Reach the Cape Part 5 – The Start of the Final Leg

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9.6 miles in the heat. If I told you I was thinking about much else in the picture above, just seconds before I left for the final run of the relay, I’d be lying. Finishing off the Cape Cod Ragnar Relay with an epic long run in just a few hours was blasting through my head, but there were things more urgent to attend to. The mental and physical battle of racing to the finish line would have to wait. We needed Stephanie at the final Transfer Station fast. I didn’t wake up when Christy sent me the text, and somehow they were forty-five minutes ahead of schedule. I woke up just in time, however, and we loaded up the truck one final time.

With no other runners around him, Kevin was running a very solid pace to the end of his journey and the beginning of van #2’s final legs to the finish line in Provincetown, Massachusetts. It was about 8:45AM and the heat was coming in as fast as the runners. Everyone runs in pretty fast when they finish their final leg. It’s just the way you want to leave these things. It was in the low 60’s and not a great sign at this hour. We didn’t need a hot day. We needed some cloud cover, mid fifties, and not-so-many hills, but that’s the amazing thing about Ragnar. When everything goes against you, you find a way to keep fighting back. With her experience, speed and determination, I was thrilled Stephanie was leading the team off. She took the handoff from Kevin and was off for one final run to Christine.

It was a flat trail run, most of the way, and we managed to somehow catch her just before mile 4. She had just over two miles to go, and we were cutting it a little close beating her to the next transition station, but in the end it worked out just fine. She had a hill to battle up, but one of the ultra runners on the course had followed her for awhile, and now he was providing her motivation to the finish. There’s something special about the people you meet and the conversations you have out there. It’s a whole different type of racing. Maybe you have to run Ragnar to get it.

The view was amazing. A gorgeous beach overlooking the ocean was just off to our left as we faced the road Stephanie was now flying down. Christine wasn’t nervous at all. She had fought a very tough fight during her night run just before, and now she had a shorter, but hilly leg. She would then hand off to Melanie, who would be waiting at yet another beach. The handoff from Stephanie was perfect and the ever-tenacious Christine was off! We were all excited to be part of this with her. She’s one of those different people you meet, where the personality and spirit draws you in with her as you watch her go out and fight for something. If we had a Rocky Balboa of the truck, it was Christine. I had no doubt she was going to finish her final leg with strength and fire.

She had too many hills. Just way too many. She wasn’t deterred, though, and just kept moving. She worked her way up and down each one with a gnarly downhill run near her final transition area. We were waiting for her.  Melanie was very ready for her friend to find her.

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It was simply the best. The picture says it all. One tough Senorita named Christine came flying down the road and threw her arms open and grabbed Melanie in one of the best and most epic hugs I have ever seen in my life! Melanie’s face says a thousand words. It was the perfect way for Melanie to leave her final transition area, and tackle running up the ugly hill Christine had just come down. We congratulated Christine and jumped in the van to hustle to the next transition area.

There are often two roads to choose between. You can go down the Ragnar recommended van route, or you can choose to follow your runner. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. Sometimes it’s better to ignore your runner and follow the van route. By doing so, you almost guarantee your runner is safe and you can help them. You might, however, lose them as they run down a trail and then miss the chance to catch them at the next transition area. We chose almost all of the time to stick with the van route, especially when we were confident the runner would be just fine without us. Melanie, being a very strong runner and having experience with Ragnar, was obviously going to be just fine on her final 3.3 miles. We followed the van route, but suddenly, everything felt off. It seemed like we had gone way too far away from her to where a finish for this leg would be. I wasn’t sure what to do, but turning around seemed to be the best place to start.

We were right! Where we had merged onto a main road, we now saw a bunch of vans turning left and down a smaller, hilly road. We arrived quickly at the transition station, and Boz was ready for his final run. I ran over to the final hill Melanie would soon be climbing. At the end of the run, many of the runners were confused about where the transition station was within the parking lot. I stayed put where Melanie could see, and motioned her directly in to where Boz was waiting. She fought all the way up this steep finish, and ran down another runner just as she handed off her bracelet to Boz.

Boz, Stephanie, and Christy all had over 20 miles total for our team, and with Boz and Stephanie both in our van, we all watched firsthand how tough this relay was. Boz was fighting the ever increasing heat, and we were very fortunate to be able to pull over to check on him and give him some water as he ran past us. He was focused and fighting up and down each hill, with the same toughness he displayed on the 10.5 mile Wicked Hahd run.

The second time we met up with Boz, we had an interesting run-in with a local lady at the post office. She pulled in next to us, and seemed pretty mad we parked there. Strategically, it was close to the road where Boz would soon pass by us, and we would be able to get to him quickly with water. She started getting a little vocal, as her two small dogs did that whole high-pitched crazy barking thing at me. I responded with a chuckle, a smile, and then made some barking sounds back at her dogs. It probably looked weird, but I was a bit tired and wasn’t about ready to let some ornery lady ruin our final time together on our journey.

