At the start, Columbia speedway
This is the race I swore I’d never do again in 2010. Forced into a walk of shame in the complete dark at 4 something in the morning, on one hour of restless sleep, after 20 miles of racing, seeing spots, and still having 3 miles to go, I was done. Never again.
I guess I lied – this now marks my fifth consecutive Palmetto 200.
Team Van on the Run was born back in 2009, when the Palmetto 200 first started their publicity for the inaugural event to be held the next year. Tour de Blue Shoes was merely me, “ColumbiaSC5ker” posting in the Runners World forums in the “Sub 22 5k” group. A random “MrSig” in the group turned out to be from Columbia and basically recruited me, sight unseen, to join the team he was putting together for the relay. Luckily this wasnt a Chris Hansen Dateline special and “MrSig” aka Brian Clyburn and his team turned out to be pretty normal and fun. And fast. Despite our complete hodge podge of local runners, we all rose to the occasion and turned in a very respectable 27 hours 55 minutes (8:18 pace) in our first try.
Over the years, people have dropped from the team, but Brian kept reloading with total beasts. Our once middling team got competitive quickly. 26 hours in 2011, 23:54 in 2012 and 23:56 in 2013. The 2013 time, with 7:13 pace, gave us the coed full team win, so we were coming back as defending champs.
Once having to carry the team, I was now more worried about them carrying me. Brian puts out his famous spreadsheet complete with paces, start/finish times, locations, degree of difficulty, phone numbers, etc. weeks before the event. The guy has this thing down to an absolute science. I mean how can someone be so obsessive about running? Oh wait..don’t answer that. He emailed me my pace of 7:30, which was 25 seconds slower than last year. I think he probably took last years time, multiplied by the new angle of my left toe, divided by the cliff height and came out with a post-Kauai corrective factor. I calculated everyone else’s pace from the spreadsheet and my suspicions were confirmed…I was slowest. My goal – to wreck that sheet and try and hit my 7:05 assigned pace in 2013 from “before the fall”.
A lot of the same crew was back from last year – Brian, David, Joel and myself were from the original 2010 team and all on our fifth consecutive relay. The Code, Connor, Brandon, Julie, Jen Clyburn, and Andy McNiece were on board for repeat performances. Local beast and blue ridge relay vet (but Palmetto 200 virgin) Drew Soltau joined Andy for “ringer/workhorse” duty. Our last recruit was a little dramatic. Thunder Dan got called in to a work emergency so we were down a member with about 48 hours to go. After some hardcore recruiting we were able to secure Ty Thomas to jump aboard. He’d have to meet us late, but he said he could meet us in St Matthews in time to run leg 12. Always nice to have another sub 20 5ker/Boston qualifier to come off the bench. Thanks to Trophy for also being willing to go.
A quick tutorial – the 200 miles are split up into 36 parts, called legs, varying from 1.7 to 10 miles. In the full team category, 12 members each run 3 legs. The 12 members travel in 2 vans, 6 per van. When a runner starts a leg, their van drives to the end of the leg and waits for the runner, who then passes the “baton” ( a slap wrist bracelet) to the next runner. The 12 runners can go in any order except you cant do consecutive legs.
The Palmetto 200 has a staggered start on Friday so that everyone will arrive in Charleston sometime in the afternoon the next day (Saturday). The teams with the slowest projected pace (usually 10 min/mile average) leave at 6 am. Our team of beasts now leaves at 12 noon. There seemed to be less competition this year since there were only 4 other teams leaving at our start time and only one after. Clemson has fielded some cross country teams that have crushed the rest of the field, even with as little as 6 members. They were leaving at 1:30.
FYI, 90 percent of the field doesn’t care about time. They are in it to finish and for fun. Crazy idea. These are the guys I see strolling up to the exchange zones, sharing reflective vests, taking walk breaks, smiling, etc. Our team does exchanges like the olympic 4×100. Mostly because we are a bunch of grandiose age groupers hell bent on a 24 hour trophy hunt. With us in the 12:00 start were the Banditos and the Rock Hill Striders, whose general theme is “50+ year olds than can kick your ass”. They included Geary McAlister, Howie Phan and new recruit Tracy Meyers. They also had a rogue 30 something guy that runs sub 3 marathons as their ringer. Luckily (for us) they were a few guys down and having to run at least 4 legs each. We were concerned about the “Flying Tiger Ninjas” in our start time, because we were afraid of another covert 621 Ninja late team trophy crushing entry (see also Columbia Marathon relay), but it turned out it wasn’t them.
