When I agreed to participate in the Down East Sunrise Trail Relay, a 102.7-mile footrace from Ellsworth to Eastport, I was drinking beer at a chili cook-off after a day of tobogganing. My spirits were high, the race was months away, and I had no idea what I was getting myself into. But once I commit to something, that’s that. So on July 20, I met my relay team in Ellsworth, threw on a reflective safety vest, and headed to the starting line.
Now, the last time I had participated in a race was high school — more than 10 years ago. And I wasn’t particularly fond of it then. In fact, racing sort of terrifies me. And if someone were to ask me, “Are you a runner?” I’d say “No.” So that gives you an idea of how far this was outside my comfort zone.
But I didn’t go into this 100-plus-mile endeavor completely unprepared. That’d just be silly.
My coworker Kimberly Merrifield had asked me to participate in the race months in advance, so I had time to build my endurance. In early spring, I began “running” on a workout machine I own called an elliptical. And when the weather improved, I moved my runs outside and quickly realized that the movement you do on an elliptical is a lot different from actually running. Nevertheless, I knew I’d built up my strength enough to complete my two legs of the race, which were 3.6 miles and 4.4 miles.
So here’s how the relay works: Each team can have up to eight runners. The 102.7-mile race is split up into 16 legs, which vary in length from 3.6 miles to 10.6 miles, and these legs are divided among the runners however they choose.
Kimberly and I were on Team DERTT (which we pronounced “dirt”) — Down East Relay Trail Team — led by Chris Richardson of Ellsworth, who had run the race several times before. And joining us were team members Tom Murphy of Ellsworth, Neil Redman of Bath, Kyle Culbertson of Belfast, Kelsey Grass of Belfast, and Hope Rowan of Southwest Harbor. Four men and four women of all different ages and walks of life — a tattoo artist, an Army Ranger, a contractor and a couple writers — yet we all got along swimmingly. What started as polite introductions quickly morphed into playful banter and encouraging words. It’s remarkable how facing a challenge can so quickly cement friendship among people.
While there’s no official race baton to carry, our team passed on a neon pink snap bracelet at leg exchanges so we could actually carry something the entire distance by foot. That was my idea, so I got to keep the bracelet after the race.
This year, about 300 runners divided among 42 teams participated in the race, which has been growing in popularity since it was established in 2014. And in an effort to have teams finish around the same time, race organizers stagger the starting times based on estimated completion times for each team.
Based on our running paces, Team DERTT was scheduled to begin the race at 7:30 p.m. Our captain, Chris, kicked off the race for us by running the first leg, which was 9 miles long. And as soon as he hit the trail, our team jumped into our two support vehicles and drove to the next leg exchange, where Chris snapped our team bracelet onto Neil’s wrist. Then it was on to the next leg exchange, farther and farther east.
The Down East Sunrise Trail Relay is Maine’s first and only all-night relay, and it’s possible because the majority of the race (the first 85 miles) is on the multi-use Down East Sunrise Trail, which is wide and gravel, making it easy to follow at night. The trail is also fairly straight, since it follows an old railroad bed. And road vehicles are not permitted on the trail, making it much safer than the road.
Nevertheless, there were many rules aimed at improving the safety of the runners — a whole handbook of rules, in fact. Each support vehicle had to carry this handbook, as well as printed driving directions and running directions.
Every runner was required to wear a reflective vest, a blinking red light fastened to their back and a headlamp. Alcohol, littering and loud music was strictly prohibited. And when runners inevitably went to the bathroom in the woods, they needed to follow Leave No Trace principles by digging catholes. And believe me, for much of the night, that was the only option. The few stores we came across weren’t open in the middle of the night, and heaven forbid your vehicle ran out of gas. (One of ours almost did.)
I expected there to be a lot of down time, a lot of waiting for runners, but that wasn’t the case. When we weren’t navigating to the next leg exchange, we were helping the next runner prepare, filling in our official time sheet, sharing homemade banana bread and taking turns napping in a small trailer we called “the chariot.”
The sky was just starting to lighten when I snatched the snap bracelet from my teammate Kyle and started my first leg, which was arguably the most beautiful stretch of the race. Traveling along the Machias River, the 4.4-mile leg smelled of salt and mudflats. As the sun crept over the horizon, a thick fog lifted off the water and birds began to sing. A group of Canada geese loafed about on the river bank, their heads swiveling in my direction as I trotted past. I switched off my headlamp and ran in the dim light of early morning, and any nervousness I had about “racing” melted away.
Our team goal was to complete the race and have fun. But I think all of us also had personal goals, and mine was to simply run my legs without walking. I wanted to give it my all, to keep up a respectable pace, and I accomplished that. In fact, I think everyone on my team was happy with how they ran.
My second leg of the race was straight, traveled through the woods and ended by crossing a beautiful bridge over the Pennamaquan River in Pembroke. It was also sunny and hot. And by then, I’d only caught about 30 minutes of sleep, so I was a bit tired. But I made it through, then hopped into the truck to cheer on my teammates for the final two legs.
On the causeway leading to Eastport, we parked by the ocean to wait for Kimberly to finish her difficult 7.9-mile leg, which was notorious for starting out rocky and ending with a stretch on the side of a busy road. Taking in an amazing view of Passamaquoddy Bay, I sat on a rock outcropping with three of my teammates and watched rockweed dance in the waves.
When it was about time for Kimberly to be arriving, we stood by the road with Neil, who ran the final 6.7 miles along the road to downtown Eastport. If it weren’t for experienced runners like Kimberly and Neil, I never would have been able to complete the relay. Being a novice runner, I took the short legs, and my team members shouldered the toughest, longest stretches of the race. For that I’m thankful to them, and I hope I can do the same for someone else when I get more miles under my belt.
Following Neil to the finish line, we parked our support vehicles and gathered to accept our race medals — two railroad ties crossed over the state of Maine. With the date, name of the race, length of the race, and start and finish towns stamped into it, the medals are quite the momento.
Our final time was 16 hours, 30 minutes and 11 seconds, which put us in 25th place, something I was certainly happy with, though I didn’t poll my teammates on their thoughts. We were too busy celebrating with cold beers at Quoddy Bay Lobster in Eastport. And when we realized it was too crowded there to get a quick lunch, we took a road trip to Helen’s Restaurant in Machias for a big meal polished off with some famous Helen’s pie.
After that, there was only one thing left to do — go home and sleep.