We pulled out and quickly arrived at the second to last transition area of the race. Another beautiful beach view was the spot for Rebecca’s final handoff from Boz. She was excited and ready to set me up for the final leg of the race. It was hot, but Boz didn’t disappoint, and he arrived just on time.  We had held a tough pace on our final legs, even as the sun grew hotter as the rose in the sky. It was now after lunch, but food wasn’t really on anybody’s mind. I had eaten enough, mostly some fruit, energy balls (they were awesome, so THANKS CHRISTINE!!!) and drank about 32 ounces of water. I did everything by the book, even careful to space my hydration out throughout the morning so I wasn’t water-logged at the start of my final run.

Rebecca was gone and moving up the hill, and I jumped in the van with my team for my final ride before the finish of the Cape Cod Ragnar Relay. We went up and down some rolling hills, and with a few quick turns, we arrived at the final transition area of the race. Rebecca was confident and strong when we had just passed her, so we knew not to hesitate. I would need a few moments to prepare.

I decided not to take water with me. I have done ten and even eleven mile runs without water before, and never had a problem. Plus, there was a water station halfway through the final leg. With no van support, I decided to make sure I stopped by the water station, but otherwise I trusted my instincts and my experience. It definitely wasn’t a time to start doubting myself.

I stood at the start of my final leg alone for a few minutes. It was weird. I felt like I had almost eaten too much, but that certainly wasn’t the case. If anything, I might struggle a little with energy because of a not eating much, but the intensity around running the final leg should be enough to carry me home. I wasn’t worried about anything, really. I still felt kind of off, though. It messed with my head just a little, but maybe this was just nerves. Melanie came to see me off and for a quick kiss. I said goodbye and moved behind the line and waited for Rebecca.

This was it. 9.6 miles and it was now closing in on 70 degrees. It felt hotter than the last time I did this at Reach the Beach. It was a little later in the day, but the temperature was similar to the ten miles I ran through The White Mountains. I had probably been overthinking this final leg. It’s the reason I kept playing around trying to figure out everybody’s pace and times and driving the van. I didn’t want to think about this leg, at least until it was time to start running, but none of that mattered anymore. Rebecca was now coming towards me, and it was time to begin the final run of The Ragnar Cape Cod Relay.

I didn’t move until she reached me. Rebecca had a big smile and they cheered me out as I went running up the hill towards the first turn and onto a trail. I felt a little bit off still, and as I turned off of the road a cramp hit my right side out of nowhere. Crap! How was this possible? I rarely ever get cramps on a run, and now, right at the start of a tough leg, I was hit with a pretty hard one right in my side. If that wasn’t bad enough, just a few seconds later a cramp hit back in the lower right hand side. Two cramps. Right at the start of this tough and final leg I was getting mangled by two cramps.

I learned a long time ago from a friend, who was a marine, the quickest way to get rid of a cramp is blow all of the air out of my gut. It almost always works for me, but this time it didn’t. Just as I was trying to figure out how to handle this, I noticed the trail I was running on was becoming less dirt and more sand, until finally it was all just sand, just as an incline began. I don’t know how long I was running in the sand up a hill, but I would guess it was from half to almost a full mile! I turned my attention towards navigating this prospect of pushing my way up this trail, and away from my cramps. If I needed a distraction, this was a pretty good one.

One foot in front of another. I kept thinking about just putting one foot in front of another. This hill wasn’t too steep, and I was navigating it pretty well. I was struggling in the sand, but it was early in this leg and I had been here before, hadn’t I? Six half-marathons, one Ragnar Relay, and a slew of training and other races would have to be enough to get me through this, whatever it turned out to be. Mentally, I still felt as tough as iron, and this would be where a lot of this battle would lie.

Finally, after what felt like a slow ten minute mile pace, I came out of the woods and off the trail onto the road. My cramps stayed with me, but they were becoming more tolerable now, and I was feeling a little better since I was out of the sand. The road brought me back to where I felt the most at home, and my pace felt just right staying at the slower ten minutes per mile. There would be no great time on this run, and I died to my own high expectations as each step became a little more laborious than it should have been. The cramps had come back stronger now, and I had to navigate past them mentally to keep running. The trees had pulled back against the roadside, and with no cover, I realized the rest of this run would be without any shade. It felt ten degrees hotter since I jumped off the trail, and even though it wasn’t quite 70 degrees, it felt more like 80 with the intensity of the sun.

I was fighting through all of this mentally and physically as I settled in a little more. Before this run I was a plus 3 for Ragnar. I know I shouldn’t keep track, or even share that I did, but basically a plus 3 means I passed 3 more runners than had passed me. Now, within the first two miles, about five or six runners had passed me and I quit keeping track. This wasn’t going to be like last fall’s ten mile adventure. I was in a fight with myself and my own body.

