Hello Road. I’m Back.

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Hello Road. I’m Back.

It was that feeling in the deepest pits of my stomach, the kind you get about thirty seconds before something pretty crazy intense is going down. I’ve swirled in the tension at the starting line of the big races before, but it was never anything like this, and surely never at a 5k. It wasn’t whether or not I was fast, I already knew I wouldn’t be. Even though I hadn’t run in almost two months, there was no concern about whether or not I could run the whole way. There wasn’t any concern of whether or not I could keep up with my running partner for this race, my nine year old stepson and always determined Daniel. One way or another, I was sticking with him. Even if IT happened. Even if my knee finally gave out completely.

It was the downhill just twenty feet after the starting line that concerned me the most. Any runner who’s done some distance will tell you running downhill is not so kind on the knees, and even worse if you’re already injured. Fortunately, I’ve been doing my daily stretching exercises to help this thing heal, and it feels better all the time. In fact, I’ve barely noticed any twinges of pain this week, that was until, of course, the night before the race. Gently walking down the stairs, a sudden a shot of slight pain surged into my knee, and I stopped on a dime. This wasn’t good. At all. I was not ready to run this race anyway, but my daughter Kaitlin, Daniel’s original race partner, had gotten sick and the congestion was too much for her to run. Melanie, my wife, was running the 10k, and she was going out with our 11 year old, Josh. I stepped in to give Daniel his shot at 5k glory, and improve on his first 5k he ran just this past Spring. In that race he fought cramps and they were tough on my nine year old buddy. This time I wanted to help Daniel to finish and experience a race not riddled with pain or exhaustion. Only an hour before the race started we decided I would run with Daniel, but I never thought this race would start on a downhill.

The fear of permanently injuring my knee consumed my mind as my breathing quickened. With the extra pounds I’ve put on since Reach the Beach in September, this decline would be even more dangerous. There was no way around it, though. I was running out of this start with Daniel. Fear wouldn’t stop me.

The tall man in the Turkey Outfit screamed “GO!” and we were off. In just seconds I began my descent, very gingerly landing on my right leg. I held my breath with each step, but there was nothing. No pain. No soreness. Nothing. My right leg knee felt as strong as my left, and as I came to the bottom of the hill, I knew I was going to be okay. And I was.

In the end, on a perfectly healthy knee, Daniel outsprinted me up the final hill and across the finish line. We both finished just under 28 minutes, for a sub 9 minute pace per mile. What a great kid! He ran the whole way, battled a couple of tough cramps,  and finished strong. On his terms. And I finished this race feeling great, knowing another adventure is about to begin. By God’s goodness and his grace, I can run again.

Where we go from here even I don’t know. But I’m running again.

Reach the Beach 2016 The End

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…I was running! Somehow, despite my locking knees and destroyed quads, I was running! I was sooooo slow, but I was actually running. The tension eased out of me with each early step and I now knew, no matter what, I was running every single step of my 40.5 miles. I could tick off quarter mile after quarter mile and eventually I would get to my destiny, the final transition area. This was crazy. I couldn’t believe I was able to run!

“Trust in the Lord with all of your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.” Proverbs 3:5-6.

Nothing was impossible with God, and he was about to show me that one more time. Two runners started right by me, one a few seconds ahead and the other just behind. The runner behind me, a big guy, ran past me like I was standing still. It’s funny because their paces were slower than I would usually run, and I thought about it, maybe a little too much. I didn’t like being this slow, but there was nothing I could do to go any faster. My legs had nothing left in them. I wasn’t going to be able to keep them in my sight, and in about a minute they were long gone. And thank the Lord they were!

We were running this leg through Exeter, the town right next to where we live in Brentwood. I have driven and even run these streets several times, especially more lately during my training. One thing I’ve noticed is it is a town with a whole lot of runners, and on this bright, Fall Saturday morning, it was the perfect time for a run. I wonder how surprised the lady must have been to go out for her usual weekend run and to suddenly have runners following her as if she were in the race? Yes, this lady wasn’t paying attention to the course or maybe she never realized she was being followed by the two runners who had left my sight so quickly. In fact, I suspect the reason they were out of my sight so quickly was because they had followed her off course, and we learned later they ended up doing so for about a mile and a half. Holy cow! If I would have been able to run even close to my normal pace at the start I would have probably followed them, too. But the Lord kept me on the path. In the meantime I kept watching the signs as if they were my lifeline in this final run. And they were. After all of these miles the last thing I was going to do was to go the wrong way.

