Coast to Coast
The Story of Two Races—and the Growing Popularity of Road Relays
by Marc Chalufour
From Japan, where ekidens frequently pit teams of distance runners against each other on the roads, to the thousands of high school and college runners who descend on Philadelphia each spring for the Penn Relays, relays have long been a popular alternative to individual races. But what do you do if your days of high school and collegiate competition have long since passed?
In the spirit of ekidens, and following in the footsteps of the immensely popular Hood to Coast Relay in Oregon, an increasing number of road relay events have been appearing in North America. From the Canadian mountains to the Golden Gate Bridge, Texas to New Hampshire, you should be able to find at least one such event nearby.
The catch is that you need a team. As tough as the relay will be, the biggest challenge may be finding 12 people who are willing to commit to a race that is months down the road.
You will find that many teams have ties to the same track club, business or college. If those connections don’t yield the necessary dozen, then there are always squads looking to round out their ranks with individuals who don’t yet have a team.
My friends and I went the college route, rounding up as many of our former Haverford College teammates as we could. Each of us was struggling with the newly imposed reality of life without a team in a different way: Some were in a post-marathon funk following their first experience at that distance, others had only been training sporadically since graduation, and for some “sporadic” may have been an exaggeration. All in all, it was a motley crew that showed up for the 2000 Reach the Beach Relay in New Hampshire.
With just one relay veteran on the team, our only expectation was that we would have a good time. And we did. Racing nearly 200 miles across the state was a blast—we were a team again, if only for the weekend, and the feeling was great.
Buoyed by our post-race high, we quickly looked towards 2001, when we planned to add Hood to Coast to our schedule, five weeks before returning to Reach the Beach.
Hood to Coast is the king of the relays in the U.S., and we felt compelled to add it to our resumes. Begun in 1982, when eight lonely teams made the trek from Hood Mountain to the Pacific coast, the field has since ballooned to 1,000 teams. That figure would be even higher if the race organizers weren’t forced to put a cap on the field.
The race has become so popular, in fact, that a lottery had to be held in 2001 to select 1,000 teams out of just those squads who had sent their application in on the first day of registration.
The Reach the Beach Relay follows the same format as Hood to Coast: A maximum of 12 runners rotate through the 36 legs of the race. Exchange zones are set up where ever is convenient—parking lots, churches, schools or just along the side of the road. Also reminiscent of Hood to Coast is the growth of this event. In only three years, Reach the Beach’s field has tripled in size to nearly 100 teams. Growth can be a mixed blessing, though.
Just as some runners prefer a small marathon while others enjoy the circus that accompanies a 20,000 person event, the same can be said for relays.
No matter what the talent level of your team, there will be competition at Hood to Coast—which is the Boston Marathon of road relays. At the same time, 1,000 teams means 2,000 team vehicles. That’s more than the course can accommodate at times, so don’t be surprised when even fatigued runners are passing your idling van on the most congested parts of the course.
Meanwhile, there won’t be any overcrowding at Reach the Beach, where the field is still small enough that many of the volunteers are able to provide refreshments at the exchange zones. The trade-off is that the back roads of New Hampshire can be dark and lonely in the middle of night with nobody else in sight.
While each race offers different challenges, experience can count for a lot in this type of event. As we learned on the roads of Oregon, however, there are certain obstacles that even meticulous planning can’t compensate for: Runners get hurt or sick (in which case some lucky soul(s) get to run extra), team’s go off course, runner’s are out of shape—the possibilities are endless.
Don’t get me wrong—we had fun. At the same time, I came to the realization that the race was only a small part of the experience. The entire event served as a reunion, with the time spent in the cramped vans being as good a reason as any for all of us to fly out to the West Coast for a weekend.
As we limped back to the vans after taking a post-race dip in the Pacific, one thought kept running through our minds: We had another 190+ mile date in New Hampshire just five weeks down the road.
Fortunately that was more than enough time for our bodies to recover from the 21 hours of abuse that we’d put them through, and we hit New Hampshire with renewed enthusiasm. This had been the race that fired us up 12 months earlier, and we had high hopes of defending the team title we had taken home from that maiden voyage.
There were some new faces this time around, and we’d lost some of our stars from 2000, but we hoped to make up for those losses with the experience we’d gained.
This year’s race was nothing like last year’s, when we seemed to run on little more than adrenaline. This time around we were more relaxed, probably due in large part to knowing exactly what was waiting for us a few miles or hours in the future.
Road relays are a return to a purer form of racing, a form that involves getting from point A to point B before the next team. Sure, you can write down the splits for your 3.8, 6.9 and 4.2 mile legs, but what will you compare them to? You’ll know that you’re running hard despite not being able to see the road in the dark, not feeling your toes in the cold, and not having any idea how far you’ve run—or how far you have to go. That’s just as rewarding as any PR, especially when you’re greeted at the exchange zone by cheering teammates.
Even with different personnel and an altered approach, we crossed the line in Hampton Beach just three minutes behind our time from the year before.
No sooner had we taken a frigid dip in the Atlantic, with our bodies and minds screaming for some r&r, than we began joking about how to outdo ourselves in 2002.
Several weeks later I noticed an ad for the inaugural Ameri-Cana International Relay, 220 miles from British Columbia to Idaho—and it’s a full week before Hood to Coast. Perfect!