Palmetto 200 #10
A few months ago, I got a surprise text from the esteemed leader of our Palmetto 200 team, Brian “El Capitan” Clyburn. He was calling a secret meeting with the old guard, the original 4 dudes who had done every Palmetto 200 for Van on the Run since 2010. This band of diehards included Joel “Let me take a selfie” Pierstorff and David “Dmac” McNiece. It seems Brian had hatched a plan to have not one, but two VOTR teams for 2019. On one team, we were going back to our roots, with a coed squad that, while not competing for the overall win, could be competitive in the mixed category. The other team would be a competitive ultra team with 6 people. Somehow, when given the decision between less miles and more women versus double the miles and 5 other dudes, I chose the latter. What the hell was I thinking? Apparently, Brian’s plea to my ginormous ego to be on the competitive team worked. Nicely played, El Capitan.
Fast forward to race week, and I am deeply, deeply regretting my ultra team decision. Mount Mitchell had laid waste to my March. Apparently you don’t bounce back from a 37 mile race like a 5k. Especially when you turn 44 that month. Go figure. Anyway, my right knee has been a little wonky since, oh, I don’t know, the 19 miles of pounding down from the highest peak in the eastern US. Did I mention I got thrown into the singles spot for my tennis team on P200 week? Yeah, that was a poor decision too. So in a situation where my legs were of questionable speed and endurance, I was going to throw down 31.5 miles at 7:30 pace. FANTASTIC. But hey, once you’ve committed to a 6 man ultra team, there is no going back. One, you drop out and your teammates get an extra 50k to share. And two, the pool of potential replacements for someone willing to take a day off from work and spend it running 30+ miles at a hard pace while barely sleeping is exceedingly small. So for better or worse, I was locked in. We had a strong team. Harvested from our original VOTR team was 1:19 half marathoner Rob Gannett, sub 3 marathoner Kevin Selinsky, and local masters beast/1:20 half marathoner and Lake tomahawk shirtless relay champ Michael Nance. Although the aforementioned ultra relay replacement pool is minimal, it is not zero, and Harbison trail runner/ultra beast Bill Siebers gamely filled in when Dean Schuster had to bail several weeks ago.
The VOTR mixed team looked good too. While they had lost our traditional speed demons Rob, Dan and Selinsky, they got some pretty fast women to pick up the slack. Trail machine/HTR runners Alfie Hipps and Jill Hinely, 2017 HTR “Scrotum of the Year” winner Julie McKinnon, and elite road racer turned trail runner Megan Weis were recruited. Jen Clyburn, who has run the fastest 7 mile leg post hotel water poisoning ever, along with speed demon/FBI agent/new momma Julie Bitzel were our original ladies. Julie said her mom was irritated that I wouldn’t be able to blog about her team this year. My apologies, Mrs. Bitzel. Our guys included Formula One van driving/disturbed colon/f bomb prone Darrell Brown, Geary “Gandalf” McAlister, David “perpetually sleeveless” McNeice, Trey McCain, Joel and Brian. There was not one but two beautiful, color-coded VOTR spreadsheets. I’m sure it took him hours, but knowing Brian’s OCD tendencies, he probably loved every minute of it.
Quick primer on the Palmetto 200. It’s a 200 mile relay from the Columbia area to Charleston, styled on the Hood to Coast relay in Oregon. Traditionally it’s 12 people, each running 3 legs of anywhere from 2 to 10 miles on each leg. There is an ultra division for teams of 6 or less. P200 started in 2010 with us and about 40 other teams, and now it has grown to 150. VOTR was fortunate to take home the 2015 and 2016 overall wins, though the increased popularity of the race and our aging members are going to make another win pretty tough. The teams have staggered start times, with the slowest going off at Friday at 4:30 am and the fastest at 1 pm. Teams usually finish in 21 to 36 hours, typically in the late morning and early afternoon of Saturday.
I think the full team had a 7:45 projected pace so they still had a 11 am start, and our ultra team was scheduled for 7:02 pace (oh jeezus) and a 12 pm start. Made for a leisurely morning, which is nice when you’re facing the prospect of very little sleep in the next 24 hours. The 10 minute + pace teams may not be setting speed records, but they are troopers for having to be up before TWO sunrises.
