Relaying across Massachusetts to combat cancer
Now there are fundraisers, and there are fundraisers. And then there's running through a pitch-black Massachusetts night -- a headlamp strapped to your scalp, two red blinkers fixed to your reflective vest, glow sticks poking out of your hands, conceivably to fend off marauding bears.
This past weekend, I -- and ten of my closest friends, three of them Fairfielders -- did the latter in the name of cancer research. We completed the "Mass Dash Relay," whose tagline is "running across Massachusetts for the Jimmy Fund."
What follows is a dispatch from the open New England roads.
At some point, the idea seemed appealing: Collect a dozen reasonably fit friends, caravan to the northwestern tip of Massachusetts, subsist on Cliff Bars and packets of "Gu" for two days, and relay a sticky slap bracelet all the way across the Bay State.
From the Berkshires to Boston!
What more could one ask of a weekend get-away?
Indeed, the idea was fine. Especially while watching the sun set at a restaurant in Port Jefferson, Long Island, scooping buttery clams from a bucket and complaining that Memorial Day Weekend was over. Tuesday awaited us with work We blocked that out of our minds for a moment and brainstormed ideas for a team name.
"How about the Sweaty Mussels?" someone said.
And it stuck. Ferrying home, we chatted endlessly about our future feat of strength. We sent in our entry fee promptly and raised the requisite funds for cancer research. There was only one thing we neglected -- sufficient training.
That mattered little to me at 6:30 on Saturday morning, crouched at the foot of Mt. Greylock, the highest peak in Massachusetts. Stretching my calf muscles, I followed the misty clouds as they drew up the mountainside, revealing a benevolent sun which I didn't realize was planning to skewer us.
With the morning's coolness still prevailing, I felt calm. So what that I was on three hours of sleep, that one of our runner's knee was already in pain, that our team vans were so overstuffed with bags, bodies and beef jerky that we looked ready to flee Oklahoma in search of work.
"Thank you for taking part in the first-ever Mass Dash Relay," the race director barked through a megaphone. The information arrived rather late that this feat had not been done before. Last summer, the man informed us, a few of his friends and he had tried it -- and one ended up dodging cars on an expressway heading into Boston.
I craned my neck in search of my teammates, as if fingering for an eject button. Once the call comes, I thought, there's no turning back. And if we speed out of here now, we'll likely arrive in Boston in time for happy hour. My teammates were cheering for me.
"Go!" the race director said.
With no other choice, I took off with the 11 other leadoff runners, taking the first 200 or so steps on our 200-mile sojourn. We trotted down a gentle slope and turned right -- right up the highest mountain in the state.
Save for pain, I recall little about my own 25 miles of running over the next day-and-a-half. They seem a blur of dehydration, capitulating muscles, churning midsection organs and clopping feet.
But I recall arriving some four miles later at a dusty parking lot, where I passed the slap bracelet to our team's second runner -- my girlfriend, Leslie Barrie, who lives in New York. The moment was joyful for several reasons: I was handed a bottle of water and her leg was longer and steeper than mine. All the way to the peak.
Climbing in one of our two team vans, we sped off up the winding mountain road, alternately leapfrogging past Leslie and stopping to cheer her. We handed out water bottles, said things like "better her than me," and reveled in the type of scenery that least resembles the office cubicle in all of New England -- the air so fresh you could can it and sell it; the landscape spreading beneath us like a verdant ocean.
Four sloping miles later, our van sputtered to the peak! And shortly thereafter, so did Leslie.
"Six minutes faster than the first team from earlier today," a race volunteer informed us as the bracelet was slapped onto Faifielder Eric Reilly, who was running leg number three -- a nosedive back to civilization.
From the highest point in all of Massachusetts, we text-messaged the other Sweaty Mussel van: "First place, baby! And by a long shot. Boston, here we come!"
Generally speaking, there are two rules that have governed every pilgrimage since the Biblical times: One, don't get ahead of yourself. For two, you'll eventually find your low-point.
Mine came shortly after midnight -- 15 hours later -- sandwiched between two childhood comforters, which rested on an old gym-mat spread out on a bed of grass.