This race is so often just like life, isn’t it? How often do we go off and follow someone else because they appear to be doing the right thing in the moment and their way seems to be the best? We don’t stick to our true way, and the path that was written for us. The signs were placed on the course specifically for the runners to follow, and no, they aren’t at every intersection or corner. Sometimes you have to keep running straight and trusting that there will be a sign up ahead to take you exactly where you are supposed to go. This was my plan on the course, and it is the plan God has for each of our lives. We can think we are doing the right thing and following someone else who seems to confidently know what they’re doing. But what happens if they’re not even running the same race? How far off course will we go? Maybe the difference was I knew how very desperate I was. Maybe that’s the difference in life? Knowing how desperate we really are and how much we need God’s help. Maybe the other runners were thinking about other things. It’s what saved me in the mountains on the incredible challenge of the fourth leg. I was desperate to stick to the right path no matter how I felt or what other the other runners did.

I could see about a half mile ahead of me, and there was no one in sight. I stayed on the same road, though, and kept running. I was thinking about how I hadn’t seen a sign for a little bit, but there should be one soon. I kept the faith. Just when I was starting to become a little more concerned, a giant yellow sign with blue arrows appeared and I was following the road to the right. Less than three miles were left and I felt okay, good enough to keep running. Another runner passed me as I came to an incline, and I followed him to the top.

Suddenly, I saw my daughters and one of their friends on the side of the road cheering for me! What a welcome sight they were. I was so slow and probably looked horrible. My youngest girl, Summer, jogged next to me for a minute offering a ton of encouragement while Kaitlin, my seventeen year old, and her friend shouted words of encouragement to me. My team was there, too, and that was the final kick I needed to get to the transition area.

I left all of them behind, our truck passed me again, and I turned left to head to the final turn before the finish. With less than a mile to go everyone was passing me, and I didn’t care. I knew I had run over twice the distance of most of these runners and was happy just to be able to finish. I talked with a lady for a minute and offered her words of encouragement as she ran past me. I could now see the final turn into the parking lot where the exchange would take place.

I dug in and picked up my pace a little. I ran past a few race officials who guided me into the transition area and this time it was Michele waiting for me. My mind was shot at this point, and I remember almost nothing about the handoff. I think I shouted something like “I just ran over forty miles!!!” Michele took the bracelet and was gone, and we loaded into the truck and headed to the final transition area between Michele and Melanie.

I was breathing. Slowly. Overwhelmingly. I choked back tears like I had after the last leg. ‘Please don’t cry,’ I thought. Not now. These final two legs had been something other worldly and different feeling. I was at a point of exhaustion and weakness I had never experienced before, but I was okay and resting finally. I was shocked I had run the whole thing. Being slower than I ever had been on those last two legs took nothing away from what had just happened. Nothing could take this feeling away from me.

In the madness of Michele’s course, she got caught in a pack that took her the wrong way. There was a ton of confusion and too many runners to count were confused about the course and having problems on Leg 34. She pushed through, got back on track very quickly and made the handoff to Melanie just a few minutes slower than she would have been if she hadn’t been taken off course.

Melanie was hurt and slow (nowhere near as slow as me), but anyone who knows my wife knows she is a fighter and almost impossible to stop when she gets her mind made up. She came through on Leg 35 for all of us, and I cheered her on as she came around her last corner to the final handoff with Dan. Dan was off and we were in the truck and on our way to meet him at the finish line.

We parked the truck and together the five of us headed to past the finish line to run the final part of Dan’s leg with him, and together across the finish line. Michele, knowing what kind of shape we were all in, especially me and Melanie, kept us close to finish line so we could actually run it together. Suddenly we saw him! Through the thick sands of Hampton Beach our 203 mile journey was going to finally come to an end, just thirty-two hours after it had started. Dan led us in, and we all followed him to the finish line. Honestly, I was falling behind a little and couldn’t make my legs move any faster, but I pushed as hard as I possibly could and caught up. Finally, our race from Bretton Woods to Hampton Beach ended as The Ultra Avengers crossed the finish line together.

