Saturday, September 1, 2012

Blue Ridge Relay 2011

It all began with an email I received from my friend Jim Wei. His team for the Blue Ridge Relay needed a replacement as one of their members had torn her ACL in a motorcycle class. I had wanted to try a relay since seeing the documentary Hood to Coast last summer, so I agreed.

We drove up the Thursday afternoon before and were fortunate enough to be able to stay Elizabeth and Tripp's charming renovated farm house in Galax, VA. Early Friday morning, we rose and drove the 45 minutes to the start at Grayson Highlands State Park. It was completely dark and quite chilly, but we were excited. We took photos as best we could in the dark while wearing our kilts, team shirts, and headlamps. Our team was Road Kilt, a play off the term for when a runner is passed by another runner during a race. Since we expected to be "road killed" plenty during the race, it was an appropriate name. The race covered 208 miles from the Grayson Highlands to Asheville, NC. As you may guess, it was a hilly and scenic course.
The gals
The guys

Our start time was 6:30 AM, the earliest available, since we figured to be one of the slowest teams. The fastest teams would start at 1:00 in the afternoon and the amazing thing is, they would later pass us in the early hours of Saturday morning. The race started and our runner #1, Dominic, was off  running down the mountain with his safety lights flashing.
Runners 1-6 (Jim, Jade, Sheri, Christy, Marc, and Dominic) were in Van 1 and runners 7-12 (me, Tripp, Elizabeth, Bob, Tina, and Shannen) were in Van 2. I was runner 11, second to last in the lineup and had a long wait until I would start my first leg. Van 1 went to the first exchange zone to wait for runner 1 to arrive and the slap bracelet to be handed off to runner 2 to start the second leg while Van 2 headed off for breakfast. When we came out to the parking lot after eating, we found we had been "muffined" by another team, Runner's Dozen. They had drawn their symbol - a muffin - on one of our back windows. We painted a circle around the muffin with a line through it and vowed to have a stencil and extra paint next year to tag other teams. We were relay virgins and it was obvious since we didn't know enough to bring supplies to tag other vans.
Van 2 relaxing while we waited to start our legs 7-12
 One by one, the runners in my van got to do their first legs. It was finally time for my first leg around 4:00 in the afternoon and after all the anticipation, I didn't even really want to run anymore! I was just not used to waiting around that long to start a race.
Shannen handing off to me at the start of leg 11
 Nonetheless, I exchanged with Shannen and started leg 11 which was almost completely on the Blue Ridge Parkway and covered 6.3 miles. The views were outstanding, but the hills were long and relentless.  I pushed my pace beyond my comfort zone, running it like it was a normal 10K and not a mountain one. I got road killed by a couple of guys who flew by me on a downhill and there was nothing I could do to stop it. As I neared the exchange zone, I had to climb one more evil hill that had me almost puking in front of the other teams gathered at the exchange zone. After heaving a couple of times, I walked a bit to stop the urge even though I felt everyone's eyes on me. As much as I wanted to run up the hill, I figured it was better for them to see me walk than to see me puke! Once over the crest, I did trot into the finish. I completed my first leg at an average of 8:34 pace. After I had a chance to rest and catch my breath, I actually felt pretty good.
Handing off to Elizabeth after leg 11

 After Elizabeth's leg, our van had a long break and we sat down to a delicious dinner at a restaurant in Blowing Rock, NC.

The view during dinner at Canyons in Blowing Rock

My next leg was #23 and it began at nearly 2:00 AM.  The temps were in the 40s and it being early September I wasn't used to the chill yet, so I wore a long sleeve shirt and capris. When I saw Shannen running strong up the hill to the exchange, I handed my Umstead hoodie with my gloves in it to Bob, got the bracelet, and took off down the road. This leg started with a run on a country road with an open valley below the dark outline of the mountains to my left. I frequently looked up while running this section to take in the perfectly clear sky and bright stars. The course then turned onto a dirt road which wound deep into the dark woods and felt quite isolated and a bit creepy. I was glad I had my small flashlight with me as my headlamp just wasn't doing a sufficient job of lighting the ruts and changes in footing of the dirt road on its own. This section was also a long downhill and I flew down it in the dark with my arms raised for balance to catch me if I tripped, my breath steaming in the cold air in front of me, and my handy flashlight shining on the path before me. Several vans passed me on my right and most all of them rolled down their windows to encourage me, including my own Van 2. I got road killed again as a few runners, all male, passed me on an uphill section. They were moving swiftly, but at least one told me "good job" as he flew by. The last 3 miles of this leg was a winding climb. My team told me later that as they drove it they were talking about how hard a leg it was. Luckily, I didn't think it was all that bad, thanks in part to the fact it was so dark and also because the climb was gradual and winding. That is one good thing about running at night, the hills don't seem near as bad as they do in the daylight. I was glad when I reached the exchange zone as I was spent and completely out of breath. I had been following a lone female runner for the last couple of miles and I almost road killed her as we approached the exchange, but I didn't have it in me. I managed to complete the 5.6 miles at a 9:23 pace. As I caught my breath, Bob broke the news to me that he didn't have my hoodie and that it was left behind at the last stop. Apparently, I had handed it to a complete stranger at the exchange, not to him. For the rest of the relay, I tried to locate my hoodie, but to no avail. I hope whomever has it is enjoying it as much as I did.

