What hour is it? Where am I? With my eyes still closed, I listen to the steady tap of raindrops on a metal roof just above my head.
*Ring* I can hear someone else nearby, fumbling for the phone... "hello?"
I open my eyes to find myself sprawled out in a minivan. Looking at my watch, I see that it's just after one in the morning.
"Twenty minutes? I'll tell Rob."
I guess that's my wake-up call. Stephanie's on her way, running through the unsympathetic midnight rain. I'll be the first runner for this vehicle, so it's time to get ready. I struggle to put in my contact lenses as my eyes complain about their single hour of sleep.
Team Beaver Corps is now 14 hours into the "Reach the Beach" relay, a 212-mile race from Bretton Woods in northern New Hampshire to the thin slice of coast in the southern corner of the state. We started at 11am on Friday morning and won't finish until some time Saturday afternoon. With our 11-member team -- five women and six guys -- each person will run three or four of the 36 individual legs with distances of four to nine miles each.
Everyone on the team is fairly well-trained, but with a race like this, the challenge isn't just ticking off the miles, but managing people and sleep. The race is designed for teams of 6 or 12, so it took some juggling to figure out how to shuffle runners between the two minivans in a way that would allow everyone to get at least a couple hours of sleep during the night. I never did understand the vehicle occupancy spreadsheet that Michael came up with, but the system seems to work.
Due to the distance alone, the race is a serious one, but many of 300+ teams are lighthearted about their participation -- like the Gogo Girls, who are dressed in pink wigs and plan to run the entire race in tutus. As for team Beaver Corps, we chose to wear identical grey do-rags depicting a flaming scull, a trademark feature that greatly eases the task of locating our fellow teammates. Even without saying a word, a quizical look can prompts strangers to say, "She went that way."
Knowing that Stephanie must be nearby, I step out into the rain and jog my way to the transition area. As I strain to see my teammate, recognizable only by her red and yellow illuminated vest, I finally start to understand why my friends have difficulty comprehending what I do for "fun." My legs and shoulders ache, there's a pit in my empty stomach, and my bloodshot eyes could really use a couple more hours of rest. But somehow, it all seems worthwhile for the experience of running the country's longest relay race.
From the very beginning, the team demonstrated its strength with Steve racing up and down the Bretton Woods ski mountain in seven-minute miles. And despite some minor injuries that left Kate with a few scrapes and forced Victor to run his second leg without bending his knees, most of our runners felt stronger and ran faster than they expected.
As the sun's first rays bring a glow to the overcast sky, the team grows more lively as we cheer on our runners and count down the miles. In each van, we dine on crackers, energy bars, chocolate chips, and the ever-popular pepperoni, trying to balance our intake to keep from bonking on the low-end or cramping on the high-end.
At nearly 4:30pm on Saturday, 29 hours after our start, we all join Erica -- our last runner and team organizer -- on the sprint to the finish. The sleep deprivation is inconsequential as we celebrate our victory, having averaged 8:17 per mile over the entire course. In a race like this, it's not about finishing first. It's about finishing. And when you think about how long it takes to drive 212 miles, the knowledge that we, as a team, are able run that distance makes the whole body glow. Or maybe that's just the lactic acid.