Relay time! The Palmetto 200 has become a fixture on the Blue Shoes racing calendar since I first got involved with the relay in its first year of existence in 2010. Although I died a thousand deaths in that first year, complete with walksies, f-bombs and hallucinations, I came back, and the rest is history. 2015 marks my 6th consecutive year with Team Van on The Run (VOTR) in our never-ending pursuit of relay glory.
For the uninitiated, the Palmetto 200 is a 200 mile, 36 leg relay starting in Columbia and ending in Charleston. The full team is 12 people running 3 legs apiece, but they also have ultra teams with as few as 4 people. Dan Hartley even did a 2 person team a few years back, which in my professional opinion, is completely batshit insane. It should be known that 90 percent of the teams involved are totally in it for the experience, and God forbid …for fun. They share reflective vests, stroll up to the line, head off in a jog, etc, etc. Not VOTR. We like to spike our fun with some maniacally competitive , balls-to-the-wall adrenaline. We have 4×100 style relay exchanges and full-on race face, grab your knees, gasping for breath finishes. Are we elite? Hells no. Are we local age groupers hell bent on overachieving? You bet.
The master of our relay world is our fearless leader, Brian “EL CAPITAN” Clyburn. His masterpiece is the multi-page, color-coded, individually-paced spreadsheet. The thing is a sight to behold. If everything goes to plan, you can predict down to the minute when each runner will arrive at each exchange zone. He even has done corrective factors for heat and humidity in previous incarnations, though luckily temperature was not a factor at the new, earlier relay date.
Did I mention individually paced? Last year I was still in post-cliff recovery and Brian gave me a 7:30 pace, actually the slowest on the team. While appropriate given my extended recovery, my giant noggin doesnt deal well with ego blows, and I spent the entire 2014 relay making sure to blow the spreadsheet all to hell giving a 1000 percent effort to match my old 7:05 pace. My reward for 2015 – 6:45. And 18 miles. Well, no sandbagging for me this year. This was going to be rough.
On top of that, we were the walking wounded. Enterprise gave us a black van for Van 2 this year, and we immediately named it ‘The Hearse”. David “D-Mac” McNiece was nursing a nasty ankle injury , Brian had a gimp knee following a marathon DNF, and Joel had a tweaked hamstring. Oh, and Julie was in the ER with possible appendicitis less than a week earlier. And they kept it in. I told her my surgical skills were a little suspect this far out from medical school, especially with a headlamp and a pocket knife. But hey, girl’s gotta have priorities. Jen Clyburn was less than 3 weeks out from her BQ 3:28 marathon and perennial ringer Andy McNiece was supposedly not in the peak of shape either. Van 1 was praying to the relay gods that one of our gimpy brethren would not drop out and make us run a dreaded 4th leg.
I was in Van 1 this year again, with all the supposedly healthy dudes. Darrell “The Code” Brown, who is perhaps the only person with more relay enthusiasm than me, was sadly out with an injury. Replacing him was grandmaster beast of the local racing circuit, Geary McAlister. Back for a second year was Ty Thomas, fresh off a PR at Lexington Race Against Hunger and a brutal blue shoeing of the Sasquatch himself. Ty enlisted new recruit Dan Carter, who I apparently bashed as one of the “superfit soccer dads” that terrorize my old 35-39 age group at Ray Tanner. He was definitely our fastest. Brandon and Conner were also back for what has to be their 3rd or 4th time as well.
The relay start was moved this year from the Old speedway in West Columbia to the much more picturesque Coble Plaza behind Edventure on the river. We were given the last start time at 12:00 noon on Friday, which they assign to the teams with the fastest projected pace. The idea is to have all the teams finish around the same time in Charleston on Saturday afternoon, this time at Patriots Point in Mt. Pleasant. The slowest teams leave at 5:30 am, because you always want to go into 36 hours of no sleep a little tired. Being in the last group, thoughts of trophies start to enter into our grandiose heads. We won the coed full team division in 2013 and managed the top full team in 2014, though we were bested once again by the Clemson Thundercats ( a bunch of college kids) ultra team. The Thundercats fielded a slower team this year, so we were up against Paul Reardon’s Sole Asylum (full), The Banditos (full) , 50 shades of fast (ultra) and Make it Hurt (ultra). After some requisite van decorating we went down to the start line. I had to replace Code Brown for his annual toilet picture – to which he wanted to make clear he was “not dead”.