We got the medals. We got the bowl of kale. Some of us…almost all of us hate the kale bowl. I’ll just let it go though. We won’t end it on that note.

The team said their goodbyes and left. Dan, Michele, Melanie and I were determined to end it all on a good meal, so we went to Carriage House in Kingston and I devoured a pretty intense looking pizza. It felt right eating something horrible for me after everything I had endured. The four of us were falling asleep in our food. It was a lot of fun, though. But we were all a mess.

Why do I do this, you might ask? Why do I put myself through such things? I think for everyone it’s different. I think everyone has their own reasons for doing an endurance race such as this. For me, this  time, doing the regular Ragnar Relay wasn’t enough. I needed something more, and boy, did I get it. I guess, honestly, I have spent a lot of my life listening to people tell me what couldn’t be done, while my mind was always challenging their notions. In the freedom and peace of God I live in today, I have chosen to live a life of adventure and to go down whatever path God brings. It seems like he wants me here for awhile, and until he takes me another direction, I’ll keep heading this way, following his written word and his signs so I stay on his path. Trusting him and myself when I think I have nothing left in me. Being the best human I can be, while trusting him to take care of the details around me so that can happen.

I guess I do this because it’s simply what I’m supposed to be doing. What about you? What do you think He wants for you?

The End…And the beginning of something new, and maybe for you, too?

Reach the Beach 2016 Part 5

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27.5 miles were done. I had more than a marathon, with just two legs left. It was getting weird, though. It was like some form of shock I suppose. My whole team came out to cheer my finish of the nightmare 8.5 miles, at least in my pretty jacked up head that’s what they were doing. I was very proud of this run, and felt not an ounce of hesitation in sharing my journey. Dan was off, and we jumped into the van as he went flying through another hilly run. I was beginning to become concerned about Melanie who seemed to be struggling now with an old knee problem coming back on her. She was up next, but only had two final runs to the end. I was losing track of times and the distance of the rest of my team.

There was a deep ache building in my quads, one I hadn’t really experienced before. I was okay for now, but needed to stretch. Between the starts of Dan’s and Melanie’s legs, I took some time for the ever-classic baby wipe shower and changed into my 5th outfit on this journey. I quickly warmed up and Dan, looking about as perfect as someone could look after being up for over 24 hours and having run close to a marathon himself. We were teammates, but looked quite different right now. I was the slow plodder who aggressively went after the longest miles. Dan was more reserved while conquering everything in his path. As the only two dudes in the van we worked perfectly together. Just like the rest of our team.

It was only a few moments in when Melanie texted me. She had called, but my phone somehow never rang. She was hurt and we needed to get her a knee brace asap. We whirled around and Michele told me to sit still and let Dan, a physical therapist who could actually help her get out of the truck. I needed to stay in the van, along with my overprotective self and let my wife figure out her journey. If she needed my input, she knew to engage me. Right now she needed to figure this one out on her own. We were getting closer and closer to the finish.

She stopped and Dan had helped her fit the knee brace perfectly. She fought like the champion she ALWAYS is, and finished another long leg, despite the pain in her knee. And Michele was off. Everyone kept telling me to sleep, but I couldn’t. Somewhere after Michele’s handoff to Christy, we were back in the van and I finally fell asleep. After four minutes I jerked awake and yelled “My tickle pillowed me! I mean my pillow tickled me!” Michele told me “Go back to sleep Thad.”

I was utterly spent and I think my team was wondering if I had any chance of finishing this. Christy said I mumbled something about Koala Bears next, but I don’t remember. After a few more minutes, like maybe three more, I was awake and wouldn’t sleep again for the rest of the journey. Whatever happened now, seven minutes of sleep would have to be enough. I knew what was coming, anyway, and I was going to have to be ready for it pretty quick.

