Peak2Brew Relay Race Report

Peak2Brew: 10 friends and 1 stranger, 2 vans, 36 hours, and 230+ miles.

Peak2Brew was the first relay race that I’ve done. I discovered it by accident about a year ago and become intrigued because the route ran past my wife’s bakery in Old Forge, NY. After a lot of negotiation, I managed to recruit 11 of my fellow Plano Pacers to run it with me. (My most effective argument: “Guys, it ends at a brewery. What’s not to love?”)

Despite having zero experience with a relay race, I’m proud to say that I was elected team captain by unanimous consent: everyone firmly kept their hands down and glanced away when I asked who would like to be our team leader. I found it genuinely heart-warming to see their confidence in my abilities clearly written on their faces: “Not me, sucker!”

So I recruited the help of another Plano Pacer, Josh, who has experience as a relay team captain and put together several winning teams for the Texas Independence Relay. He gave me lots of great advice. 

Actually Josh said he would have gladly been co-captain but he was going to be busy… in, um… Europe… No, not Europe… Eastern Europe, yeah!… Bulgaria, to be precise… Busy taking… um…  orchestra conducting lessons. Yeah, that’s the ticket! 

Which admittedly sounds very suspicious — except that Josh actually conducts orchestra for a living and he posted pictures of himself with the Bulgarian orchestra while we were running the relay. So I’m going to give him a pass. But just this one time.

As the newly elected team leader I was responsible for a couple of things.

First, I made it clear that we were running the race for fun, not time. We had a mixed co-ed team with some fast runners and some middle-of-the-pack runners as well as a few folks coming off injuries. We didn’t want the slower/recovering runners to feel there was going to be any pressure to run fast and we didn’t want the faster runners to be disappointed that we weren’t going to be running for time. We set everyone’s expectations to “just have fun”.

Second, I made a list of what would be provided in each van and what each runner should bring him/herself. Hopefully this reduced some anxiety for the relay-newbies who had no idea what to expect. Based on Josh’s advice, each van was supplied with a cooler (and ice), a couple of cases of bottled water, TP, a towel for the “wet seat”, bug spray, anti-itch balm, lube, band-aids, ibuprofen, Nuun electrolyte tabs, a jar of Gatorade powder, a USB charger plug, sunscreen, disposable rain ponchos, garbage bags, and a can of Febreeze. 

We also provided 2 headlamps and 2 blinky lights per van, and a safety vest (hi viz) for each runner. The race organizers required one headlamp and blinky light for the runners out between 7PM and 7AM. We decided on 2 per van so that the next runner could be ready for an easy transition (and, in case one got broken or lost). One vest per runner was a requirement which seemed like overkill to us — it was unlikely that all the people in the van would ever get outside at night at the same time. On the other hand, it kept us from having to wear someone else’s sweaty vest…

For the “you should bring this” list Josh suggested four changes of clothes (one for each leg of the race), spare running shoes — which would be especially important in case of rain, a wind breaker, a towel, toothbrush-soap-shampoo-etc. as needed (some showers were going to be available en route). I insisted on a cell phone, some way to carry it during the run, and charging cable.

Based on his previous experience, Josh suggested I provide a couple of things to the team. I got everyone’s predicted pace and created a googleDoc spreadsheet that estimated what time they would start and finish each of their legs. By using a googleDoc, we could update the spreadsheet in the van with actual finish times in order to keep the estimates current as we raced. This helped the runners (“Gee, what time will I be running my 3rd leg tomorrow night?”) as well as the van drivers (“Gee, how long do I have before I need to get to the next exchange?”).

Our P2B spreadsheet!

Again, based on Josh’s suggestion, I added an hour-by-hour weather prediction based on the latest forecast.

The other thing Josh recommended was a paper copy of turn-by-turn directions to give to each runner. Many legs were dead-simple: “Run 5 miles straight along this road” — no turns, no side streets. But others were a tad more complicated and, to paraphrase Stan Lee, “With great sleep deprivation comes great ir-responsibility”. What might have seemed like a simple route sitting in your living room “go straight for 1.1 miles, then turn onto the trailhead marked with a sign, and take the left branch as you enter the park” may not be as quite trivial in the wee hours of the morning after 24+ hours of cat napping in a van…

The reality is that the P2B organizers had already done a great job providing detailed directions of each leg — even going as far as saying which side of the road the participants should run on. So I printed off a hard copy for each van. 

