There Are Marathons, and There Are Ultra-Marathons

How I ended up running in fear of wild boars and spending 30 hours in a Suburban with four smelly guys.

In my last column I wrote about training for and running a marathon. Other than the time I hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back in one day — with an extra little 3-mile side trip to Plauteau Point — marathon running ranks up there as the toughest physical challenge I have endured.

Well, other than an ultra-marathon relay.

Lured by the prospect of a beautiful run through the state of New Hampshire in September 2007, the idea of participating in a 12-person, roughly 208-mile relay from the mountains to the beach sounded kind of "fun," at least back on the wintry March day when it was first proposed to me and my husband.

Once we filled out our Reach the Beach entry forms at a summer get-together where the margaritas flowed rather freely, I soon discovered that our team, "Old School," had dwindled from 12 to 10, I was one of only two women, and we were going to use SUVs rather than vans. I was assigned to vehicle #1, the Suburban, along with my husband and three guys, two of whom I had never met before.

Each of the four legs I ran — for a total of 23.4 miles — was a unique experience.

I was excited for my first run, and as I received the baton (a sweaty reflective "slap bracelet") I was just about at the summit of the Kancamagus Highway.

About 100 yards later, I began running downhill. A road sign, like those along Avon Mountain, said “Steep Descent, Next 5 Miles.” They weren’t kidding. I was afraid I would start rolling like one of those cartoon snowballs that grows as it gathers speed and can’t stop on its way down the mountain.

My 4.8-mile leg downhill seemed relatively easy, and my pace was under 7.5 minutes, which is much faster than I usually run that distance. I knew I would eventually pay for using a totally different set of muscles. (Going downhill, while seemingly effortless, puts an amazing amount of stress on the quads and knees.)

The night running was another unique experience.

The "Reach the Beach Relay Official Handbook" — which was 45 pages long and contained critically important instructions such as "do not answer 'nature's call' on private or town property" — specified a list of required equipment, and our team captain had to prove we had everything at the initial sign-in booth before they would give us our race numbers.

Between the hours of 6 p.m. and 6 a.m., all runners had to wear reflective vests with blinking lights on the front and back. We also had to wear headlamps or carry a flashlight.

Okay, I've never really been fond of running in the dark. The only time I run in the dark is during the time of the year when the sun rises after 7 a.m., and even then I try to procrastinate until I see at least the hint of light in the sky. I don’t see very well in the dark, and I don’t like the constant worry of tripping over something. This was probably the part of the race I dreaded most, because no one could escape at least one night running experience.

When our vehicle lost track of my husband during his first night run, and he had to call us from a borrowed cell phone, I was even more intimidated.

Did I mention that it’s dark in New Hampshire at night? Not dark like walking down my suburban sidewalk with its street lamps and the friendly glow of porch lights. Not even dark like the rural parts of town that don’t have street lights.

By the time it was my turn, the sky had clouded over. There was no moon, no stars, no lights of Hartford anywhere in the distance. It was pitch black, black-hole dark. At 9:15 p.m., I had my headlamp on and was strapped into my reflective vest with its blinky lights — which was nice and sweaty from the previous user.

For good measure, I added an extra blinky light on my arm, and carried a small flashlight. I couldn’t even see which direction I needed to start running in. Boy, was I in trouble!

I was terrified as I set off on my 7.7-mile journey near Squam Lake, NH.

One of the other strict rules of this race was to run on the side of the road where the arrows were posted. Sometimes it was against traffic (which is the way you are usually supposed to run), but sometimes it was with traffic (which I found a bit unnerving). However, at night, I discovered that it was better to run with traffic because a car behind you would actually help you see the road instead of blinding you.

Keeping a constant watch on the white line on the side of the road (when there actually was a white line, that is), I glided through the night like some strange blinking alien. The first thing I noticed was the sign: “Moose Xing, Next 5 Miles.”

My only defense was a tiny flashlight.

The Official Handbook had also mentioned the possibility of seeing deer and bears. My heart was beating faster than it needed to for the speed at which I was running.

Then I saw a sign with a picture of what looked like a wild boar.

A dog started barking.

Now I didn’t know what a moose would do if it saw or heard me (I couldn’t see a thing except the line on the side of the road), and I was hoping that a deer or a bear or even a wild boar would head in the other direction. But, I didn’t like the idea of being chased by a dog.

I ran faster.

The van stopped ever quarter mile or so to check on me; “hop-scotching” of runners at night was highly recommended.

It was my longest leg, and it was much hillier than the elevation map had promised, but about 75 minutes later I was safely back inside the van without having encountered any wildlife.

I'm still in search of the elusive moose, but I prefer not to find one when I am alone on the side of the road in the darkness.

The rest of the race passed uneventfully, except for the time I thought we lost one of our teammates. While our vehicle was "off duty" for a few hours, he had wandered off, in the cold rain, to take a nap on a cement slab under an overhang at a school, finding that preferable to the confines of the Suburban.

I managed to eat a lot, including foods that would normally sound extremely unappetizing (fried bologna sandwiches) but tasted awesome, slept a total of 15 minutes, did my usual pre-breakfast run but without the benefit of having any sleep, washed my hands and face whenever I could find actual running water, gained a new appreciation for flush toilets, and learned that there are "seasonal dead end roads" in New Hampshire.

I learned that it's a truly unparalled, ethereal experience watching a steady stream of glowing runners ascending the hills of central New Hampshire in the middle of the night.

I bonded with the others on my team, in a way that changing in the back of a Suburban, cleaning off with anti-bacterial wipes, and dutifully storing your sweaty clothes in a zip-lock bag can bring you together. We learned, in the words of one teammate, a 6'4" Iron Man triathlete from Boston, "to accept our common stinkality."

My husband is now a veteran of the "Old School" relay team, and is one four original members still participating.

I actually planned to "Reach the Beach" again — two years later — but was sidelined with a broken foot just six days before it started.

Why would I do it in the first place, and actually consider doing it again? Like I said about running a marathon, or giving birth to a child, what you really remember is the exhilaration of the accomplishment.


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