This was our return trip to the Peak 2 Brew Relay. The six of us in our van had previously run this in 2016 as well (with an additional member – Anita – who had decided not to participate this time). The race itself is a 220+ mile relay from the top of Whiteface Mountain in Lake Placid (The ‘Peak’) to the Saranac Brewery in Utica (Where they kept all the ‘Brew’).
As a variation on last year, the vans had switched roles. (Van #2 was now Van #1 and vice versa). This meant that all of us in Van #2 would be running new, unfamiliar sections of the course. One other change was that due to modifications to the course, van #2 runners would have only 3 legs to run instead of 4, although the overall distance per runner would be similar to the year before. (And with one less runner in our van, a few of us would end up running 4 legs anyway).
As Judy made it perfectly clear though before the start: we were there to have fun, not to try and win. There was a bit of inter-team competition though: James was going to try and beat my time down Whiteface from last year, Mike Blois was going to try and beat James’ time on the ‘Honey Badger’ leg and Mike Yates was going to have an even bigger breakfast than last year.
One thing about being in Van #2: You get to sleep in to a lightly more normal time and you also get to have a more relaxed breakfast. We chose a restaurant close by called the ‘Dancing Bear’… mostly because: It was open and the bear motif made for a good picture with our K2J/Saranac Bear mascot. (Van #1 gave their bear the clever nickname ‘JRrrr’ after our coach… But we didn’t have time to think up a name, since we actually take running seriously).
The waitress was friendly if not a bit confused by us (and our matching clothing) and breakfast was a good time. We were only interrupted by a text early on informing us that James had raced down Whiteface in around 33:26. We then decided that if the other van wasn’t going to take our coach seriously about not taking the race too seriously then neither were we.
Thoroughly confused by all of the double-negatives, we set off to the first major exchange which was at the Olympic ski jump. This was a great place to start. It was at the top of a small hill (small being a relative term). Waiting for the first exchange was much different this year, since Van #1 had a later start time this year (8:30 vs 7:00 last year), so several teams made the exchange in the interim. Despite being ‘non-competitive’ there was a distinct feeling of being ‘way-behind’ and wanting to make up time.
Talking to the volunteers, it sounded like we were going to be the second or third team in from the 8:30 start time. Sure enough, by the time Judy came up the last hill, we were the third team, but the second team was less than a minute ahead. Judy snapped the wristband onto my arm and I set off on a slow, measured pace, preserving my energy for the later times.
Or, more accurately, knowing that this was a short 5k leg, and my easiest, I hit the afterburners. Literally 10 seconds after I started off, one of the race directors told me to slow down. I think he was joking.
This leg was short, but with two long rolling hills that slowed me down going up, but provided a nice boost after. I passed the runner ahead about 1km in and then tried to make sure that I didn’t get killed back for the rest of my run. (It turns out fear isn’t bad motivation!). Shortly after, I handed off to Chris Steele who had an 8k leg… and also an injured leg. He had strained his calf earlier in the week and it was taped up for the run. Based on that, we had another runner ready on standby in case the pain flared up. We didn’t need to worry though, he told us as he handed off to Karen that it was holding up fine. This was relief to all of us, since that would have been a lot of extra distance to make up.
Karen set off at an aggressive pace, determined not to be passed. And she would have made it, except that she was defeated by the stoplights in town, which cost her a couple of minutes. That meant our other Chris (Bright) was in revenge mode for his leg. His run was the longest in our first round at 10.7 miles (17 km). He began chasing that team down as soon as Karen snapped the wristband onto his arm. It was fun to watch Chris’ (mock) frustration throughout this leg though, as despite his best effort, the runner ahead was ever so slightly increasing her lead. This came to a head at around the 10km mark when Chris loudly (and, I emphasize, jokingly) yelled out: “I hate her!’. At around the 12km mark though, we noticed that the gap was noticeably shrinking and Chris reeled her in with about 2k to go. I prepared for my second leg at the next exchange and talked to another team waiting. Their team had only 9 members (and were slightly ahead of us here), which meant that the woman at this exchange was going to be running the next two. Being that it was a short leg and that she was likely going to be pacing herself more, I hoped to catch up to her before handing off to Mike. After all, this was the last team that had started at 8:30 that we hadn’t passed yet. Not that we’re competitive. Chris handed off to me a about a minute after the prior team had left and I hit the burners again. This leg was a bit longer than my first with a couple of pretty big climbs. I caught up quicker than expected, surprising the runner. (Or scaring the heck out of her. Apparently she didn’t hear me coming up behind her and just about jumped out of her skin when I said “Hello”). After that, the rest of the leg for me was uneventful, since the next band of teams had started 90 minutes earlier, so we wouldn’t be catching them for a while. I handed off to Mike, whose leg was mostly on a trail and unsupported by the van.
