For those that know me, know I totally heart the relay. I will even turn down a golden trophy hunt opportunity and crucial Tour de Columbia points (www.columbiarunningclub.com/touredecolumbia) in exchange for the chance to pass the baton. Of course, sometimes the trophies still get hunted. Who could forget my insane Joker-esque grin from the 2010 Born in the USA 2×2 mile relay. An improbable championship borne from 2 hapless age groupers, with just little enough pride to accept a win that would have placed them 8th overall in the 4 mile.
Melons and 50 bucks – sounded like a good time to me.
But the piece de resistance of my relay fetish has always been the Palmetto 200. A chance meeting online in the runners world “sub 22 5k” forum hooked me up with “El Capitan” Brian Clyburn , and the first “Van on the Run” was formed for the inaugural 2010 P200.
Somehow I was one of the faster runners on this team, and was assigned 21 miles. The race was also held April 30-May 1 then, in 80 degree weather. We got a hotel room for 2 hours and Jen Clyburn got sick from Howard Johnson’s water. I almost passed out on a 8.8 miler in the heat and was hallucinating on my last leg at 4 am. We had no idea what we were doing. But somehow we outperformed and ended up clocking close to 8 minute pace and finished in the top 10. An addiction was born.
Over the years, people have dropped off the team, but somehow Brian has always reloaded with someone even faster than the last. This resulted in gradual improvement until we finally broke through in 2015 with the ultimate trophy hunter’s dream, the overall win.
So this marked Palmetto 200 number 7 for me, Brian, and other original members David McNeice and Joel Pierstorff. Other VOTR veterans were Brandon (so fabulous he only needs one name), Darrell “the Code” Brown, Jen “She Hulk” Clyburn, Julie “Bitz” Bitzel, and Dan “Meddler” Carter. New recruits included Tracy “T-Bone” McKinnon, Kevin “Moopy” Selinsky and Rob “Rookie, later “Ricky Bobby” Gannett. It should be noted that all of our newbies are absolute beasts.
Planning out a competitive relay is a pretty tough thing for a captain. Somehow you have to take all of the strengths/weaknesses of your team, look carefully at all the 36 relay legs over 205 miles, and put them together for optimum speed. There is no one better suited for this job than the master himself, El Capitan. Brian’s spreadsheet plays out like nerd porn – a color-coded, statistically beautiful work of art that can only leave you in awe. I think he even adds in difficulty quotients for heat and hills. Just amazing.
Brian relies heavily on data for the spreadsheet, and there’s no one with more running data out there than some freak who races every Saturday. I made the error of running a PR, point to point net downhill half marathon last month (GHS Swamp Rabbit), which “earned” me a goal pace of 6:45 on the relay. This was not going to be a recreational jog.
Brief relay tutorial: there are 36 parts or legs to the 205 mile course, ranging from 2-10 miles each. Team members pass a slap bracelet at each exchange zone when they complete a leg. With 12 members on a full team, this means each member will complete three legs, ranging from 13 to 22 total miles per person. Our team typically takes around 24 hours, though there are some that will be out there 36+ hours. Any way you look at it, you will be running some in the middle of the night and not getting much sleep.
This year’s start site was moved to Red Bank Arena, after using Old Columbia Speedway the last 6 years. For what it lacked in ambiance, it certainly was nice to be able to leave your cars at the race site. Our biggest drama pre-race was the van situation. The official vehicle of all 12 man relays is the white Ford 15 passenger van, but there was a recall on that model leading up to the event. Luckily, Joel become a weekly annoyance at the rental car company and probably did unseemly favors to secure us even more awesome vehicles this year – sleek, black, high-roofed minibuses of luxury. We were traveling in style. Team shirts this year were awesome – garnet and black with 2015 champions on the sleeve. Thanks to Emily Richbourg for printing!
Starts are staggered in the relay from 5:30 am for the slowest teams to 12:30 for the fastest. With three other teams in the 12:30 wave, we knew who our competition would be from the beginning: The Banditos, Sole Asylum and Clemson Thundercats. Sole Asylum we knew well from our battle last year. Angel Manuel, Lee Moore, Gene Grimsley, Mario Alvarez and Paul Reardon are great guys and mainstays on the SC racing circuit. Clemson has fielded a team most years, but with changing students in their running club, you never know what you’re going to get. They were champs a few years back, but doubtful many of those guys were still on this team. The Banditos are competitive, but we’ve usually lost them by the 2nd legs. There was a scary rumor that Ryan Plexico was on Sole Asylum, but Angel assured me he wasn’t (turns out he was on another team with an earlier start time).