An example of the detail for each leg from the P2B Course Book

I also found a smartphone app called RunGo that gives audible turn-by-turn directions… And it worked even if there was no cellphone signal. (Which was going to be the case occasionally. We were going running through the Adirondack Park*, after all.)

*”Adirondack” is an Iroquois word that has a dual meaning: “In the middle of nowhere” and “spotty cell phone coverage” …**

So I created an account on RunGo and mapped out each leg using their Google maps-like interface and then made them public. I tested the app out on one of our typical Plano Pacer runs and verified that it worked as advertised. To be honest, I’m not sure that anyone actually used it during their legs, but I know that several of the newbie relay racers downloaded it — at the very least having it gave them some piece of mind.

Here's leg 1 mapped out on the RunGo website. After the route is created, it’s available for turn-by-turn audible directions via the RunGo smartphone app

Rick and Linda hosted a pre-race meeting a couple of months before the race (thanks!). Josh came and shared his words of wisdom, we roughed out the travel plans, sorted out who was going to run each leg, and drank some beer. In hindsight, it was a great idea. Despite everyone’s unbridled enthusiasm for my leadership (I was appointed unanimously, after all)  and despite my numerous and obsessively-compulsively detailed emails (which apparently no one read), it turned out that quite a few people still had a lot of questions and were getting more and more nervous as the race approached.

I sent links to this course guide, links to the P2B website, and eventually screenshots. Apparently some runners were under the impression that they would have to run all 230+ miles and it was causing them some … anxiety. 

“Will I have to run 238 miles!? I don’t think I can run 230 miles!” 

“No, no, it’s a relay race. If you add up all the legs it’s 230 miles. No one has to run that far. In fact, there are several runners who will only have to run a smidgen over a half marathon! You’ve run a half marathon before. You know you can do it!”

“But I don’t think I can run 4 half marathons back-to-back.”

“No, no. Your total distance is about a half marathon. It will be broken into 4 pieces and those will be spread out over 36 hours.” 

“But... will it be all uphill?!” 

“No. It’s actually net downhill. It is called ‘peak’ to ‘brew’ after all. Each leg is different but they are all marked in the course guide and plenty of them are marked as ‘easy’”. 

“But how do I know which run positions are the easy ones?” 

“I sent you a link to run guide. The full descriptions of each runner’s legs are described in the guide.” 

“Oh. I never read your email. I was too busy worrying about having to run 230 miles uphill…”

The other great thing about getting everyone together physically is that commitment to the race became tangible. And thus we found out that one of our teammates, Kevin, had to bow out. We now had a hole in our roster.

We put feelers out for a replacement. Our primary requirement was that they would be fun to hang with. (Five of us would be spending 36 hours in a van with this person so that’s not quite as frivolous as it seems.) We tapped into our usual suspects but the timing just didn’t work out and after several weeks we were forced to move to plan B.

The P2B race site had a runner match-up section to connect runners looking for a team and teams looking for runners. Long story short: we found a runner who met our requirements (didn’t care about pace, was looking to have fun, had run distance events before) and signed her up. It was a leap of faith on both our parts — and it turned out spectacularly well. Kelly was an experience runner (she’s run Boston multiple times) and instantly settled into a comfortable groove with the van 1 runners.

How did we get so lucky?

When I reached out to Kelly to see if she wanted to join our team, I was completely honest with her about our goals (to have fun, not to race), our running experience (it varied from runners who were Ironman finishers (4), Boston Marathon finishers (5), ultra marathoners (2), to runners recovering from injuries (2), and casual runners), and our estimated pace (from sub-7 min/miles to >10 min/miles). We were a mixed team (three women total with two husband-wife pairs) and mostly older (45-55). Kelly was honest with us about her goals and experience (multiple Boston finishes, multiple relay race finishes, and she liked to run hills).  I think it worked because all of us had realistic expectations when we finally teamed up.

(I was in van 2 and didn’t interact with Kelly all that much. But my esteem for her shot up tremendously when I watched her stagger into the finish of her last leg, clearly struggling from the heat. When she saw me, she announced — with complete sincerity — “I hope you suffer as much as I did.” Now that’s my kind of runner. :-) )

The team gathered at my family’s cabin near Old Forge, NY the afternoon before the race. 