This is also where we met up with the organizers again. They had come to the trail head because a couple of other teams had mentioned that they were confused by the signage getting onto the trail. They wanted to make sure that our teams (the 8:30 start group) didn’t have any trouble. We didn’t, but this kind of response to concerns was a good sign.
Mike ran off onto the trail and the rest of us drove to the other end of the trail to wait. There we saw a bunch of other teams waiting for their runners as well. It’s kind of a stressful time, because unlike the rest of the race you have no idea if your runner is on-course, off-course, lost or doing great. Plus, since people are spread out by this point, runners can’t really follow each other, which can also be worrying for the runner as well. We didn’t have to worry though.
Mike made it through with no issues and slightly ahead of schedule and headed toward the major exchange in Tupper Lake to hand off to Van #1. Lucky for us, the running route meandered through town, giving the van enough time to get to the exchange and convince the announcer there to welcome Mike in, using his ‘Peak2Brew’ nickname: “Sausage McChafy”. Being able to goof around like this is one of the many things that make this race so fun.
At this point it was 3:40, so we were overdue for lunch, despite being nearly 40 minutes ahead of schedule. Based on Van #1’s recommendation, we also went to Big Tupper Brewing for lunch and discovered their motto: “If it’s not fun, it’s not worth doing!”, which became the theme of the race.
Knowing that I was running first after lunch and that it was going to be my hardest leg (12.3 miles/20 km), I opted to get something from the ‘lighter fare’ menu. However that still consisted of large sandwiches and several varieties of mac-and-cheese. In my infinite wisdom, I chose a pulled pork sandwich. It was delicious! It was also not the best choice before running.
As we got word that Van #1 was approaching the major exchange, I was feeling somewhat heavier than I wanted. (Although I was grateful that I had decided to go with the ‘lighter’ fare from the pub!) The rest of the team seemed to be in good shape though. Since this leg was going to be the first one run at night, I had to have my reflective vest and headlamp ready. Since my vest had a good sized pocket, I put a Bluetooth speaker into it, so I could listen to music while I ran. (Ear buds are prohibited on the race).
I waited around 5-10 minutes at the exchange, feeling vaguely ridiculous with the music from my speaker competing with the music being played by the volunteers. (The fact that it was still daylight, but I was wearing a headlamp and a flashing red light too probably didn’t help… The rules said that based on the time, this was required). Two other teams went by before a vuvuzela cover of “The Final Countdown” signaled that Judy was on her way in.
What followed was one of the worst runs I’ve ever had the pleasure of doing. I set out at a reasonable pace, but somehow I seemed to get heavier as the run progressed. The whole thing was an exercise in setting small goals – make it to the next makeshift water stop from the van – chase down that flashing red light ahead of me – make it up that next hill – try to guess the next song on my ipod, all while fighting leg cramps and the inertia that is caused by ingesting too much BBQ sauce. Eventually I handed the wristband off to the first person who seemed like they wanted it. I assume it was Chris, but I didn’t particularly care at that point. Some folks in a van kidnapped me telling me that the other guy had a short, fast leg ahead of him. The van was too hot, so I escaped after a bit and walked the last bit to the next exchange, passing by a bar full of happy people who cheered loudly as we went by. I’m not sure if they knew what kind of crazy race was going on, but they were enthusiastic!