I was assigned to Van 2 this year and wasn’t scheduled to run until leg 11, which was set to start at 7:30 pm per the Relay Bible, I mean spreadsheet. Nothing like getting all jacked up for a race and having to wait seven hours. We followed Van 1 through the first few exchanges. Our Van 1 peeps (David, Kevin, Jen, Brian, Tracy, Joel) set the tone early and were just crushing it, despite the brutal weather (high 70’s and no shade on most of the course). Plus, all the early legs are near Columbia with some killer hills. Between the hot pace and the hot weather, us and Clemson separated from the field early. Sole Asylum was hit with an early misdirect that set them back, per Angel.
By the time Van 2 was ready to go, we were already almost 10 minutes ahead of the spreadsheet. This year’s course was redesigned from Red Bank, so the evil Leg 6 from years past was now Leg 7. Dan, as one of our beasts, had the misfortune of drawing this leg. Fighting some plantar fasciitis, he still blazed low 6 pace and crushed the infamous Mt. Saint Matthews, a ridiculous summit arising in the sandhills of the southern Midlands. There’s never a pic to do it justice, but here’s one anyway.
What was scary about this leg was that despite Dan rocking low 6 pace, there was a Clemson runner who came up behind and passed Meddler on the leg. This guy was like 130 lbs, about 110 of it in quads and hammies of steel, whom we named Thunderthighs. I can only imagine what Clemson called me. TT rocked out the brutal 8.5 miles in 5:45 pace. This spelled trouble for our chance of repeating as champs, to say the least. Bitz followed, and as usual, blew the spreadsheet out of the water with a 7 flat pace. She did go and get herself a Garmin, so some of my devious influence must have spread. I didn’t realize our rookie, Rob, was such an absolute machine. He tore up his first 4.5 mile leg in like 5:45 pace. I’m surprised the Cameron, SC PD, known for their speed trap, didn’t cite him with a violation. Brandon is always claiming to be fat and out of training, but it was clear neither was the case in his first leg.
LEG 1 – THE BEAUTY AND THE BEAST – 6.61 miles – Jericho United Methodist Church (Cameron, SC) to Elloree, SC.
After stewing in my own pre-race jitters for 7 hours, I was more than ready to go for Leg 1, which was just after 7 pm. Per rules, I had to strap on the headlamp and reflective vest, which makes my already graceful self look that much sexier. To add to the anxiety, we were running neck and neck with Clemson. A 90 pound girl with long blonde hair took off only about a minute ahead of Brandon into the exchange zone. Like a complete idiot, I blazed out of the gate like a freaking 5k, dead set on chasing blonde girl down. About a half mile in, I realize I had let my Garmin go into power save mode. It’s one thing being in a race and not having a Garmin – you can pace off other people and sometimes they even have split clocks. It’s quite a different thing being out in the middle of nowhere with twilight fading, one other competitor, and no sense of the distance. The Garmin finally finds a satellite over a mile in and I’ve clearly gone out too fast. Legs are burning and I’m hurting way too much this early. To boot, the pollen was in clouds everywhere, suffocating me. I go into emergency mode, trying to stride out and loosen the lactic acid stranglehold on my legs. I had made up some ground on blonde girl but she was keeping pace, just out of reach. Clemson was following her on the course, so at least I knew I wasn’t going off track. First recorded mile was 6:49 so not too bad after the initial mile of insanity. The course was thankfully almost completely flat. The next few miles were a blur – I kept chasing the Elloree water tower in the distance and seeing the sunlight and my chance of beating Clemson fade away. I faded into some 6:50’s a couple of times and was generally hating life, verbally abusing myself for being so stupid with the early pace. I could see Elloree start to come into view but I could also hear a train coming. For several minutes, I had a racemare of blonde girl beating the train and me getting stuck behind. Luckily, we were just slow enough to both miss it after it passed through. I came rumbling into Elloree just after sunset and fell into a crumpled mass in the dirt after handing off to Code. Nice job, hero. According to the spreadsheet I was better than goal pace (6:45), so that first mile must have been a freaking sprint. Blonde girl whipped my tail and probably added some seconds to their lead. Definitely NOT the way to start off a relay with 2 more legs to go.
