P200 time again! Everyone who knows me through running knows my deep affection for relays, and this event is the pinnacle of them all. What started as Brian Clyburn’s crazy idea on the Runner’s World message forums in 2009 morphed into 8 consecutive years of relay awesomeness, culminating in back to back overall P200 championships the last two years.
For those of you unfamiliar, the Palmetto 200 is a (roughly) 200 mile relay starting in Columbia and finishing in Charleston, with its first year in 2010. A full team has twelve people running relay legs of 2-10 miles, usually in 2 separate vans. Total distance per person is in the 12-24 mile range for the full team. There are also ultra teams with fewer people, even an occasional 2 person squad that is completely nuts. They stagger the starting times by projected pace so that everyone arrives in Charleston on Saturday afternoon.
It’s amazing to me that my team, Van on the Run, is still doing this thing after our initial year in 2010. Back then the relay was from April 30-May 1 and was brutally hot. We actually got a hotel room to spend all of 2 hours in at the midpoint. Brian’s wife, Jen, got sick off dirty hotel water. I about went to the ER on a 80 degree 8 miler , then caught the walksies and had visual hallucinations on a pitch black road in Huger, SC at 5 in the morning. I swore a thousand times I’d never do it again.
But here we were for relay number eight. We’ve had a number of dropouts over the years, so the only original gangstas are myself, Bryan, Joel Pierstorrf and David McNiece. Once the workhorses of the 2010 team, we have slowly gotten knocked down the speed totem pole even though we ourselves have gotten faster. That’s because our sensei, Brian “El Capitan” Clyburn, is also a master recuiter, in addition to his stellar relay spreadsheet skills. Every time we lose someone, Brian comes back with some absolute beast to replace them. We had Brandon drop off the team this year only to be replaced with ultra distance machine Brian Kistner. Julie had to work, so CRC racing legend Geary McAlister rejoined the group. VOTR doesn’t recruit, we just reload.
Also on our team : Tracy McKinnon – strong road racer turned into ultramarathoner mileage-junkie beast , Kevin Selinsky – who did the brutal Columbia Marathon in just over 3 hours on a whim after no one could handle the 3:15 pace group on the first half, Jen Clyburn – Brian’s wife and routine overall and masters winner in local races. She can also do the fastest 7 miler you can imagine after vomiting all night on nasty hotel water. Dan Carter – whose garmin connect daily workouts look like my races. He ran a sub 18 hilly as hell 5k (See Spot Run) with Brian’s dog taking multiple water stops. Rob Gannett – who blazed Kiawah 2016 in 3 :01 to BQ once again, and lets not forget Darrell “Code Brown” Brown – longtime friend/nemesis and destroyer of portapotties across the state.
I was thankful to be back in Van 1 again this year. Van 1 starts first, has 2 legs during quasi-normal waking hours, and finishes up early on Saturday. Joining me was the Code, Rob, Dan, Geary and Kistner. Brian had asked me to do 6:50 pace. I thought I could do faster, but I didn’t dare let on. Letting down El Capitan on the spreadsheet feels like the worst kind of failure. Everytime I miss my pace I feel like a kindergartener facing their kind, but secretly disapproving , dad. Plus, what sounds like a good plan with a beer on the couch is something completely different at 4:30 am on the roads.
The biggest change for me leading up to this year was Capitan switching up my original 10.5 mile first leg and giving it to Kistner. Hmm, replacing your sasquatchean 5k specialist with a leaner and faster ultra guy on a hilly 10 miler?? Good call, dude.
After last year’s showdown with the Clemson Thundercats, I knew it could get crazy and stressful again, and sure enough we were the only two teams at the latest start time: 12:30. Unless there was some serious sandbagging in the 11:00 group, it would be just the two of us battling it out again for the win. It’s an odd matchup for sure: A bunch of mostly 40+ Carolina grads ruled by an OCD-exact relay spreadsheet in gleaming big vans going up against Clemson students packed into several minivans and cars making it up as they go along. Our biggest fear: “Thunderthighs”. The kid with super hero-esque jacked quads with the intensity of Darrell on cocaine that throws down sub 5:30 pace. We could match up against most of the kids, but there was no answer for him. His real name is Mike, but where’s the fun in that? Anyway, he was back again. Ruh -roh.