Being a bundle of nervous energy, I got there just after 10, also so I could see the other team off. I made a last-second plea to get Trey to switch to the ultra, but no dice. Team shirts for the ultra were grey on black, earning our unofficial name of the Night’s Watch. Dan Carter was our Jon Snow, and he had devised what we hoped would be a good plan. Instead of running every 6th leg, we were divided into three two person teams, where we would do 4 legs (2 per person) before passing on to the next mini-team. This would give us at least 8 legs between having to run again instead of five. The idea was the opportunity, between runs, to get some rest, eat somewhere or dare I say, even sleep. Yeah…we’ll get to that.
I saw the full team off at 11 and we then had a chance to size up some of the competition. Our starting time the second latest/fastest and the last one that had any ultra teams, so the ultra winner would likely come from our group. Our main competition appeared to be an F3 team called Clandestine SOBs, which had a nearly identical proposed pace of just over 7 minutes per mile. The chances of our full team taking the mixed title also appeared slim, because Strictly Running’s Ashley Hrubala, 2018 beer mile champ, had put together a beastly mostly female team with Liz Locke, Mackenzie Jordan and a few other ringers, along with Brady Rafanan and a couple of other guys.
With the 12 pm start, Dan took off like a machine and we were off. Where we were off to was definitely a question in the first few legs. The course had been altered quite a bit from years past and we were definitely in some places I had never seen. On the plus side, the new exchange zones, which were typically churches, had gone all out on the hospitality front. People were handing out water and food and most importantly, access to real bathrooms. Once you’ve navigated the microbiologic terror zone of portapotties, having running water is like the Ritz Carlton. Dan and Bill set the tone early and crushed legs 1-4. We were way ahead of the spreadsheet and my anxiety about potentially bringing the team down was ramping up. Nance was being eyed by a pack of hungry dogs to start his first leg, which may explain why he blasted it out even harder. He had perhaps the suckiest of the opening legs with a stretch of some thick sand on a dirt road. I was deathly afraid of a repeat of the 2012 blue ridge relay, where our van was stuck for hours before a tow truck could come. As I was driving, I tried to plow through the sand hard and almost lurched over into Nance in the process. Running over your teammate would definitely be poor form – think of all those miles to make up!
Fortunately Michael survived and handed off to Kevin, and by the time their second exchange happened we were already catching up with the VOTR full team. We were definitely not saving up for the long haul. We saw Trey take off from Mt Beulah church for leg 7, and Selinsky came rolling in just a few minutes later. Trey blasted through his leg to keep us at bay, but by the time Kevin and Michael had finished their legs, we were close again.
Finally, Rob and I got to run. I basically had to get ready while Kevin was on his leg, because Rob started off with a 1.88 miler. Dan had sadistically given Rob over 18 miles in the middle of the night, so he at least got to start off early. I was waiting at the exchange when Alfie told me something about a 5 dollar bet as to who would get passed by the ultra team. Meg handed off to Alfie and not more than 2 minutes later, here comes Rob “Ricky Bobby” Gannett. Dude had a 7 minute pace written down and I think he finished leg 9 in 5:50 something. With the handoff, I launch into my first leg, a 6.54 mile jaunt just outside of St Matthews. As soon as I took off, I was relieved that the knee seemed to be OK. Perhaps all that foam roller love making and manic piriformis stretching had paid off. My set pace was 7:30, so I tried to settle into a nice quick cadence. First mile 7 flat. DAMN IT. I was setting myself up for a major bonk if I continued with this. I tried to back it off some, but after I froggered across a highway I could see Alfie in the distance. Don’t chase her down, don’t be an idiot….when all of a sudden I hear footsteps. WTF?? Sure enough, the SOB’s lean beast clandestinely comes by me and my ego can’t handle it. I manage to keep up with him for awhile, but soon decide this is a recipe for disaster, so I let him go. Damn these clandestine SOBs. Middle miles are like 6:59, 7:06, 6:50. I can’t seem to find 7:30, which makes sense since I either run sub 7 pace or my 9:30 slog jog training runs. I make one last turn about 2 miles from the finish and then I remember. This damn leg finishes on the St Matthews mountain, that freak of SC geography that gives everybody a bad case of the relay walksies. At least the exchange zone was now just halfway up it, our usual vantage point to make fun of whatever poor sap on our van had to run it (for the record it was me last year). After the turn with the full team van spectating at the corner, I ramp it up and finally overtake Alfie, hopefully earning someone 5 bucks. It’s not easy because she is pulling sub 8 pace herself. The last quarter mile of this leg is pure hell, as I charge up the mountain, fearful Alfie is going to get her five dollars back. The team with the driver in full clown costume is hiding in the woods at the roadside and I swear I’m in A bad stephen king IT remake. I come flying into the finish and hand off to Rob. I missed the first 0.75 miles on my Garmin, so pace was probably a hair under 7 minutes. Because that’s 50k pace, right? Nice job, hero.
