Behind the Bed Races

On a crisp October day in the fall of 2008, 50 onlookers lined College Avenue under a clear blue sky to witness the beginning of a Rutgers University–New Brunswick tradition. Standing at the intersection of Morrell Street, nine teams waited for a chance to clock the fastest 100-yard dash to the steps of the College Avenue Gymnasium. There was just one catch, they’d each have to do so while pushing a bed.

Eleven years later, students are still racing. Part charity fundraiser, part competition, part community builder, the university’s annual Charity Bed Races have become as much of a fixture during Homecoming Week as the home football game. But while the event may have entered the Rutgers consciousness early that Saturday morning, the story of the Bed Races began much earlier.

A year prior to the inaugural event, the university implemented the final phase of its Transforming Undergraduate Education (TUE) initiative, creating the School of Arts and Sciences by merging and reorganizing its semi-autonomous undergraduate colleges: Rutgers College, Cook College, Douglass College, Livingston College, and University College.

While the move allowed the university to reorient around academic disciplines and streamline admissions standards and student services, the merger stripped the colleges of their previous institutional cultures and values in favor of a unified, singular vision for the newly formed school – and by extension the Rutgers–New Brunswick campus.

“Traditions have the power to make students feel connected to the university and their fellow students and alumni.”

“Coming out of TUE, there were a lot of traditions that didn’t necessarily have a place because they were strictly college-based,” says Carey Loch, director of major events and programs. “The staff at the time believed that a place as big and special as Rutgers deserved some out of this world concepts.”

One of those concepts was inspired by the Great Knaresborough Bed Race in North Yorkshire, United Kingdom. Held every year since 1966, the Bed Race features 90 teams of six runners, who in turn work with local handymen to decorate the beds prior to racing it over a 2.4-mile course. Founded by the Knaresborough Round Table, the event not only brought the community together on the second Saturday every June, but served as a major fundraising event.

“The original organizers knew they wanted this new tradition to also have some sort of a philanthropic or community service connection to it,” says Loch. “As with planning any of our bigger programs, they looked for something that could have a significant impact on the community.”

Deciding to collect books for New Brunswick’s public school libraries, staff from what was then the Department of Student Life, began to formulate a plan. In lieu of an entry fee, teams would offer a donation. Judges from different parts of the university as well as the greater New Brunswick community were recruited to participate. To help incentivize students, teams would have a chance to win a cash prize based on four criteria still in place today: amount donated above the requirement, performance during the timed trials, bed decorations, and team costumes. To get further buy-in, staff turned to a rapidly growing student organization in just its second year of existence, the Rutgers University Programming Association (RUPA).

“If this was going to become a traditional event, then it should come from them,” says Elyse Washington, assistant director of major events and programs. “The students really trusted us and were excited and onboard with it from the beginning. From there it was a Google search for the beds.”

Students Racing

Putting the literal pieces together, Rutgers staff scoured the web to source the parts needed for the race. In mid-September, 30 bed frames were ordered from Coleman’s Military Surplus in Millersburg, Pa. A flat-footed army hospital bed, the fronts and ends were identical with open holes on either end.

Following up on a suggestion by sales representatives at Coleman’s to use wheels with rubber stoppers, staff headed to Grainger Industrial Supply in South Plainfield, N.J. There, they settled on a wheel with an adjustable caster that allowed the rubber center to expand to properly fit the frame opening. The final piece, the mattresses themselves, came by way of

“Everything was delivered [by the end of September] to a parking lot in Livingston – where the apartments are now,” Washington says. “We had sheds there and with just weeks to go before the event, we needed to find a way to put it all together and get the wheels to stay in the bed.”

For that, staff turned to Gorilla Glue, in part because it expands as it dries, theoretically filling in any gaps between the wheel’s caster and the inside of the bed frame. Testing out their handiwork, Washington and others pushed their makeshift bed across the lot during several trial runs. Satisfied, it was time to build out the others.

“I remember the night where our whole committee was helping to put the wheels on the metal bed frames,” says Stefanie Bladel ’09 ED ’10, who led what is now RUPA’s Traditions and Community committee and who was charged with helping to recruit student organizations and assist with the planning and promotion of the event. “The great thing about our team, our advisors, and RUPA as a whole was that we did a lot of crazy tasks that to some may seem stressful, but everyone was there to work hard and have fun.”

After helping staff transport the beds and other supplies to College Avenue in a 26-foot box truck the night prior, Washington remembers the bitter cold the morning of the event, which presented some unforeseen last-minute challenges during the pre-race check.

“Because of the weather, things were shrinking and the wheels were slipping out,” says Washington. “I remember jumping on the edge of some beds to get the wheels back in. The following year we learned that in addition to using Gorilla Glue, we needed to use a mallet to make sure the wheel is all the way in so that when it expands it creates a lock.”

Despite the early hiccups, the race started as scheduled with teams excited about displaying their decorated beds while representing their various organizations. It was an opportunity not just to give back or win money, but to build bonds. While there were some minor crashes, no one was hurt. Designed to come apart easily, rather than flipping, the beds would simply fall apart with students harmlessly dropping to the ground.

“I was really excited about how the event turned out,” says Bladel. “We definitely knew that building a new tradition was going to be a work in progress, but the event itself was fun and gave back to our community.”

Students smiling

In the years since, staff have continued to make improvements as the Bed Races have grown.

Realizing that fixing the front wheels into place would allow racers to better steer, the following year staff enlisted a welder to fuse a pin onto the wheel. With the help of a RUPA student whose uncle was in the plumber’s union, in time the weld grew more sophisticated, ensuring a smoother, straighter, safer ride.

Barricades, traditionally used for game days and initially borrowed from athletics, replaced cones separating the lanes. In an effort to keep racers from building up too much speed, the track was ultimately cut in half. While minor crashes have still occurred on occasion, organizers have been quick to commend students’ responses.

“One year there was one group that lost control and caused the other to crash,” says Loch. “But, instead of finishing the race, the group that didn’t wreck stopped right there, ran over, and made sure everyone was okay – which they were. I think it illustrates that during Homecoming Week, events like this are about one Rutgers community coming together.”

Looking to draw more students, the Bed Races were moved to a Thursday evening. Bleachers were erected in 2012 to give the growing crowd better sightlines, and other entertainment, like a D.J., were sprinkled in to keep the energy up between heats.

Soon the race on College Ave that drew all of nine teams and 50 spectators on that cold October morning swelled. By year three, there were 30 teams. Even a move from its traditional home on College Avenue to Sicard Street didn’t slow its momentum with recent races drawing as many as 50-55 beds and over 1,500 curious spectators.

Establishing itself as a Rutgers staple and succeeding in its mission to build community on campus, the event has also increased its charitable donation to numerous causes, having distributed everything from mittens, hats, and gloves, to socks and umbrellas. This year’s beneficiary, as it was in year one, will be New Brunswick Public Schools, this time in the form of school supplies.

“Traditions have the power to make students feel connected to the university and their fellow students and alumni,” says Bladel. “It gets prospective students excited to come to Rutgers and gives alumni a reason to come back and participate. The size and sprawl of Rutgers can make it really easy for students to disconnect, but it’s events and traditions like Bed Races that make you feel proud to be a Scarlet Knight.”

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