Palmetto 200 – Columbia Motor Speedway to James Island County Park – April 13-14, 2012

The Palmetto 200 is in its third year this year, and this is also the third year I’ve done this event. I first saw this race on the web back in 2009 when it was just getting organized. In a strange twist of fate, one of my forum friends from Runners World ended up being Brian Clyburn, who then recruited me to be a part of a team he was putting together for the 200. At the time, I had just done my first half marathon, and was a little scared of the mileage requirements, but I signed on anyway.  I went on to a big PR at the Palmetto Half that year  (a couple of weeks before the inaugural Palmetto 200) and that was enough to delude me into thinking I could handle big time miles. I went out like a bat out of hell on my first 8.8 miler that year in the 80+ degree heat and about ended up a medical casualty. I recovered enough to run a decent 7 miler in leg two, but had a total meltdown on my third leg, 7.5 miles at 4 something am. This bonk made my Richmond marathon disaster seem triumphant. I had a walk of shame and was seeing spots/hallucinations. I have no idea how I finished that particular leg other than a sheer determination to end the suffering. I swore I’d never this relay again many times during that 7.5 miles. However, a sausage biscuit at the Seewee outpost and a nap was apparently enough to have me ready to go in 2011 by the end of the day.  I was much better prepared the second time around, and Brian gave me less miles, knowing I have absolutely no sense of pacing. We had a great race as a team that year, finishing 2+ hours better than the year before and ended up being the first team to cross the finish, though not the overall winner. My 4th leg that year was laying waste to the free beer and mexican buffet at the finish, nearly resulting in a post race reversal.

For those unfamiliar, the Palmetto 200 is a relay based on the Hood to Coast relay in Oregon. The course is just over 200 miles divided into 36 parts or “legs” that range anywhere from 1.7 to 10 miles. Course runs from Columbia Motor Speedway in Cayce, SC to James Island County Park just south of Charleston.  Twelve people make up a standard full team, with each member running 3 legs.  Runners 1-6 are in one van, and 7-12 in the other. Each runner runs in order over the course of the next 24+ hours or so to complete the course.  Before the relay, every team captain submits a projected average pace of the entire team, and this determines your start time. The idea of the staggered start is to try and get everybody to finish at about the same time.  The slowest teams start at Friday 6 am, and the fastest at 1:30 pm. Finish times are supposed to be on Saturday afternoon.

As mentioned, Brian is our captain, and if there is anyone born to be a relay captain, it is him. Starting about 3 months out, we start getting emails about the relay, with pre-event runs and a team lunch. Utlimately this culminates in “THE SPREADSHEET”. This thing is color coded with projected start/end times, maps and your projected (expected?) pace.  Mine was 7 minutes flat this year, for 16 miles. El Capitan does not mess around.

This year Brian made some new recruits and divided us into “fast” (Van 1) and “older and extremely good looking” (Van 2).  Though I fit none of these criteria he put me in Van 1, where I was probably 4th or 5th in speed out of the group. Van 1 was Dan “Thunder Dan”, Andy “Nard Dog”, David “D-Mac”, Darrell “Code Brown”, Brandon “Mayfire” and myself. Van 2 included Brian “El Capitan”, Kori “Nrv-Flo”, Joel “Honey Badger”, Amanda “Cobra Kai” , Whitney “Soap Distant” and Ellen “A Pos”. Yes we were instructed to have nicknames and we all had team relay shirts with the names. Team “Van on the Run” does not do things halfway.

We got to Columbia Speedway about 11:15 in prep for our 12 noon start. The weather was inexplicably cool. All this past month I kept thinking how miserable this relay was going to be with the record heat we had been having, but you cant beat a high of 72 and sunny in April in SC.  We had two main competitors that were in our start wave by Brian’s calculations: Team Island Liquors and the Clemson Thundercats. The Thundercats  were the most evil given we were a group of mostly USC grads. Someone suggested we rename ourselves the Thundercocks, but that was deemed a bit too graphic.  We got a briefing from the race director and we were told we would be running 6 hours behind the main clock, which started at 6 am that morning with the first wave. There were actually a few even faster teams starting at 1:30. Our stated time was 7:45 pace that would have us finishing at 2 pm, but us relay vets knew el capitan would hold us to a higher standard.