This 8.9 mile run didn’t look so bad on paper. In fact, just a few days earlier, Melanie and I drove the route. I wanted to see the actually leg itself, and it didn’t disappoint. There was a fairly tough hill early, and a brutal climb about half way through, but otherwise I could handle it. It was flatter than any of my previous runs comparably. I decided to focus on just getting to my final leg. I kept thinking about just running four miles and finishing this adventure once and for all.

I went to the transition area massaging my quads as best I could. If you’ve ever seen me in spin class, you know I have the legs to make it through something like Reach the Beach, but my weight and mental game have always been my worst adversary. I was lighter than usual, though, and mentally was ready for all of this, but now my legs started failing me. With 8.9 miles to run, and Julie flying into the transition area, there wasn’t any time to worry about my quads anymore. It was time to start my fifth leg, and to get a little closer to the finish.

Julie handed me the bracelet and I was off on another adventure. I easily ran the first hill, but felt very slow out of the gate. After about a mile I knew I was stuck at a ten minute per mile pace and getting slower as the leg wore on. I joked with a few runners and used my knowledge of the course to encourage other runners.

“Oh there’s only two rough hills this time. You’re in great shape!”

“Thanks man!” was the usual, enthusiastic response.

I always enjoy greeting my fellow runners. And now, more than any other leg, there were vans all along the side of the road. I joked with and thanked them for cheering for me as I passed them.

With about six miles left I yelled to one van, “The finish is just around the corner they said, right?”

They all look stunned until I yelled back, “No worries! I’m just messing with you! Six miles. I’ve got this!”

Ragnar Relays can be fun, but YOU have to make them fun. You can experience the towns, the course, and the people at their fullest, which was always my number one objective. It’s what the other runners, vans, and bystanders want anyway. Everybody wants to be part of your journey out there.

My quads were getting worse and worse by the moment, but if I could run that last 8.5 mile leg, this 8.9 miles was happening no matter what. I kept running, and kept getting slower. It didn’t matter. I was going to run the whole way.

One of the vans took a liking to my joking, as they waited on the side of the road for their runner. So much so, a few of them followed me for awhile cheering me loudly with their cowbells clanging. I laughed the whole time, until they finally said goodbye and headed back to their van. Most of the vans were headed in to meet up with their runners. I was getting closer to the finish.

Fortunately, when I drove the finish a few days earlier I realized I had about a half mile down hill to the finish and could coast into the school. It was the perfect way for a very tired and weary runner to finish their longest leg of this insane journey. I had planned everything perfectly, but suddenly realized, just as I was getting to close to the turn  onto the main road towards the school, I had planned to come in from the wrong direction.

That lovely decline was now an incline, as I turned the corner and realized I was just under a mile away from where I thought I’d come out. My stomach sank, and as I began to climb yet another the hill, I had to dig into what reserves of strength and energy I had to make one final climb. Out of nowhere I felt like I was going to vomit, but I continued to fight my way up the hill and towards the finish. I wanted to stop and give up so badly, but nothing would allow me to do that. I was still running, somehow, and finally the hill ended, and I turned into Chester Academy. The feeling of nausea grew worse, but I didn’t want to barf while all of these people are cheering for me at the finish. I kept fighting with each step until I saw Dan and ran to him and handed him the bracelet.

Melanie was close and I yelled to her abruptly, “I need to go vomit!”

A lot of folks chuckled. I kind of stood there dazed, when the stomach stuff finally started to alleviate itself just as my quads began to burn like I’ve never felt them burn before.  I stretched quickly, but it was to no avail. I headed to the truck and we left to get Melanie to the final leg. I drank and ate fast to try to get some energy back into my now very weak body. I needed to get something going in my quads, and maybe food was the ticket now. I had a few hours until my final run, and I needed all the relief I could get. I cleaned up in between stops, and Melanie fought through her knee again and was simply amazing. She was injured, but still running faster than me.

Michele, Dan, Christy and Julie were all doing well. Their overall speed was dropping a little, but nowhere near as much as mine was. I was done with 36.4 miles now, and had already destroyed my goals for this race, except for speed. I was more than willing to sacrifice speed for the chance to run every step of this journey, though now, as my quads felt utterly spent and destroyed, that was yet to be done.