The start this year was again in Red Bank Arena in the Lexington area. Code Brown drew the unlucky straw of going first. With just 2 teams, it was basically a one-on-one footrace for the first 6.76 miles with everyone watching. A brutally hilly 6.76 miler I might add, with a blazing sun and unseasonably warm 70-something degrees. Code took the early lead but Clemson’s guy turned it on the second half to give them about a 2 minute advantage.It was good to see Char Richards (Barefoot John’s wife) at the first exchange zone, who presented me with a present of toilet paper from John’s dad. Two years ago John’s dad, Andy, saved me from a portapotty nightmare with some emergency TP. I am still forever grateful. Char was doing 2 volunteer shifts and would probably be up from 4:30 am past midnight. I wondered what my wife would say if I asked her to do that. Probably something involving the letter “F” and the word “NO”. Kistner then launched into leg 2, the aforementioned 10.5 miler. With hills, dirt roads, vicious ankle-biting dogs and zero shade, I’ve never been so appreciative of El Capitan giving this opportunity to Kistner instead. Sweet baby J that looked awful. He still rocked it out in under 6:45 pace, and handed off to Dan for his shortest leg, a 3.3 miler. After Kistner, Dan and Rob, our three fastest guys in Van 1, we had made up the gap on Clemson and had actually taken a small lead. Dan passed their fastest girl (Double Braids, aka Sydney) on his leg, and Rob had actually fended off the Thunderthighs, who luckily (for us) got caught in traffic for a bit. The heat seemed to be getting worse and the sun was killer. The first cycle of legs is always toughest with the hills of the midlands, but this seemed even worse than previous years. Geary had his longest leg for number 5, a 7.6 miler. Clemson girl “Strawberry Blonde” was not far behind and kept closing the gap early on. She was only 20 seconds or so behind when we gave him water with 3 miles to go. Well , at least I would have someone to chase. Or not! As I stood ready to attack my 6.25 miler, Geary surprises me by rounding the corner first. As I took the relay bracelet, I saw Clemson’s girl round the corner as well. Oh no, PLEASE DONT LET ME GET CHICKED.
With the brutal heat, I pushed all vanity aside and got out my black and gold Team Utopia singlet for extra ventilation. They say you need to wear a reflective vest for safety in this relay, but my alabaster guns hadn’t seen the light of day since August, so I figured they would suffice in the reflective department. In some bizarre karmic twist, the girl I was going up against was also wearing a black and gold singlet, from the Irmo High Cross Country team, my alma mater. I wasn’t sure, but I’d place a good bet she graduated SLIGHTLY after me.
I told myself to take it easy because this leg actually had a warning about a mountain in the second half. But the first half was downhill, I had an unheard-of three days of rest, and I was jacked up on coffee, coke and relay excitement. 6:36 out of the gate. Nice job, hero. Some rolling hills ensued and I was starting to feel the heat. Dialed it back to my 6:50 target. About 2.5 miles in I started to freak – looming in the distance was Mt. Sandy Run, a seemingly never-ending peak of misery. What’s worse, I thought I could hear blonde haired Irmo footsteps behind me. Catastrophic thoughts of getting chicked and catching the walksies filled my over-sized head. Got some much needed water at the base of the mountain and attacked it the best I could. Felt like a punch to the lungs and my quads started drawing up a lactic acid bath. I would say I was bleeding seconds off my pace but this was more like a traumatic hemorrhage. 7:20, 7:52. Just crawling up 2 miles of fairly continuous incline. Even the Thundercats looked concerned about this powder-white gorilla hyperventilating up the road. Miraculously though, Irmo girl was fading. I passed the Clemson van waiting for their runner and I couldn’t even hear her come through behind me. Thankfully the last 1.2 miles are fairly flat and I managed to jack the pace back up a little. Tracy took the bracelet and Van 1 was officially done for the first cycle around 4 pm.
While I had been spared the 10.5 miler , the reshuffling left me with only about a 4 1/2 hour rest between my first (leg 6) and second (leg 13) legs. I was pretty much toast after the traumatic mountain climbing of Leg 1, so I went to full emergency recovery mode. We made a pit stop at Cracker Barrel and got some chicken fingers, green beans and mashed potatoes. The big reason for my uber bonk of the initial 2010 relay was not eating regular food. You can’t sustain race pace for three distance runs with little sleep on crackers and GU. Some of the other guys had some gorgefest called Uncle Hershel’s Special. Uncle Hershel must weigh 400 pounds. We went to Santee State Park for the next van exchange and I managed to crash a bit in my ENO hammock, a very nice trick learned from previous teammate Ty Thomas. Apparently everyone else caught on because it was a hammock city in that place.