The Code was our first runner and our 4 team wave started right at noon with a lap around the speedway. I already had to start trash talking Code in the first lap because he let some dude pass him right before the photo op as they left the speedway. We then jumped in the van and headed to the next exchange zone, where Brandon waited to run. We were excited to see Darrell rounding the finish  at the end of his 5.7 miles, pushing it at 6:30ish pace the whole way, though not too far ahead of a trailing group of two. Brandon took off and blasted his way through leg 2, a stretch mostly on dusty country roads. I don’t know his pace but he left the two behind him at least a couple of minutes back. Andy was our third runner and is a complete beast. His was 9.26 miles and almost completely out in the sun. This was the same leg (slightly different course) that completely wrecked me in 2010, but he just destroyed it in just over 6 flat pace.

Which led to my first leg, a very short 2.6 miler that i was set to tear up. The problem with relays is that you do a lot of waiting around stewing in your own pre-race anxiety before you run. On top of this, the pressure to do well for your team is definitely more intense than the individual pressure for a regular race. This was also put up or shut up time for me dating back to last year. Last year Trophy ran this leg and looked like he might need a medical tent afterwards. He then went on an on about his 2.6 miles, that I have dogged him about it every time the relay has come up since. Ask Tyler how he’s feeling so a two six.

Pic is me mocking Trophy after his 2.6 in 2011. So I’d better not blow it on this leg, right? As soon as I got the bracelet baton, I blasted out like a banshee, but then told myself to rein it in. I was supposed to hit an average of 7 minutes throughout, so I figured maybe I could go a little faster, say 6:45 for this little jaunt. I was feeling pretty good, especially since a lot of the first mile was a slight decline. I looked down when my Garmin beeped my one miles split…6:09. Way to pace yourself hero. Relay organizers say the best way to pace is 10 seconds slower per mile than your 10k…here I was doing a fast 5k split. Here is when I saw a hill, which is why Trophy said he was so gassed. I started to suck some wind on this thing, but was able to power up it pretty fast. Just as I was thinking Trophy was a complete wuss, I saw it. Turns out the reason for this only being 2.6 miles is the small mountain that arises out of nowhere for the last three quarters of a mile. I had already told myself to slow down, but Mt. Charleston highway was doing a good job for me. I kept having hallucinations that the other 2 teams were hunting me down, but it was just my flailing limbs and the rocks on the road. Second mile was at 6:45 and hurt a hundred times worse. To add insult to injury, the crest of the hill is the finish, so instead of my teammates seeing me rock out the first mile, they see me heaving like I’m on death’s door. I hit the last 0.6 at just over 7 minute pace and collapse on the grass.  17:02, 6:36 pace. OK Trophy…no more teasing.

David took the baton from here and despite stating he was in terrible shape still managed low 7 pace through some more seriously hilly exposed areas. Dan brought the thunder on leg 6 and had to face what had been David’s nemesis for the last two years. On leg 6, there is a half mile of a hill that looks like its straight out of the blue ridge. This is in the middle of an 8 miler, the majority of which is in the direct broiling sun. Ive seen most people walk most of it (yes we park on the side of the road in the middle just to watch the carnage). Dan was powering up it this year. Unfortunately, there was a 40ish woman behind him who had been tracking him down and blasting what was likely low 6 pace. Dan said he finally heard her at the top of the hill. I really expected her to pass Dan, but give him a challenge and he is going to pick it up a level. We saw both of them round the last turn a half mile from the finish of leg 6, with masters chick right on his tail. Dan brought the thunder though, and was able to hold her off.

We then handed off to van 2 and crashed out at Santee state park after refueling at the Cracker Barrel. We used to eat conservatively, fearing GI disasters with all the running, but it seems the best way to keep going is just to eat and eat a lot. No problem with that here. I tried to sleep some at Santee, but inevitably there will always be that someone that talks like the whole world needs to hear. Of course one of those dudes pulled up to the field with all the people crashed out in sleeping bags. I brought earplugs for this purpose, but I wasnt tired enough after my mini 5k to sleep anyway.

