Reach the Beach: HBSers Persevere in Country's Longest Distance Run

Ask some HBS students what they think of Bretton Woods and you may get some slightly pained expressions that betray a fierce bout with one of BGIE’s most intimidating characters. But for Kate Kohler and the five other ECs who joined her in a two-day relay that spanned 208 miles of New England terrain last month, the term conjures up the opposite sentiment; namely fun and adventure.

Initiated seven years ago by athletes Mike Dionne and Rich Mazzola, the “Reach the Beach” relay, which brings together people of all walks of life from professional athletes to nature aficionados, starts off at the Bretton Woods Ski Resort in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The course, which is composed of 36 segments, runs along valleys, lakes and villages, before culminating at Hampton Beach State Park. With just 28 teams competing in 1999, the race has enjoyed steadily increasing popularity, enlisting a sell-out field of 285 teams this year.

Kohler’s passion for running, which originated in her freshman year of high school, created the impetus for assembling the “Running to Grafton” team that competed in this year’s race. Kohler became a particularly avid runner during her years at West Point, where the sport provided her with an outlet for stress relief and a coveted opportunity to periodically escape from campus. Her love of running only intensified throughout her years of service in the U.S. military-where she first found out about the race and has “dreamed of running it ever since.”

Marshalling the support of both the HBS Triathlon Club and Grafton Street Pub, whose sponsorship was critical to the team’s success, Kohler also enlisted the participation of several like-minded running enthusiasts. Joining her on the “Running to Grafton” team were HBS students Heather Marsh, Meredith Mell, Andy Murphy, Jason Brillantes and Charlie Graham, as well as two PhD students at other Harvard graduate schools, the partner of one of the PhD students and a lawyer from the Boston triathlon team.

Asked what was most rewarding about the experience, Kohler cites bonding with teammates and making new friends. “Everybody really came together – half of the adventure was really about getting out to New Hampshire and getting to the start line – and making it through unexpected challenges,” she says. The most surprising challenge? “It rained,” she recalls, laughing. “It rained a lot. It especially rained on Andy Murphy, Jason Brillantes and Heather Marsh.”

Despite challenges imposed by Mother Nature, sleep deprivation and other hazards that come with taking on the country’s longest distance run, the “team did great,” according to Kohler. “It was great to see a smile on every person’s face upon finishing his or her leg of the relay-a smile of enjoyment that comes with the satisfaction of losing yourself in the fun of it,” she reminisces. Kohler recalls the feeling of euphoria that came over her as she ran her own leg; “When am I ever going to run at 1:00 am through a town I’ve never seen, going up hills and down hills in the rain?” she remembers thinking. “At that point there was no barrier between my mind and soul and body,” she recalls, “I felt utter joy.”

Asked whether she was supposed to beat the other teams,” Kohler chuckles, “You know, I guess so,” – not an altogether surprising reaction for someone who had envisioned a team “that would be about fun and adventure instead of pure speed.” Still, the team held its own, placing 149th in a field of 285 and completing the relay in 30 hours and some change. Capturing the first-place finish was the Bucknell Alumni Distance Team, which mastered the course in just over 21 hours.

But Kohler has other statistics for the jocks in the house. “We consumed about 10 pounds of bananas and two bags of Chips Ahoy chocolate chip cookies – it’s all about balance,” she jokes. “And there might have been a Dorito here or there, too.”

For its part, the “Running to Grafton” team has already begun discussing plans for next year’s race; Kohler also envisions the tradition continuing among other HBS students and becoming a legacy. Asked if she had any advice for newbies on next year’s team, Kohler offers, “Bring more socks than you plan on, bring a FOURTH change of clothes and jump in the ocean after.” And “above all,” she says, “have fun.”

October 11, 2005
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