River to Sea Relay for newbies

I’m hoping what I write below will serve as a useful tool for anyone thinking of attempting, or already signed up for, their first River to Sea Relay, as well as impart some of our team’s stories from the day (and the build up).

This year I became team captain for a team put together by a member of my running club (RVRR). He had been asked by the board to help put together teams for the River to Sea 18 Relay – a 91 mile, 7 runner, relay race across NJ from Milford to Manasquan. He had run it before and they wanted to make sure people who wanted to do it signed up early as it has been known to fill up well in advance (apparently several teams enter this year after year – this was confirmed to me after talking to other teams during this year’s event. One woman told me this was her second favorite day of the year after Christmas). For balance, at the end of my write up I will talk about those who did it once and won’t do it again – it’s up to you to decide which side you think you will fall on.

At the time of sign up my knowledge of the event was limited but the basics are:

  1. 14 legs. 7 runners – 2 legs each (each runner must run one of legs 1 to 7, and one of legs 8 to 14)
  2. Handicapped start (teams provide each member’s 5k times and they work out when the team should start to, in theory, provide each team a chance of winning by reaching the sea first). No team starts earlier than 6am.
  3. Teams must finish by 8:30pm. If it looks like your team will finish later they will provide options for getting you there on time (you will officially finish, but unranked).
  4. To be considered a masters team all runners must be at least 35 years old.
  5. To be considered a co-ed team 3 to 6 runners must be female.

Other useful things to know:

  1. You must have exactly two vehicles (it is suggested that one is a minivan or similar, but that may not be possible for everyone. We did have an option of a third row of seats in our larger vehicle, but we found the space was more useful for other things than to take more runners, so it would certainly seem possible to just have two decent sized cars – but it’s probably best to have as much space as possible).
  2. It was suggested that it is best to find drivers for your vehicles (we were very lucky to have two volunteers and they were invaluable team members).
  3. One person is designated team captain – somehow, by default through my initial communication with the person coordinating getting together teams in the club, I got this role.
  4. There are various dates leading up to the event for the team captain to submit certain paperwork (and the paperwork must be submitted between the dates given). This includes your team members 5k times, team changes (more on this later), and clothing orders.
  5. On the above note, it’s worth knowing that you have to pay if you want a t-shirt for this event (and the order must be in a month in advance). They were basic cotton t-shirts and singlets.

Obviously, with such an early sign up to get the early bird rate, a lot can happen before the race in August. In our case we lost 2 runners (one to work commitments and one to injury). Luckily it wasn’t too late to find replacements. The club coordinator had a couple of names and we found one replacement from those names. The second runner we lost was just over a month to go until the race. Finding a replacement for that runner was more stressful. You really need to know a wide circle of runners to be sure of having a full team and even then, if it’s late in the day, it can be impossible. Another club team pulled out after they were unable to find replacements for injured runners. In talking to other teams during the race, and from seeing some people struggling on the course, it was clear that some had just filled in empty spots on their team with anyone they thought might be able to manage the shorter legs even if they didn’t consider themselves runners. Partial refunds are possible up to a point, but after June 1 there are no more refunds, and of course, that’s the period where you’re going to run into the most problems finding someone else to run with your team.

There were stressful times as team captain – I think the most stressful part was trying to coordinate getting replacement runners, but other things that caused me stress included not always getting email responses (although eventually worked out that emails weren’t always getting through), trying to get everyone together (not everyone knew each other) – eventually we had to make do with multiple meetings with different sub-groups (my wife had to put up with me disappearing a few times in the week or so right after our vacation), and making sure I didn’t miss any dates for submitting paperwork (it was a close call with the clothing order as I almost forgot). I don’t think it helped that I went on vacation in July.

I’m not necessarily the most organized person, but luckily another team member, Marianne, did an excellent job on getting notes together from the first meeting that we could use at the next. The notes dealt mainly with a list of things to bring and who was bringing them, and what our plan was for the morning of the race. In amongst the paperwork emailed in the month leading up to the race there are several tips as to what makes a successful team and I think I should be able to cover those here (some are already noted above).