When we arrived at the start area at the old Columbia speedway, things looked ominous. It was noon but pretty cloudy and dark. One look at the Weather Channel app and we were cringing. It appeared a tidal wave of green was about to crush us on the radar. This was going to get messy.
As a Van 1 member this year, we were first up. For years, I was driving Van 1 and let the El Capitan, his wife and Joel have the glory legs in Van 2 in Charleston. Why? Because Van 1 gets to start right away, has two nighttime (read: not hot) legs and most importantly, finishes in the early morning on Saturday (read: plenty of time to stuff your face on breakfast, rest and celebrate early). Brian gave me the glory leg (finish line) last year and unfortunately discovered the Van 1 secret. Its no coincidence he took Van 1 again in 2014. At least he let me, the team mascot sasquatch and resident gimp, back in Van 1.
Julie got the first leg this year – a lap around the speedway and then onto the course, 5.6 miles. To say Julie was keyed up about it might be a bit of an understatement. I think she was stretching and warming up for two hours. To her credit, the first leg is scary because everyone is watching and you really feel you are racing the other guys in your start group. I expected her to start way too fast, but she played it smart – letting three of the guys burn up the track, only to almost catch the second place guy at the finish. While we waited at the first exchange zone , Char Richards (wife of barefoot John) let us know John’s team already had a flat tire. I started having nightmares about the van/ditch incident of the 2012 Blue Ridge relay, so I made sure to remind Joel not to take Van 1 offroading. Julie passed off to Brian, and he tackled what I call the Dust in the Wind 10k (leg 2 – my leg in 2011). Its mostly on a very dusty dirt road through the middle of nowhere and under interstate 77. Brian rocked it out in less than 7 minute pace, but had the shame of the Strider ringer beating him and everybody’s tail on the leg, despite him being minutes behind everyone else at the start of the leg. Brian handed off to the Code. I didn’t know what to expect with the Code, he always seems to be battling some injury but refuses to stop running. He also hasn’t raced except for our training pace Newberry half last weekend. And this was 9.26 miles – the leg that about killed me in 2010 where I was half delirious and dehydrated with the heat (the old dates were a more summer-y 4/30-5/1).
Code absolutely destroyed leg 3. The Striders had a big lead on us and Howie (who has a 3:05 marathon PR) had been out on the course for a few minutes before the Code even started. I started getting ready for my leg (leg 4) when Howie came into view, figuring I’d have a few minutes. Um, try about 30 seconds. As soon as Howie comes into view, the Code comes rounding the corner. All of a sudden I realize I’m going to be virtually racing with Geary on my leg.
Geary is not more than 50 meters away when Code comes flying around the corner so fast we botch the bracelet handoff. I have all of 2.6 miles. This is the leg I viciously mocked the Trophy for whining about in his year. Like taking pictures of him collapsing at the finish, asking if he was feeling so fly like a two-six, etc. Until the next year, when I had it. Yes its short, but it is pure torture. You go all out in the flat and downhill start, especially because its your first leg and the distance is less than 5k, then you die a slow and painful death for the next 1.6 miles. See elevation profile below. In 2012 I went out in 6 minutes flat and was breathing so hard at the end I could taste my lungs. So I tried to rein it in. Did 6:30 this time, cruising along, thinking how I was going to make this hill my bitch this time. Geary was going to get tracked down. Oh yeah!….Uh, no. All the euphoria of the first mile turned south in a hurry because someone turned up the treadmill to 8 percent incline and wouldnt let me off. Dear God. I tried to power up this monster but it by halfway up it was all too apparent who was doing the bitch-making. My lungs and heart were having a boxing match as to who could escape from my chest first. Geary was destroying me. Pace was going to crap. What’s worse, no one sees you until you’re finishing, and all I could think of was me confirming my slow-gimp status by race facing it on a 2.6 miler. Well, I basically did. Had a 6:57 2nd mile and a wicked 7:15 positive split “kick” that looked and felt like I was giving birth. But hey, at least no one passed me.