We finally headed into our final legs, and Christy finished hers at a great pace and with some fire. Julie was off on an almost seven mile journey, and we headed to my final transition area. We were finally here.

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 transition area. 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 for 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. 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. I had to do this! This couldn’t be like the Cape. I had to run the whole way!

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. I made the decision. There would be no backup plan. No matter what happened I would not ask for help. This was mine and mine alone, and my mind was made up. 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…

(The final story from Reach the Beach 2016 will post this week)

Reach the Beach 2016 Part 4

Nothing is impossible with God.

But my fourth leg…

It was sometime after three in the morning. I hadn’t slept. I wasn’t tired, though. I honestly wasn’t much of anything. I had dreaded this leg for four months. I had been staring at it, waiting for it. I knew there would be a reckoning out here. I thought about it on every training run. I knew this leg would beat me. I have always known it.

It had to begin somewhere. I was calm and focused. Most of the van, except for Dan and Christy were asleep. I was at the transition area waiting for Julie to come racing in, which she did just as I was ready for her to be there. There was no emotion in this hand off, I simply took the bracelet and ran out of the transition area. I was in no hurry to get anywhere. I would run for as long as I could, and not think about it. If you know you are beaten what do you do? I just started to run and kept running.

There were no streetlights. Very few houses were near me. The road was a nice little decline on and off for the first few miles. There were a few small hills up, but the first two and half miles felt just fine. I knew what was waiting, though, and when I saw it, it looked just like I thought it would. I was about to run four miles of some of the nastiest incline New Hampshire has to offer. I was as ready as I could have been, I suppose.

My van was right where I asked Dan to meet me, right at the start of the onslaught of hills. We had discussed me taking some pain meds. I had a bit of a headache, probably from lack of sleep. We were a little unsure at the start, but Dan had them ready for me if I needed them. He stood right outside of the truck, while everyone else slept. I grabbed the three ibuprofens and kept moving straight ahead into a hill. I guzzled the three of them down with water from my hydra pack and kept running.

I do different things to pass the time on the long run, especially when running up some tough hills. Sometimes I look at my feet, refusing to look up at all, and count all of my steps. I often try to guess how many steps it will take me to get to the top, and I always play to win! I’ll even lengthen or shorten my stride a little to be right. Sometimes I’ll try to recite scripture for as long as I can, hoping to pass the time quickly while edifying myself with God’s encouragement and truth. Sometimes I quote the words to songs, or sometimes it all becomes one simple chant to keep my legs climbing all the way up. This time, it was a simple thought – “Nothing is impossible with God.”

I chanted it out loud, and in my head. Sometimes I’d space it between other recitations or just the silence in this dark and troubling woods. A female runner thanked me for saying it as she ran past me. Somehow I hadn’t slowed and kept climbing. Somehow this strategy was working.

As the start of this leg I knew I would have to walk, but now, over halfway through I was no longer quite so sure. I wasn’t slowing down much, but my body was wearing down with each step. At the halfway point I had logged over 32 miles in the past eighteen hours. The bottoms of my feet began to ache greatly and my quads were feeling some deep exhaustion of the pounding from the incline. Still, I was running.
I turned suddenly to the right and followed the road back to left and around another bend. I realized I had to pay extremely close attention to the road. If I went off course, I could get several miles off track very quickly and without cell phone reception in this part of the mountains, I could find myself in serious trouble very quickly. It was very dark, only some light from the full moon coming through the trees helped me. The temperature had dropped into the mid forties and wearing only a t-shirt and shorts I was barely able to keep warm. Fortunately, my heart rate was up with the hills, so that provided the extra warmth I needed.

It must have been a person making all of that racket ahead, I thought. I heard some crashing in the woods on my right just a few hundred feet ahead. As I got closer, a man in his late fifties caught up to me and we ran together. As we neared the woods, I pointed and said, “What the heck is that?”

They were glowing. Glowing white eyes were staring right at us in the darkness of this woods. They moved with us, gawking at maybe their next meal or just another random attack they would launch on a defenseless victim. Either way, the older guy was going to leave me pretty soon anyway. I was starting to really slow down now.

