Blue Ridge Relay Report

Blue Ridge Relay Report

September 12, 2017
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The Short Version

We did it! 8.5 runners, 2 drivers, 208 miles, just under 28 hours of running, finishing 33rd out of 200 teams. 8.5 runners? We started with 9 but lost one to medical issues at the half-way point (he's fine now, just couldn't run anymore). All in all it was a tremendous experience doing something completely different with a great group of people (most of whom I'd never met before) in some of the most beautiful scenery imaginable. Can't wait until next year!

 

L to R: Rick (driver), Corey, Alex, Tim, Kyle, Eric, Paul, Mike, Kary, John (driver), Chad

The Long Version

Background

My brother-in-law Chad invited me to join the team about six weeks before the race. He had not run it before, but was in a running group with the organizer and new several of the other guys. I'm pretty new to running and had never done a group race or anything longer than a half-marathon (13.1 miles) but agreed to join - looked like fun. I typically do most of my running on trails, averaging 7 to 12 miles a run with at least a day of recovery between runs. This would require shorter, faster runs, on pavement, with minimal recovery time. After a few weeks of upping my fitness level, I switched my training to mimic the relay conditions, sometimes running three times a day (not always fun).

The Set Up

The race was broken into 36 legs of between 2 and 10 miles, with the most legs between 4 and 6 miles. The legs were rated by difficulty: Easy, Moderate, Hard, Very Hard, and Mountain Goat Hard! Teams could contain as few as 4 and as many as 12 runners. The most common team sizes were 6 (considered crazy), 9 (our team and the majority), and 12 (the next biggest group of teams). There was one team of just 4 runners (clearly with issues). There were 200 total teams divided between all male, all female and coed. For each team, the runners were seeded and assigned a running order based on that seeding. For a 9 person team, the top 7 runners would cover about 25 miles each while the other two would cover about 14 miles each. I was the lowest seed on my team (which was fine!)

The Team

Six of the runners work together as engineers at a large well known company in Greenville, SC. The logistics for this event were well planned - even I was impressed by the master spreadsheet. The core group recruited Chad and me (the slow guys) and one ringer (Tim) to the team. A fellow co-worker (John) and an almost retired Dad (Rick) signed up to drive the two vans. This was a young and fit team. Corey, 28, just finished a 16 mile Spartan race that included 32 obstacles and took 10 hours to complete. Alex, 33, competes in full distance Triathlons and just finished some ridiculous race in the Canary Islands. Tim ran cross country on full scholarship in college and still runs 10 miles every day. Every. Day. At 46, I was the second oldest and least experienced runner. The pressure was on!

The Vans

We had two vans for transport and support. Basically one van was the 'on' van and held the six active runners. The 'on' van discharged the active runner, picked up the finishing runner, and then leapfrogged to the next exchange zone (EZ), repeating the process. The 'off' van leapfrogged ahead six legs and waited to swap runners with the 'on' van. This process continued for 36 legs. Did I mention the spreadsheet involved? You can imagine that with 9 runners resting, recuperating, changing, and eating inside the vans, that they, well, began to reek about half-way through. It actually wasn't that bad until the last 8 hours or so...

Back to the Team

As mentioned before, this was a great group of guys. We shared food, drinks, stories, gear, sunscreen, and everything else like we were brothers. Because for 2 days we were. This was driven home about 6 hours into the race (mid-afternoon) when Corey was prepping for his next leg and turned to me, without hesitation, and asked me to rub sunscreen all over his back. No problem, teammate!

The Crisis

Paul (the oldest at 48) picked up a rather unpleasant bug the morning of the race. With the heart of a lion he powered through his first two legs, the second of which was a tough 8 mile trek that almost killed him. Hoping for the best, and with 7 hours until his next leg, we bundled him up in the back of the 'off' van and hoped for the best. A few hours later it became clear that he was physically unable to continue. Of course that threw a complete monkey wrench into our well laid plans.

Per the race rules, he would drop from the race and all the other runners would just shift up in the order, leaving two runners to pick up an extra leg at the end. Unfortunately, doing so would put our best runners at over 30 miles of distance, give one of them back to back Very Hard runs and put our 8 seed on the hardest Mountain Goat Hard leg. That didn't seem to be a good solution. After a quick conference (actually two conferences between two different stops at 1 am in 45 degree temperatures running between vans - it felt like the pre-tribal council scramble on Survivor) we came up with an outside of the box solution that while not following the letter of the rules certainly stayed within the spirit. Long story short is that Chad and I (seeds 8 and 9) pretended to be Paul for a leg each. That solution spread the mileage more evenly over the remaining runners. The downside was that it totally crushed my recovery time before the last leg. Oh well! I was actually pretty impressed with how quickly the group of 11 came to a unanimous and amicable decision given the conditions.

My Legs

Leg

Start Time

Distance (miles)

Run Time (minutes)

Pace (min / mile)

1

2:42 pm

2.3

16:57

7:22

2

9:59 pm

3.2

21:47

6:48

3

3:40 am

4.3

35:32

8:16

4

8:30 am

4.4

37:51

8:36

5

12:46 pm

4.5

38:25

8:32

Total

 

18.7

2:30:32

8:03

The hardest part of leg 1 was waiting. Wake up was at 6:30 am for breakfast and van loading at 7:15 am to make the 9:30 am check in time and 10:30 am race start time. Finally, after riding in the van for over 4 hours, it was my turn. To be clear, I am not a very fast runner. I usually run at a medium pace (9:30 min / mile) for a pretty long time (up to 17 miles at my current maximum). To smoke a 7:22 pace was pure adrenaline and the desire to not let the team down. This was a pretty short leg through fairly flat countryside with a bit of a climb over the last half mile or so.