I handed off to Joel who took off on a nasty 6.2 which went through an uncharted mountain range in central SC. I could describe it further but I was still panting like an injured wildebeest and delirious from my 4k. Brian had did some lineup shuffling and brought in Soltau to run leg 6. Why? Because only Jen was left in our van and you dont give leg 6 to your wife. In fact you don’t give leg 6 to anyone without apologizing profusely. It has a few miles similar to Joel’s mountain 10k just before the piece de resistance, “Mount St. Matthews”. It is impossible to fully grasp the magnitude of this monster in pictures, because it never seems to capture the pain and suffering that this thing creates. Because of the 8 mile length of the leg, it only shows up as a blip in the elevation profile. http://www.mapmyrun.com/us/oak-grove-sc/palmetto200-leg-6-congaree-baptist-churc-route-63086128
This is no blip, trust me. Despite the warnings, Soltau takes the bracelet from Joel and takes off in a full sprint. Not a “going out too fast” start. More like 4:00 pace. It was awesome because the other teams all had this WTF? look. We then journeyed to a school at St Matthews which is usually blazing hot, being out in the open. It was surprisingly cool, probably because of the clouds of the apocalypse on the horizon. I think we were just barely outrunning the storm. Some singlet wearing dude comes flying into the exchange zone next having left Drew for dead. He started a few minutes ahead and he must of done low 5 minute pace the whole time. Cruised in without even breathing hard. Drew follows a few minutes later, having rocked it out way below 7 pace despite all the mountain climbing. Jen then took the baton and crushed the shortest leg on the course, a 1.6 miler through St Matthews. She almost caught the older woman on singlet dude’s team despite being a half mile behind. The handoff went to David in Van 2 and we were officially off for several hours. We waited a little bit to pick up Ty, and dropped him off with the rest of Van 2 at the next zone. On to find some food.
There are many theories on relay nutrition strategy, but I am firmly in the “you need to eat real food” camp. I tried to subsist on crackers, gatorade and GU the first year, fearing GI disasters, but this most definitely did not work. I think we did Hardee’s thickburgers the next year, and while certainly creating nuclear grade portapotty moments, produced much better racing. Luckily, Brian is in the same camp and makes the awful Waffle, i.e. Waffle House, part of his relay ritual. I had already destroyed a 12 inch subway sub an hour before, so all I had was a day’s worth of caffeine with the bottomless “America (‘Murica?) the Beautiful” cup refilled by the ever present quick draw coffee pot waitress Tasha. The others threw down some serious grease, though balked at my suggestion to get the hash browns scattered, smothered, covered, chunked, diced, peppered, capped, topped and country. Lord help us what is in Bert’s chili.
By the time we had journeyed to the Santee Waffle House and arrived at Santee State Park (with a brief CVS side trip for Joel to get a toothbrush – because oral hygiene is critical when you dont shower for 36 hours) there wasnt a whole lot of time to relax. Our team was decimating the spreadsheet and we were close to a half hour ahead of schedule. But the tsunami of green on the radar had started to win the race. It started with some sprinkles at the Awful Waffle but it was coming down pretty steady by the time we were at the park. This was going to be a rough night. It had just started to get dark when Ty comes rolling in ahead of schedule and handed off to Julie for our second round (leg 13). She only had 4.2 miles so we high tailed it to Lone Star barbeque, site of my next leg, and also where I stuffed my face last year. Sooo good, by the way. Did I mention it was raining? It was. In freaking buckets. Joel held an umbrella for me at the zone but it was about 0.43 seconds before I was drenched head to toe after Julie handed me the bracelet. My leg was 5.6 miles right through the heart of downtown Santee. I was on a mission. Jacked up on three cups of Tasha’s finest Waffle House brew, I was going to put a major hurting on that 7:30 projected pace. Bedecked in the required Palmetto 200 nighttime couture of reflective vest, double blinky lights and headlamp, I went blazing down the main downtown drag in full beast mode. Mile 1, 6:42. It was a total monsoon.I was dodging lake-like puddles, jumping onto sidewalks, avoiding certain death from unaware locals barreling down main street at 55 mph. Bring it, bitches. Luckily we had caught some earlier teams by then and I just focused on the lights, Carol Ann. The leg was just a straight shot for most of the next 4 miles and almost completely flat. Pace faded into the 6:50′s but was holding steady. I knew the last half mile was a sudden turn off the highway and into a school parking lot, where the next leg would then turn around and go back. As soon as I was sure of the turn, the chips got pushed all in and the pedal hit the floor. Except they moved the zone a few hundred yards down the road from last year…DOH. But I could see the finish, and I could see another road kill in my sights, and I came in like a wrecking ball past the high school. Scared the crap out of a poor girl who is probably having nightmares about rampaging sasquatches this weekend. Passed off to Brian and finished in 37:23/6:49 pace. As soon as I finished and stopped tasting my lungs, I was a little frightened, because this was not leaving anything in the tank for leg 3. Fortunately I had the longest break of the relay scheduled before my last (and longest) leg – 11 hours. I knew I would need every second of it.
