River 2 Sea Relay Runs Onward, With Barwick as New Race Director

TRIUMPHANT AT THE FINISH: A team celebrates completing the R2C relay just beyond the finish line in Manasquan. (Photo by Paul Mecca: PaulMecca.com)

By Doug Wallack

Early on Saturday morning, 44 teams comprising over 300 runners will gather in Lambertville, on the banks on the Delaware River, and head east across the Garden State, winding 72 miles through Mercer and Monmouth counties before arriving at the beach in Manasquan late in the day. This year will mark the 22nd running of the River 2 Sea Relay, an event that for many participants has become a beloved annual tradition. Each team of seven divides the course’s nine stages between its members in an event that embodies teamwork to an extent that is rare in the world of distance running. The teams are required to have two support vehicles both to ferry the runners along to their next stage, but, crucially, also to bring cold drinks and energy bars to the runners along the route, towels and sunscreen for those between stages. 

Running all day under the New Jersey summer sun is punishing, but the balancing act of being part of a rotating crew of runners, drivers, and navigators gives rise to a lively, enthralling camaraderie that tends to counter the energy-sapping effects of the run itself. “Despite the fact that they’re tired and many times are running in very difficult conditions … there’s elation,” says Robert Barwick, the new race director.

The idea for River 2 Sea (stylized as R2C) came about in April of 1996, when Mark Zenobia and Dan Brannen went to see the Olympic flame pass through Livingston on its way to the Atlanta Summer Olympics. The torch came and went. “It was very boring,” Mr. Zenobia says. And yet, something about the idea of a relay spoke to them.

In short order, the two — who were both already involved in race and event planning — were charting courses for a relay route across their home state. They spent about a week, Mr. Zenobia says, driving all day back and forth across New Jersey, looking for a way to navigate the width of the state while avoiding any major highways. Eventually, the latter-day Lewis and Clark found their northwest passage: a 92-mile route stretching from Milford to Manasquan. The same route was used until last year, when the shorter course was introduced.

The event has changed and evolved over time. For the first decade, Mr. Brannen says, most of the teams were very competitive. They wanted to not only run across the state, but to do it fast. Gradually, this dynamic eased as more and more strictly recreational teams joined the event. At this point, he says, only maybe half a dozen teams are truly running to race. It’s a figure that throws into sharp relief how, apart from its changes in scale, the event has changed considerably in scale. In its inaugural running, there were only half a dozen teams. With each successive year, though, the number of teams grew, eventually peaking at 152. At that point, Mr. Zenobia recalls, “we realized that we had more than saturated the event and the patience of local people.”

Exchange zones were overcrowded with support vehicles, and congestion impinged on the essential simplicity of the race. The organizers capped the event at 120 teams, but after a few years of that realized they needed to make further changes. The shortened route introduced last year drew a smaller number of teams, pushing the event into a new stage in its life.

It also nudged Mr. Zenobia, who says he is “gradually retiring” to North Carolina from New Jersey, toward a new stage in life. Pleased with last year’s event, Mr. Zenobia stepped down from his position as race director, passing the baton to Mr. Barwick, who has worked on R2C for over 15 years. “It was a great run for me, and Robert and Dan will do very well, and I know it will go well [this weekend],” he says.

For his part, Mr. Barwick is looking to carry on the legacy of Mr. Zenobia’s work with as few changes as possible; this year’s event introduced updated online registration procedures, and on race day, runners will be able to track their teammates via a mobile app. Any major future changes will take place gradually over a number of years. As the event’s new race director, Mr. Barwick says, “I want to keep delivering good experiences …. My first goal was to make sure that Mark’s child was treated with respect and dignity.”

This weekend, as hundreds of runners head “down the shore,” he’ll be trying his level best to do just that.