Before I knew it, I was alone again. I wasn’t passing anybody the rest of this leg, but I was still running and still not giving up. Somehow the endless hill after endless hill seemed to become part of my ecosystem, like a way of life to me out here on the open road. I was pretty used to them by now. It was just the way things were, and they weren’t going to change for a few more miles.

“Nothing is impossible with God.”

A few runners passed me.

“Nothing is impossible with God.”

The hill continued to go up and up.

As I close in on the six and a half mile mark, a man standing outside of his van yells to me, “You’re almost done with these hills! Keep going a little further and you’re there!”

Hope. Nothing is impossible with God. I made up my mind. I didn’t care how slow I went, I wasn’t walking. Not for one single step. I had made it this far, and somehow, despite my now throbbing feet and burning quads, this was going to happen. The road flattened and I picked up my pace a little. As sore as my feet were, I knew the quicker I finished this leg the quicker I could get some rest.

The red lights. Those burning red lights in the dark of the night and I was finally close to the end of this amazingly brutal run through the mountains. I ran to the lights and to my team. Somehow I had done it, and I honestly at no point until maybe the fifth mile in did I consider this could be done. I had overcome the toughest leg in my journey and only had two more runs to go until I was done. My quads and feet were in agony, but there was time to stretch and recover and figure this out.

My longest leg, an 8.9 mile trek through the hills of Chester was my last long run of this race, and then I’d have a short and flat four mile jaunt to finish this incredible jounrey. I was ready and even though my body was breaking down, I had run 27.5 miles and had only 13 more to go. With my toughest leg behind me, what could stop me now?

I was about to find out.

(to be continued)

Reach the Beach 2016 Part 3

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Everything felt a little strange, surreal you might say. Sure, five out of six of us in the van had done a Reach the Beach before, but we had never done an ultra. It felt almost like a different reality adding the “other half” of the relay we didn’t see together as a team last year. I kept thinking, “Wow, so this is what they were doing while we were eating or sleeping!” Kind of funny, I suppose. But strange. It had a strange, almost intimidating vibe.

My first two legs had gone as expected, and maybe even better. Everything so far had been about protecting my knee, so I was slower and my running form was adjusted slightly to allow less pounding on the right side of my body. Instead of lengthening my stride and attacking a downhill, I had to back off and land as gently as possible. Much of my training for this race was done at Massabesic Lake, where a ten mile hilly adventure was just what I needed to get ready for Reach the Beach Ultra. Often, on a downhill around Massabesic, I’d run sub 8:30 per mile going down, and often a bit faster. Here, to make sure nothing got hurt, I slowed down to about a 10 minute per mile pace and kept my body under control as much as possible. I was disappointed after all of my work to have to be so slow, but this race isn’t about speed. This time it was about survival.

The second legs flew for the rest of the rest of the team, as Dan, Melanie and Michele totally owned their legs. We were deep into forest for most of them, but there were a few traffic hazards that were a little sketchy to work through. Dan had to run the final mile of a leg down a very narrow road with cars every, and runners packed on both sides. Melanie became one of those runners on the other side of the road as she started her next leg and went back the way Dan came in. It felt a little exhausting to have to run and then rerun the same road as a team, but we were too busy not trying to hit any runners to think about it.

Melanie finished strong and looked great. Michele had recovered nicely from her 10.9 mile leg, and we raced her to get Christy ready for her at the next Transition Area. I tried to sleep on the ride over, but it fruitless. It was too early and I was too hyped up to get much shut eye. I gave up right after Christy took off in her night gear. We were back on a set of legs we had run before, and Christy had run the exact same leg last year. Everything felt back in sync.

I had eaten this epic turkey sandwich Michele made for the team. Sure, it was just a turkey sandwich, but out here it might have been a creation of Jamie Oliver or something. It was the best turkey sandwich I could remember. I was chowing peanut butter energy balls, my go-to peanut butter and chocolate Advobar, and whatever else I could get my hands on. I stopped eating an hour before my run and made sure to hit the ever lovely porta potty for good measure. I also had thoroughly cleaned up with the ever-important baby wipe showers we all engage in on this relay, especially on the ultra. Basically, if you get the sweat off of you and take care of yourself during the race, you can make it. But, if you ignore even the little details, those things can end up haunting you the entire race. Like having no energy to run because you’re under nourished. Or chafing drama because you didn’t clean up properly. None of these things were happening to me this year. If anything was going to beat me it would be physically, not mentally.