Suggested items to bring along:

  1. Changes of clothes (including shoes – I didn’t use my additional shoes, or even some of the extra clothes, but I would still take the same amount of stuff if I were to do it again).
  2. Coolers for each vehicle.
  3. First aid kit.
  4. Bathing suits (if you want to go in the sea at the end).
  5. Towels (can come in useful in a variety of ways – drying yourself off after your runs, as a wrap for changing clothes. for covering car seats to protect them from the sweat, and for after the post-run swim if you choose to go in the ocean).
  6. Wet wipes.
  7. Watches/stopwatch – the instructions indicate teams should have plenty of stopwatches. The timing sheet only asks for the start and end times of each leg and the minutes elapsed, so if you have phones/watches/etc. with coordinated times on them, then you are probably all set.
  8. Ice
  9. Bandanas, or rags (despite the fact that this year was one of the cooler days in history for the race it did heat up later in the day and one of our runners was particularly pleased at having cold water soaked bandanas around her neck).
  10. Sunscreen.
  11. Plastic bags for trash, and for your sweat-drenched clothes.
  12. Food for the day (particularly your favorite energy drinks, gels etc.). There are options for grabbing food items on the route, and, as the Milford Market is one of the sponsors, they guide you to buying stuff there at the start which is fair enough.

Race Day:

  1. Your team will be assigned a start time and a check-in location (one is at the Milford library, the other at a church). You are told to check in at least 47 minutes before the start.
  2. You will be handed a stack of bibs with your team number on (which must be worn back and front during each leg, not folded in any way, and the numbers must be on all 4 sides of each car – can be inside the windows if the windows are not tinted. We used masking tape on the outside of the cars and it worked perfectly – we even gave some tape to other teams who were struggling to get their numbers to stick; the problems they had with their tape were likely caused by the rain that hit that morning). There were spare bibs in case you needed them after changing clothes.
  3. Printed time sheets were also provided for each car, although we had already printed out a couple of copies for each car beforehand. Ours got a little tattered during the day, but it was still in a readable condition by the end so we only used the one. The tough part was actually getting people to focus on recording the times and on one leg we were given information from the other vehicle about the runner’s start time, but it didn’t tally with when they finished so we had to backtrack and work out what time he really started.
  4. One car is allowed to go to Milford Market for supplies.
  5. The runner must be at the start area 15 minutes before your official start.
  6. Both cars must head out before the start – no start line pictures.

One of the things that concerned us most before the race were all the instructions in the map books provided. It consisted of turn by turn directions – points where, in theory, you had to direct your runner. It turned out that all the turns were posted with large R2C signs. It was certainly worthwhile studying the map and instructions for your own legs in advance though – my second leg was the wild card (technically 2 legs where you split the running between the 2 runners however you choose, running as many times as you want to switch) and I didn’t really know where I was going to be running – we didn’t really decide exactly what the plan was until a couple of legs before based on how we both felt. It wasn’t a problem, but I didn’t know where all the turns might be and it might have been useful to know there was one coming up a bit earlier than when I saw the signs as there are times you have to get across roads with no traffic control so finding a nice open gap early could come in useful.

Notes on the rules:

There seem to be a lot of rules, and I can understand why I think. There are a lot of people who could get annoyed by lots of runners and runner related traffic holding up their journey; and you want to make sure you keep complaints from residents, business owners, etc. along the route to a minimum. In that respect the rules make a lot of sense, and the booklet contained lots of threats of disqualification if you were caught breaking any of them.

Having said that, from what we could see there was quite a lot of rule breaking going on, particularly the rule about not slowing down traffic (of course there will be times you are slowing to pull over to the side safely out of traffic but more than once even we were caught behind a team vehicle driving way too slowly for quite a way and it did annoy at least one driver unrelated to the race). One of the most egregious examples of rule breaking we saw was a runner apparently peeing against a wall at a mandatory stop point (these points were at major intersections to ensure that everyone was held up by the same amount of time to avoid some getting an unfair advantage by catching the lights/crossings just right) – he seemed to be doing this in full view of everyone (drivers, the race personnel controlling the stop point, etc.). I have no idea whether anything happened to that team but I hope so…

Even with our limited advance knowledge things went pretty smoothly for us. The things we messed up a little on:

  1. Not being clear about which vehicle would be at each exchange point… this wasn’t major, and probably would not have been an issue at all if it weren’t for the change this year forced by a road closure (at the end of leg 4, the finish was earlier than the exchange point and the event organizers radioed ahead to release the next runner, and then shuttled the leg 4 runner around the detour to the start of leg 5. This was me and when I got to our team it turned out the car waiting for me was not the one with all my stuff in. As it had been raining I was wet and was starting to get cold. We managed to keep me warm with a couple of towels so it was all fine and we met up soon enough after to change over. The other minor problem was when the second vehicle ended up entering a single team vehicle exchange point when we were already there (not a huge problem as it wasn’t one of the really crowded ones and they were able to just drive through).
  2. Not planning ahead for the wild card leg. This was a difficult one. I had no idea how I would feel and the other runner was our last replacement so after my first leg I decided what I thought I wanted to do and worked out how to fit it around what he wanted to do. Unfortunately my brain must have not been working and I miscalculated the change over points and we had to rearrange things again and I ended up with a longer stretch than I ideally wanted.
  3. Not making sure we had cups in both cars – generally we had one car jumping ahead to the next leg start, but at one point that car ended up supporting a runner and we didn’t have cups.
  4. The final leg is only 2.5 miles and we managed to miss our runner finishing. This was our own fault – we didn’t really realize how far the parking was from the finish line (there was a shuttle), and to be honest I don’t recall seeing any signposts to the parking (but perhaps we cut through an unofficial route to get there because the lead car told us where we had to get to). I think we thought we had more time so didn’t rush. Oops! (and sorry Rosanne).

