BY MIKE WISER
It had just stopped raining in New Hampshire at 10:30 a.m. Friday, but it was still a wet day as Clifford Ginn ’03 was preparing to run to the top of the Bretton Woods Ski Area and back down to the lodge. His 11 teammates watched from the base area as Ginn began what had been described as the “hardest 5K you have ever run.”
Twenty minutes later the crowd watched in stunned silence as a figure descended the hill a full three minutes ahead of the 20 or so competitors who had the same start time. As the blurry figure came into focus, the HLS crowd recognized Ginn as the figure zooming down the hill. Soon, the HLS runners and most of the 200 observers were cheering for Harvard Law.
When Ginn began his assent of the mountain, he put on a padded slap-on bracelet-baton labeled “Reach the Beach,” the name of the relay race he was beginning. Two hundred miles, 36 segments, and 26 hours and 50 minutes later, the fluorescent label had fallen off and the bracelet-baton was, as one participant put it, “all wet and nasty” when Sanket Bulsara ’02 ran into a cheering crowd at the finish line at North Hampton State Beach. Bulsara said that he still smiles every time he thinks about completing the relay race.
When the 12 racers described their experience, one word came up more than any other: “intense.” Just running 17 miles is hard. Scatter those 17 miles over three segments, stretch the segments over 26 hours, and add brief naps upright in a van, a diet of Power Bars and doughnuts, and constant worry about the logistics of getting 12 runners to 36 different points at the right time, and you have the formula for an “intense” running experience.
Kathy Turner ’04, a 1L who has run in marathons before, said that the Race to the Beach was probably harder than a marathon.
“Your body has between six and eight hours to realize what you’re doing with it,” she said.
All of this started as a charity competition between HLS and Yale Law School (YLS). YLS student Kevin Keenan said he thought participating in the Race to the Beach against HLS students would be a great way to raise money for charity. He soon got Helen Hong ’03 to take care of the Harvard side of things. They set an ambitious goal of raising $20,000 for charity and set about recruiting runners. With the help of a HL Central party the week before the race that raised over $5,000, it looks like the HLS Runners will meet their goal of raising their $10,000, which they plan to donate to a United Way fund to benefit families of World Trade Center victims. HLS and YLS were just two teams among the between 100 and 200 teams that ended up participating in the race.
While the event was originally billed as Harvard v. Yale, most of the participants said that the experience itself ended up dwarfing any competition. “Once I got in the race it was all encompassing,” Lacey Schwarz ’03 said.
Completing the race was enough of an achievement that most of the runners weren’t bothered that they finished a mere 17 minutes after the Yale runners. In fact, since the beginning of the race was staggered, the HLS runners had no idea where Yale was for most of the race.
In addition to raising the money, organizers of the Harvard squad had to recruit three 1L runners on the Tuesday before the race began after injuries sidetracked the planned runners. Hong, among those injured, went anyway to provide support. In addition to Schwarz, Ginn, Bulsara and Turner, the HLS team also included Jeri Colbert ’04, Tiffany Kwock ’04, Tom Kellog ’03, Maggie Harrison ’02, Kelly Jaske ’02, Rob McCreanor ’02, Jeff Rowes ’02 and Chris Wheeler ’02. Jaske’s father, John Jaske, also came to help with the logistics required for coordinating 12 runners, two cars and one large white van. The elder Jaske also played a crucial role when he ran six miles alongside Lacey Schwarz in the middle of the night when she was concerned for her safety.
For most of the runners, the experience of running miles in the pitch black night was the most remarkable part of the race. While working its way to the Atlantic Ocean, the route meandered along tree-covered, one-lane and dirt roads. In the middle of the night, many roads were pitch black except for red flashes from other runners’ vests or headlights from the support vehicles.
While Schwarz had John Jaske to help her get through the long dark roads, Sanket Bulsara spent his time running dreaming of relaxing by a bonfire and maybe taking a shower.
“The night-running aspect was inherently unsafe,” he said, describing running with only three feet of visibility and trying to follow the white lines along the side of the road.
One runner said that running by dark lakes, almost invisible in the night, was beautiful, but leaving the transition areas where the runners were camped and entering the dark woods was like “entering a black hole.”
The moonless New Hampshire night was also inspiring.
Tiffany Kwock explained: “I was pretty scared because it was dark, and you’re pretty much running next to the highway with these empty fields to the right of you. But I think the fear and excitement made me run the fastest I ever did, which was seven minutes a mile for seven miles.”
The roads in mountainous New Hampshire were rough, but, for the HLS runners, not running was just about as hard. In a race where you are only running for three hours over a 27-hour race, what you do with the other 24 hours is pretty important.
The runners were mostly concerned about the duties of keeping everything on course. Every runner was given a number (1-12) and ran the corresponding segment in the same order throughout the race. The team then split into two groups with two cars assigned to the runners who were “on.” Meanwhile the other six took the van to one of four designated “Vehicle Transition Areas” (VTAs) where they tried to sleep.
Running through the woods, a number of the runners imagined these VTAs to be far more than they were. According to Schwarz, the organizers kept describing them as “the place to be” where you could socialize, shower and gather around a bonfire.
Bulsara said, however, that they turned out to be “bad state park bathrooms” without showers or huge bonfires. The VTAs had unappetizing dishes of chili and soup, which most of the runners didn’t eat anyway.
When they weren’t enjoying the amenities of the VTAs, the racers were crowded in the van trying to recover before their next leg. However, sleeping isn’t easy when you’re in the middle of a race.
“You’re so jazzed about the whole thing, you just can’t sleep,” Bulsara said.
Besides that, six people in a van, even a big van, isn’t really luxurious. The van is even less luxurious after the smell of sweat starts to permeate everything, and the cold New Hampshire night becomes hard to fight off even with a sleeping bag.
But the VTAs had bright spots. For one runner, getting into a sleeping bag had never felt so good. Perhaps the most surreal aspect of the transition areas came from the New Hampshire Girl Scouts and Brownies who chanted, “Go, runners, go!” late into the night.
Running is usually a solitary sport, but being cramped into a van with a common, seemingly impossible goal can bring a group together.
“We kept comparing it to some weird Road Rules,” Bulsara said of the experience.
With a few of the runners joining the team three days before the race, the group had only met for 10 minutes before they departed from the Pound parking lot at 5:00 a.m. Friday morning. They soon found they had something in common.
“[W]e definitely came together as a team,” Kwock said.
Some of the runners marveled that for their first time in law school they were hanging out with law students and not even talking about law school. They were talking about the race and running. Ta
lking about anything else was inconceivable.
They all have stories about how the support of the team drove them on. Kathy Turner tells a story about craving some chocolate donuts that she saw at the VTA, but realizing she wouldn’t be able to eat them before she ran. Tom Kellogg promised that the donuts would be there when she finished her segment.
“During that run, I kept remembering that I was going to get chocolate donuts,” she said.
For Tiffany Kwock, the support of the team helped her through the nadir of the race.
“I felt like throwing up in the middle of my run, and to make matters worse, I actually made a wrong turn and went the wrong way until a van pulled over and directed me to the correct direction,” she said. “But I managed to finish it even though I felt like quitting most of the time. I made it thanks to the awesome team.
“Towards the end, Helen ran out to me to cheer me on and Kelly kept telling me I was almost there,” she added. “All my teammates were there at the next transition, cheering me on, and when I finished it felt really good to get hugs from so many people. They really made me feel like a star.”
While the race was hard, the runners seemed to thrive in the challenge of it.
“The best pain I’ve ever felt in my entire life,” Bulsara said of the experience.