(It was important to have a gathering place pre-race because some people drove, some people flew into Syracuse, and some people flew in Albany — we were scattered.) Our team jerseys arrived earlier that day (a rush order from Jakroo) and we handed them out. Then we had a BBQ (nothing like burgers, beans, and potato salad before a 36 hour road trip, I always say), drank some beer and wine, and eventually bedded down for the night. More or less…


Our team shirt designed by Jakroo and Manuel

I say “more or less” because at 2:30 AM we were up and loaded into the vans. The drive from Old Forge to the Whiteface Mountain, the race start, is a little over 2 hours. The race director required all the teams to check-in at least an hour before their start. Our start, based on our estimated overall pace, was 6AM. So when you do the math, we had to leave before 3 AM.

We got to Whiteface Mountain without incident, watched the mandatory safety video, and collected up our race swag. 

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The starting line up at the top of Whiteface Mountain. (Linda is the runner in the white cap to the far left.)

Linda, in Van 1, was our first runner. She had the un-enviable 1st leg which was a 6.4 mile, quad thrashing steep downhill run all the way down Whiteface Mountain. (Heartbreak Hill in the Boston Marathon is about a 4% grade, uphill. Linda’s first leg was a little steeper than an 8% grade, downhill. That’s a serious quad trashing and Linda felt it for the rest of the relay race.)

We, in Van 2, wished her luck and headed to Lake Placid. We were slated to meet with Van 1 some 4 hours hence according to the googleDoc spreadsheet. And so we had a leisurely breakfast. (Truth be told, we hung around for 20 minutes waiting for a restaurant to open and then we had breakfast.) We sent the following picture to Van 1 to torture them.

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Van 2 carbo-loads… (Left to right: Marc, Phil, Cliff, Rick, JP, Manuel)

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Kelly and Daisi keep Linda company as she stretches her legs after the 6 mile leg from hell. (Notice that Linda is wearing her mandatory Mr. Visibility safety vest and red blinky light!)

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A Van 1 selfie. Steve is out running Leg 3. (Left to right: Linda, Kelly, Daisi, Gaby, Don)

We kept track of each other’s progress via text messages and I’d update the spreadsheet with lap times if and when we got them. Eventually it was our turn to start running. Kelly was the last runner in Van 1 and handed off to Rick, the first runner in Van 2.  We met at the Olympic Ski Jump complex in Lake Placid. The ‘baton’ for the hand off was a green P2B wrist slap-band. 

Kelly hands off to Rick at the first major exchange (...who’s Brenda?)

I was the second runner in Van 2 and got the hand-off from Rick. By now it was around 9:30 AM and the day was warming fast — 78 F already!. I had a marathon coming up in exactly 4 weeks that I needed to use to BQ. (So I could run Boston in 2017 with Kevin, the rat-fink who ditched our P2B relay team. Go figure.) I had just finished the Lake Placid Ironman 3 weeks prior to P2B and while my endurance was fine, I need to work on my speed.

So I used my first leg as a threshold run. :-)

GraphMyRun analysis of my first leg

I took the 1st mile easy and then targeted 7:30’s for miles 2-4. Then I cooled back down on mile 5 and beyond. All in all, not too shabby. I ran a little slow on mile 2 and then over compensated on miles 3 and 4. <Shrug> As they say, “stuff happens”.

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On my way to completing my first leg

This was listed as an “easy” run, by the way. The elevation guide for my leg is shown below. Note the ~200 foot climb from mile 0.9 to 1.3. That’s somewhere between an 8 - 10% grade. Eventually we realized that “easy”, “moderate”, “hard” designations in the course guide were all relative. An “easy” leg wasn’t necessarily “easy”. It was “easy” compared to everything else.

We handed off to Van 1 at the Tupper Lake Municipal Park. It was a little afternoon so we grabbed some lunch from a vendor at the park and then we jumped in the lake for a quick refresh. It felt wonderful and I used the opportunity to switch into clean running clothes set #2. After a brief rest we packed up and headed for the next major exchange: The Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake.