I spotted her just a few minutes after I got off the trail and onto the main road. She was a few hundred feet ahead of me and seemed to be getting passed pretty frequently, just as I was. Her reddish ponytail flipped back and forth side to side as she held close to the same pace I was, maybe just a hair slower. I backed off just a little and decided if I could stay with her for at least the first half of the race, I’d be okay. Maybe I take off at mile seven and just completely nail down the last two and a half miles. She seemed to be very consistent in her pace, and I needed another runner to pull me through for awhile. I wasn’t thinking about pace anymore, I just needed to stay within range of her and I’d be just fine.

I’ve done this in many of my biggest races. I followed a tall, young guy around six foot five through the streets of Columbus in my second half marathon. There was a short haired lady in purple clothes who pulled me up five miles of nightmarish hills through the Flying Pig Half in Cincinnati. I stayed with a guy dressed like, yes, a cave man, through my ten mile run last fall at Reach the Beach, and now I had the ponytail in my sights. I had always found a way to stay with the people I needed to, and with a few miles left, passed them and went on to a strong finish I felt proud of. Today would be the same. Except the cramps were getting worse.

I was okay, but stuck on another small hill for a minute. I didn’t dream there would be so many hills on the Cape, but there were and it didn’t make any sense to whine about it. I was at least twelve pounds heavier than I should have been at the start of this race, and I paid for it as I ran the hills. I was, however, a stronger runner mentally than at this time last year, and this was what I was counting on the most to get me through. Hills or not, as long as I kept the ponytail in sight I was going to be just fine.

I turned the corner and my stomach dropped. I was staring up a hill that would take me a few minutes to climb, and now ponytail seemed to almost be increasing her speed. It was like she had a renewed fire in each step. I wasn’t about to back off, though, and I knew if she could fight her way to the top of this hill, so could I. I lowered my head and looked only at my shoes and the ground below them. I didn’t need to stare up this stupid hill. I needed to just take this one step at a time.

I looked up just for a second to see Ponytail finally reached the top of the hill. I was still climbing, as she waved to a van up ahead on the other side of the street. This must have been her team, I thought. The sun was scorching down on us, and I was soaking wet with sweat after only two miles. She probably was grabbing some water and encouragement. She slowed down as she approached them, but didn’t grab for the water bottle I expected to see. Just as she reached the van she suddenly stopped, took off her relay band, and handed it off to a tall, young man. I was completely and utterly shocked. If a runner gets hurt, of course, we switch out, but this wasn’t a transition station and this was obviously planned. He enthusiastically shot off like a bullet as his team cheered him on, and then celebrated her running of two miles. What happened to her finishing the entire 9.6 miles?

The young man was flying away from me, like some spirited gazelle, ready to tackle the toughest part of her run. Who knows? Maybe he was running to the next handoff to yet another teammate. My team was long gone, however. We were told there was almost no van support on this final leg, and we wanted to make sure we could all be there together at the end of our almost 200 mile journey. I left them at the final transition station, told them I’d see them at the finish and wanted to make sure they had plenty of time to get there. At this point, they were probably on their way to a shuttle bus to the finish. They would be waiting to meet me at the top of the final hill, and together we would cross the finish line as one team.

This was the final of 36 legs, 9.6 hilly miles in the now blazing sun. It was supposed to be about the final runner’s fight to the finish, at least this is what it had been in my mind. The runner pulling me through was long gone, probably drinking water and having a snack in her air conditioned van. The cramps, the heat, and my exhausted legs were what stood between me and the finish line. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe I just took it too far this time.

I pulled my phone out of my arm band. If I called them, they could replace me, and someone else could finish this. I never dreamed I’d be thinking about this, but after what I’d just seen, maybe this was what I needed to do, too. Melanie was a stronger runner than me, anyway, and she could totally run these last miles in my place. She could get a ride, switch with me, and finish the race for me and for our team. No one would blame me. They would say I did my best. They would console me and we would love how she came to my rescue and for her tenacity to race to the finish. We would cross the line together, and isn’t that what really mattered anyway? If I called them right now, there would be just enough time to do this. I looked at my phone and then at the road in front of me. I took a moment and thought about it and what it would mean to me. Just me. I remembered not being so hurt, but dropping out of the Flying Pig Full Marathon in 2011. I should have fought harder. Yes, I was hurt, but I could have kept fighting. I know it was in me. I remember the deep disappointment, but I also remember how I insisted on coming back the next year to earn it on my terms and finish things the right way. I remember how quitting made me feel and I hated it.

With a few more steps and a deep breath, I completely felt it. I gritted my teeth as my eyes narrowed and now I was mad. I put my phone back on my arm band for the rest of the race and lengthened my stride. I wasn’t calling anybody for help. No freaking way. I might have been alone, exhausted and in pain, but one way or another I was going to get to the finish line. Nothing was going to stop me.

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