I'd never camped before.
And save for the flies dive-bombing my every inch of open skin, I rather enjoyed it. With one fly buzzing loops around my exposed ear, I bid the stars adieu and pulled the blanket over my head.
A moment later, Eric Reilly -- who was guarding our stagecoach -- showed up at the camp site.
"Tim, take your shoes. They're stinking up the car," he said, tossing a new pair of Asics near my head.
The toxic fumes wafted into my state of rest. "Don't put them there!" I said. "Leave them at least 10 yards away!"
He did this and returned to the car. And I drifted into the kind of sleep reserved for people who've put in 18 miles of a running in a single scorching day -- mileage for which their body is woefully unprepared.
It was pure bliss, while it lasted. A half-hour later though, the chilly winds swept in -- along with the lightening bolts. I sat up at once to investigate. The trees were swaying madly. Then came the Plop! Plop! Plop! of plummeting raindrops.
The four of us who were camping grabbed our blankets and bounded for the car. It was roughly 2 a.m. The "sleeping" portion of the Mass Dash Relay weekend was finished. And the Dunkin' Donuts and Starbucks were closed.
THE THRILL OF VICTORY
Some men are Harvard-men. Others go for MIT. I will forever associate myself with UMass-Boston, which is where our 200-mile odyssey reached its conclusion on Sunday afternoon.
The 35th (and final) relay exchange came when Fairfield native Emily Jones tip-toed six miles through the bustling traffic of West Roxbury and Jamaica Plain, and slapped the malodorous bracelet to Fairfielder Marc Tierno in the Arnold Arboretum parking lot.
"Marc! Marc! Marc!" we cried, hopping back in our cars. We peeled into the traffic and did as Bostonians do -- disregard traffic laws -- while keeping pace as he romped around Franklin Park, down Columbia Road, and through a final set of streets toward the UMass-Boston campus.
If Marc made good time in his 6.2-mile leg, we could beat the improbable 30-hour barrier for our 200-mile trip. With our combustible engine churning, we sped ahead to the finish line. We parked beside the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and waited.
Sailboats bobbed in the Boston Harbor. Then so did something else. Marc came bounding along, eating up turf along the waterfront -- and picking up speed! He seemed to gain strength while looping around the final traffic circle, and at once his shoulders squared with the "Finish" line.
By now, the entire Sweaty Mussels roster had joined in for the final stretch. We came in pumping arms, leaping in the air, and since none of us had showered, embracing each other.
I may have welled up a tad.
"Are you crying?" someone said.
"Sweat," I said, turning for a manly spit.
THE AGONY OF THE FEAT
Several days have passed and my muscles are no longer sweaty. But they certainly ache, a sensation which I relish.
As I write this report, I'm reminded of the many moments of pain and doubt, when I wasn't sure completing the Mass Dash Relay would happen -- while hurdling a snake on Mount Savoy, for example, when I secretly wished he'd uncoil and bite me in the calf, thus granting me a quick exit from the race; or when, after a 7-mile leg on Sunday morning, I sprawled like wet spaghetti into a backseat of the van, unsure whether Gatorade or first-aid would great me first.
Stepping out of a tree-surrounded lake in the Mount Savoy State Park early Saturday afternoon, I recall telling Eric that, if this were a reality show, I'd tell the backroom cameras: "No way we're gonna' make it, man. The course is too long. The hills are too steep."
A funny thing happened in the hours afterwards, though. We gradually transformed from a cluster of not-exactly-marathon-ready runners into a fully supportive, self-sacrificing, overachieving squad.
Drawing strength from each others' late-night courage, we started conquering hills and miles that looked utterly unachievable on Saturday morning. And this, as we grew progressively more tired.
The teamwork is what brought us to Boston, averaging 8-minutes, 58-seconds a mile for the trip. We crossed the finish line 29 hours, 51 minutes, 16 seconds after I took the first steps up Mt. Greylock.
That's one way to fight cancer.
(In the lead up to the race, the Sweaty Mussels raised $1,260 for the Jimmy Fund. Donations are still being accepted through the Mass Dash website, www.massdashrelay.org.)