Brian then had a nine miler back on highway 15, crossing I-95 and ending just short of Holly Hill. I was completely wrecked but managed to recover by the time we reached the next zone, Target AME church, which rocks. Almost all of the exchanges are churches or schools but Target has awesome volunteers and a sweet locker room like bathroom set up. Perfect to defunk after running 5.6 miles in a complete downpour. I ran into Jenny Prather and Travis Cowan, who were also on Barefoot John’s team, First Losers. These guys are always positive, so definitely great to see them, especially when its dark, in the middle of the nowhere, in a complete monsoon. Andrew Touzel was also there with his team, so it was a total Columbia party going on. After getting marginally dryer, my stomach decided to wake up and demand to be fed ASAP. I had missed out on the Waffle feast but I figured I could get something in Holly Hill, site of the Hardee’s thickburger gorging of 2011. Brian crushed the nine miler like it was nothing (must be all that Boston qualifying and Mount Mitchelling) and handed off to Jen for her 5.6 miler. I told Joel to hit Hardee’s and we got there a few minutes before 10, where we got the silent treatment from the drive thru. Thanks guys. We then rushed down the road to the Subway which still had the door open. My sandwich artist told me sweetly “We’re closed” with eyes that said F$%K OFF!. So I was SOL with the food, since Holly Hill is not noted for their impressive selection of after hours cuisine. Luckily Julie had a virtual Sams club running in the back seat. I had some of her crackers and was praying the church that serves food in the middle of the night would be open again this year. Jen finished her leg under pace and handed off to Code, but said her calf was really giving her problems. Injuries are always scary in relays, because they can cause someone to do the dreaded 4th leg. I had to do one at Blue Ridge in 2011 and count it as one of my most unpleasant runs of all time. Fortunately the Code stepped up like a champ and traded in his last 3.7 mile leg for her last 7.5 mile one, before even doing his second leg. He is a better man than me. Joel was now out on the course doing his short and sweet 2.4 miler and the rain just seemed to get even more relentless. Joel said he had a fast start but a lousy finish..sounded a lot like my 2 miler. He passed off to Soltau as Brian had done a van switcheroo to let Drew take this 9.67 mile beast. At the end of his leg was the answer to my prayers. St Pauls was open with food. They were charging six bucks but I would have gladly given them 20 for the sandwich, chips, banana and a water. Best midnight dinner ever. After Drew arrived, Code was off for 3.75 to wrap up our 2nd round. It was around midnight and I think everyone was wrecked. I seem to remember Clyburn breaking into a solo danceathon to #selfie in the front seat. We declared it Joel’s new favorite song.
Code blazed through his leg and we then journeyed another 5 zones ahead to try and possibly get some sleep. I was worried because I usually camp out on the grass with my sleeping bag and pillow, as my gargantuan physique does not take kindly to sleeping in vans. This was clearly not going to happen this year with the rain. But when we got there I realized I could just about squeeze into my row in the van, so problem solved. Another major bonus is that it was completely quiet. Usually all the teams coming through, jacked up on coffee and GU, catch a bad case of loud talkeritis, between bouts of screaming. You could hear a pin drop this year though, as absolutely no one was outside with the rain just continuing to intensify. I remember seeing sheets of water coming down when I conked out for about an hour and a half. Awoken, not surprisingly, by even harder rain.
Brian is preparing for his leg 3 when there’s a flurry of texts and calls between him and Brandon. We cant seem to find each other and Ty is nearing the end of his leg. Someone finally realizes the problem. We are at the wrong freaking exchange zone. In his #selfie induced euphoria, Brian had led us to our old exchange zone from previous years when we should have been 2.3 miles down the road due to our van overlapping. Code came back from one of his signature epic portapotty breaks around the same time as Jen, and we get them to jump in the van and take off. But its just not going to happen. Even with clear roads we cant make it there in time, and certainly not with all the teams starting to converge. David agrees to take one for the team and take Brian’s leg at the last second. He gets doubly rewarded for this act, because not only has he saved the team precious minutes, he gets 2.3 miles for his last leg and is done at 3 in the morning. Nicely played, Mr. McNeice.
