Palmetto 200 – Santee State Park to Awendaw, SC – 3/19/21-3/20/21

In 2009, in what seemingly was the prehistoric days of social media, I was a regular on the “SUB 22 minute 5k” message board of Runner’s World magazine. We used to trade race reports back and forth, and for me, that eventually became Tour de Blue Shoes. One of the other regulars, a “MrSig”, started talking about a new relay race in South Carolina, going from Columbia to Folly Beach and wanted to know if anyone was interested. Although the board had people from all over the world, it turns out MrSig and I were actually living in the same city. Fortunately, “Mr Sig” was actually Brian Clyburn and not some crazed Chris Hansen/dateline type creeper, and team Van on the Run was born. 

We started (2010) as a hodge podge group of 12 randoms thrown together. All noobs to running, and definitely to relays. We committed just about all the dumb mistakes you can make in the early years, doing stuff like having a driver (robbing your van of precious space), booking a hotel room (80 bucks out the window and hotel water poisoning), and not eating regular food (hallucinations and the walksies for me at 3 am in Huger, SC).  But by trial and error and Brian’s relentless recruiting, we were honed into a team of relay beasts, culminating in the 2015 and 2016 back-to-back Palmetto 200 overall wins. Since that time, people noticed our trophy hunt and there’s been some teams way faster than us. But we still have our trophies and the legacy of one of the few remaining (maybe only?) teams that have been there every year. Even in the COVID year of 2020, Brian had us go out and run our legs virtually. I’ll never forget my half marathon’s worth of relay legs on the USC track and Shandon. Good times. We did technically get the overall win in that one too.

In 2019, the last time the relay was actually held, I made the egregious mistake of joining the Van on the Run Ultra team, with only 6 people. Somewhere on my 6th leg, I think I made the vow never to do one of these again . But I signed on again with our full team (12) with the thought that we were fielding another low stress, easygoing version that ran alongside the ultra version in 2019. Yeah, that was a big nope. Brian had reshuffled the deck and produced a lineup of all 40+ age group beasts that was going to go after the masters title. Doh.

As mentioned in previous blog posts, Brian’s P200 spreadsheet is the stuff of legend. It has exact expected paces, time leaving each exchange zone and time coming in to the next one. Previous Blue ridge relay versions even had quotients of difficulty figured in. While an amazing work of art and math, the subtext of this document is definitely: WE WILL KNOW WHEN YOU SUCK i.e not hitting your pace.

And so, on the heels of an epic suckage of a marathon the previous Saturday, Brian let me know that the roughly 18 miles of relay that I would be doing the following Friday would be at 6:50 pace. While most people recommend a few weeks off after a marathon, I was going to be running a 9 , 6 and 3 miler at sub 7 pace in less than 24 hours on virtually no sleep. Again, good times. I half considered bailing, but pulling out of a relay is like jabbing 11 other people in the heart, not to mention raising the ire of our captain. Believe me, I’ve been there. My 2012 Blue Ridge relay recruit bailed at the last second, and I had to do a fourth leg in the mountains of NC with little food and no sleep. I couldn’t do it to these guys.

Due to COVID, they cut down the number of teams this year, and they had to make do with way fewer volunteers. Some of the exchange zones weren’t available, so they modified the course to start at Santee State Park (near Elloree and Santee). Basically we would do a loop up towards Columbia before turning back towards Charleston. 

As mentioned, Brian figured our best chance at trophy hunting was to field an all masters (40+) team. Brian and Joel joined myself as the sole individuals with the poor decision making skills to have run in all 11 previous P200s. Brian’s wife Jen was on board as our only female. She claimed to be off her training, but I witnessed her gut out a sub 8 seven miler after vomiting all night in 2010, so her toughness and speed are not to be questioned. Harbison trail runners Bill Seibers (who suffered along with me in the 2019 ultra debacle) , Dean Schuster (my trail running doppelganger nemesis) and Matt Stanek were on board. In Van 2, the “kids” van:  Darrell THE CODE Brown, prone to erratic van driving, Tourette’s like obscenities and lots of complaining; Dan Carter, master of the four miler and who has yet to ever run a mile over 8 minutes and Rob THE YERG Yerger , whose superpower is sleeping under any conditions. We also had two new recruits, Nate and Paul, guys from the F3 community in Lexington. They were no relay noobs though, having done several P200s between the two of them. Also their assigned 6:40ish pace left no doubt they were some seriously fast guys. My only concern was how they would put up with our increasingly childish behavior as the night wore on. 