We then went to Santee State park, one of the huge van switch exchange zones. Van 1 was waiting for us and was closely following our progress via our group text. As usual, we were still behind most of the earlier start groups and most had cleared out by the time we got there. Plexico was there and confirmed he was not a Sole Asylum ringer but was a last second addition to a team with a family connection. Running Under the Influence had an awesome tent and chairs set up for their camp, so that may need to happen for VOTR in the future.
Code came in right on pace for his tough 7.4 miler, though Clemson had another beast and stretched their lead some. After the handoff to David, it was 8:30ish and we had some time to kill. First off: FOOD. I have long since dispensed with my early strategy of eating light – my crackers and GU of the 2010 relay nearly landed me in the med tent. You need real food to fuel 15 miles of hard racing. After a failed attempt at Cracker Barrel (we vetoed the 25 min wait) we settled on Pizza Hut. Santee’s Pizza Hut may not win any culinary awards, but their pizza after a hard 10k tasted like filet mignon. Brandon and Rob stepped up their grease game with a large garlic knot crust pizza to share between the two of them. Brandon said he had license to be a fat bitch if he was going to run this much. I wholeheartedly agree. They actually got a to-go box, which added a tinge of garlic to our enticing van aroma of sweat funk.
After face stuffing, our next step was to journey to the next van exchange zone and attempt to get some sleep before Bitz had to take off at 1 am for our second shift of legs. Darrell likens a 15 passenger van to a monte carlo indy car, so we made it there in record time with plenty of g-forces to churn up that pizza hut. When we got there…holy crap. After starting so far behind everybody, we had clearly caught up with the main pack. Galilee Christian Church, site of the most amazing midnight sandwiches on Earth, was Grand Central Station. The volunteers were having to stuff vans in like sardines, and we were one of the unlucky vehicles right next to where the runners were coming in. I did see they had a sleeping area inside, which was vaguely creepy with people camped out on the church pews. I opted to stay in the van since it was crowded in the church and freezing outside. Sleep, though, was an elusive beast. For one, we couldn’t figure out why the back light wouldn’t turn off, and deemed it must be an evil spirit cursing poor Julie, who had the seat right below it. In addition to the constant loud talkers/screamers of our fellow competitors, the main volunteer had a pair of lungs that would make Christina, Pharrell, Adam and Blake all turn around. Over and over again, I kept hearing what sure as hell sounded like “MY BOYS! COME INTO MY BOYS!”. It wasn’t until about a sleepless hour into this, with the whole van in a giggling delirium, that we realized BOYS was actually VOICE. He was directing people into the exchange zone, which was a confusing Times Square of lights in the middle of nowhere. Nonetheless, COME INTO MY BOYS became the unofficial rallying cry of Van 2 from then on.
About 12:30, Tracy came blazing into MY BOYS and Bitz took off like a mission. A few 7 minute miles later, poor Dan had to rock out a 9.75 miler in the middle of the night. I can’t imagine how much that must have sucked after the horrific climb of Mt St Matthews earlier. He crushed it in sub 6:30 pace and had more road kill than you could count. Meanwhile, I stood at the next exchange, cold and tired but dead set on improving my craptastic leg 1. I tried an espresso love GU, but only choked a little down before fearing a Pizza Hut reversal. Clemson was right there, listening to Eminem’s Lose Yourself, which I deemed must be classic rock to these guys. One of their girls took off about 8 or 9 minutes ahead of my start at about 2:30 am.