Once we see David we have to turn around and head two zones down, since his brother Andy was taking the nine miler from our erroneous sleep zone. Two zones down happened to be our least favorite exchange – Huger Francis Marion Forest rec area, aka the House of Horrors. So named because of their restroom – basically a seat over a hole in the ground. No light. All you see is unspeakable things from your headlamp in that hole that will stay with you forever. One year David had to puke in the woods there. I got viciously attacked by my thickburger in 2012 and made it back from the woods just moments before our exchange. No happy memories here. Andy just destroyed his nine miler leading up to House of Horrors in low 6 pace. Amazing also since it was pouring rain the whole time. Code was due up but graciously let Jen take the short 3.6 miler next. Because of the rain there were frogs everywhere. I’m sad to say that Jen claimed the life of one of these poor creatures on this miserable night. She was injured but somehow soldiered through the leg in low 7 pace. Do not doubt this girl’s toughness. She got violently ill from nasty hotel water the first relay and still finished her legs – it was incredible. Code then took the Huger fire station leg, site of my hallucinations and walk of shame in 2010. While it was bad then at least there was some light. This year it was pitch black and the rain was unrelenting. He rocked the first 5 miles and then his leg locked up on him but still managed about 7 minute pace. Joel headed out for the next leg, which usually has beautiful scenic views of the marsh as the sun rises. Thanks to the team’s blazing pace (now 30+ minutes ahead of schedule) and the mini tropical storm going on, it was just miserable and very dark. The next exchange was at the most awesome Seewee outpost, home of the best sausage biscuits on the planet. Unfortunately I was up soon and couldnt partake except for more coffee. Joel race faced it to the finish of his leg and was done, and handed off to Julie for a trip down Highway 17.
I was up next. Leg 3 always sucks. I don’t do well on little sleep and my legs are always toast since I have no sense of restraint. Now here I was having to go run a race pace 6.48 miles in the rain when I’d have rather crawled into the fetal position at Seewee and cuddled with a sausage biscuit. Plus, there was pressure. Brian was sure we now had both the coed and overall full team lead. We were also now running near the head of the entire relay. This is difficult to fully assess but can be indirectly measured by the fresh smelling portapotties and much fewer vans. Julie came in ahead of schedule and I thought I had caught an awesome break – the rain had completely stopped and now the sun was up. I made sure not to go out too fast because I was running on fumes. The fear of the walk of shame always lingers. I hit mile 1 in 7:08 and was slowly tracking down a fast girl. Perfect. I ended up catching her just past the mile marker but I was half afraid she might catch me back – she was getting it. Legs felt like crap but my gimp toe was actually causing me no problems. Things were great by the mile 2 marker but it started to sprinkle just a bit. And then sprinkle turned into firehose in about 30 seconds. I have less water pressure in my shower at home. I did a couple of 7:15 miles and then got a little delirious. Screw the rain! Just started flailing away as hard as I could go. Rifle Range road seemed to go on forever – just flat and straight. I’m sure you can see forever on a clear day but I could only see to the next stop light with the wall of water crashing all around me. Shoes started weighing like bricks and ankle deep puddles were everywhere. But I was on a mission. Took down a couple more roadkill and turned on the very aptly named 6 mile road, as I was approaching that mile marker. I’m sure I looked like a complete maniac – full race face and yelling out at times trying to keep myself going. And dont forget the lovely blinky light and headlamp ensemble. As soon as I hit 6 miles I pushed the chips into the table once again and emptied the tank. Total headless chicken. Dear God where is the finish?? Finally I rounded the corner and saw Julie and Jen yelling up ahead. I sprinted into the DMV parking lot and didnt see anyone until Brian suddenly jumps out of a pack of people, grabs the bracelet and takes off. Well I can say one thing – nothing was left on the course. Just completely spent. Managed 7:08 pace with virtually no sleep in the pouring rain after going 100 percent in my 2 previous legs. I will take it.
Brian blazed another 5.6 miles over the Isle of Palms Connector (which is cool for me since this was the site of my first 5k) and our van was officially done. I’d like to say we rode with Van 2 all the way to the finish, supporting them all the way. Nope. We instantly jumped in the van and went straight to IHOP to stuff ourselves. OK, then we went to the finish. We were so far ahead of schedule that they were still setting up the finish line when we got there. It turns out a team called Moose Knuckles sandbagged about as bad as we did and finished in 23:48, crossing the line first at 10:48 am. We knew we were ahead of this pace when we exchanged with Van 2, but a lot can happen in the last leg when everything catches up to you. Julie made sure to play “All we do is win” by DJ Khaled just for good karma. Just make sure your hands stay there when they get thrown up. Although there were some tense moments, Van 2 arrived well ahead of time and said Andy was on schedule to finish by 11:20 something. Sure enough, Andy comes blasting into the park just after 11:20 and we cross the line as a team in James Island County Park with a huge team PR in 23:22. First full team! For a brief moment we thought we might get first overall, but those pesky Clemson kids ultra team crossed 24 minutes ahead of us. Oh well, they usually crush the field by a couple of hours. There was a very nice afterparty with beer and Moe’s at the park, where we got to drink from our finishers mugs and celebrate the victory. This will be a hard act to follow for next year’s team, but I’m sure we’ll be there.
But first… let me take a selfie.