With the start, Geary comes tearing out of the gates in the lead and we have to high tail it to the first exchange zone, where I’m up for my first leg, a 6.05 miler. This is the dreaded poop zone, next to the water treatment plant. What’s worse is that everybody and their mom has already gone through and committed unholy sins in the 2 provided porta potties. Those images still scar my mind. Thanks to Barefoot John’s family (wife Char and dad Andy) for providing some emergency TP and being a race volunteer. The girl from 50 shades comes through first out of the forest and some lanky 20 something in neon orange blasts out of the zone. About 20-30 seconds later here comes Geary in a full sprint and off I go.
The 6 miles is mostly on the dirt Old State Rd. It is obviously close to Columbia but feels like its in the middle of nowhere. The road is blocked off from vehicles so its just me, the mud, and neon dude in the distance. It rained a lot in the hours leading up to the race, so it’s hard to lock into a pace with all the puddle jumping. You do not want to get wet shoes and get a case of swampfoot brewing for 24 hours in an enclosed van. That was last year. I was trying to hit 6:45 but getting all excitable in the beginning led to a 6:20 something. I’d better rein in in if I’m doing 18 miles. The next few miles kind of suck – it’s dead quiet and neon dude is slowly leaving me for dead. At least its mostly flat. In a weird coincidence I suddenly find myself on the 5k course for the March for Meals. Makes me think about Brandenburg inevitably upping his masters lead on the TDC this weekend. Four miles in I have to do a complete stop to do some rural parkour over a concrete barrier blocking the path and its tough to get going again, but at least I’m back on concrete. I do peek over my shoulder and there’s one guy way off in the distance. Mile 5 is on asphalt but has a painful overpass of I-26 which about kills me. Of course my van gets to see me dying on the hill, my form already going to hell. One last turn just past the 5 mile mark, and I’m pretty close to 6:45 pace. I suddenly get scared the dude behind me may be some beast and tracking me down, so I throw down pretty hard. The last stretch is on Charleston highway, filled with huge trucks and lots of traffic, so I’m dodging onto the shoulder every chance I get. Finally I get a break in the traffic so I can cross over, and I’m sure these people are convinced the Sasquatch myth is real. I’m sucking wind pretty bad but I gotta look strong in the exchange zone. Yeah, not so much. I give Brandon the bracelet at the Kangaroo zone and I’m pretty much toast. Six miles in 40:06, 6:41 pace. Man these other legs are going to be rough.
Luckily we have about an hour to kill since Brandon has a miserable 9 miler that about took my life in 2010. I get a ginormous loaded sub at Subway and wolf it down on the way to the next zone. I used to be a crackers and GU relayer, but that is a recipe for disaster – you need calories for staying up all night and racing each leg hard. Thankfully it’s cloudy out because Leg 3 is deadly in the heat with all the exposed road. Brandon got tracked down by some freakishly fast guy but crushed his leg well below spreadsheet pace. Conner then drew the dreaded 2.6. This is the leg that Trophy complained about the whole time in 2012. Although I mocked him endlessly for his bitching and moaning, I got a vicious karmic payback by having to do it last year. I about died – the last mile is 100 percent up a brutal mountain. You will definitely not feel fly after this two-six. Sure enough Conner looks like he’s about to go into cardiac arrest at the exchange zone but again in sub-spreadsheet pace. Dan took the bracelet from there and proceeded to just destroy whatever lead the other teams had, roadkilling everybody on a hilly 10k in like 38 minutes. Nice recruit, Ty. I like him better when he’s not stealing my trophies at Ray Tanner. Speaking of Ty, he was the most unlucky to get Leg 6, probably the worst in the whole relay. Eight total miles, with about 4-5 miles of rolling hills before hitting one of the most unholy of mountains in the midlands. I have yet to see a picture that does it justice. It basically disappears beyond your line of sight into the sky. It brings almost everyone to a walk, and Ty was no exception. I think its probably best to catch some walksies on the steepest section anyway. Ty was all mad when he finished, cursing the fact he didnt meet his time on the sheet. Believe me, there wasn’t anyone complaining about his pace – we were just thanking El Capitan for not bestowing us with that misery. Ty passed off to Joel in van 2 and we in van 1 were off for several hours.
At the van turnover zone, Sole Asylum was waiting. They had a couple of minutes on us at this point, as Lee Moore, one of the fastest Fitness World runners, had torched leg 6. These guys were going to be tough. Paul himself is a 17 minute 5ker and ex-Francis Marion beast in the lineage of Mark Bedenbaugh and Ryan Plexico. Besides Lee and Paul, they recruited Angel Manuel, terror of my age group and always good for kicking my ass in just about any distance. I think they had other beasts like Gene Grimsley and Mario Alvarez too. And, they were riding in style in church buses with beds and a TV. We were praying that maybe some of their others were considerably slower because they would crush us with their top end.