Chris had already handed off to Karen when I got back to the van, and this leg went through a campground, forcing us to be much quieter than normal and it was also almost entirely up hill. Ridiculously so, with less than ideal footing in the dark, since it was a loose gravel road. Karen set a terrific pace up the hill though, reeling in a few runners and never breaking stride. ChrisB was up next, doing a double shot of the two shortest legs in this section. He also cruised along with minimal issues, until the last kilometer or so, when his headlamp started to die. He had to carry his red light in his hand to help him see. Mike got the final hand off that would take us too the next major exchange. And as luck would have it that was another leg that had long stretches unsupported by the van. So we headed off to the next major exchange the McCauley Mountain Ski Center. Before we got there, Donna told us that as soon as Mike showed up, we were driving on to the next major exchange and getting some sleep there. Since she was driving and we didn’t want to run there, we all agreed.
While we waited, we chatted up the Van #1 folks. Turns out they were going to be held back until 1:30 because our non-competitive was going too fast. Other teams were being held back at this point as well, but only until 1am, so a few of the teams we had just passed, passed us again. If we were competitive, we might have been upset. But we relaxed folks were just mildly disgruntled. Once Mike arrived, we promptly stole Van #1’s pizza and headed to Adirondack Central High School, the next major exchange.
There we were able to get a shower and sleep in the (nearly deserted) gym. We set our alarms for about 3 hours later and crashed. When the alarm went off, I was sure that I hadn’t slept at all, except that the gym was now packed full of other teams blissfully dreaming about the free beer waiting less than 12 hours down the road.
I really wanted a coffee at this point, but there were two problems with that: I had 10k to run and the coffee wasn’t ready yet. So I went outside in my ridiculous night gear (minus the speaker... I had left it on overnight and the battery drained) and waited for Judy again. Another team was also waiting and the volunteer told me they were going to be a couple of minutes ahead of us. However our fearless leader and overall non-competitive person Judy had other plans and had passed them. Because of that, I dubbed this leg of the race “The Black Knight” run… as in “NONE SHALL PASS”. (It’s actually pretty cool that both of our teams came up with Monty Python references independently on the race… I guess lots of running and lack of sleep affects us all the same way).
My run was an uneventful, but mostly uphill 10k, although I did get to watch the sunrise as I ran, which is always cool. Just before the final turn before the handoff, Karen mentioned that I would be handing off to Chris this time. Which confused the sleep deprived and non-competitive me, since I had been handing off to Chris the entire race. It turns out she meant the ‘other’ Chris, since the ‘other other’ Chris’ (or ‘Chris Classic’) injury had flared up a bit and the hills in the next section were not a good idea. This section was largely on trail, so we went to the trail end and waited. There we finally met up with the one team that had been ahead of us the whole time. I think we were the first team they’d seen in a while, if at all. Their runner came out of the woods first, with Chris in pursuit about a minute or so behind. By the time he handed the wrist band off, he had passed them and we were now just trying to hold off the ultra team, who were slowly reeling us in.
The rest of this leg is kind of a blur, because of one incident that overshadowed everything else. In the last section of her run, Karen was bitten by a dog that had bounded out of a house on the race route. The result was four puncture wounds, breaking the skin. We were understandably concerned. And this is where the race officials really showed how much they cared. They were relentless in helping us track down the owners of the dog and also finding information on the vaccination records. That is a one sentence summary that really downplays the amount of work they put into it though… They worked with us for 2-3 hours trying to get all of the information we could. To say they went above and beyond is an understatement. Luckily for all of us, Karen was fine and the dog was vaccinated.
From there, we went for breakfast in Boonville, at Slim’s, the best place for breakfast in the area. We celebrated finishing our portion of the race, toasted Karen’s new piercings and laughed over the various misadventures we had over the race. The next step was to head to the finish line, meet up with van #1 and cross the finish line together. We were hoping that we would hold off the ultra team (in terms of crossing the line first… we knew that they had the better overall time) but they came in just a bit before Judy. Still, we finished the race as the first place ‘standard’ team.
Overall, I can’t say enough good things about this race. The organizers have put a lot of thought and effort into everything and the result is a smooth experience throughout the entire two days. Which is very impressive considering that something of this scope could easily devolve into chaos! Even the little details are pretty amazing. For example, last year’s and this year’s medal link together into a larger one. And the ‘Honey Badger’ medal (see other race report) also links with this year’s finisher medal. What’s even better is that the organizer’s have said that the next two years’ medals will also link with these two… Now that’s attention to detail! (And yet another reason to return!)
All I can say is: See you next again next year!