River to Sea

August 7, 2008, 10:00 am; posted by
Filed under Articles, Featured, Mike J  | 1 Comment

This past Saturday, a longtime dream was realized when six friends and I ran the River to Sea Relay, a 7-person, 92-mile relay race across New Jersey. Each team member ran two legs of unequal length, one in the morning, one in the afternoon.

The team members ranged from a 17-year-old local high school track runner to my 58-year-old dad. The race is a staggered start, meaning that the slowest team started first (around 6 AM) and the fastest team started last (around 10:15 AM), with hopes of a close finish. We believe many teams must have sandbagged their reported times, however, as we were the 40th to start — and let’s just say our time was not better than 39 other teams. This late start meant that we had to run the 92 miles at 8:33 per mile to finish by the mandated 8:30 PM.

Interestingly, I was the median runner on the team; three were slower than me, three were faster. I figured the fast and slow would cancel each other out if I could keep on pace.

We began at 7:25, my dad running the first leg down from the Delaware River bridge into Milford, NJ and south along the Delaware through the hamlet of Frenchtown; he ran a 4.8 mile leg in about 44 minutes. My soon-to-be sister-in-law Kristie ran 8.2 miles further south, finishing in about 75 minutes. We were slightly behind when I started the third stage, a trail run further south to Lambertville, NJ. A six-mile run took 47 minutes, getting our team closer to pace.

Then our fast runners were up consecutively. The fourth stage, affectionately known as “the Beast” for its terrible hills, saw one of the most amazing running displays I’ve ever seen. Steve Johnson, a marathoner from our church, tackled 8.7 miles, almost all uphill, in 59 minutes, moving us ahead of schedule. Mike Snyder, an 18-year-old runner from our church, ran 6.5 miles in about 50 minutes, and Steve Trimble, a friend of Mike’s, ran an eight-mile leg in about 68 minutes.

This was a fine, if unexceptional, time — until you consider he ran through a monsoon for half of it and had to run for shelter when it began to hail for a few minutes. Just keeping us on pace was a miracle, and the leg ended with him vomiting up ingested rain water from the beginning of the stage. The seventh stage, a four-miler, was tackled by my brother Chris in about 36 minutes. We were about 12 minutes ahead of schedule, halfway through the race.

Kristie took the first leg of the second half, a 5.5 miler. Exhaustion caught up with her, however, and she had to walk for a bit. However, she put up sub-10-minute miles, keeping us ahead of pace. My second leg came next — the longest of the race. I wasn’t sure if the young runners on our team were really training hard for the race, so I doubted they should take a 9.15-mile leg in the heat of the day. Even though they are far more gifted runners, I knew I would maximize my lesser gifts.

Big mistake.

I ran the first six miles, then totally bonked. An imprecise term, I know, but the heat and everything else got to me, and I was not mentally strong enough to run through it. I had to walk about a quarter-mile, to a spot that was 2.5 miles from the finish. Then I ran a mile, walked 0.1 mile, and finished by running about 1.4 miles. Still, I managed to finish in 81 minutes, which placed us only one minute behind our pace to finish.

Then disaster struck. The next two stages were a wild card, 13.9 miles to be shared by two runners however they chose. My brother started and promptly got lost. (The roads were not closed to traffic and some spots were not well-marked.) This cost us about 25 minutes, which was not entirely his fault. Our team should have helped to direct him through the tricky town of Manalapan, and I had printed up — and lost — little cards with directions on them for each team member. Still, we valiantly persevered and Steve Johnson — of “the Beast” fame — helped make up time by running nine six-minute miles on that leg. Amazing.

Still we knew it would be impossible to finish in time. So we were allowed by race officials to complete the entire course by sending our stage 13 runner out before our stage 12 runner was done. My dad completed 6.5 miles in 56 minutes, while Mike ran 7.95 miles in 61 minutes. Finally, our sprinter, Steve T., finished the final 2.5 mile stage in 16 minutes.

Our elapsed running time for the whole course was 13:22 (including the time Chris was lost). Though we were listed as “unofficial finishers,” given our late starting time, our elapsed time was still better than a few of the 100 teams that ran. Certainly, had Chris not gotten lost, we would have finished in plenty of time (my estimate is around 8:22 PM).

Why would anyone run across New Jersey in a single day? Because it’s there. But there were wonderful fringe benefits we didn’t know we were getting: we were cemented together as a team. The slower runners on our team got to see some masterful runners in action. We witnessed the camaraderie of the running community, as teams supported each other in this bizarre endeavor. And I was proud to meet my personal goal of 15 miles at 8:33 per mile.

Most important to me was the time spent with people — I just really like people, and I got to make new friends like Steve Trimble. I got to spend time with young Mike Snyder before he goes off to college; I got to chat with Steve Johnson without our kids pulling us away (he has girls 11, 9, and 6). I saw my brother Chris for the longest time in years and spent quality time with his fiancee, Kristie, a wonderful and caring woman. Perhaps most special was running it with my dad, who has run since I was a small boy, and who inspired me to start running when I became a man. Thanks, Dad.

I have some more thoughts on this that I’ll share later — this event has helped shape my ministry too.


1 Comment to “River to Sea”

  1. Eric Hoffer on August 7th, 2008 3:58 pm

    Great post! I feel like I lived through it all *again* while reading yours just now. Your story also sounds similar to other teams we witnessed out there – or maybe it was you we were playing cat-and-mouse with along the way.

Leave a comment!