 After Elizabeth finished the 24th leg, we drove to the next exchange where we planned to sleep for a bit. On the way there, a deer ran in front of the van. Tripp was driving and suddenly screeched to a halt while the deer stared back from the middle of the road and just a few feet away. This was despite a long day, no sleep, and windy mountain roads - definitely some skill full driving on his part. I'm pretty sure I would have hit the deer if I had been driving. We arrived at the exchange which was at a church and a few of us caught a few hours of sleep in our sleeping bags laid on a tarp on the wet ground while the others slept in the van. It was very cold, but I was exhausted and slept soundly under the stars. After a few hours, I woke up on my own and went to buy some pancakes, sausage, and coffee the church was selling. I think it was 5 bucks for the meal and it was delicious. While eating, I learned from other runners that every team but ours was sleeping in the warmth of the church while we were sleeping in the dewy grass just a few feet away! We were so tired when we arrived that we didn't realize this was an exchange zone where there was an indoor place to sleep. Oops.
Starting leg 35
 My third leg didn't start until 1:00 PM and was also mostly on the Blue Ridge Parkway. But first I had to climb the steepest hill of my life. I could tell by the elevation profile the race provided (the grade it showed was as high as 11%) and by looking ahead while waiting for Shannen to arrive, that this was going to be tough. It started on a long incline and just kept on going up for 2 miles. I was grateful that the road was mostly cool and shady as it was now quite warm, about 70 degrees or so. I tackled this steep section by jogging easy as much as I could and incorporating intervals of power walking. Early in the climb, I was lucky enough to witness a group of wild turkeys crossing the road in front of me. The road was made up of several switch backs and there was a lack of shoulder in places, so I stayed alert for traffic. There was really no good place to run safely and I switched from side to side with the curves and at times ran in the middle of the road so I could see any cars coming. There was very little traffic and so I luckily managed to not end up as real road kill.

When I arrived at the parkway and the top of the brutal climb, I was pleased to see my Garmin showed an average pace of 12:20 per mile, pretty good considering what I had just conquered. The course profile had made the remaining 2 miles look like it was all downhill, but there were devious uphills stuck in there and just when I thought I was home free, I found myself facing a bit more climbing before the truly flat and downhill stretch. Though the parkway was beautiful, it was exposed and warm and I was ready to be done with my part in the relay. Motivated and smelling the barn as I like to say, I kept up a good pace while looking ahead to spot the last exchange. I got road killed again by a fast chic within a mile of the exchange. When I arrived, I gladly handed off the bracelet to Elizabeth and walked some to cool down before hopping into the van to ride to the finish in downtown Asheville. Incidentally, I just barely escaped some swarming yellow jackets we had disturbed by the shoulder of the road where the van was parked. My final and third leg was completed at an average of 10:29 pace.

We arrived in Asheville and changed into our team shirts and kilts and headed to the finish. We found our Van 1 team members who had already enjoyed beers and a meal in Asheville while they waited for us. All team members from both van 1 and 2 were now together and we would join Elizabeth at the end of her leg for a team finish. Soon enough, Elizabeth came into sight and we all cheered her up one last hill and then ran beside her for a short distance and across the line. Our final team time was 31:44:52 for an average of a 9:21 pace over the 208 miles. We took some team pictures and then made our way to a pub where I had nachos and a beer or two. It was heavenly.
Road Kilt at the finish in Asheville
 The BRR is a well organized event and I would do it again. The race swag was a long sleeve cotton T shirt in nice colors and a cool race logo magnet that I have stuck on my car. The course is both beautiful and challenging. If I were to run it again in the future, I'd like to be part of a 6 person ultra team so I can spend less time in the van, more time running and the whole team can be together and not split in two vans.


  1. Better late than never! Great report. I'm amazed people can remember so much detail from a race. It's all on big existential blur to me.

  2. Thanks for reading, Scott. In all fairness, I did write most of it a year ago when the race was fresh in my mind.

  3. That sounds grueling, but, of course, fun(?) Let's see, "I had to climb one more evil hill that had me almost puking...." "I flew down it in the dark with my arms raised for balance to catch me if I tripped...." It started on a long incline and just kept on going up for 2 miles....The road was made up of several switch backs and there was a lack of shoulder in places, so I stayed alert for traffic. There was really no good place to run safely and I switched from side to side with the curves and at times ran in the middle of the road so I could see any cars coming." Sorry about your hoodie. Bummer.

    1. Yes, it is fun though it may not sound like it. I guess I am a bit twisted. It's okay about the hoodie b/c I got a new one just like this year at Umstead and this year was the year I finished. :)

  4. Nice report. Now I want to read the version that has all 36 legs.

  5. Great report! Now We need one for the Smoky Mountain Relay!!

  6. You mean the SmokEy Mountain Relay, he he. I don't know about that. Maybe I will get that one posted on that relay's anniversary too! Ha!