We headed to Cracker Barrel in Santee, SC for “dinner” though I don’t even think it was 5 o’clock. Somehow I ate some chicken fingers too. I think I was trying to gain weight on this relay. We spent the rest of the downtime laid out in Santee State park , the site of the next van turnover. It was pretty crowded with all the teams starting to come together. We all tried to sleep some but I don’t think any of us really crashed out. Ty brought an awesome portable hammock that I must have before next year. There was a Jim Lichty and Jason Lockhart sighting, straight out of Moore dorm 1993. They were part of the huge F3 contingent this year – must have been like 20 teams.
The Hearse came rolling into the station after dark when most of the earlier teams had cleared out. They were all hurting but had apparently kept up our sub-spreadsheet pace (team pace was 7:22 projected). Sole Asylum was right on our heels, a couple of minutes behind. Banditos and the two ultra teams had faded a bit. Brandon took leg 13, a straight but steady incline up to Lone Star BBQ, site of the best mid-relay meal I ever had a couple of years ago. Geary followed with the leg I’ve done twice before, a route right through the middle of Santee with tons of traffic and sidewalks. All the locals look at you like you’re totally insane. And they’d be right.
My leg is next, from Lake Marion High school on Tee Vee Rd. The location is difficult to pinpoint, but I like to refer to it as the epicenter of nowhere. Pitch black and hardly a soul around….save for a few dozen white vans and about a 100 caffeinated relayers. Our volunteer, Miranda, is there keeping track of it all with 3 kids in tow. For that, and taking 200 bucks off our entry fee, I am eternally grateful. My kids would be staging a revolt over being out of wifi range.
Geary hands off to me again and I’m off on my 8.8 miler. Dead flat, dead straight, dark as can be. It’s tough – outside of the halo of my headlamp you can’t see crap. The complete darkness is broken up every few minutes by a car, usually with high beams, going about 55 mph ,and being 10 pm on a Friday night – of questionable sobriety. Luckily I’m lit up like Times Square with my multiple red blinkies and a petzl headlamp that can be seen from outer space. Still, I’m dodging into the grass every time. I’ve met my major trauma quota for this decade, thank you. I am eternally thankful I hit 6:44 on mile 1, since all I need to do now is hold this. It’s actually not too hard since it is totally pancake-sque out here. After a few miles I finally encounter a few other runners and take down three of them. I’m paranoid the whole time of Sole Asylum catching me. It feels like the ghost of Paul Reardon is chasing me into Holly Hill. I hear Angel with their bus at one point, though I can barely see them. Angel feeds into my fear, telling me they are right on my tail. I’m bleeding a few seconds here and there, hitting mostly around 6:50 miles. The I-95 overpass is cool, thinking about how much distance we’ve covered, though the accompanying hill isn’t any fun. Pacing is so difficult when the only stimuli are your breathing, the lights bouncing on your vest and the mind-numbing glow of your headlamp. Finally I hit mile 8 and decide I have to ramp it up to get back some seconds. I pick it up a bit and throw down the last bit, hitting a 6:32 split and 6:46 overall. Almost perfect. I’ll take it.
And surprisingly I feel OK. Not jumping for joy for a 3.7 miler at O dark thirty, but a lot better than in previous years. Especially after using the Target AME church facilities. I don’t know what church activities they do, but apparently a pimped out lounge room bathroom is necessary. Hey, I loved it. Conner took the next leg straight through Holly Hill, the site of my Subway denial last year. He then passed off to Ty, who attacked his 2.7 miler with a vengeance, pouring all his angst from leg 6 into like a 6:30 pace. He was rewarded for his efforts with a whole bounty of roadkill. Nice work. Dan then headed off on a most miserable 9.67 miler that was like a longer version of mine. We had started catching up with all the other teams at this point and Dan must have blown by these guys like they were standing still, crushing low 6 pace. The long leg gave us a chance to have an extended layover at the next van turnover zone at St Paul’s United. They were selling do it yourself sandwiches, chips and a drink for 6 bucks. This may seem like a lot, but Cross, SC is not exactly crawling with dining opportunities at midnight. Works for me. It was awesome.
Dan rocked out his leg and with everyone else (save for my 8 second overage) crushing the spreadsheet, we were like 18 minutes ahead of pace. Geary has a thing about hot food, so we headed to Waffle House immediately thereafter in Moncks Corner. Apparently it is the place to be in the MC, because it was freaking packed at 2 am. I zonked out in the van or awhile since I think I had met my 4000 calories for the day. After that we journeyed to the final van turnover at Witherbee Ranger Station in Francis Marion state forest. It had drizzled a little but I wasnt about to sleep in the van again like my misery from last year. I crashed under a tree with about 10 other people all laid out like Jonestown under a tree. It was surprisingly comfortable with my pillow and sleeping bag and I got probably an hour or so of hardcore sleep, which is absolutely golden in these relays.