The day continued to warm and it was very humid. The forecast called for rain at some point during the day and as Don pointed out, “it was like breathing with a blanket over your head”. To make matters worse, Van 1 had some serious uphills and they were suffering.

Q: What’s the sign of an experienced runner?

A: An experienced runner knows not to puke on their shoes...

Van 1 had a couple of experienced runners on that segment. :-(

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Daisi (orange) hands off to Kelly. Check out the hill behind Daisi!

While Van 1 was suffering on the course, we got a little rest lying down in the parking lot at the Adirondack Museum chilling with the other relay teams. Cliff’s wife, Monique, showed up after awhile to hang out with us. We killed time reapplying some of the van markers that got washed off in a brief downpour and checking out the museum.

Relay races encourage the teams to show some spirit by decorating their vans. I thought I was ahead of the curve by cutting out some vinyl cling lettering to promote our race sponsor (my wife’s bakery): Lucy & Bob’s Bakery Bistro. Apparently it was so professional looking that one other runner looked at the lettering and asked if we owned our own relay vans. 

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But in terms of van decorating we were severely outclassed with vans covered with christmas lights, palm trees, or just sheer obnoxious mottos like “4 clams and 2 sausages = a party”. (I’m pretty sure it was a co-ed van.) Our motto was “powered by cupcakes”. It was like we’d brought a knife to a gunfight. 

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Of course, eventually we changed it to “powered by beer” but by then it was too little and too late.

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Meanwhile, we were getting “tagged” by other running teams. Other running teams would write their name on our van or leave a magnetic calling card. I think we (in Van 2) were the most inattentive team because by the time we got to the last major exchange there were more tags on our van for other teams than our own team…

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Some of the tags pulled off our van

When Josh told us about his experience running TIR he was extremely enthusiastic about keeping track of “kills” — when one of your runners passes another team’s runner. I liked the idea, but we were running for fun and I was worried that keeping track of “kills” might offend Kelly. (LOL. This was before she shared her earnest wish that I suffer on my run…) I toyed with the idea of creating a symbol of a runner lying in the road with a footprint on his back, but went with a less offensive sign: a winged running shoe. 

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Our magnetic “kill” emblems 

I got some magnetic backed vinyl and cut out about 50 of these — 25 for each van. Every time we changed runners we’d update the number of “kills” by slapping one of these on the side of the van. Ha! I was such a newbie. By the time we finished the race, Van 2 had over 50 “kills” all by ourselves.

Van 1 pulled into the Adirondack Museum around 5:45 PM — about 15 minutes before Kelly passed the wrist band to Rick. They hung back to support their runners with water and moral support. Rick’s second leg was 12 miles long so we had a little time to visit with the Van 1 team before we had to meet Rick. (You spend a lot of time with your van-mates but very little time with the other half of your team.) We compared notes, bitched about the heat, bragged about our “kills”. 

Eventually, Van 1 decided to drive to Old Forge and grab some dinner. They planned to crash at my cabin if they had time. The idea was to lie down and rest up before meeting us at the next major exchange around midnight.

We in Van 2 went to find Rick. By now we were getting a little goofy. We’d been awake since 3 AM (the ride to the race start) and had gotten quick cat-naps at best. We amused ourselves by yelling useless suggestions to our runners  as we passed them in the van. (You say ‘verbal abuse’; we say ‘support’.)

For example, Cliff surprised us on his first leg (12+ miles rated “hard”) by not taking a water bottle with him. We drove past him twice to see if he wanted any water (it was pretty warm and we just knew he’d need some). Cliff doesn’t drink water on anything less than a marathon so he politely declined. Both times. It was clear to us that Cliff didn’t know his own mind. And so, for the rest of the relay race, we always made sure to offer Cliff water when we passed him. Sometimes we double back 2 or 3 times just to ask him again: “Are you sure? Really sure? 100% sure?” You know, in case he changed his mind.

Hey, we just wanted to be helpful...

As the night wore on, we got punchier and punchier. The printed directions to the exchanges were dead on and the race course signage was fine. But several times we were sure we’d driven too far and missed our turn. Our worst fear was that we’d get lost in the van and not be at the exchange when our runner showed up. We backtracked several times only to find that, no — we weren’t lost and yes — the printed directions are correct. We just hadn’t driven far enough.