And with Rob doing a 4 miler next, I basically jump into our van a sweaty mess, and immediately head for the next exchange zone. There I see Code warming up, and he’s going next for the full team. Damn, I’m going to get overtaken by my own archrival. I down some water and do some of my ridiculous piriformis/IT band acrobatics, and an excruciatingly short time later, Gannett comes rolling into the zone. I’m now off on leg 12, a 5.58 miler through the town of St Matthews. It’s hard to imagine but I’ve somehow managed to get stiff in like 25 minutes. Fortunately my initial awkward gait holds me to a more reasonable 7:25 and I try to hold that. I’m in a good place for about 3 miles until Trey pulls up in the full van and says CODE IS LIKE 2 MINUTES BEHIND YOU. @#$@$! There goes my Bob Ross happy place. I try ramping it up a bit, but damned if these hidden hills pop up out of nowhere. I swear I saw nothing on the elevation chart. The next 2 miles are pretty much on pace, though I am running from the ghost of Code, who I imagine on my heels at any minute. Finally there’s a long straightway for the last half mile, and I kick it in a little to make sure I don’t get Darrelled. As soon as I finish, Trey says he lied to me and that Code was probably actually 5 minutes behind. He still made major time on me, doing his leg in 6:30 rather than my 7:30. But hey, he doesn’t have 20 more miles to go.
It’s about this time that I realize the ultra team struggle is real. It’s gotten dark, and the couple of thousand calories I’ve burned are gnawing a hole in my stomach. With the full team you have plenty of time to go get some food – the Santee Cracker Barrel or Waffle House has been a mainstay of VOTR. But there’s no way with one van and everybody completing their legs in under an hour. I am forever thankful I got two subs at the Red Bank subway at the start, because I start wolfing down the second one like a hungry raccoon after my second leg. Dan opted out of the second sub and started cramping in his fourth leg, just after Rob and I did our first two. We had to make an emergency BACONATOR run for Dan to the Santee Wendy’s, which was desperately trying to close after being descended upon by an onslaught of ravenous sweaty people. After the baconator run, our relay was almost waylaid by my gas station soda purchase getting blocked by two very drunk guys slowly buying cigarettes and lottery tickets. Such are the perils of rural SC. Fortunately we made it back just in time to beat Selinsky to the next exchange. In the midst of the chaos, I had a haunting revelation that , in addition to lack of food, ain’t nobody going to sleep in this thing. At least I wouldn’t. With my Sasquatch physique, I need to sleep outside the van, and as we were basically constantly moving, that wasn’t happening. As far as the actual race, we still seemed to be making good time, though we weren’t banking any more time against the spreadsheet. But honestly, we weren’t entirely sure since survival was the operative word by this stage.