Van 2 finished at about 8 something at night and Darrell started us off from Santee State Park to Lone Star BBQ, blasting off 4 miles in low 6 pace. Island Liquors and the Thundercats had opened up a big lead over the afternoon but they were still on the same legs as us. Brandon then had the unenviable task of running right through the center of Santee on a Friday night. I had this leg last year. For the night parts of the relay they make us wear a headlamp , with a reflective vest and at least 2 blinking lights front and back.  Lets just say this attracts a lot of attention from the locals, who may or may not like this invasion by alien coal miners in white vans. It also gets dogs going, and apparently Brandon survived a near attack by Santee’s version of Cujo.  Luckily this year the race had a ton of police supervision, apparently with a cruiser every 5 miles during the night, which was awesome. Brandon finished his leg and got to push “the easy button” that one of the volunteer’s kids had. From the pace he was doing, it looked anything but easy. Andy then tore up the next leg, again at six flat pace, bringing us within a couple of minutes of the Liqours and Cats.

I then headed out into the pitch dark for a 5.6 mile romp straight through Holly Hill. It was a little after 11 pm. I was a little gimpy from my mini 5k up the mountain, but it was the coolest weather I’ve run in since February and flatter then anything in Columbia. I hit mile 1 at 6:49 and decided I could probably maintain this pace. It was a little scary at times – traffic was light but 55 mph cars coming at you keeps you on your toes. Luckily most gave me a wide berth with my crazy ass outfit. I went right through Holly Hill, which was pretty much deserted except for a Subway, where I got some interesting looks. Its not everyday Holly Hill sees an albino Sasquatch on the loose. As I reached the other side of Holly Hill, which is only a few blocks, I saw a glimmer of red. My first chance at ROADKILL. This is the term relayers use to describe passing other teams. Late in the relay you catch up with the slower teams and pass a lot of people, but I figured this was probably still someone in our start wave. I figured that based on being less than halfway done, but also by the fact this guy was proving tough to catch. I had thrown down 3 consecutive 6:47ish miles and I hadnt out much of a dent in his lead. At some point I figured less than a 5k to the finish and started to pick it up. As I started to near him, I think he sensed my presence and fought me off , but finally I caught up with him. He actually was very nice, was encouraging and even told me he was from the Liquors. I almost felt bad passing him. Almost.  I still had to burn it to keep him off my tail, when I saw dimly ANOTHER LIGHT.  The possibility of a double roadkill was too good to pass up, and I started to ramp it up past 10k pace. I think this girl might have been doing a brief walk of shame, but once she saw my light she started booking it. She was wearing a loose reflective vest and was carrying a flashlight, creating a dizzying strobe effect that was really disorienting on top of my own headlamp. I blasted into low 6 territory, knowing I had less than a mile to go. Finally passed her with about a half mile to go, and saw she was a Thundercat.  I continued 5k pace and even threw a mini blue shoes kick to end the leg in style. Last two splits were 6:30 (mile 5) and 6:16 (last 0.6).  So much for restraint. On the upside the weather and flatness made everything so much easier, so I figured I would be OK.  Nice for my teammates to do most of the work to set up the double pass on my leg. David then had his short 2.6er and held the lead. Dan then extended the lead by rocking out a 9.67 miler and started catching some of the slower teams from the earlier start waves.  St Paul Methodist (all the exchange zones are schools or churches) had a late night ham sandwich and chips sale at the end of Dan’s leg. I wolfed that thing down like it was nothing.  I think I may actually gain weight on relays.

I then drove the van down to the last van turnover site, Cordesville baptist church. I’ve driven the last two relays as my own personal penance for being a complete sloth in the 2010 relay, lying down in the wayback and basically just eating and sleeping. Cordesville has a huge field which is prime for sleeping. A bunch of sleeping bags and tents were laid out close, but I have to be far off from the parking lot to avoid homicidal rage toward loud talking ass clowns. My teammates actually all slept in the van, but beasts like myself just cant get comfortable. One thing about this night, it was FREAKING COLD. Low 40’s I think, but with a slight wind it felt way worse. Luckily the Strictly Running hoodie I have has supernatural heating properties and kept me pretty warm, as long as I formed a sleeping bag cocoon and pulled the hoodie over my face.  I positioned myself in view of the van and partially in the glow of a security light, as to avoid getting my internal organs crushed by a 15 passenger van. That wouldnt be a very dignified way to go. I initially had a hard time sleeping even with it being pretty quiet. I was near a shed with some empty barrels with possible shotgun holes, which I feared may be a good snake lair even if target practice wasnt currently in session. Whats worse, there were wolves. Wolves howling. Like right out of a movie. We were in the middle of Francis Marion forest, I guess. All these concerns apparently succumbed to overwhelming fatigue because the next thing I know Code is waking me up.