When we showed up at the exchange in Raquette Lake all the power was off in the town. The race volunteers had put out a couple of road flares to mark the exchange. <shrug> Whatever gets the job done.

I bought 12 inexpensive blue led wrist bands and gave one to each runner at the start. I figured it would help us identify our runners coming into the exchanges. (Because at night, all runners with a bobbing headlamp shining into your eyes look the same.) I was very proud of myself for thinking of this, but like all my great ideas — somebody else thought of it first. Some teams had mini-Christmas light bandoleers criss-crossed across their chests. Another team had colored chest lights (kind of like a psychedelic Ironman arc reactor). And yet another team had red headlamps. (It’s an old sniper trick to preserve your night vision.)

Meanwhile the race went on.

Our last runner, Marc, ran into the major exchange at McCauley Mountain Ski Center just before midnight. (Yes, there are actually two peaks in Peak2Brew). As it turned out, it took the runners in Van 1 a while to get served dinner in Old Forge. They didn’t count on the Friday night crowds. So while they were able to chill out at our cabin after dinner, there wasn’t enough time to get any sleep. 

We in Van 2, on the other hand, made a beeline for our cabin after Marc passed the wrist band to Linda and we immediately bedded down for a couple hours of sleep.

I set an alarm for 3 AM. We had about an hour’s drive to get to the next exchange and wanted a 30 minute buffer in case A) we got lost on the way or B) Van 1 was faster than we thought. By 3:30 AM we were on the road again. My wife, Kim, had brought some muffins and other goodies home from the bakery and we had a box ready to give to Van 1 when we saw them.

When we met Van 1 at the next major exchange in Turin they were very happy to see us. They were grateful for the baked goodies but were mostly looking forward for some well deserved sleep. 

Manuel hands off to Marc at the wind farm in Rowville

What Van 1 didn’t realize is that this was a short segment for us; when you added all 6 legs it was just a tad over 21 miles. And JP and Cliff were the two fastest runners on our team. So a mere 2 hours later we texted Van 1 to let them know that we were down to our last two runners with a total of 6.2 miles between them and had maybe an hour left.

Apparently this news was not happily shared with the runners in Van 1 who wanted to sleep more.

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Catching some well deserved zzz's

By 8 AM Van 1 was back on the road again. This was their last leg and as the day wore on it was getting warm again and thunderstorms were forecast. The P2B race organizers sent out several text messages about the weather. At one point when there was lightning nearby they suggested that the vans pick up their current runner and simply drive to the next exchange.

Daisi was out on the course at the time and soaked to the skin. Van 1 told her to hop inside but she couldn’t quite process the idea of quitting. When another van pulled up to see if everything was okay, she went over to find out if they thought she should quit running and get in Van 1. :-)

(Once the rain was over, Daisi made Van 1 return to the spot where they “rescued” her so that she could finish her entire leg! Now that’s dedication!)

While Van 1 struggled with the rain, we high-tailed it to the last major exchange in Boonville where we got to nap on gymnastic mats in a school  that was in the middle of asbestos remediation. Any port in a storm, right? The rain stopped, the sun came back out, and turned the air steamy. It was at this exchange that Kelly, having been force to walk part of her last leg, told me that she hoped I suffered as much as she did. :-)

Van 1 was done. They grabbed some quick showers at the asbestos-free school and changed into their dry, clean Lucy & Bob shirts. They sent us this photo while we were out on the course running our last legs. 

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Time to celebrate — and torture Van 2! (Left to right: Gaby, Kelly, Daisi, Don, Linda, Steve)

(Remember our breakfast photo we sent to them? Payback is a bitch.)

Rick had the first leg and when I met him at the exchange he warned me not to go out too fast. The heat and humidity were deceptive. I was about to run the only leg rated very hard leg in the entire race  the P2B Honeybadger Leg  so I took his advice seriously. 

I was a little apprehensive about my last leg. My kind and sensitive Van 2 colleagues were delighted to point out that although I had run 3 legs already, I was only half done with my race. (My last leg was 10 miles long which was the distance of my other 3 legs combined.) And, of course, it was the dreaded Honeybadger leg. My previous legs were so short that I didn’t need any van support before, but this time I asked the guys to meet me after the first big hill in case I needed water.

