Relays! If there’s anything that surpasses my road racing addiction it is my love of doing the relay race. Its like adding all the fun of team sports with the normally individual experience of racing.
I started my relay experience with the 2010 Palmetto 200 and swore I’d never do it again after experiencing hallucinations and a walk of shame on my last leg that year. True to form, I’ve of course done three more since. Last year our team (Van on the Run) tried the Blue Ridge Relay for the first time. Its like the Palmetto 200 because it has 36 legs and 200+ miles, just replace the flat Lowcountry with thousands and thousands of feet of elevation gain. Even the diehards of the Van on the Run had had enough. Except for one. Maybe it was the near religious experience of running the crest of a mountain ridge at sunset, or maybe it was the very poor memory of my torturous fourth leg, but I had to do it again.
2011 recap (2 parts) is here:
I had heard the 621 ninjas were getting together a team this year. To answer the question everybody asks, the 621 refers to 621 Chatham rd in Columbia where they start most of their group runs, and ninjas because they always run under the cover of darkness given their 5:30 am start. I dont get a chance to run with these guys much since they start so early and far away from home. It doesnt help they are all blazing fast, even the women, actually…especially the women. Yeah, my half-awake early morning 9 min pace jog is not going to cut it with these guys. But every now and then I’ll make it out there for a change of pace, quite literally.
I was late in hearing about the team, and was originally an alternate, but eventually they decided to expand to 2 teams and I had my chance. I was glad to be placed on the “slow” team, because I certainly am in comparison with these guys. With the expansion and a few drop outs, Code Brown also got recruited. Also on my team, the Black Ninjas (other team was the Red Ninjas) were Pete O’Boyle, -who is an age group beast and who runs similar times to myself, Dean Schuster – the “penguin guy” who raced Gov Cup in a penguin suit for charity en route to competing in the Antarctica Marathon (http://zerotoboston.com/), John Bradley – a veteran of Larry’s A-team, Winston Holliday – my opponent in an epic battle at Get in the Pink (https://tourdeblueshoes.com/2012/05/13/get-in-the-pink-5k10k-devine-stheathwood-columbiasc-51212/), former Palmetto Grand Prix champ Usa McClamrock, sisters Nell Fuller and Beth Bynum, age group ace Heather Alexander and speed demon attorneys Karen Manning and Kana Johnson.
The relay starts in Grayson Highlands, VA, which is just north of the North Carolina border. We had a 9:30 am start time, so we decided to drive up to Boone, NC the night before, staying in a hotel and rental house. This was definitely a better choice than last year, when my team camped out at the park. That cat noise at 3 am last year still freaks me out. Luckily the Holiday inn express is free of potential wild animal attacks, and thus offers a much better night sleep. Bonus. Plus, the pasta dinner at Amalfi’s (http://www.amalfispizzeria.com/) with awesome craft beers on draft was a touch better than the granola bars and subway from 2011.
We got to the race site about an hour early and picked up our packets and organized our team. Brief relay 101: The 209 miles to Asheville are chopped up into 36 sections, or legs, ranging from 2.5 to 10 miles. There are 12 runners , 6 each in the two vans. Each runner ends up doing 3 legs spread out over anywhere from 21 to 36 hours, depending on the speed of your team. In addition to the mileage, the legs are rated easy, medium, hard, very hard and “mountain goat” hard based on how bad the hills are. And my hills, I actually mean mountains. The start times are staggered by how fast you are as a team, with the slowest starting at 6 am, the fastest at 1 pm I believe. The blazing Red ninjas had a noon start, for example.
In contrast to my position as runner 1 last year, I was now runner 12, meaning I had upwards of 9 hours to wait before I got my chance to go. This was kind of tough, because you’re all jacked up at the start…for nothing. On the flip side, zero danger in craft brew indulgence the night before. Beth started us off at 9:30 with the 4 mile freefall of a leg I had in 2011, where I decided to wreck my quads for the rest of the race.
Start videos are here:
Beth is a swimmer, but apparently runs a lot better than I swim, which of course isn’t saying much. She had a strong leg and passed off to John, who started crushing it immediately. We in Van 2 were going to stay with Van 1 during their first legs for support, which turned out to be a very, very good thing. We stopped at a corner to make sure John made the right turn, and van 1 went ahead (presumably) to the exchange zone.
John passed and we started down a dirt road to meet van 1 at the exchange. We saw a stranded van up ahead, and I was feeling sorry for them until…hold the phone, that’s us. Oh noes. Van 1 had pulled over to the side, as we all do hundreds of times during the relay. Only this time, the soft grassy shoulder turned out to be hiding a 6 foot deep creek bed. As we all jumped out to help push the van out, we realized that a) distance runners have no upper body strength, and b) the van looked much more likely to flip into the creek than actually get free. I’m really surprised all the women made it out without causing it to tip. Van one was officially down.
Now I am typically a cold hearted cynic, but my faith in human kindness was actually somewhat restored by this incident. Almost every van that came along offered to help, and one took our next few runners to the next exchange zone while we figured out what to do. And then there was Chris, the Saint of the Blue Ridge. He, his wife and kids came down to try and help, and when he couldn’t he called a friend with a truck, then ultimately called another friend who ran the tow truck for the county. Mind you this in an area with zero cell phone coverage, and no one on the team knowing where the hell we were. The tow guy came within an hour and after a complicated 10 minutes involving chains, winches and tows, he eventually extricated the van. We paid the tow guy, but Chris would accept no money. He even went back to his house and offered us water and granola bars, and kept Beth and I company (we were left behind since we would be the latest to run) until the tow truck came. You have warmed my cold, dark heart, Chris.