Between trying to watch the Gamecocks sweet sixteen game against Baylor on a cell phone, we got news that Van 2 was crushing it and that Clemson had gotten delayed by going off course. We still had a decent lead by the time Bryan came cruising in to Santee a little after 9 pm. My 4.2 miler (Santee State Park to Lone Star BBQ – Leg 13) was considerably nicer than the first leg. A little bit of incline but a lot flatter and probably 20 degrees cooler. Legs were pretty trashed so I tried to ease into mile 1 and missed the 6:50 by ten seconds. After sending a few F bombs into the abyss of the jet black forest, I kicked it up a notch. Luckily we had started catching up to earlier teams, so I was able to start chasing blinky lights to help my motivation. The early teams are just out for fun (imagine that) and are usually pretty nice, even to sweaty huffing and puffing albino freight trains passing them in the night. A guy at the Leg 13 Santee park exchange didn’t even seem mad when his teammates weren’t there to make the baton pass (they were still eating at Lone Star). That would be an offense punishable by death on our team.
I managed to loosen up the sore as hell hammies after the first mile and reel off some 6:40’s and 6:30’s to come in right at 6:47 pace before the handoff to the Code. It wasn’t pretty, but I’ll take it for a 10 mile double dip less than 5 hours apart. Code’s leg ran through Santee, though this year they diverted the course around the main traffic center. Fortunately we still got to sample the local scenery such as the one-stop erotica duo of Fantasy Land adult shop and the Gentlemen’s Club. Two for one DVDs! Code was surely tempted but managed to avoid his baser instincts and power through a very dark and lonely stretch. As we waited for Darrell, Clemson’s van drove up and I could tell they were getting ready to unleash Double Braids and Thunderthighs upon us again. Damn, this was going to be rough. Fortunately we had 2 of our best going with Dan and Kistner. Dan crushed 8.83 miles at his goal pace and I thought that would give us a nice lead, but damned if Double Braids comes gliding in less than 4 minutes later. Thunderthighs, who had been warming up with Mach 3 sprints in the parking lot for seemingly 30 minutes, takes off like his life depends on it. He was then renamed as “T-1000”, the human cyborg. Things looked grim. Sure enough, 7.44 miles later, going up against Kistner doing 6:20ish pace with a few minutes head start, T-1000 rolls in like 4 minutes ahead. Like I said, the kid is not human. I think we calculated like 5:15 pace for that leg for him. Geary then threw down a nice 2.43 mile sprint. Then Rob pulled a miserably dark 9.6 miler into the middle of nowhere, fending off the after effects of Uncle Hershel’s Favorite from the Cracker Barrel. He took down a lot of roadkill but we were still a few minutes behind Clemson with the handoff to Jen and Van 2, about 1 am.
With four hours between now and the third cycle of legs starting at 5 am, we headed to the next van turnover site. Geary made his plea for some awful Waffle, but his quest for the scattered, smothered and covered was vetoed by the possibility of some sleep. Sleep is like relay gold, if you can get an hour or two it is pure heaven. By this time we had caught up with everyone and it was pretty chaotic at the turnover site. A sea of white vans, tents and sleeping bags. It was nice that they displaced the actual exchange zone from where most of the vans were, since most of my attempts at relay sleep are quashed by screaming and incoming runners’ endorphin-fueled loud talkeritis. This place was a graveyard though – dead quiet. I usually try the sleeping bag but it gotten into the 40’s and it was either freeze or be cramped in the van. I spent about 30 minutes trying to sleep, though our van makers had positioned the seat belt just so it made unwanted sexual advances everytime I moved. Eventually I must have gotten used to spooning with the randy seatbelt because I lost about an hour and a half of time. I would have slept longer, but Code was already pregaming for his next leg and making a crap ton of noise. At some time I heard what sounded like the ghost of barefoot John Richards but apparently he did actually make an appearance at our van.
I’d like to say my power nap was refreshing but it took me a good hour to enter the world of the living again. I tried to choke down some Coke but the brain was desperate for some coffee, and there’s little to be had at 5 am in the middle of nowhere. Somehow we had regained a small lead on Clemson but it was pretty tight. Code had a super short leg for his last one (2.43 miles – leg 25) and rocked out a 6:30 something pace, but said he got Blue Shoed by the same Clemson guy who beat him in leg 1. Geary also rocked out a 3.76 miler and kept us close. Next up was the Huger fire station leg, the same leg that about killed me in 2010. We ran into 2016 Tour de Columbia champion Shawanna White at the exchange zone – she was running with an FiA team (Chain of Fools) with Pamela Knapp and some other fast Cola town ladies, competing for the female crown. Yeah, I’m pretty sure that wasn’t close. Clemson sent off Double Braids while Rob took off like a maniac for us only a couple of minutes behind. I was starting to wake up by now and Rob looked really strong into a 7.47 mile leg. We were hoping Dan might have a few minute lead to hold off T-1000 for a while, but somehow Double Braids came rolling into the exchange zone first. Rob was close behind, but this girl was damn fast to hold off “Ricky Bobby”‘s 6:20ish shake and bake pace. Dan then had an 8 miler through the Francis Marion swamp. Although probably our strongest runner, no way was he going to pull down the 5:20’s needed just to match Clemson’s cyborg. Plus, Dan was also logging the last of his 20+ miles. While I awaited Dan’s arrival for my leg, I was so thankful to be at my favorite exchange zone, the Sewee Outpost. Though I normally go for their heavenly sausage biscuits, I didn’t think that was a wise pre-run idea. Instead I crushed a 12 oz of one of their leaded coffees and felt instantly better.