Darkness had set in quickly, and Christy had flown on her third leg. Julie was off and so were we. I remembered the next transition area from last year. It was some elementary school where the parking situation got a little intense and a few wired up dorks were yelling at other van drivers who weren’t being overly kind getting out of there. When we pulled in, it looked like a totally different lot, and they had accessed a much larger area to pull the vans into. Good news! I had an 8.1 mile run, so my team would have plenty of time to get to the next transition area anyway.

The picture attached from the start of this leg. I was sober minded, remembering the monster hill I’d be facing ahead, the same one I saw Dan run the year before. I waited for Julie, and she came in just as expected. I was pumped, as I took the bracelet and headed into the first of three eight mile runs in a row. As I ran down the road, I waited for the turn to the right and to head out to the main road where Dan had run. And I kept running. And kept running. And the turn never happened.

There was no street lights, no wide sidewalks and no early monster hills. Ragnar had made a change and I had somehow missed it. I was off on a dark, quiet rural road heading into nowhere. Up and down smaller hills I ran, still being careful on my knee. I felt I could go so much faster, but every time I increased my pace, I’d feel a slight twinge in my knee and immediately backed off. I felt great and my training had been enough, so far. Traditionally, each runner in a Ragnar Relay does three legs, so if we had been in a normal relay, I might have gone after it a little bit and picked up my pace. I backed off more and more conserving my strength for the next three legs, two of which were brutal.

I was thrown off a little by the change in my course, but enjoyed the quiet run in the dark. The hills were completely manageable, which I was grateful for. I had some fun conversations with other runners, and was passed by more gazelle-looking people than on any other leg. There were some wicked fast people blowing by me. I enjoyed their athleticism and focus, as I continued to slow mile after mile. I had run sub ten minute miles on the first two runs, but this one was not only longer, but I knew what was coming. My last few miles were closer to eleven minute miles. It wasn’t the hills at all. I could totally handle the elevation. I still kept thinking about what I was going to endure in my next leg, the leg I had been training specifically for, for the past four months.

I sped up a little at the finish and came in to see a very happy team and a strong and fast Dan ready to go. I was encouraged the first half of my legs and eighteen miles were complete. 22 miles and three final legs remained, including the run in the mountains I had been waiting for. It was finally almost here. Eight and a half miles of incredible climbs was about to happen, and I had no clue if I could make. All of the preparing and months of training had now come down to this.

The truth was, I knew I was already beaten. Is it bad to admit this? Even in training I was convinced I couldn’t run this whole leg and I would have to walk. There was no way I could run some of those hills. I wasn’t okay with it, though, and if there was a whisper of hope it could be done, I would give it everything I had. I was humble and ready. The run of a lifetime was about to go down. But not me. I wasn’t going down. In fact, something was about to happen I never expected, and everything about the rest of this race was going to change.

(To be continued)

