by Julie Millard
Back in May, Crow Athletics founder Gary Allen (caw!) invited the Central Maine Striders to field a team for the Down East Sunrise (DEST) Relay via our Facebook page. Being a relay aficionado from way back, I quickly followed up in the comments to gauge interest. Within 48 hours, seven other Striders had joined me in registering for our club’s first overnight relay team. Prior experience ranged from relative novice to virtual professional, with everything in between!
Our start time on Friday, July 21, was calculated based on our self-reported half marathon pace times, so that all teams would finish at about noon on Saturday, July 22. My quick estimate was that we would average about 8 minutes per mile, allowing us to complete the 102-mile course in about 13 and a half hours. The Crow folks clearly have similar math skills, and our official start time was 10:30 p.m.
Waves of teams departed from an Ellsworth parking lot adjoining the trail at half-hour intervals, and before we knew it, our lead-off runner Ron Peck was on the line with runners from Sleepless in Eastport and Whackos in WaCo. The darkness was punctuated only by headlamps, Tiki torches, and a string of holiday lights across the start banner. Then the bullhorn sounded, and they were off.
Our team had eight runners, and all ran two legs in different orders:
Paranoid about leaving a runner behind, we had a carefully planned out spreadsheet with estimated run times and van assignments for dropping off and picking up each runner. Van #1 shepherded the first three runners to their starts, while Van #2 hopscotched ahead to the start of leg #4. While runner #3 ran only 7.6 miles, the driving distance was 21.5 miles! On twisty back roads with no street lights! And intermittent cell phone reception!
But Van #2 overcame these obstacles and found the blinking red light beacon that marked the start of leg #4. Its occupants catnapped for about 30 minutes until our alarm went off, and then we waited at the exchange point for our incoming runner. An unforeseen problem was figuring out which runner was ours.
Pro Tip #1: Make your runner easy to identify in the dark by using colored blinking lights or a waist light in addition to a headlamp. Alternatively, bring a support person on a fat bike so that they can ride down the trail, intercept the incoming runner, and then ride back to the exchange point with an update. And don’t forget the bug spray!
The best leg of them all had to be leg #8 (just a coincidence that the person who assigned the order got this one!). It's described as follows in the Race Handbook: “The trail becomes semi-remote again in the four mile stretch from Columbia Falls to Jonesboro Station.”
The “semi” is an overstatement, as my only companions, with the exception of the two runners who blew by me, were the songbirds and frogs as the mist rose over the bog. But I enjoyed running east as the horizon slowly turned orange and brightened to the point where the headlamp wasn’t necessary to see the big rocks underfoot.
Pro Tip #2: Minimalist shoes are not a good idea. The trail is more like a dirt road, with some sizable stones. A former rail trail, it is also extremely flat, leading to calf cramps in some of our runners. Compression socks helped!
Team members encountered a variety of wildlife along the trail, including porcupines, skunks, deer, and a bear (heard about, not seen, fortunately!). The larger problem was probably intestinal issues that plagued several runners, which may have been compounded by the scarcity of toilet facilities. Either we didn’t get the nutrition quite right, or the body does not take kindly to running hard when it thinks it should be sleeping.
When our anchor runner Bruce Maxwell cruised across the finish line in Eastport, we had beaten our projected time by more than four minutes! We ended up sixth out of 26th teams overall (first equal-gender team), with a 7:51 average pace.
Next year we would love to have more than one Strider team representing the oldest active running club in Maine, so put this one on your bucket list!