Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Reaching the Beach

Few people would say that running 200-miles through New Hampshire on little sleep and less than substantial food over the course of 30 hours is a fun way to spend a weekend. But this past weekend I took eleven of my friends on such an adventure, and it turned out to be one of the best race experiences I have ever had. The actual experience, laughs, good times, challenge and beauty of the event made it worth all the headache of planning it.

After a disappointing performance in the Boston Marathon, I decided to put my name in the lottery for the New York Marathon. I found out in June that I did not get in, so I figured my racing season would be over after the half Ironman in Tupper Lake, which made me feel a little unsettled as it has been several years since I have not had some race I was training for. I came across the Reach the Beach Relay in July while doing some research for work, and the challenge of running 200-miles with my friends was too tempting for me to ignore, so I immediately sent an email to all the people I know who run to see if I could even get a team of 12 together. Amazingly, I had 12 people and a few extras in a matter of a few days, but by the time I got in touch with the organizers, the race was full. We went on a waiting list, but I was determined to get into this race. Little did I realize what a mammoth task I was undertaking getting 12 people together, helping them prepare, planning all the logistics from vehicles to lodging to strategy, etc. in less than 2 months. True to Nikki form, I went for the big dog. I couldn’t just do a 50-mile, 5 person relay that would only be a day trip. No, I had to go for the 200-mile, 12 person relay in New Hampshire. Always think big is my motto.

Miracle number one was getting in the race. Miracle number two came on the morning of departure for the race. In the three weeks leading up to the race, half of the team dropped out for one reason or another so I found myself replacing them with my alternates. And then the nightmare began… the alternates began dropping, and I was in a constant state of finding people to fill spots because without 12 people, each runner was going to have to run more than they anticipated. The night before we left, I was down two runners. Not a good thing. Then a friend who was supposed to have friends in town called and said she wanted to do it. I was so overjoyed I almost fell off the chair I was sitting on. At this point I had resolved myself to the reality that we were only going to have 11 people, which would mean myself and two others were going to have to run four times instead of three. I wasn’t happy about it, but I had convinced myself that I could do it. Then Thursday morning, one of my runners called and said his friend was going to be able to do it. So six hours before the second car was to leave, I had a complete team.

It’s often difficult for me to understand the reaction of other people when I tell them what I am doing. Usually I get the ‘Why would you want to run 200 miles?’ response. My usual retort is, “Why not?” I like running. It gives me great satisfaction to carry myself a distance most people don’t even like doing in a car. I have seen the world running. I have had thousands of hours of personal Nikki think time while running. I have done two of the best marathons in the world, so when I didn’t get in to NYC marathon this year, I was somewhat relieved. I wanted a challenge, but I didn’t want to put my body through the torture of training for my third marathon in a year. Reach the Beach was an opportunity for me to do something totally different. But more than that, it was an opportunity for me to provide my running friends, especially the ones who were just starting out, an opportunity to train and achieve something they probably never imagined they would. It was the experience of a lifetime. I wanted to be part of a team, where we relied on each other to get to the finish line because my whole life I have just been getting myself to the finish line, which caused me to put a lot of unreasonable expectations on myself. This represented a shift back to loving running again.

From the time we left Manhattan to the time we finished, we slept less than 10 hours and ate nothing but energy bars, pita chips, cold pasta, peanut M&Ms and peanuts, but we managed to traverse that 200 miles from Bretton Woods in the White Mountains of New Hampshire to Hampton Beach in 30 hours and 7 minutes averaging about an 8:30 mile. Despite the fatigue and pain of running 15-20 miles a piece up and down steep hills at all hours of the day and night, it was one of the best experiences I have ever had. I found myself energized watching my teammates run, cheering them on and seeing them come to the end of each leg. I also found myself wishing at times that I could take their place out there on the road as I watched the heat, pain and exhaustion take its toll.

It wasn’t until my second leg that I really began to understand what it was all about. I started my second leg of 8 miles somewhere around 10pm on Friday night. The roads were completely black as they were without streetlights. The only light I had was from a faint headlamp, the occasional headlights of passing cars and the stars in the sky. I didn’t see another runner for almost 4 miles, so I had a lot of time to myself. Every few minutes a support vehicle would come up behind me and light up the road for a few seconds, but as they passed, the darkness would quickly swallow everything around me, including myself. When I did see another runner, it was usually in the form of a blinking red light in the distance. I would stay focused on that red light as long as I could until I eventually caught up to them and passed them once again faced with the darkness ahead. Because it was so black I didn’t know how many hills there were, when they started, how long they were or how steep they were. I just put one foot in front of the other and listened to the rhythm of my feet hitting the pavement making sure that no matter what that rhythm remained constant. What kept me going besides the thrill of being out in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night with little visibility or concept of how far I had gone and how much farther I had to go was the team I had waiting for me at the end of that leg. They were there waiting for me with confidence that I would come out of the dark, round the corner and pass the baton to my teammate. I would make it because if I didn’t we were not going to finish. And not finishing was not an option. I never once thought that I wouldn’t make it. When my own strength seemed to wane and nearly fail me, the energy and confidence of my team carried me to the end.

We all knew we had a part to play in accomplishing this challenge before us. It wasn’t about me or any of us as individuals because none of us could finish that race without the collective effort of the team. We all knew that everyone had their own obstacles and challenges on each leg, some were long, some were hilly, some were short with steep downhills. But we all trusted in each other knowing that together we would make it to the end. I have medals from marathons, half Ironmans and the Ironman and although I am proud of those accomplishments, this one just seemed to have a different meaning. For the first time, racing wasn’t about me, and I was reminded why I love running. People always wonder why I do crazy things like this. I could say that I like the challenge, I like seeing how far I can push my body, I like being able to say I did it or I like making goals to do things I didn’t imagine I could do. All of those things would be true. But I do this because it feeds my soul and helps me appreciate the body I have and what it can do. I do it because of the people I meet and the experiences I have had. I do it because it is who I am.

1 comment:

Rachel said...

wow! incredible! just amazing...