Leg 2 was just plain scary. At this point we are near Grandfather Mountain on a winding two lane road. The route took me down a tree covered gravel road. Did I mention it was pitch black except for my headlamp and there were no other runners in sight. Oh, and bears. Halfway through the route we took a sharp right turn and joined an unlined paved road. On the corner was a house with a barking dog, which I learned was just a decoy for its partner, the silent dog, to jump out of the woods and check me out as I ran by. It's no surprise I finished this leg at a record pace!

Leg 3 was probably the hardest. After The Crisis was resolved (see above) our van rolled into one of the bigger laager areas for a bit of a rest. Our resting spot was a volunteer fire station that offered hot showers (skipped), baked potatoes (ate about 2/3), and chili (what?). After wolfing down part of a baked potato, we draped ourselves across the seats in the van, wrapped up in blankets or sleeping bags, and tried to get some sleep while other vans came and went around us. Very peaceful.

I woke up on my own just before 3 am. Based on the pre-race estimate, I expected to run around 4:20 am, but I knew we were ahead of pace. I took the handoff from Tim, who was absolutely destroying his runs, so had concerns about being ready in time. Trying not to wake the other sleepers in the van, I fumbled around with my key chain light to find the cue card with running times, extract my gear from my 32 quart Sterilite container (mandated by the team, did I mention they were engineers?), and get changed and out the door. As I'm getting geared up, my phone lights up with a text letting me know Tim started his run at 3:05 am. With quick mental math, I estimated his arrival at the handoff at no earlier than 3:41 am based on the distance and terrain. I shoot off a reply text to let the 'on' van know I'm awake.  The next 15 minutes were spent in the usual pre-run ritual - stretch, port-a-potty, jog around, port-a-potty, check my watch, and chat with the other runners waiting for the hand off. At exactly 3:40 am Tim enters the handoff zone at an incredible pace, looking somewhat annoyed that I still had my sweatshirt on (it was 45 degrees). I rip off the sweatshirt, adjust my headlamp, grab the handoff bracelet, and head off into the night as fast as I can.

So now it's 3:40 in the morning, we're on a desolate two lane road, it's foggy, there's a creek or river to my left again (can't see it but I can hear it), and a wall of rock and trees to my right. The only break is every few minutes the support van of another team drives by heading to the next handoff zone. It's pitch black and the only sound is the water to my left and my own breathing. At one point I think I hear footsteps to my right, so I swing my head around and my headlamp lights up two big red eyes just off the road. Once I landed (from jumping out of my shorts) and stifled a scream, I realized the big red eyes were reflectors someone had placed on the rocky outcrop to warn drivers. Again, no surprise that I finished this leg at an 8:16 pace even with a long uphill finish.

The proudest moment of this run was my first kill. Ok, not a real kill, but whenever you passed another runner you took credit for the kill. For the race, my total was 7 kills while only being killed twice. Tim had about 50 kills. Our team total was around 100. So my share was small but positive.

With limited recovery time, stretching was crucial before and after each run. Given the logistics of having the van almost always in motion, it was also pretty challenging. After each leg, the finishing runner needed a few minutes to at least cool down, then the van had to load up and drive 15 to 20 minutes to the next handoff area, discharge the next runner to get warmed up, the old runner to stretch, and get ready to receive the current runner... The timing was usually fine, unless the tired van driver got lost in the middle of the night on windy back mountain roads trying to follow sketchy directions with limited cel phone coverage. We never missed a handoff but there were some close calls.

Leg 4 was the most challenging of the runs, primarily because of the limited recovery time since I was picking up Paul's dropped leg. The route itself featured a gradual uphill for the entire distance - set your treadmill incline to 3.0 and start running! The run itself was fairly uneventful, other than picking up 2 more kills and running at pace I didn't think possible. Oh, and the beautiful green mountainous backdrop and crystal blue sky that emerged as the fog burned off.

The final leg. At this point the entire team is pushing 30 hours since our last real sleep and can see the end of the race. We're doing pretty well and hope to finish strong. The leg before mine is a brutal 5 miles, with the first 3 straight up (10-13% incline) and the last 2 straight down with Tim the gazelle on point. Riding in the van to the handoff, we passed Tim at about the 2 mile point, running strong (and straight up). As we pulled into the waiting area, we did time-distance-speed calculations and figured we had 15 to 20 minutes before the handoff. Needing extra time to stretch and prep after so much van time, I went into my pre-run routine immediately. After a few minutes of stretching, I headed to the port-a-potty. I typically run with a hydration belt, and the best place for that belt in the port-a-potty is around your neck. I'm about to exit the blue stall when I hear someone yelling "Kary, Kary, he's here!" I threw the door open and burst out like Superman, water bottles banging my shoulders, tossing aside a half-full Gatorade, sprinting toward the EZ 50 yards away. "Wait, it's not him!" What a scene. Tim showed up (at the 15 minute mark, of course), and I was off on the last leg.

I had a goal this leg. While waiting for Tim, I timed the departures of the runners in front of me and knew I had a 2 minute gap to close and pass the next team. I needed more kills. Taking the handoff, I accelerated out of the zone and turned onto the main road, eagerly scanning ahead for the next victim. After a few minutes I caught sight of them and the countdown began. 1:10 ahead. 1:00 ahead. Down to 50 seconds. Closing fast. 20 seconds ahead, push it. I finished off that runner with ease and picked off 3 more on the unpleasant 1.5 mile uphill to the finish (I see a pattern here, uphill to the finish...)

Final Thoughts

If you've made it this far, thank you for indulging my desire to write about the race. Our team was a group of great folks and operated like a well oiled machine. Everyone involved in the race - organizers, volunteers, runners, drivers, and even spectators - were friendly and supportive all around. It was quite refreshing to be reminded that the world is actually full of good people. Looking forward to next year!