Joel starting us off

We got on site at Santee about 11 am for our noon start time. The P200 has a staggered start with the slowest teams first (5:30 am) and fastest last. You start with other teams of a similar projected pace. From the get-go, we saw that it was us and 2 other teams in the next to last slot, but there was some insanely fast team starting at 3 pm. That basically meant our only overall placement shot was for 2nd.  Masters appeared to be ours to lose, with the next fastest team starting at 10 am. We were up against two high schoolish teams, ones that seemed to have a mix of cross-country kids and their coaches, one from Augusta and the other from Lexington. Weather was ridiculously cold for this relay, just over 50 degrees and windy. 

We got underway with Joel leading us off. Immediately, Augusta teen dude takes off at like 5:30 pace. Uh, I unless this is just a show, I guess we’re fighting for third. Luckily Lexington had several guys who actually weren’t in high school so maybe we could hang with them. With van 1 off and running, we had about 4 and a half hours to kill. Such is the pain of Van 2. You get all jacked up to sit around and wait. I was in the 12th slot, so I would be lucky to start before 7 pm. We decided to have a regular sit-down meal at our go-to stop in Santee, the Cracker Barrel, which Code so lovingly refers to as the Crack Whore. I’m all for eating regular food on these relays, so I ended up ordering what I thought was a small pot pie. It turns out the potpies in Santee are as big as your face. I showed my usual self-control and mowed through it like the pie-eating contest in Stand by Me. I’m so ashamed. Afterward we cruised by the Subway to get our fuel for dinner, since trying to find anything in the backwoods of Orangeburg county late at night is next to impossible. Apparently we reached the Subway at the exact worst time, and we had to wait an eternity while getting to observe the most random people gathered at a sub shop ever. Such is a rest stop on 1-95. After waiting 20 minutes, my sandwich artist misinterpreted my no mayo order as LETS DUMP THE ENTIRE BOTTLE ON HIS SANDWICH. At this point, I just went with it.

We made our way to the exchange zone for the start of our van, Jericho Methodist church, just outside of Elloree. With hours to kill, we all set out to try and maybe nap a little. I had my hammock, but had to go traipsing through the woods to find two suitable trees, right next to the adjacent cemetery. I tried to sleep put the cold wind and creepy trees and graves probably didn’t help. The ladies manning this zone were super nice, and perhaps most importantly, let us use the ACTUAL BATHROOMS at the church. When you’re facing the unique olfactory and immunologic terror zone of portapotties for 24 hours, real running water is like a gift from God. We were at a church I guess. I ran into CRC alum Matt Gregory, who had moved to Greenville, but was back to run with the Lexington team “Fast Times at Lexington High”. He said he was off his training due to the new baby but would be doing his best. Good to see a familiar face and that his team was at least half dudes that were actually of legal drinking age. 

Lexington cruised into our zone first. They had a few minutes on us, but Brian had texted that Van 1 was already beating the spreadsheet. Before long Nate took off, followed by Dan. By the time Code was scheduled to leave from the Elloree exchange, our two fastest had made significant gains on the Lexington team. Their next guy was dressed like it was 30 degrees out, so I told Code he was primed to take him down and record our first roadkill. Our next zone was actually back at Santee State Park, having completed the Columbia loop. Awaiting me there was Andy Richards with his ceremonial Blue Shoes toilet paper. He’s been doing it every year since he saved me from a paperless portapotty back in 2016. And I am eternally grateful. 

The Yerg took us to Lone Star BBQ, followed by Paul’s leg back through the home of the Mayonnaise Subway and the Mega pot pie. I was actually very nervous about my leg, an 8.84 miler straight shot down highway 15. Not only was I assigned the 6:50 pace, but I had no idea how I would hold up with my post marathon legs. I even brought out the VAPORS because I was going to need every bit of help I could get. I finally get the baton (slap bracelet) around 7 pm and thankfully it’s still light out. Nothing’s worse than a totally dark straight leg on the side of a 55 mph highway. Of course, I’m not more than a quarter mile from the zone when some young Lexington dude is headed back the other way towards where I just left. Doh. That means I’m maybe a half mile ahead of their team, tops. I try to go as fast as I dare, knowing that this is a beast of a long leg. First mile comes back in 6:55 and everything feels pretty good. I figure this is good enough, especially given that it’s virtually 9 miles. Things loosen up significantly in the next few miles and I actually reel off a few 6:40’s to bring me a touch under pace. Vapors were definitely a good decision. I’m so grateful for the daylight since I actually have something to look at, though it’s mainly just fields. There is one tricky 5 way intersection that I had scoped out the night before. What the map didn’t tell me was the giant Cujo-esque albino pit bull staking out the yard of a huge haunted looking house at that intersection. I definitely picked up the pace as he barked at me like the hound of hell. I looked down and thought I saw 6.66 miles and briefly thought I had entered some portal to Hades before realizing it was only 5.66. The next few miles felt great and I was super happy about my pace, keeping it around 6:50. Super happy, at least, until I start hearing footsteps around mile 7. Surely no one is catching me, surely. It must be my bib or my shoelaces. NOPE. I turn around and there’s Jeremy Lewis, local HS XC coach, dropping low 6 pace. Sonofabitch. He passes me and I figure he is leaving me for dead. I can’t calculate the math at the time , but he must’ve been absolutely crushing it to make up the half mile. And it seems maybe it took a lot out of him, because he only slowly creeps away from me in the final miles. I did throw down a 6:30ish in the last mile just to keep the gap from getting too big. Finished 8.84 miles in a shade under an hour, 59:49 /6:47 pace. I actually felt pretty good, and it was awesome to get half my mileage done early.

