Posted on Sep 24
Road Trip Runnovation: 200 Miles to Reach the Beach
By: John S. Forrester for New Balance
It’s just after 8 a.m. at the parking lot of the Indian Head Resort in New Hampshire’s White Mountains where six runners hang out making jokes beside a white passenger van. There’s a light drizzle and a chill hangs in the air. Ominous gray clouds hover around Mount Hancock in the distance.
“Happy Friday the Thirteenth everybody!” yells out runner Lauren Fithian.
It doesn’t look like a good day to run 200 miles.
But they are laughing and bouncing with energy. Nearby, another six runners decorate a second passenger van with stickers and write “Late Night Runs” on one of its windows. Together, they are a team of New Balance associates readying for a long night.
“It’s my first time, so I’m super, super nervous,” says Fithian. “I don’t know if I’m going to sleep at all.”
The 12 members of Late Night Runs are just a few of the 5,800 runners in 490 teams that registered for this year’s New Balance Reach the Beach (RTB) Relay in New Hampshire. This is America’s longest distance relay race. Part road trip, part endurance test, with a dash of music festival-like revelry; it is also one the nation’s most unique.
Teammates switch off running legs of the 203.1-mile route, traversing across the state from Cannon Mountain through the Lakes Region and into parts of the Merrimack Valley before reaching Hampton Beach. It usually takes about 24 hours to go through the race’s 36 checkpoints.
Most teams are made up of 12 runners broken up in two vans, with “Van One” running the first half of the race and “Van Two” finishing the second. There are also a handful of six-member ultra teams, riding in one van, who each run marathon-plus distances.
Brogan Graham, in Late Night Runs’ second van, doesn’t seem worried about the distance or the weather.
“It rained all last night. Like real rain, the kind that starts to make you think ‘Oh [expletive],’” says Graham. “But it’s actually letting up right now, and I don’t mind rain.”
He’s training for the New York City Marathon and is co-founder of November Project, a social running movement founded in Boston to bring people together to run year round through New England’s frigid winter months and humid summers.
This particular race is not just about running. Most time is spent in the vans, Graham says, where the true culture of Reach the Beach comes out.
“It’s the nonsense. It’s the playlist,” says Graham. “They call it downtime, but I think that’s some of the most important pieces.”
After posing for a picture while doing headstands, Graham, Fithian and their four van mates huddle, putting their hands in the center. It’s 8:45 a.m. A chant begins.
“Run!” “Run!” “Run!”
They get into their home for the next 24 hours and head toward the race’s starting line.
Now in its fifteenth year, RTB has grown from a homespun gathering of just a few hundred people to a well-known event attracting thousands of runners each year from across the United States and around the world.
The idea for the event came to co-founder Mike Dionne in 1998 when he was on a flight returning to Massachusetts after running a 195-mile-long overnight distance relay in Oregon.
“I was like, geez, there’s no relays like this on the east coast,” says Dionne, an avid cyclist and tri-athlete. “It would be great. People would love it.”
Approaching Rich Mazzola, a friend and fellow athlete, with the idea for RTB, the pair drove to New Hampshire that October to scout out a potential course.
“Believe it or not, the first day we drove from the White Mountains to Hampton Beach we saw enough of a course that would work that we finished that drive thinking, ‘Hey, this is possible,” says Dionne.
The pair had organized several cycling races together, but they had virtually no experience organizing a large running race. Undeterred, Dionne and Mazzola pushed forward.
“We just decided we’re going to make it work no matter how many teams sign up. We’re going to put this race on and see how it goes,” says Dionne, “And the first year we ended up with I think 32 teams and then the next year it was 50, and then it was 100 and then it was 150. It just kind of took off from there.”
Hundreds of runners fill the Cannon Mountain Ski Area’s parking lot as teams decorate their vans. Balloons, beer cans, inflatable dolls and other ornaments appear on bumpers, grills and rooftops. A gray haired man wearing a Santa Claus hat stands near the entrance yelling “Good luck!” to runners heading to starting line.
“I’m really impressed by the costumes,” says Graham. “There’s a pirate gang that’s really good.” In fact, most of the runners are wearing costumes, from business suits and tutus to video game characters.
To accommodate the number of teams and to pace them out by skill level, start times are staggered out through Friday, with casual teams starting earliest in the day moving into the faster and elite teams in the afternoon.
The first member of Late Night Runs just left the starting line. It’s 10:42 a.m. Fog rolls in and a light rain falls as speakers bump music you would expect to hear at a nightclub late on a Saturday night. After cheering on their teammate, Brogan and his van mates join a throng of people dancing to the beat as the first leg runners round a bend and disappear into the woods.
“Maybe it’s the early morning coffee, but everyone’s pretty psyched and it’s a lot of built up, pent up energy,” muses Graham. “You may have seen some Stanky Leg, some Burn. You may have seen some full Stanky Body...There’s definitely going to be some stanky bodies.”