Leg 2 – NOT GOING GENTLY INTO THAT GOOD NIGHT – 5.6 miles – Hatchery Waterfowl Management Boat Landind to Berkeley Elementary School, Moncks Corner, SC
Despite my urge to seek revenge on leg 1, I made sure to not pull another 6:10 first mile like I probably did before. As usual, leg 2 is actually easier, because you’re not running completely cold. The 10k earlier seemed to make it easier to find my stride on this leg, which was a nearly flat and straight route on a lightly traveled highway. It being in the middle of nowhere and 2:30 am, this could have been a deadly boring run. Luckily, we were right in the midst of all the other teams at this point, giving plenty of lights up ahead to catch and keep me going. I think I must have passed about 10 people in the early miles, including one that called me by name. Turns out it was James Lichty, a guy I went to college with and running on a Columbia area F3 team. Cool to see a familiar face out here in the jet black darkness in the middle of the night. I hit mile 1 in 6:36 and just focused on maintaining this pace. Next few miles were metronome-like, 6:31 and 6:32’s. First 3 miles felt great, but suckage began in the last 2.5. I was hitting the same pace but laboring a lot more. But I’ll be damned if I was slowing down. Not when that next light may be Clemson girl. By the time mile 5 buzzed on my Garmin (another 6:31), I was begging for this misery to stop. Thankfully, Moncks Corner is beautifully flat and so straight that I could see the exchange zone forever. I was so gassed but seeing/hearing the zone poured enough adrenaline into my veins I was able to take down one last roadkill. OK, she was walking, but I have no shame. Passed off to Code and sucked wind like there’s no tomorrow. Except there was, and only 7 hours away. Code and Brandon kept up the strong pace with a couple of 4 milers, though Brandon survived a delayed colonic attack by the garlic knots just before his run. Rob then faced the most brutal task of our van. Having already done a 5:45 4 miler, he was going to have to do an 8 mile leg as the last of this shift, then another 8 miler as the first leg of our third shift only 4 hours later. He responded accordingly with a blazing 6:10 pace and picking up another ton of roadkill in the process. I’d like to say I cheered him at the finish, but it turns out I passed out in the van during his hour run. Don’t remember a thing. At least I got in some crucial Z’s though.
In my near comatose state, I felt Code racing the van again like Mario Andretti, all the way to Mount Pleasant, where we crashed out in Jennie Moore Elementary. We had finally gone through the entire pack and now had the school to ourselves and a few other vans. Without COMING INTO MY BOYS, we all crashed hard. There had been some talk of Waffle Housing it, but that idea lost out to pure, unmitigated exhaustion. One moment we were parking the van, then the next it was light out, probably an hour or so later. Just that little bit of sleep felt like heaven though. What was not like heaven was sitting up and realizing I had passed out with my neck in a weird position. Hurt like bloody hell. After a few seconds of terror, I realized it wasn’t going to affect my running. I pounded some ibuprofen, stuffed my face with my cinnamon raisin bread and drank the rest of the gallon of water I had been nursing all relay. It wasn’t pretty, but I was ready.
Brian let us know when their last runner, Tracy, was out on his run. He also let us know Clemson probably had 10-12 minutes on us. With that lead, and only 6 legs to go, it was looking grim. At least third was nowhere in sight. For some time we debated the “Blazing Eights” plan. As in phone in the rest at 8 minute pace – fast enough to keep 2nd and not kill us. But eventually Brian told us that “Anything can happen”, and none of us wanted to be the first one out there blazing those eights. Rob was really hurting but no one wanted to trade legs at this point. No way could I do an 8 miler. He sucked it up and headed out to the exchange zone. Waiting for him was Thunder thighs, and our hearts sank even more. Oh well, here we go.
Rob took off and we headed over the IOP connector to the exchange zone for my last leg. I always love this part of the relay -the sun has come up, and you can see the ocean from the connector, which is the site of my very first 5k in 2007 (IOP connector 5k – 27:05). Appropriately, I would be pulling another 5k for this 3rd leg, hopefully a bit faster than my last 3 miler on Isle of Palms. One of Clemson’s guys was there, who was really nice and informed us he was born in 1996. Damn that made me feel old. The Thighs came blasting in soon thereafter, having crushed 6 minute flat pace over the 8 miler and looking like he went out for a Sunday jog. Ten minutes later Rob rolled in, so amazingly we hadn’t lost any time against their best runner. Rob gets major kudos for doing those double 8 milers only a few hours apart.