Reach the Beach 2016 part 2

Dan and Melanie had fast and low key legs to start their part of the relay, but Michele had the same train wreck in the heat I had to deal with last year. Dan’s leg was a bit humorous as to how ridiculous the initial run downhill was. If there was an opportunity to blow out your knee, this was it. Dan went slow and steady down the mountain, but took off when it leveled out. Melanie was solid out of the gate, way faster than me, yes, but not too fast for her. Everyone wanted to save something. Everyone wanted to survive this monster of an ultra. Dan and Melanie both finished their first legs with solid times, and now it was Michele’s turn.
As a token of my running of the longest leg of the relay last year, they gave me some funky hair thing to keep my hair up in. This year, to my amazement and Michele’s pure joy, they gave the runner of Leg 6 a medal. Folks. It’s just all about the medal. Seriously, ask any runner and they’ll tell you how important the medals are to them. Michele was worthy of such a gift, and I felt a little ripped off. It’s okay though. I’m over it and so is my hair.
Michele made really quick work of her 10.9 miles, even as the heat started in on her. She looked very relaxed and had a big grin every time we checked on her. I suppose I thought she’d be more affected by the run like I was the previous year, but this goes back to her consistency and experience. By the end of her run, we knew it was going to be a great experience for everyone. All of us had done quite well on our first legs and we were off to a great start.
Both Christy and Julie had 7.3 mile legs next, which seems a bit random. I guess it’s just how they worked everything out. Julie’s was strange because we had to take some serious back roads to meet her at the transition area. They sent the vans a different route than the runners. It felt like we were driving into the unknown. At one point we pulled off the road unsure if we were heading the right direction. To a Midwestern boy like me, it felt like we were in rural Kentucky or West Virginia. Fortunately, a line of vans came by and we followed in line to the next Transition Area.
I was up. Julie came sailing in and I arrived at one of the most awkward transition areas I have yet to see. As soon as Julie slapped the bracelet on my wrist I went and well…actually I stood still and waited for a quite grumpy looking man to stop traffic and direct me across the street. I just kind of stood all excited to do nothing but wait. He was fast, though, and got me and another runner across the road pretty quick. I was off!
A long flat road made for an easy warm up to this 6.8 mile hilly adventure. There were no real mountains for me on this leg, but there were plenty of hills after the first couple of miles. I was calm and steady, and began to climb as I got further into the leg. At the top of a pretty decent hill, my team had pulled over at a local shop where someone bought a salad, which I am told was made by a man who did not wear gloves as he caresses the lettuce. Yikes! Technically we didn’t break any rules, as they mostly stayed in the parking lot cheering me on. There was someone, possibly Melanie Jean Riley, who snuck out a little closer to cheer me on, but I’m pleading the fifth. This was a no van support leg and if they helped me, I’d be disqualified. I didn’t receive any help, but a ton of encouragement.
I was good! I had my hydra pack on my back and was timing my drinking to every few minutes throughout the race. It was getting hotter and hotter as the leg went on, and I could really feel it on the hills. I was quite careful to wear light colored, dry fit clothing that would keep me as cool as possible. I don’t love the fit on some of those shirts, but out here the game is to keep cool. Last Spring I wore that brutal black cotton shirt on my last leg of Cape Cod and the heat clung to me like one of my kids to an ice cream cone. I wasn’t making that same mistake this time.
I knew the last mile was virtually straight down, until the last part of the leg. As I started dropping into the incline fast, I leaned back and regained control of my body and my legs. My pace actually slowed down the steep hill, always carefully protecting my knee. I had come in with a knee issue and I wasn’t having any of it on my second leg. If my knee gets messed up here, I’m totally screwed. I had to be very careful.
As I came closer to the finish the street leveled out more and I began to pick up my pace. A young, athletic looking man caught up to me and we encouraged each other all the way into the transition area. He was a cool dude, just like most of the people I talk to on Reach the Beach. One of the best parts of the Ragnar Relays are all the cool folks you talk to, and I make it my mission to do such things. It’s part of the reason I don’t wear headphones out there.
I came fast into the Transition Area feeling great and handed off to Dan. I was about 15 seconds faster per mile than my first leg, which was pretty interesting, since this leg was longer and with more elevation. My confidence was up, and our team was well on its way. My thoughts immediately drifted to my next leg, one I had been preparing for the past few months. I knew the route precisely, since I watched Dan run it last year. I told myself I could handle the hills and big broad sidewalks early. I liked running in the street light better than the dark, and once I finished the first few miles, I’d be all set. It was 8.1 miles, but not such a bad run overall. I was grateful to know the route and to go out and execute it to perfection. I was very excited.
My enthusiasm would have to turn into something else, though, if I knew what was coming. Determination and courage were going to have to find me for my third leg. You see, sometimes changes are made, and I was about to find out all of my preparation for Leg 15 wasn’t going to mean a whole lot. The entire course had completely changed, and I was about to begin an 8 mile run deep into some of the darkest part of the mountains.

(To be continued)

Reach the Beach 2016 Part 1

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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)