I slowly slid out of the passenger seat of our truck, my feet gently landing on the ground below. My legs were shaking from the 36.4 miles I had run in the past 30 hours. I tried to brace myself and somehow managed to wobble towards the starting line of the last transition area between Runners 8 and 9. Each step felt heavy and shaky and fear began to sink into me. I shut down all thinking about the 4.1 miles I was supposed to run and focused on getting my legs moving. Walking seemed impossible and slow, and the idea of running was pure insanity at this point. How in the world was this going to happen? Julie would be here soon and I had maybe ten minutes to figure this out. I moved close to the area where we would hand off, dropped to the ground slowly and began to stretch out my quads. My calves and the rest of my body would be good enough, but my knees kept locking and jerking, thrusting my body suddenly forward as my quads kept giving out. The thought kept echoing in my mind –
“You can do this, Thad. 90% of distance running is mental. The other 10% is mental. Believe it.”
I had to stay right there in this moment. I had to stay right there in my mind. I love my buddy Dan Thomas, and if I ever needed a backup plan, all I had to do was tell Dan I was done. Or Michele. Or almost anyone else on our team. I wasn’t concerned about us not finishing the run as the team. I was still dealing emotionally with what happened to me on the Final Leg of the Reach the Cape Relay last Spring. I had succumbed to the heat and hydration problems on the Cape. Though I felt I gave it my all, it never felt right. I wanted more. Now, with one leg left, I had a chance for a little redemption. At least to myself.
Melanie helped me finish stretching and I rose up from the ground as I saw Julie now fighting her way up the final incline of her last leg. Moving into the Transition Area I cheered for her, leaving my incoming teammate as oblivious as I could to the condition I was really in. One of two things were about to happen. Either I was going to be strong enough to run out of the Transition Area or I was going to do the unimaginable, and fall straight to the ground with the first step. I was prepared to fall. At least this time I would know I had done my best and pushed my body as far as it could go. There would be no walking. There was no way I could walk these next four miles, anyway. If that’s all I had, I would have to get another runner. I could not physically walk 4 miles. Good grief, I could barely walk to the transition area! I still believed I could run, though. Its different muscles, right? I was strong, wasn’t I? I had to believe I could finish this final leg without walking. I was ready to do a faceplant, and fall straight to the ground on the first step I would attempt to run. That was better. I’d rather get hurt than quit.
My quads were in throbbing pain. My knees wobbled like a plate of jello. I was pretty sure I was going down, but that didn’t matter anymore, because the moment was upon me. Julie smiled as she slowed, held out the bracelet, and slapped it on my wrist one final time. I turned away from Julie towards the path I was to run on. It was now or never. The finish was just ahead and I lifted my leg and just as it dropped to the ground and in front a mass of spectators I was…
Fall. I love the Fall in New Hampshire. It’s the perfect season in this part of the country. Each year, just as Fall begins, I almost always have a big race, and nothing is bigger or more awesome for me than The Reach the Beach Ragnar Relay. This year, though, everything was different than any race I’d ever been part of. This time we were an ultra team, and instead of twelve runners, we had six. Of course, since I can’t control myself and always have to be overly aggressive, I requested the most miles possible, the forty miles to be run by Runners 3 and 9. As much as I knew I would be challenged by running Reach the Beach in any way possible, I also knew I don’t know the future.
Yes, I was the slowest runner, but probably had more time to train for the long runs. I wasn’t anywhere near as accomplished as the other runners, having never run a marathon or never finishing a half marathon below two hours, though I just barely missed that last Fall. For me, this was about taking on something I had never tried before, by running an ultra race.
Honestly, I didn’t think I would be able to run the whole time I was out there. As much as I had trained, I knew it would be very difficult to maintain a running motion that long, especially with the monster fourth leg. The fourth would be my second longest, 8.5 miles, and it would likely be on no sleep, sometime around three in the morning. It would have the toughest elevation of all my legs. Basically, I’d be running up and then down a mountain.
But I was in. A thousand percent in. I wanted this and the chance to redeem the Cape, if only just for me. My team was ready, and so was I. We showed up at start of this journey at the last second, bartering every ounce of sleep we could manage. We were well rested this time, something we greatly valued after the lack of sleep we all got in 2015’s Reach the Beach. The team picture, registration, and getting Christy ready to lead us off all went like clockwork. The gun sounded, she was off, and so was our team, aptly named the Ultra Avengers.
The worst part about the leadoff leg is they basically have to run straight up and then down a ski hill. It’s two and half miles of crazy, but near the front of the pack again, there came Christy flying down the mountain. The handoff to Julie was seamless and she flew out of the transition area. I made my way across the parking lot, and about thirty minutes later, Julie came running into the Transition Area and to handoff the bracelet to me for my first leg.
The handoff was perfect, and I was solid out of the gate. Unlike my two previous Ragnar Relays, I started much slower this time, barely under a ten minute per mile pace. My experience and research told me this needed to be my most calm and focused leg, and that started with saving my legs for the long runs ahead. I knew a climb up a tough hill would end this 3.9 mile jaunt, but I was totally relaxed and not concerned.
As I made my way through the next three miles, I felt solid, but even a little slower than I had planned to go. Better slow now than sorry later I thought. As I began to climb the hill I noticed the turn to the right at the top. When I reached it, I would go around the corner, descend for the last two tenths of a mile and hand off to Dan. As I climbed I noticed a race official on the street with flags to direct runners. As I got closer all my finishing plans went in the toilet and she directed me onto some crazy little path with a few tight and steep hills. It was a little unnerving, but I knew I didn’t have far to go, so I just adjusted my footing a little, and became a trail runner. Finally, after running through a few quirky paths, I shot out of the trail and saw Dan waiting for me in the Transition Area. I sped up to get to him, yelled “That was awesome!” and the crowd laughed as Dan took off.
Leg one was done. I had only five runs left, and just over 36 miles to go. Somehow this was going to happen. Somehow we would finish this grueling adventure. I was optimistic, which was good, because over the course of the next five runs I would need every positive vibe I could muster.
The greatest challenge of my life was before me. I had my team’s support, except on the next leg. Whatever happened on that 6.8 mile journey I was on my own. The Race Bible said if they did anything to assist me our entire team would be disqualified.
(To be continued)