I wake up ahead of schedule and start moseying my way to the portapotty. When I get out, a frantic Brandon is already in full gear and says we have to get ready NOW. Damn, I thought those Van 2ers were all gimps! Sure enough, they are 20+ minutes ahead of schedule and Brandon takes off while I’m still getting ready. Suddenly I’m pounding a Starbucks Double Shot, throwing back some ibuprofen and trying desperately to get my body to ignore the fact its 4:30 am. We journey to the next exchange zone which is like Grand Central Station. Its the old “House of Horrors” zone, but people are just forgoing the Blair witch project bathroom area and parking on the side of the road for like a quarter mile. They must have read the blog from years past. I do a brief warmup in the dirt parking lot but I barely have a chance to stride up to the exchange area when Brandon is shouting Van on the Run and cruising into the zone at Mach 5. I take off like a man possessed, ready to get this miserable third leg behind me. Leg 26 is 3.7 miles, of which I swear is almost all uphill.
Uphill or not, I basically empty the tank on this one, giving close to 5k effort. Between the uphill, 4:30 time and 15 miles under my belt, I’m only getting 6:30ish in return, but it feels like about 30 seconds faster. Roadkill is in very ample supply by now, and I’m sure all of these guys are having nightmares of the crazed grizzly sprinting past them gasping and moaning. Like leg 2, you cant see a damn thing. I keep thinking there’s a downhill finish, having done this leg at least once before, but it never comes. I hold steady at 6:30 and I realize at the last second that the end is not over the next hill, but right in front of me. So much for the blue shoe kick I had planned to throw down. Still got 6:31 pace for the 3.7 and a couple of minutes chopped off the spreadsheet.
Nothing feels more awesome than getting that leg 3 under your belt and being done. True, the van one legs are 2/3 in the dark in the middle of nowhere, but the upside is being able to relax for 5+ hours at the end. Maybe it’s endorphins, but I actually don’t feel too wrecked. Geary took the next 7.47 miler, which gave me vague PTSD from my 2010 P200, where I was hallucinating and walking on that leg. I still dont know how I recovered to finish that leg. Conner followed with the second of the twin 7.47’s cruising through the last of Francis Marion forest and hitting Highway 17. The Seewee outpost is my favorite exchange zone, with its coffee and to-die-for sausage biscuits (usually by this time the McDonald long run scale has left the Scarlett Johanssen zone and is firmly in the sausage biscuit area). It also means you have left Deliverance-esque woods and have finally hit the outskirts of Charleston. I love me the Seewee. Dan takes it from Conner and has a straight shot down Hwy 17, just killing it. The next zone is a torture chamber of mosquitoes and gnats but Ty figures you can avoid them if you run fast enough. He has my final leg from 2014, which I ran in a blinding monsoon and screaming out at God’s wrath for torturing me so. OK, so I tend to be a touch overdramatic. Ty has it considerably easier, cruising through Mt. P neighborhoods and taking down what little roadkill is left. By the time he hands off to the Capitan, we are sitting almost a half hour ahead of schedule, and about 45 minutes clear of Sole Asylum. After a careful check to make sure no 11 am team has done some astronomic sandbagging, we realize we are on the verge of the overall win.
But it hardly feels in the bag – Van 2 started out hurting and now is running on fumes. David’s got like a grapefruit for an ankle and Brian was limping. Thankfully Julie has held on to her internal organs. Joel’s hamstring is a wreck. We are already debating who might have to bite the bullet for a leg 4. Of course, we pretty much wreck our ability to do so with an epic IHOP trip. I think my french toast/sausage/eggs/hashbrown combo was the lightest among my group. Dan partook in the Colorado omelet, which looks like it could feed a family of six.
When we finally head to the finish line at Patriots Point, its a complete ghost town. Nothing is set up, save for some beautiful virgin portapotties. I fear that we may not get an official time for beating the race organizers there, but luckily the finish line area goes up within a half hour. We actually are not the first to finish, as a 9 am start team rolls in around 11ish, along with another early start team soon after. We are ever so thankful to hear from the other van that everyone made it through, and that only our last runner, Andy, was out on the course. Sure enough, 23 hours and 53 minutes after our start, Andy comes tearing into the park and we cross the finish line together: 2015 Palmetto 200 overall champs!
Sixth time’s a charm! The finish line setup was awesome with tons of beer and tacos. Capitan was able to get our victory glasses from the organizers, give one of his patented speeches, then we drank from the awards and ate from Julie’s 30th birthday cake. Pretty sweet. Lucky number 7 in 2016!