LEG 3 – SPLITS AND S@$#^S – 2.95 miles – Sullivan’s Island
Knowing Rob hadn’t blazed eights, that Brian was counting on us, and embracing the immortal words of Thunder Dan Bliesner (“The faster you go, the sooner its over), I took off on a mission. And OMG it freaking hurt. I took off like a 5k but it was basically brain battling against my tortured lower body. 12 miles of 10k PR pace had exacted a heavy toll, not to mention an hour of sleep, a jacked up neck and a stomach tossed about by Code pulling G’s around every turn. Thankfully it was pancake flat and straight. I plowed ahead going absolutely as hard as I could go, hitting the same 6:30ish pace at a 6 flat effort. I almost got hit by a car on one of the 50 intersections, but managed to slide right behind it, too afraid to stop. By the mile 2 mark (6:30 again) I was really, really dying. Pretty much in agony, but the finish was so close I could feel it. Finally, I saw that beautiful EXCHANGE ZONE AHEAD sign, turned the corner, and I’ve never been so glad to see Brandon in my life. Redlined the finish to a 6:27 split and 6:30 overall. Unbelievably glad to be done. Complete toast.
As soon as my delirium passed, my teammates were buzzing about our deficit being down to only 4 minutes. Apparently the Clemson kid had some GI distress and was forced to run/walk the last bit. Hate that for him, from the words of El Capitan, “Anything can happen”.
And things did definitely happen. Leg 33 had a turnaround at the end of the island that had some very confusing signage. We took a wrong turn with the van and had to circle back around. I saw the Clemson girl heading backwards on the course, apparently lost. After a couple of other turnarounds we finally got back on course almost 20 minutes after Brandon started. We finally got to the Ben Johnson bridge from Sullivan’s to Mount Pleasant and we were all shocked. Brandon was up near the top and Clemson girl was about 100 meters BEHIND him. Sweet baby Jesus. As we crested the bridge, the whole van screamed at him to run as hard as he could, and he gave us a total WTF look. On the way to the exchange zone, Code and Bitz were all of a sudden super nervous and they agreed to swap legs, giving Code the longer 4.3 miler and Julie the 3.12 mile one, since Code was 6:45ish pace and Julie 7ish. Brandon came rolling in at just over 7 minute pace for his 5.8 miler and Julie took off like a girl on fire. Clemson came in a couple of minutes later and were none too pleased. They had a strong runner in their next leg and we knew it was going to be close from now on. We followed Julie onto Coleman blvd and by chance van 1 was parked right nearby – she had the whole team screaming for her at once. She ended up throwing down a 5k almost as fast as a fresh legged one – 6:45ish pace. Pretty amazing for a leg 3. Code went off on leg 35, a 4.3 miler over the bridge into Charleston. Clemson was super close, only about a minute and a half behind. Same blonde girl who kicked my ass on leg 1. In the meantime, Brian informed us Clemson had filed a complaint that Brandon had cut the course short. Brandon admitted to a misdirect but swore he got back on course without cutting it short. He doesn’t wear a Garmin, or any watch for that matter, so it was our word against theirs. The race director would have to wait and see the outcome before making a ruling. As you might expect, we were less than pleased with this turn of events, and there was definitely some unspoken tension at the last exchange zone, with our 2 teams the first to arrive. After several nervous minutes, we erupted when Code pulled into view around the corner. We had Dan, one of our fastest, on the anchor leg – a 5.35 miler back over the bridge into Patriots Point. We waited to see how much a lead he would have – their anchor runner looked strong. We waited…and waited…and waited. Twelve minutes went by. Something was definitely wrong – either the girl completely bonked, or more likely, was lost. Clemson took off on a search party for her as we piled into the van and sped off for the finish. We were at Patriots Point for only about ten minutes when Dan comes blazing in , catching us off guard. We missed the team finish but we crossed in 23 hours and 4 minutes, a 6:45 overall pace. A huge pace PR for our team. We waited anxiously at the line, fearing that a close finish would force the director into making a tough judgement call about their complaint. But it was not to be. Clemson showed up 39 minutes later, and the complaint was moot. We were champions once again!
OK, so this was obviously not the way I would have liked it to go down. I wouldn’t wish poop attacks and misdirects on anyone. I was hoping that after the screwy leg 33 that it would be a real battle to the finish, but them getting lost again negated any of that. They definitely had a faster team, but I guess the combined experience doing the relay for all these years finally paid off. To their credit, Clemson was gracious in defeat. It was a sweet win nonetheless, and my hat goes off once gain to our fearless leader, El Capitan, for masterminding another P200 championship!