Shutter left on ten seconds to get this much light

With Van 1 now in motion, we made our way to our next start, the Hatchery Waterfowl management boat landing. By this time it was dark, and wow, this boat landing had like zero light. The second we got the landing, the other dudes in the van were immediately ready to sleep. Then I realized the punishment for arriving last to the van that morning. While the other guys had places to crash, I had about 12 inches of space, sharing my seat with our gargantuan cooler that could easily store a dead body. Fortunately, I had brought my sleeping bag and pillow. After finally changing into some clean clothes, my body finally realized it was 9 pm and I hadn’t eaten dinner. I attacked my sub like there was no tomorrow, looking like a total maniac with the EXTRA MAYO everywhere. It was not a glamorous moment. Following my moment of gluttony, I realized it was in the mid 40’s and windy outside. I went into full boy scout camping mode, wrapping up in so many layers like the kid from the Christmas Story. I couldn’t move my arms either. It was insanely dark, but I did make note of a lone picnic table by the water’s edge as we were driving in. That would be my Sealy Posturepedic for the night. I throw down my camping pad and sleeping bag on the table and try to get comfortable. Not exactly the Four Seasons but not too terrible. The only problem is the intermittent splashing I keep hearing that I pray to God are fish. My mind starts thinking I could very well be some enormous homewrecker style burrito for a hungry crocodile from Lake Moultrie. A giant fishing boat comes roaring through and of course there are near constant van lights. I think there is zero chance I’ll get any sleep, but suddenly Code is tapping me on the shoulder and saying we are about 15 minutes from our next start. Somehow I guess I drifted off. Believe me, getting any sleep in the relay is pure, unadulterated gold, so I feel like a million bucks heading back to the van. 

Jacked up on a solid 90 minutes of shuteye, I’m ready to go…and wait another 5 hours. Such is the life of the last runner. I feel like Brian has been underselling his Van 1 speed because these guys are taking down the spreadsheet with a vengeance. We are a good 25 minutes ahead of pace going into round 2, though the upcoming legs at o’ dark thirty always suck. I felt bad for Dan, Nate and the Yerg, because each had a super long leg in the middle of the night. Code was driving and complaining as usual. We had to do a spooky scary search at the Witherbee Ranger Station for the portapotties before Code started. It took several minutes in an unmanned zone, but we finally made out the pale blue rectangles in our Blair Witch Project like lighting. Poor Yerg drew the walksie/hallucination leg from my 2010 debacle. I had chills even driving the route. Although we didn’t make any headway on the spreadsheet, we were still maintaining the pace and, perhaps more importantly, had been holding off Lexington. By the time we arrived for my second leg it was 4:20 in the morning and the rest of my van was already crashing out. I got out and discovered it was freaking freezing, high 30s. I waited in the van until the last possible moment. John Richards was at the zone so it was good to see him volunteering in his second position of the relay. The whole Richards clan volunteers, gave us donuts and some beer (for afterwards) , not to mention my toilet paper. They are amazing.

Paul killed his leg and I wasn’t out in the cold more than 5 minutes before he comes rolling into the zone. I take off like a man possessed, half to go fast and half to get warm. I’m so stiff it feels like I’m running on stilts the first half mile. I finally get into a groove and manage a 6:45 or something. My leg is a straight shot down Hwy 17 with a little turnoff at the end, 5.94 miles. The middle miles actually feel amazing in the cold, and there are a few blinky lights in the distance to chase down, as well as their vans, so it broke up the monotony of a very flat and straight route. I catch up to the other runners pretty fast and get a little afraid since garmin is spitting back 6:30s, which is only about 10 seconds off my 10k PR pace.  The last three miles are sort of a blur, just kept looking for that turnoff road. I memorized it was Darrell Creek, like the Code, so that helped. Luckily the turn was well marked and I blast it out to the finish. Jesse Harmon comes rolling by in his van so I try to look strong and not absolutely gassed like I really am. Finished in 38:18 /6:38 pace so well under the spreadsheet. I was running scared the whole time that Jeremy would catch me again. Char Richards was at the finish, so it seemed the Richards family was singlehandedly supporting this relay. Van 1 was there to see my finish, but where the hell were my guys?? I looked through the entire complex of Carolina Park elementary school until I finally saw what looked like a dead Darrell passed out in the front seat of the last van I checked. Van support is definitely lacking at 5 am, though I’ve been on the other side too and I definitely understand. 