Despite my speed work on the early legs, this time I was aiming for a nice easy/recover pace: between 9 and 9:30 min/mile. My goal was to run the entire leg and not walk at all. So I took Rick’s advice and trotted out on the initial downhill at a very moderate pace. It was warm so I drank plenty of water knowing I’d have van support at the half-way mark.

I passed my first runner along an uphill at mile 2. I caught three more runners before the first serious hill at mile 5. Amazingly, the hill doesn’t look that steep when plotted from the Graph tab on GraphMyRun. (I’m going to have to fix that. :-) )

Here’s the elevation chart from the Peak2Brew course guide. 


Trust me, the hill from mile 5 to mile 6 is steep. Have you ever stretched your calves by putting your toes on a curb and dipping your heels to the street? I was amazed because I felt that same stretch as I was running up the hill. It actually felt pretty good!

I grabbed a water bottle from my crew at the top of the hill (and yelled “Thanks, Cupcake!” to JP as I got it. It gives another meaning to “Powered by Cupcakes”). I passed a runner right at the crest of the hill and then he and I passed each other several times on the downside from mile 6 to mile 7. Now that was a steep, quad-busting hill. Basically it was a windmilling descent that never ended. My whole goal was to keep upright and not trip on the way down.

And once at the bottom of the hill, it was a two mile climb to regain all that elevation lost. I passed my downhill buddy on the upside and caught my last runner on the downhill from mile 9 to the finish. As I passed I told him that he already done the hard part and it was all downhill to the finish but he waved me on. I don’t think he wanted any company at that point. :-) I poured on the steam at finish and raced into the exchange at top speed.

Monique was there and gave me hug despite my sweat covered shirt. I also got a special Honeybadger trophy: a Saranac brewery pint glass! (They race organizers hinted that there would be a special prize for the Honeybadger finishers. My van-mates told me that before I got there, one woman got her glass and complained bitterly, “A beer glass?! They said I’d get a special medal for finishing this leg!”

Before you judge, just remember that she was sleep deprived and had just finished a very hard leg on a hot and humid day.

I, on the other hand, was 1) very happy to get the glass and 2) avoid puking. (It was close.)

Let’s do some quick analysis on my Honeybadger leg. If we look at pace versus grade it’s pretty clear that I slowed down significantly going uphill (and sped up going downhill). Duh! I lost 48 secs/mile for each 5% grade increase — that’s nearly a minute per mile!

Two graphs? Two clicks from the Trends tab of GraphMyRun. Gotta love it...

But I kept my cadence pretty steady only slowing down by 3 steps per minute for every 5% grade increase. I did exactly what I wanted to do: I kept my cadence but shortened my stride when going uphill…

I handed the wrist band to JP and he shot off with a mission. We were four runners away from clean cloths and free beer. JP — always motivated by beer, free or otherwise — had a 6 mile downhill leg and he put everything into it. JP handed off to Cliff who — despite not carrying any water with him (we asked!) — averaged a blazing 7:29 min/mile over his 4.2 mile uphill leg.

While Manuel was running his 4 mile leg the skies got darker and darker in the East. Severe weather was forecast and the race organizers sent a text telling the runners to hold up at the last exchange. Manuel made good time and just beat the rain into the last exchange.

And so, woozy with lack of sleep, wet, sweaty and stinky, we were only one leg away from free beer at the Saranac brewery. Our teammates in Van 1 texted us periodically, “Hey we’re at the after-race party. Where are you?”


Sitting in Van 2 waiting for the storm to pass

We lost 30 minutes waiting for the storm to pass. Marc was willing to run in the rain, but the race directors wouldn't let him on the course. Some other vans that were waiting eventually left — they skipped the last leg. We, being stubborn and stupid, waited it out.

Marc was the first runner on the course when they opened the exchange. :-) We gave him credit for all the “kills” of the runners who gave up and drove to the finish.

At 6 PM, Marc crossed the finish line and we officially completed Peak2Brew. Time for a beer. :-)

(Left to right) Kelly, Marc, Cliff, Phil, Don, Steve, Rick, Linda, Manuel, Gaby, JP, Daisi

**Actually, “adirondack" is an Iroquois word that really means “those who eat trees”. You can’t make stuff like that up...

 © Phil Miller 2014, 2015, 2016