I have to say we did have quite a lot of fun on the way – shouting and cheering for all the teams, even providing watermelon to one guy who spotted we had some while running along and made a comment about how that looked great – one of our guys ran after him to give him some, the team camaraderie, those moments that make you laugh but may not be as funny to outside observers lacking the context, etc.

Before I give some sort of conclusion to this, here are some photos of the day…

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Negative views:

I have spoken to a couple of people who aren’t particularly impressed by this “race” so here are some other things to think about when deciding whether you want to do this.

The main complaint about this is wondering where all the money goes. It seems like the event is largely supported by volunteers (personally, I’d be happy volunteering for a charity event, but this isn’t for charity). There are clearly costs involved for the police involvement (although there were only a handful of places where police were controlling traffic), porta potty rental, and I’m sure the insurance costs are pretty high; there are probably costs associated with the use of exchange points too, and various other infrastructure costs. At the finish each team got two pizzas and some drinks and there was some music playing. We didn’t win anything but it looked like the winners of the categories were given plastic buckets with medals. It doesn’t seem like it would cost much to give finisher medals to all the runners at least and this may go some way to making more people happy.

It’s not a traditional race so you can end up running for a while around relatively few runners (and in some places I went a while without seeing anyone). Traffic is always present and at times you make your own way across fairly busy roads and along roadsides with very little shoulder. I’m sure the handicap start system is a nightmare to work out, but it seems there must be something way off when there appeared to be at least 2 hours difference in the finish time between the first team and the last (assuming I heard the finish time of the first to reach the sea correctly we were there an hour and a half later – that’s an extra minute a mile that we would have had to do to get close to winning, and there’s no way that would have been possible with the speed of our runners), so it’s a bit unclear what you’re really racing for.


The question you have to ask is whether you’d have as much fun getting a bunch of runner friends together, planning a course, jumping in your cars and creating your own relay.


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10 Responses to River to Sea Relay for newbies

  1. Marianne says:

    Great recap! 🙂

  2. Eliz Vas says:

    Great race report..! It looks like you all had a lot of fun, despite the fact that it sounds like an organisational nightmare. I found the idea of a handicapped start very interesting (being a slow poke myself) …pity they did not actually manage it properly.

    • runnj says:

      Thanks. Once we were there it was relatively easy (and I’m sure it’s much easier once you have done it once – it’s probably worth trying to be on a team with people who’ve done it before the first time out). As for the handicap process – it’s got to be hard to get it right; you’re relying on people to tell you how fast they are (they say they spot check some to discourage cheating but whether they do or not I don’t know) and then you’ve got the fact that just 20 seconds a mile difference will account for a half hour in overall time over 90 miles. I’m sure they have their formula and it probably gets refined each year but you’re still relying on the data that the teams provide. Still, we were apparently the 2nd place Veterans Coed team so that’s not bad.

  3. Gresy says:

    Thank you Neil… this recap will go in my treasure box.. someday I will show my grandchildren what their grandmother once did with a great fascinating and exciting group of runners.. a memory that will last me a lifettime.. thanks again everyone.. Gresy

    • runnj says:

      Glad you had a good time – it was great having you on our team. I think we had a great group of people which made it a perfect day.

  4. Glad you seemed to have a good time! It was my fourth time involved in the relay (I was just a driver once & ran 3 times), and second time as team captain. I find that over-organizing can sometimes be overwhelming…I thought about planning which car would give water when and who would be in it…then decided it would all just make sense at the time, and it did. I think the race organizers screwed up with the start times this year also, though. My team started way too late…we were running as well as we would have expected, yet were almost getting shooed in by a race official. Basically, they made it so we had to finish under 12 hours, which would definitely be doable for our team, but I was surprised the upper limit wouldn’t have been slower based on the times we submitted! Mostly this stunk because we didn’t get to pass or run with many other teams of similar ability at all. Overall though, R2C is always a day filled with fun memories! My race report is here if you’re interested: http://shoenerd.wordpress.com/2013/08/07/river-to-sea-relay-2013/

    • runnj says:

      Thanks for reading – I think our start time was probably about right. We were a mix of fast-ish (not as fast as you) and slow runners so perhaps that made a difference.

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