners go the wrong way at some point on the course, and the van has to go off and find them. Some teams will give the runner a two-way radio so you have a mile or two link to the van."
Van-to-van coordination presents its own difficulties. Since cell phone coverage is spotty along the course, there's often no way to communicate with the other van, and there are inevitable instances of poor timing.
"The first year we ran it, our group took off and went to a hotel with a Jacuzzi after our first leg," Dorr said. "We sat in the jacuzzi, loosened up, just relaxed, kind of lost track of time.
When we got back, we passed the last runner who was going to hand off to us literally just 200 yards before the transition area. We passed him, and we didn't even slow down. Without stopping, our runner opened the door of the van, jumped out, just had enough time to take his sweats off, and he was off and running. We got there just in time, a matter of seconds."
In addition to hosting these occasional moments of high drama, the transition areas are also the social gathering places for both runners and local community groups. Despite the 200-mile sprawl of its course, Reach the Beach maintains a genuinely local feel; girl scouts, PTA groups, volunteer fire companies and local congregations turn out to feed, and even house, the teams.
"The people who volunteer for this race are really phenomenonal," Walker said. "Adults, kids, all ages, and they can't do enough to help you. At the transition areas, they tell you great stories about the other teams, and it's an amazing word-of-mouth element -- it's a comfortable, old-fashioned way to share the news."
The Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Laconia, New Hampshire, opens its doors to runners, who lie down in the pews for a few minutes of sleep. The first runners begin arriving around 10pm and the last leave around 2:30am.
"Imagine being in a van with five runners," Dorr said. "After a number of hours, the van begins to smell, well, not the best. You've got all this stuff, gear, food, water -- you're packed in. I can't tell you how great it is to be able to get out and sleep on the floor of this church."
"We turn our sanctuary into a dormitory. I tell them to lay down on the pews, and in the middle of the run, the sanctuary is full," said Pastor Rob Robb, adding that the church plans to have 30 cots available this year. "We just feel it's a service we can do for the community. It's not just the local community, but the national community -- we've met runners from Seattle, the coast of Maine, northern Michigan, the Carolinas, all over."
For runners too wired to rest, the church has big pots of homemade soup waiting. "You walk into the church and the aroma of homemade soups in crockpots just knocks you down. It's phenomenal," Dorr said.
Another local group puts on a Hawaiian luau theme, complete with grass skirts. Elsewhere, a local school opens its gymnasium, where runners roll out sleeping bags for a quick nap. At Bear Brook State Park, runners swap stories around a giant bonfire, hosted by the Allenstown Volunteer Fire Department. "They bring in their fire trucks, and they build the fire, and they bring soup and sandwiches for the runners," said Dionne.
It's all about the team
"It's a great team building event, that's the reason I did this," Dionne said. "The running's great, but the main thing is that you're spending time with people you like for 24 hours, and you just have a great time."
"I've worked with these guys for a long time," said Walker of the Kana relay team, "but to go through something like that, to spend 24 hours together in a small space, helping each other to run our best, it brings out the best in people. And we have a blast every year."
Other teams find that the event helps them make new friendships, since many are cobbled together from friends of friends, or even complete strangers. Teams often turn to the online bulletin board of the Reach the Beach website to find pick-up runners, and over the summer as the event draws near, the site heats up with activity -- runners looking for teams, teams looking for runners, everyone looking for advice and swapping strategy.
"The first year we were trying to figure out do we need tents, how much food, do we need to carry walkies or cell phones," Dorr said. "What I would suggest to teams running it the first time is to pick up the phone or e-mail somebody and talk to people who have done it.
"Just don't let it overwhelm you," Dorr added. "Once you do it, it all just kinda makes sense."
Reach the Beach Relay website
Online race registration
Sep. 27-28, 2002
Friday September 27, 2002 8:00 AM - 7:00 PM.
Teams start in waves every 15-30 minutes.
8 to 12
(6 or less for ultra category)