July 23 & 24th were two big days for me: after 18 months without a race and almost twice so long without an ultra run, I was excited and grateful to be a member of a relay team in the Down East Sunrise Trail Relay. I was nervous about returning to racing--partially about the COVID-19 implications of racing and partially about feeling so exposed or overstimulated that race culture might no longer feel like fun.
I'm happy to say that the DEST Relay was the perfect choice for me to dip back into the world of running events. Several longtime fundamentals of the race--the staggered start, a limited field, teams self-supporting, the fact that your relay team is essentially a COVID pod--made this a COVID-safe event without much additional work on the behalf of the RD's. I know that Crow Athletics always puts safety and community first; their perfect follow-through on this put me well at ease for my first pandemic-era race.
Our team met at the start line in Ellsworth. Not just that we gathered there, but some of us actually met for the first time. Our 2019 crew was unable to repeat, so we welcomed a couple new folks at the start and had plans to pick up a third runner 30ish miles along the course.
My first leg of the relay was actually legs 3&4 combined. I was so lucky to see the sun set and the full Buck Moon rise as I made my way through one of the more remote sections of the course—over seven miles until the first exchange without a road crossing but Herb puttered past on his ATV, keeping an eye out for we runners. Leg 4 into Cherryfield featured more roads, farms and homes, a moonlit crossing over the Narraguagus River, some anglers telling me to “run, Forrest, run!” and assisting another runner who was unsure how to navigate an ATV trail intersection Tagged my partner and jumped into the truck alone—some funny logistics this year had only two of us in the active overnight vehicle until we picked up our new member in Harrington. I’m solid at self-supporting so it wasn’t too stressful beyond finding the truck, which John Q had so wonderfully parked under a street light for me.
My second run for Down East Sunrise Trail Relay was Leg 8, another remote overnight section: almost eight miles, no road crossings, mostly along a wildlife management area in Jonesboro and past milepost 50 on the way to Whitneyville. The forest was thick enough to be pretty dark, even with the full moon. The night was incredibly damp, and every time I passed a wetland there was a fog reflecting the moonlight, a couple times creating whiteout conditions. The remote overnight legs have been mine since we formed our team. I feel selfish taking them, but the team is more than happy to let me run those legs. To be comfortable out there, you have to be confident with the dark, solitude, self-supporting, navigation, distance and the potential for wildlife. I can’t bring speed to my team, but I can do all that.
I cooled down and changed into dry clothes while teammates completed the next couple legs. I got to cheer a new teammate being brave, completing her first ever night run, alone, declining a bike escort from the team. Totally brave.
I had a few hours before my final run, during which I could grab a nap and some breakfast. Our only real mishap took place along the way to the Dennysville ATV Club’s pancake breakfast. My vehicle had the option to skip an exchange point and take a more direct route. The GPS routed us along Gardiner Lake and Marion Station Roads. The route looked efficient on the GPS and and the road conditions were good according to our Gazeteer; however, a nice country road became a nice dirt road, which became a not-nice dirt road. Sometimes in Maine, the more direct route costs you a ton of time and worry. We stuck it out, being deep enough in the woods that turning around could eliminate my available nap time, and I have not been so grateful to see a phone pole and pavement a very long time. I am here to tell you that there is no shortcut from East Machias to Dennysville, and if you don't use the driving directions he RD's carefully prepared for the race handbook, you're just making more work (and less nap time) for yourself. Had we been in a vehicle without enough clearance, rugged tires and 4-wheel drive, it could have meant the end of our race.
Next came the hardest part of my race: prepping for my final leg. Running felt great, and at 20 miles down and 8 to go, I had no doubts that my legs would get me there. Nor was I worried about what awaited me on Leg 15, notoriously the spiciest leg of the race. Rocks? Roots? A stream crossing? BRING IT! It was actually my nutrition that posed the biggest challenge. I was great overnight, switching between Tailwind Endurance and Rebuild Recovery formulas and a little real food to stay fueled and I was managing my caffeine intake like a boss. The challenge was deciding how big a breakfast to take. I was hungry because I'd put in several hours of work, but I couldn't eat more than I could easily digest before the next leg in a couple hours. I had a lighter breakfast than I probably should have, but was able to compensate with another half-serving of Tailwind Rebuild Recovery about 45 minutes before my final start. I worried for a few minutes that I'd overdone it and would be starting with a heavy stomach, but Rebuild Recovery is always gentle on my stomach, even as mid race fuel.
Leg 15 was my final effort. This leg was new to me this year and I was looking forward to the adventure. It's eight miles with a split personality--the first five miles are on the most technical section of the DEST and the remaining three are a paved bike path and municipal roads. Although the terrain is definitely tricky for an ATV trail, the tough footing I train on in the western Maine mountains and foothills had me more than adequately prepared. Strangely, the bike path took more out of me, but the pounding of pavement can do that when I'm fatiguing. The hardest part of this leg, the hardest part of the whole adventure for me, came just a quarter mile from the final exchange. Leg 15 crosses the Passamaquoddy tribal lands and through a neighborhood on the reservation. Just before the final turn, there's a disused Catholic Church building. The tribe has used the front steps to build a memorial to their children, and to the children of other tribes, who were forcibly taken into the residential school system and who never came home. It was a lot to take in, and I'm still processing it. If you don't understand the tragic impact of the residential schools on the Wabanki Conferderacy, please take an hour to watch Dawnland.
I had to quickly compartmentalize my feelings, because I was at the exchange point in less than two minutes and Bea Q, our captain, was running our anchor leg. In our last running of the DEST Relay, she ran this leg in nearly 100F and 100% humidity, all on pavement and in full sun. This year's race gave her a chance to run with so much joy and so less struggle than before. Teams were given a relay baton that was optional to carry on the course but mandatory at the finish. I handed it to Bea on the hilltop where she battled the (reasonable) urge to quit in 2019. It was literally all downhill from there, and the team met a few yards before the finish line to run our captain in together.
We all got some post-race food in Eastport, which was having a street fair. At this point the team broke up, half of us heading back to real life while Bea Q, John Q and I set up at a local campground. After a nap and a shower (yes, I was too tired to shower first) we headed back downtown for more food. Dinner on a deck overlooking the ocean was a perfect conclusion to the day.
So, the team is already registered for next year's DEST Relay. We're diehard fans of every Crow Athletics race (see you at the Millinocket Marathon!) and after such a perfect 2021 event, we're stoked for next year!