We then rolled on to the start of our third legs, upon which the rest of my van immediately went back to sleep. I was of course still jacked on leg 2 adrenaline and really couldn’t rest. I couldn’t bear to become a human burrito again and head out into the cold, plus I didn’t see any quality picnic furniture to sleep on. Instead, I made sweet sweet love to the gigantic cooler, contorted and twisted in a “head down on the desk at school” sleep mode. It wasn’t pretty but it would have to suffice. It wasn’t long before the sun came up and that made it difficult to really crash out anyway. Except for Rob – the Yerg can sleep like the dead. We were parked directly across from the portapotties and were highly entertained by the fact that two of them were very poorly balanced, creating a violent wobbly effect anytime someone entered. With less than two hours of sleep, this is utterly hilarious. I’m sure the other vans thought we were insane, cheering for someone to pick the rocking toilets. 

Seeing daylight again is always nice, and since Van 1 had all their short legs last, we were back in action super fast.  Poor Dan and Paul had their longest legs last, which is just brutal. Van 1 had technically completed the run to Charleston, with Seibers touching foot on the peninsula after running over the Ravenel bridge. We were now headed to the finish in Awendaw, but not before Nate’s super long leg into Sullivan’s Island over the IOP connector and Dan’s run back the other way. I feel there should be a plaque at the IOP side of the connector, as this was the site of the inaugural Blue Shoes 5k, a 27:05 all out effort in October 2007. All I know is that my body was crashing quickly. I mowed through my running breakfast of choice, Pepperidge Farm cinnamon raisin bread, but then entered into a post meal coma where I just wanted to nap. I can deal with the soreness and fatigue of the running, but I hate the “sleepy tired” feeling of not getting adequate rest from my burrito nap on the gator plate near Lake Moultrie. I made Code make a pit stop at the Circle K and I got a large cup of the heaviest brew they had. I downed it like a maniac and instantly I was jacked up again. But Paul still had his 7 miler to go, so I’d have to stew in my caffeine induced mania for a while. As we pulled out of the “Dollar General field” (a grassy area behind the store), I heard the worst sound. Suddenly the van was spinning tires. OH NO NOT AGAIN. I had images of the 2012 Blue Ridge relay where it took like 12 people pushing and gunning the gas to unstick our van. After a tense couple of minutes and with everyone out and pushing, we finally were finally able to free our vehicle from the muck. WHEW. I was in an all out panic, thinking I might need to call Brian to come get us emergently. 

By the time of my third leg, we knew that we had Lexington beat and the Masters crown should be in the bag. The only variable was if we could break the 24 hour mark. Great, there still has to be pressure. The Circle K brew apparently was spiked with amphetamines because between that and the van/mud debacle I was really revved up. I think I hit the portapotty like 5 times and kept pacing in the cold. The rest of Van 2 was enjoying a beauty nap, I assume. Suddenly Paul comes tearing into the last exchange screaming like a banshee. I wasn’t entirely sure of what time he came in, so I take off like a man possessed. I only had a 5k to go, but I was still afraid of catastrophic walksies or getting lost or something. Legs were like WTF are we doing but I was willing to thrash them into oblivion to throw down a good time. It felt like I was doing a sub 6, but trashed legs gave me a 6:30 for mile 1. Hey, good enough though. Fortunately, my leg was just a simple straight route with one turn at the end into the park for the finish line. I bled a little time in mile 2 to 6:36, but then the adrenaline took over when I could make out the park entrance. I blasted into the park and was praying it wasn’t too far from the finish. Luckily around the first bend you have a long straightaway with the finish arch in sight. I swear it felt like forever, but I finally made it to the home stretch, where the whole team created a little tunnel to go through before hitting the finish. 20:27/6:29 for the 3.15 last leg, and more importantly way under 24 hours as a team, official time of 23 hours and 47 minutes/ 7:02 pace. FIRST MASTERS and actually 3rd overall too. Finish line area was great with New Belgium brews and Moe’s tacos. Lots of familiar faces at the finish including fellow Skidaway vets / TUS teammates/ CRC members Ashley Holman, Brittany Jones and Christa Collins, whose team won first female. Dan “feeling the streets” Bliesner from our early teams was on hand, along with Simon Froese from the Dam to Dam relay. Julia and Pat Norcia were there to support Kyle and his Clemson team. Darrell has stated he is retired after this year, and I always threaten to as well, but I’ll keep my options open. Just hope I get a better sleep next year, and of course, hold the mayo.

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