It has been a year since I broke into the World of distance relay running, something which I have become rather enamored with ever since that first experience. What race could have possibly stolen the pitter-patter of my loping heart … The River to the Sea. Oh yes, that’s right folks my relay virginity, as disgusting as it may sound, was claimed by “The Dirty”, a.k.a. New Jersey. It is an insanely sick concept, a 7-person (there will be no sexist crap here) team running from Milford, New Jersey, on the East bank of the Delaware River 92 miles across the state till they hit the Atlantic in Manasquan. Sounds fun, right? Toxic waste, unidentifiable odoriferous emanations, the outstanding housewives, the Sopranos, and the goddam Jets! Regardless of the innumerable shortcomings of the so-called Garden State, this race is a lot of fun.
Last year I was invited to run this race by one of my former Race With Purpose coaches, Dave Darcy, and happily accepted not knowing what the hell I was getting myself into. At that point I was only maybe a month into running outside again coming off of injury. I spent most of the winter lifting weights, doing the elliptical, getting on the stationary bike and eating, the combination of which had added a number of pounds to my upper body. These were all pounds that made this race particularly difficult, but it was good. I needed to get out on the road more and really test my foot and fitness and this seemed like a great way.
Our team, Fast Forward, was a nice mix of guys from 30-65 (Irving, John, Miles, Dave, Kiet, Al and myself) … ya, that’s right, we’re not ageists either! Just so I don’t regurgitate two races at once, here is the long and short of it. We came in 4th overall and won the Men’s Open division. It was fantastic and I was told, not asked, but told that I had to do it the next year to defend our crown.
Just for the pun of it, Fast Forward to 2009 and time to defend our title! For those who know me, I am NOT morning person, regardless of the SOP of the road-racing World, and the R2C, like Jersey, sucks because I had to get up at the unholy and painful hour of 3:30 am. It was so freaking early that when I got down to my rendez-vous point to catch my ride at Canal and Broadway people were just stumbling out of the bars and clubs in the area! Last year I saw a nice brawl on the corner, but no such luck this time around.
It took us a while to get out to the start and the ground fog heading through some of the farms on the back roads out there was pretty impressive. I mean you couldn’t see anything it was so thick. When we reached the start it was just as quaint as the previous year and Irving, the captain and organizer of our team, was just as edgy as I remembered from last year. He has this way of eyeballing everyone, sizing up the competition as we prep our support vehicles and double check our supplies, which is very amusing and yet very unsettling. There were 120 Teams and we were listed as #4.
Just as in the previous year, I was once more being forced into doing leg 4 and 13, which are two of the longer and more difficult legs. The most difficult ones were reserved for the fastest and most fit, which were Kiet and myself. I may have whined and complained a bit for fun, but I really didn’t mind as my mindset going in was to go out and really test my legs and fitness, something that I have not done in some time. These two legs were just what the doctor ordered, hilly, hot and unrelenting … delicious!
Our Team started out at 7:10 am, a full 35-minutes later than last year, but we started out quite well and we quickly gained a lot of grain on the Teams already out on the course. Now my first leg, leg 4, is called “The Beast” (be sure to turn on the elevation chart) and it is for good reason. Within the first half-mile or so you just start to climb and then continue to do so for what appears to be FOREVER, but what I have recently mapped out to be approximately 3.5 miles (I also appear to have misplaced a turn that has the missing half mile). What makes “The Beast” even more difficult is how little shade there is and you’re left out there gassed by the course then slapped in the face by the heat; a nice test of ones character and metal. I LOVE IT! I ended up doing the 8.7-mile leg in 53:46 (6:11/mile pace), which shocked me as I did the math. I had issues breathing along the climb and was fighting the whole time, never finding my rhythm. When I finally hit the decline portion of the course my breathing balanced out, the battery acid in my legs subsided and rhythm was restored and I really started to push it out. I ended up passing 7 Teams on my way through leaving only 4 ahead of us.
Just to bring things into focus with this particular relay, all of the starts are staggered in the hopes that the majority of the Teams will be finishing around the same time … everyone jockeying for position into the final leg. It is an amazing idea, one that rarely yields the desired result, but somehow this small race manages to create that great competitive drama annually, so my hats off to them!
My second leg, leg 13, is the “Do or Die” leg, pretty flat, really fast and the one that can make or break your day. I love how I always seem to get these. At this point we already knew that victory was not going to be possible. We had been caught by Bucknell’s cross country team, who were running low to mid-5s, as well as a few others and the last leg is only 3-miles, but is run by 66-year-old Al … not exactly our fastest, but certainly our most impressive! Love Al, quality human being and a damn fine runner.
Heading into this 8-mile leg I just wanted to go out there and keep us from dropping any more places. I didn’t realize how hard I ran “The Beast” till I started this one out. It took a while just to shake the acid out and feel ok. The first few miles were horrible and completely unpleasant and I really just felt like slowing down and stopping. We weren’t going to win or even repeat as Men’s Open champions, but then it happened … there was someone to pass in front of me, a good ways off but still in eye-shot. My teammates kept telling me, “He’s 50-seconds ahead of you, you got him!” “He’s 30-seconds out, keep it up.” “The gap is only 10-seconds, you’re right on top of him!” This went on for 6-miles and then the course takes the runners onto a trail for the last two.
The trail section is a straight shot with tree branches draped over the top of the path on both sides creating a tunneling effect and as you looked down the path you could see almost all of your competition. Legs on fire, lungs ready to quit, stomach ready to puke and all I could think was, “Just keep turning them over! You walk now and this will all be for nothing and it will be an awfully long walk!” My mind really focused on that idea, my breathing adjusted to a really fast rhythm, but one that I could bear, and my legs just kept churning it out. I ended up passing three teams in that last two miles and for the first time doing the R2C I was passed … he was maybe 20 years old, maybe weighed 130 lbs, and maybe had had his testicles drop already … and I was ok with that. Final time for the 8-mile leg was 49:50 (6:16/mile pace).
Al did an amazing job on the final 3-miles tearing off solid 8s and we ended up finishing 7th. I love the end of this race because you finish on the sand of the beach at sunset and they feed you, which needed to happen! As for the test, I have to admit that I was really happy with the results, because I really didn’t think that I had that sustained pace in me, but the human body never ceases to amaze. Now we’ll just have to wait and see what this old group of guys can do next year!