A downpour begins soon after Late Night Runs’ first leg starts. Among the soggy runners making their way up the northern side of Route 3, a man wearing a dreadlock wig and pirate costume runs by a “Moose Crossing” sign clutching a plastic sword.
The race is on. The rain is now just another challenge to deal with.
“It ups the hardcore factor, so you kind of feel like you’re moving fast,” says NB associate Caitlin Campbell after running a rain-filled leg. “I was passing a lot of people and that always feels really good.”
As vans leapfrog from transition area to transition area, where batons are handed off and community groups sell comfort food like chili and sandwiches, some pull over on the course to hand out water and cheer on teammates and other runners. It’s not uncommon to see impromptu dance parties break out on road shoulders.
RTB attracts a “special kind of crazy,” says Janine Ryan, captain of TUTU Hot to Handle, a team that runs in purple tutus to raise money for Alzheimer's research.
“You have to just really enjoy being around other people and being a complete goofball,” says Ryan. “They take an individual sport like running and turn it into pretty much the best team sport ever.”
A constant flow of vans are entering and exiting the transition area at Echo Lake State Park around 4:20 p.m. as dozens of onlookers wait for incoming runners. More people keep coming, and the vans are at a standstill. Volunteers manning the transition area yell, “Get off the pavement!” several times to the crowd with increasing impatience. Runners need to transition, vans need to park or get on the road.
A man in the crowd yells out to the volunteers, “You’re doing a great job!” Cheers break out among the 50 or so runners bunched near the hand off site. The pavement is cleared and the tension fades. This is all part of the experience.
The sun is long gone. The costumes seen at the beginning of the race are now obscured by darkness, replaced with bouncing headlamps and blinking red safety lights winding through the roads of the Lake District and Merrimack Valley. Signs appear telling runners to keep quiet as they make their way through residential areas.
On night legs runners often go through isolated stretches without seeing another runner for miles.
“For me, there’s a sense of serenity,” says long-time RTB participant Victor Gonzalez of team Fellowship of the Bubblewrap. “I try to stay focused because I don’t want to take a wrong turn. But it is really calming. There’s always a sigh of relief when you see one of those blinkies up ahead and you know, OK, there’s a runner up there, I know I’m in the right place.”
Runners try to grab sleep when they can. Lauren Fithian sleeps on the floor of her van for a few hours while a friend stretches out on the seat above her. At transition areas and on roadsides, weary runners roll out sleeping bags and rest on whatever patch of ground they can find.
As midnight nears, Bryan Berlin of Portsmouth, N.H. stretches for his night leg in the parking lot of a ball bearing factory in Laconia.
“I’m not worried so much about the run as much as I’m worried that I’m tired,” says Berlin. “But I’m much more awake than I was in the van because it’s cold and nice out right now.”
He’s never been in a race before.
“I found out that I was doing this a week and a half ago. And up until that point I’ve probably never ran more than like three miles in one run,” says Berlin.
Many teams run for fun, others to train for marathons or break new PRs. But Berlin’s team and some others are here for a cause. He and his van mates are raising money to provide underprivileged children with scholarships to go to a summer camp in Freedom, N.H. So far, their team has raised over $44,000, he says.
“I am not a runner, but I really care about this camp,” says Berlin. “So that’s why I’m doing this. And it’s a little crazy for me, since I’ve never done anything like this before.”
By sunrise most of the teams have made it about halfway through the 200-mile course where rolling country roads segue to flat pavement.
The terrain is easier, but as teams start their final rotations lack of sleep and physical strain from previous day’s runs start to catch up.
“The hardest is basically your third leg,” says Ted Whitman, who has run RTB for 11 years in a row. “You may get a little bit of sleep between your second and third, but then when you have to wake up on that early morning to hit the pavement that last time your legs are sore and as the day gets on it gets hotter and hotter.”
Late Night Runs wear costumes for their final legs. Running through a sleepy town, Lauren Fithian gave a realtor setting up a lawn sign a scare as she trotted by dressed as a bunch of grapes in a purple tutu and face paint with balloons pinned to her outfit. Brogan Graham, taking the final leg to Hampton Beach, wears a shirt saying “100% Beef” and a hat shaped like a hot dog.
“The last half mile was all really on the beach; it’s deep sand. So you’re exhausted from not sleeping and from the last couple legs,” says Graham. “Then the sun came out and we were wearing our costumes. So you’re overheated, pretty dehydrated, definitely tired."
“That last little twist was that half mile of the sun. It was pretty rough.”
Making his way on the beach toward the finish line, Graham sees his teammates waiting for him and cheering.
“The whole team was there and we all finished together. It was really cool,” says Graham. “It was a great experience, it was a powerful way to finish.”