Code apparently snorted a line of coke because he is jacked up about this 330 am run, which is his last.  I am considerably less than enthusiastic and freezing my ass off to boot. My time out of the cocoon about killed me. After shivering in the van for awhile and cursing my recurrent bad judgement for entering these relays, I was able to defrost and take down a couple starbucks doubleshots.  Drove to the scariest exchange zone, a pitch dark Huger recreation area. Except this time apparently every van in the relay is parked there. They have one scary outhouse there that has become legendary. There’s no light in it, and when you turn on your headlamp, you are glad you cant really see anything. I call it the House of Horrors. With that as the only option, lets just say the surrounding pines are well fertilized.  Code finally finishes his 10 miler and I’m quite sure he’s done another line of coke, because dude is amped to be finished.  The rest of the van, who are still facing the roughest and worst leg, are not quite sharing his enthusiasm. I myself am facing a 7.5 miler on an hour and a half sleep, stomach churning with a melange of espresso, gatorade and nilla wafers. Brandon is lucky to have gotten his worst legs over and goes out and crushes his remaining 5k. Andy had the 7.5 miler that brought me to near death in 2010 and knocks it out in like 6:02 pace. Dude is a monster.

I pick up a roadkill in the first 10 yards of my 3rd and last leg. The slower groups have a lot of recreational runners, a lot of whom are hating life by this time.  They are out in force by this point, and I have to admire the 10 min + pace teams because these guys may be out here as much as 36 hours. I am fortunate to get to run at 6 am, so the sun is beginning to come up. This is spirit lifting, and with it still being cold with a flat course, the running is a little bit easier. I target 7 min pace, but end up doing mile 1 in 6:44. It doesnt feel that bad, so I just try and hold it. Gradually the sleepiness wears off and I’m able to feel a little better.  Liqours and Thundercats are back ahead again by a long shot, so I dont focus on trying to catch them. This leg has a lot of turns which help break it up. Some patches open up to the sun beginning to come up over the marsh, so its really beautiful, if only I wasnt dead tired. But I’m on a mission, and as Dan says about leg 3, the faster you go, the quicker its over. There are a few slower teams scattered on the course, so they also help give me something to run towards. I basically lock into a 6:40ish pace and zone out…taking one mile at a time and trying to think about anything than walking or sleep. After what seems like forever, I hear the roar of  highway 17 and this jolts me out of my daydream. Luckily I draw a break in the cars and can cross without stopping. I know I’m only a half mile to the finish after the mile 7 split (7th mile 6:43,  every mile had been 6:40-6:49, total metronome)  so I blast as much a blue shoes kick as I can, knowing its the end of the whole thing. Finish in 50:02 for 7.48 miles,  6:41 pace, very close to my 12k PR at Ray Tanner actually.

So glad to be done at this point.  The run actually energizes me and its good to see David and Dan tear up the last two legs in similar fashion, crushing it out. We pass the baton on to van 2 and have a celebratory breakfast at IHOP. Afterwards we go to James Island County Park and wait for our other van to finish.  Brian has kept us updated throughout the relay, and Van 2 has been faster than projected as well. Kori is our ringer, flown in from Minnesota and out there nailing sub 6 pace on every leg.  He even took one of Ellen’s night legs to save her from dodging the cars and local wildlife. We know Liqours and Wildcats are too consistently strong, but we continue to be on Van on the Run PR pace, with a chance at a sub 24 hour time. At the finish they have free draft beer which tastes so good..even if I’m dead tired and just finished off some french toast within the past 2 hours. We sit at the finish line with the clock nearing 30 hours (which minus 6 hours is our time). Finally, with the clock at 29:55, Brian comes sprinting onto the finish area field, and we all run across together – 23:55 and a huge team PR.

We’ll know the official results in the upcoming week, but we are probably top 10, most likely closer to top 5.  I’ll certainly be back again next year.  Next up: Blue Ridge Relay Part II??

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