My big gulp pepsi seemed to provide me with a much needed boost as Nance and Selinsky were out for a couple of 8 and 7 milers. I saw Deogracias out there talking about his 5:30 pace legs, though I think he was out of place with his 9 minute pace team. I was surprised how awake I was since I struggle to make it past 10 pm on most nights. I know, such is my wild and crazy suburban middle aged dad life. My second batch of legs was mercifully short, only a 2.4 and a 4.6 miler near Holly Hill, but really in the epicenter of nowhere. My legs were basically shot already, just really tight. And damn, it was cold. It think under 40 degrees. Thankfully Dan was staying with us at the exchange so I could give him my hoodie at the last second, even while battling the toxic colonic effects of the baconator. My third leg was at 1:30 am and I am sure I looked ridiculous lurching off the start. Even with all my stretching and trying to get loose, it was definitely a tin man effect trying to get up to pace. I might have normally done low 6 pace on this tiny leg, but it took all my effort to manage a 7:36 first mile. I managed to loosen up somewhat and was at 7:16 my the end, but the whole thing was over in 18 minutes. Poor Rob then had a 9.6 miler ahead of him. We made our way to the next exchange zone, Galilee Christian church, home of the best 5 dollar ham sandwiches ever. The other guys got a little sleep. Of course I had to run as soon as Rob finished. I managed to doze off a little but I had to set an alarm. I left the van early to avoid waking the guys but I was freezing my ass off outside. I did some stretching and tried to warm up some, but yeah, it was 3 am and cold and all my body wanted to do was curl up in the corner. I forced myself to go up to the exchange zone a little early, but literally the second I got there, here comes Rob. Dammit Ricky Bobby, too much shaking and baking out there! I threw off my hoodie and gave it to Rob as I took off into the night again. This felt even worse than before, basically the brain trying to veto the overwhelming consensus from the rest of my body that this was an exceedingly bad idea. First mile was an epic struggle bus, giving me a 7:53 split. Though pretty fast for a peg legged speed hobble. At some point in mile 2 things loosened up and I actually felt ok, as this leg was pretty much pool table flat. The knee was holding up and there were plenty of other teams to take down. And apparently one of those easy targets was me. Despite turning in a 7:17 for mile 3, I’m hearing damn footsteps again. WTF?? Some guy surges past me and I of course try to follow. Apparently I’m high on the mania of no sleep and not much food and I manage to tail him for a while in a 7:10 4th mile. But then he puts the hammer down and leaves me for dead. I’m not sure what team he was on but Strava says I ran with BRIAN TUMA for that leg, with him rocking a 6:36 pace. Well played, Mr. Tuma. I was just hoping he wasn’t one of those Clandestine SOBs. I hand off to Rob, who then has another 8.8 miles – just brutal. After Rob, Dan took off on his last set of legs from the insane exchange zone of “Hatchery Waterfowl Management”. It was like a war zone in there, with the object not to run over people or get your van blocked. Somehow I had become the driver again, probably because I was so jacked from my 4th leg.
Dan and Bill were doing great, but at some point I was not. 5:30 am hit and I was going down hard. Selinsky mercifully took over driving duties and I zonked into a coma for a while in the back. It was painfully short but it was just enough to keep me going. I couldn’t bear the thought I had almost a half marathon to go. I managed to choke down some raisin bread and animal crackers as my “breakfast”, but we were too out of the way for a coffee run. I woke up to see some daylight and Nance do his version of the tin man starting his leg 6. I knew he and Kevin had super short final legs, so I was going to be back in the rotation real soon. Dan and Siebers were in great spirits, as they were done. Dear mother of God I was tired.
As luck would have it, my 5th leg was 7.5 miles, and the same leg in 2010 (the first P200) where I had hallucinations and a bad case of the walksies. I was definitely afraid of a repeat performance. My only saving grace was that this time it was daylight (9 am) and it had at least warmed up to the 40’s. I was insanely stiff once again and again struggled to a 7:51 first mile. Thankfully the course evened out after an initial slow incline. Somehow my legs remembered the 7:30 pace again and I just plowed ahead. There was a pack of five people I caught in the first 2 miles and then it was just me and the course. I knew at this time that the SOBs were a good six minutes ahead, so short of a repeat of 2016 (where I made up 3 minutes on a Clemson Thundercat because he caught a case of the poopsies, then the next runner got lost), we weren’t running for glory anymore. Just finish. I was locked in like a braindead zombie for the final 5 miles (final 4 splits 7:30/7:31/7:33/7:32) with a thousand yard stare and nothing on my mind other than finding that exchange zone. I was so glad to make that last turn and see Rob waiting for me. I even “kicked it in” for a 7:23 pace half mile. That was all I had.