After 2+ hours of fun with the stuck van, Beth and I eventually caught up with the team at the exchange zone between legs 6 and 7. With all the ugly noises the van made in getting unstuck, I was deathly afraid of some other thing going wrong, but it held together. Miraculously, we were back on track.
Dean got the handoff from Heather and Van 2 was officially in business. Dean, whose energy and enthusiasm for the relay is rivaled only by the Code, took off like a jackrabbit on cocaine. His leg was downhill first but followed by a killer 8 percent incline in the last mile, 5.4 total. Did I mention it was over 80 degrees and humid? He was definitely hurting by the end but blue shoed it to the finish, handed off to the Code, and collapsed on the grass. “I’ve never seen anything more wonderful than Darrell” – quote of the day, for sure. Code went blazing out of the gate as well, pulling low 6 pace from the get go. He had his easiest leg, and one of the most scenic – 4.6 miles along the New River. We got to the next exchange zone right by the river, where someone had left a chair right by the shore. Dean was the only one to have finished his leg, so he had the chance to partake in what had to be one of the best recovery ice baths ever.
It actually wasnt that cold, so even better. Pete took the next leg, and maintained the torrid pace, going low 7’s for 5.2 miles. Winston had the first big challenge of the daytime legs, pulling 8.2 miles with just a ridiculous 6 percent climb for the better part of a mile in the middle. He didnt even look tired when he finished. Karen had most of her 6.3 miler on the Blue Ridge Parkway, where the vans were not permitted. This kind of concerned me, because Karen had been laid up with a bum calf for the last several weeks, and there would be no way to know if she needed help.
In the meantime, I finally got to prep for my leg, and it was still way too freaking hot. Debated back and forth, but ultimately decided to eschew any sense of coolness and go completely for comfort. So there I was, ghostly chested with a GU belt, race bib belt , full reflective vest (required on the parkway), sunglasses and water bottle in hand. Let me tell you, I had to fight the ladies off with a stick looking that awesome.
I had waited all day for my run, and just short of 7 pm I got my chance. Karen blue shoed it into the exchange zone and I blasted off into the great beyond. This was leg 12, the same leg I ran last year with our 11 person team, and I knew it to be grueling. This year, in some effort to be “safe” they cut out the run on a highway in favor of twisting around to smaller roads…and adding on an extra 1.4 miles to make it a nice round 9.5. Sweet.
Above is the old topo map of this run. Make no mistake, this is running up a mountain and over the other side. Five whole miles of almost unrelenting, punishing climb. And since its on the Blue Ridge Parkway, none of your teammates will have any idea what you’ve just endured. On the flipside, all your hard work is paid back with unbelievable views along the mountain crest with the sun beginning to set. Breathtaking, especially since any breath you had has been taken already after that 8 percent grade section.
I blasted out from the start in my neon man-sierre, and the sub 7 pace hit me like a kick in the teeth. Felt surprisingly like I had been sitting around all day, stewing in my own nervous energy, eating a bunch of granola bars and gatorade. Go figure. Took a while to feel OK, as I basically was doing a fast warmup as part of the race. Took down my first roadkill a half mile in, and another 2 in the next mile. Pace was 7:15 out of the blocks, which is about what I wanted to do before Mt. Pain. Luckily they had plenty of volunteers out, because they had significantly altered the course. I had no sense of where I was or which direction I was going. Finally hit the start of the incline at 1. 5 miles in, and it was muy, muy sucko. Luckily the course was a winding road, because that at least gave me the brief, fleeting hope that the misery would end around the next corner. No such luck. Dropped the pace down to 8:30 to stay alive and just focused on keeping going. My quads were screaming and pleading for the sweet release of death, or at least a nice walk. But I had made it a goal not to catch a case of the walksies, and soldiered on. Finally, after what seemed like forever, I reached the top of this hateful mountain. And again it was pure beauty for miles in both direction. I ran for about a mile on a pure adrenaline, coasting over the smaller inclines at the top. I reached an awesome overlook with a few people taking pictures and they cheered me on, I waved back and was on a pure high, until… Wait a second, why are they cheering again???? One look over my shoulder and I saw the newer, better model Blue Shoes. Still wearing the ridiculous reflective vest over bare chest and blue shoes ensemble, but ripped, younger, tan, better looking, and going about twice as fast. Damn you bizarro handsome blue shoes. He passed by me like I was out for a Sunday jog, even though I had woken up from my blissful reverie and ramped up to sub 7. I chased him for a while, but then we hit the downhill, and he left me for dead. Two miles straight of relentless quad destroying freefall down the mountain into Blowing Rock. He destroyed me, but we did take down 2 more roadkill in our wake. One last ugly hill after we exited the Blue ridge parkway and I finally reached Tanger Outlets and the van transition zone back to Van 1. Did the 9.5 in 1:14, 7:50ish net pace. About the same pace as I did the shorter distance last year, so I’ll take it. The red ninjas had nearly caught up with us at this time, so almost all of the two teams were there at the Outlets, which was a nice reception. We then said our goodbyes to the rest of our teammates and headed to Canyons restaurant in Blowing Rock. Best recovery quesadillas and beer ever.
Part II to follow.