I got to the exchange zone area pretty early, which was just early enough to see the handoff to Clemson’s strawberry blonde. I thought I could potentially catch her, but she ended up having about a 5 minute head start into a 4.6 miler. I took off into my last leg on a mission. Legs were sore as crap, but I had to at least give our last runners a chance, and as VOTR veteran Dan Bliesner always said “the quicker you go the quicker its over”. I had a van following me for awhile at the start and thought I was being hunted down until I realized it was Jesse Harmon from the Run Hard races, competing with his Hebrews: 12 team. Lots of Columbia runners in the P200 this year! Last leg (Leg 29) was about as simple as you can get – 4.6 miles straight down Highway 17, basically flat. I managed to take down the three teams in between us and Clemson in the first 2 miles, and started getting grandiose delusions of taking down Strawberry Blonde as well. But it was not going to happen. I was going 100 percent 8k pace and only getting 6:40’s in return. I rolled into the exchange zone at Mach 5 and found out I had maybe cut only a minute off the deficit. These kids were not fooling around this time. However, I was most certainly done, and few things feel better than finishing your last leg.
Or were we done? We were already started on some serious calorie replacement at our traditional stop at the Mt Pleasant IHOP when Dan got a call from El Capitan. Tracy had just obliterated an 8 miler over the IOP connector and had turned an 8 minute deficit into like a three minute advantage. Apparently one of Clemson’s dudes had bonked super hard and had to be replaced, but not before Tracy had left him in the dust. With only a few legs left, the possibility of a last minute switch with one of the Van 1 studs came into play. Fortunately for me, I was not one of those studs, had about a 1000 calories of eggs and sausage in my gullet, and would just as gladly be stabbed in the eye than run anymore. This was not the case for Dan, Rob and Kistner, who could potentially shave some valuable minutes off our time. The IHOP gorgefest got cut short for our top three, though Code was noted to set a Kobeyashi-esque feat of breakfast indulgence with his strawberry topped cheesecake pancakes.
We showed up at the exchange zone after the Ben Sawyer bridge to catch the action, where I ran into Maria Huff volunteering. CRC representing everywhere! The race was tight again. Van 2 had done some late switching like we did last year. Kevin had agreed to take the 2.97 mile leg on Sullivan’s Island originally assigned to Joel, while Joel took Jen’s 4.2 miler across the Ben Sullivan bridge. Taking four legs or a longer third leg definitely qualifies both for HERO status. We saw Brian off for his 3 something miler, but Clemson was hot on his tail only a couple of minutes behind. We sped down to the Ravenel bridge after this. After some discussion, it was decided for David to take his leg, since he had low mileage under his belt and all our Van 1 beasts were sitting at 20+. The IHOP breakfast could now settle. Kevin would take his originally assigned, now 4th, leg for the last 4 plus miles into the finish at Patriot Park. The Leg 35 start was nuts. We see Clemson’s guy rolling into the last stretch with Brian just a few steps behind. With the handoff, Clemson had maybe 10 seconds, with one of their female runners. David is a strong runner, but he admitted his training has been low mileage recently, so I didn’t know what to think . Plus, leg 35 starts with a brutal climb over the Ravenel Bridge and into Charleston (with leg 36 back over the bridge into Patriot Park). Since everyone was headed back our way eventually, we left the zone and headed straight over to the Patriot Park finish. I was so nervous, I had to consume 2 beers to wash down my breakfast. Very important. Van 2 texted us as our last runners took off on the final leg. David had managed to pass the Clemson girl, but a mere 20 seconds separated our teams. Kevin had over 20 miles already, and they had one of their strong guys running. It was going to be close. Both teams waited nervously at the finish, though Van 2 mentioned the Clemson guy was killing it up the bridge and in the lead. Still, Kevin is a machine, so there was still hope. Finally, our hearts sank when Clemson pulled into the last turn and they all crossed the line for the win. Kevin appeared just over a minute later, and we all crossed with him a mere 102 seconds behind the Thundercats – 23:05 to 23:07. Put another way, about 82800 seconds to 82698. Pretty nuts. Well, at least you can’t ask for much more drama. I half expected a sprint to the finish on a 23 hour relay. A big congrats to the Thundercats on their win – guess there will be another Battle Royale in 2018!