Poor Rob, having endured 19 miles in the middle of the night, had to face another 8.1 right after I finished. Our next exchange zone was at the Sewee outpost, home of the best coffee and sausage biscuit ever. Unfortunately, they moved the zone to the end of their long driveway, and I just didn’t have the energy to try and walk that far and get my coffee fix. I did some more stretching in the grass, but it was clear my body was revolting on all fronts regarding the idea of running again. But I had 4.86 miles to go, basically straight up highway 17 after a 1 mile loop in a neighborhood.
Rob killed the 8 miler in well under an hour and once again I was out on the course. I had to cross highway 17 , which was definitely sketch in the condition I was in. Fortunately or unfortunately I hit a break in the traffic and went straight across. Once in the neighborhood I was definitely hurting, but it was relatively flat and hey, this was my last leg, how hard could it be? Apparently, extremely and excruciatingly. I was ok through the neighborhood loop, but after mile 1 (a stiff legged 7:59) you get thrown out onto the shoulder of highway 17. It’s now close to 11 am, its warming up, the road is a constant slight incline, but the worst is the damn wind. Straight into my face. Punctuated by cars going 55 mph+ a few feet to my right. I focus on chasing a guy in front of me, who finally just starts walking. I trade a “THIS LEG SUCKS” with him saying something about it being A DEATHTRAP. Or maybe that was just my sleep deprived brain. Who knows. The road felt like it went on forever, and I couldn’t see anything resembling an exchange zone. In my mind, I knew I hadn’t run a mile over 8 minutes, and so I focused on trying to keep the streak going. 7:53, 7:56. Mile 3 to 4 was just torture and I could feel everything starting to shut down. The tank was on E and the light was on. Thankfully around this time I made out a police car sitting in the median in the distance. THAT MUST BE THE END. Streak failure at the 4 mile mark, 8:11. At least it was 31 miles in. The last 0.8 felt like a dream. Brain was foggy and legs were complete mush. I saw a big gap in the traffic and ran across to the median almost a quarter mile ahead of time, but damned if I was going to have to wait when I got to the zone. Thankfully the coast was clear when I finally reached the police car and I hobbled into the zone utterly depleted of everything. I handed off to Rob and walked off in a delirium. Somehow I ended up back in the van . I was DONE.
We sped off to the finish, because even though Rob’s tank was on E too, you never know when he might get frisky. We had an outside shot at 24 hours, but since I donated about 2.5 minutes back to the spreadsheet, I knew that was probably cashed. What’s more, Rob had to face another gauntlet of 2+ miles on 17, which he later said was an absolute nightmare. He also caught the contagion of almost faintsies and a little walksies, but such is the price for nearly 40 miles of 6:30 pace. He rolled in at 24:02 as we all followed like a pack of tinmen into the finish. I literally couldn’t manage more than a speed walk. But VOTR ultra’s journey was complete! 2nd place ultra team is not too shabby. The SOBs were gracious in victory and were not true to their name – seemed like a bunch of really nice guys. I’ll even forgive the superfit guy that shamed me on leg 1. The beer at the finish was awesome, and the Moe’s was like fine dining since I was probably 4k of calories in the hole. I have been known to go back on most of my “never again” declarations, but I would like to publicly state that I will never do the ultra team thing again. I think most of my teammates agree. Double the legs and no sleep is no joke.
Our full team did great as well, also taking 2nd place among the mixed teams in 26 hours flat, behind Ashley’s “A Walk and a Hard Pace” team , who did 25 hours. Great to see all the Columbia peeps out there. Special props to the volunteerism of the Richards family, with JOhn and Char manning two zones, and Andy always providing me with emergency TP! Jordan Lybrand and Plexico’s team crushed second overall in a shade under 22 hours. Southern Stride with Wendy Hart, Ross Shealy and Julia Norcia took 3rd place mixed with 27 hours.