The 2014 Blue Ridge Relay

September 12, 2014

“Gucci, can you hear me? Yes or no. I need to know if you can hear me, buddy.” Gucci was uncharacteristically silent. I was starting to panic.

“Ben, let me know if I need to call 911. Say the word and I’ll dial.”

“Hang on, let’s give it a minute. If he doesn’t respond soon, we’ll call.”

I was afraid, very afraid. My friend was in bad shape and I didn’t know what to do. I desperately wanted JITFO to beat our archrivals Stache & Dash, but not if it meant one of my friends would get hurt. Or worse.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s back up.

Friday Departure

Even though our start time wasn’t until noon, I wanted plenty of lead time so I asked the team to meet in Cornelius at 7:00 – I’ve seen and heard of too many things going wrong on the drive up to the Blue Ridge Relay – I wanted to make sure we got to Grayson Highlands State Park in Virginia, site of the start, with at least a little time to spare.

The morning was a bit bumpy – some knucklehead crashed his car into Nick’s, but there was minimal damage, and Danielle, Michelle, and Nick escaped injury. Whew.

Everyone made it to the condo within a few minutes of our goal time, some ready to race on the spot, others – read Gucci – arrived in jeans which made for lots of racing jorts jokes.

Goal one – gather team and leave at a decent time – accomplished.

Friday Arrival

After a few little pit stops on the way – a quick Target run and a couple of restroom and gas stops, including one stop which took us back in time to about 1966, at a gas station that had analog pumps and three old white men in rocking chairs, ala Deliverance – we rolled into the park right on schedule.

Adam and I parked our respective vans and I stepped out and yelled my favorite plagiarized line (stolen from Amy Poehler), “Which one of you bitches is coming in second?!” I then rushed over and signed us in, and we quickly lined up and snapped a few team pics:

JITFO ready to rock! Gucci, lead off, already has his game face on.

JITFO ready to rock! From left to right: Chelsea, Maraya, Chase, Ben, Adam, Mark, Laura, moi, Lisa, Gucci (lead-off runner, already has his game face on!), Danielle, and Michelle.

We were able to score a driver for at least one of the vans. Driver Nick!

We were able to score a driver for at least one of the vans. Driver Nick!

Things were all helter skelter for me as I tried to play the role of good team captain, running around filling out team forms, handing out bibs, and the like, all while talking the appropriate amount of smack to the other teams, especially Stache & Dash.

I was determined to make sure we got off to a better start than we had one year ago, so the first thing I did after signing in was to dig the slap-bracelet baton out of our team bag and give it to Gucci (aka Tim). Because god knows if he started without the baton, there was no way I would have been able to run him down and hand it to him. This was the worst thing to happen to us at the beginning:

Luckily, this was a road race and not a spelling bee. Was this a mistake or does Laura really like peanut butter?

Luckily, this was a road race and not a spelling bee. Was this a mistake or does Laura just really like peanut butter?

Finally, after a year of waiting, planning, and scrambling, it was go time. Gucci headed to the start and I convinced him to line up on the second row so we could get some road kills right out of the gate:

Gucci lines up on the second row, per my request.

Gucci (sans shirt, donning bib #11-1) lines up on the second row, per my request…

Guccis, sans shirt, gets our very first road kill, Stache and Dash's lead off, Gisele.

…and then moments later, closes in on our very first road kill, Stache & Dash’s lead off runner, Gisele (#12-1).

 

There was strategy involved here – I set the lineup with Gucci leading off for a very specific reason. I wanted JITFO to get the lead on Stache & Dash (S&D) immediately. Gucci’s a sub-17:00 5K guy, and while S&D had a lot of fast runners, I was confident they didn’t have a lot of sub-17 people (and even if they did, they weren’t putting them on their first leg). I wanted them to have to run from behind.

The first leg of the Blue Ridge Relay is a quad-busting four miles straight downhill. I had Gucci’s estimated time at 22:10 – he ran it in 21:36. S&D’s runner finished in 23:52. And just like that we had over a minute and a half lead. Perfect.

Chelsea was up second. I knew she was the women’s winner of the 2012 Raleigh Rocks Half Marathon with a 1:30. But that was over two years ago and Rob (Ducsay, S&D team captain and their second leg runner) is typically a sub-1:30 guy. I was concerned that we might lose the lead early. But we didn’t – Chelsea held serve and JITFO hung onto the lead through two legs.

I had no such concerns about our third runner. We had Chase Eckard here, a former Atlantic-10 conference 1500M champ. S&D had their strongest runner, Sean Beaty, in this leg as well (which makes sense – runner 3 has the most mileage to run), and while Sean’s a beast – he won this year’s Scream Half Marathon, a downhill race, in 1:17, he’s not quite the beast that Chase is, runner up in the 2013 Thunder Road, a hilly, rolling race, in 1:15. I was very confident the Staches would make up no ground here. And they didn’t. Three of 36 down and we still held the lead on S&D.

Ditto for runner four. JITFO: Ben Gordon. Stache & Dash: Brian Trotter. With all due respect to Mr. Trotter – this was no contest. Brian has drawn the S&D short straw two years in a row, having taken it on the chin against Nathan Stanford last year, and now Ben. Rob – see me next year and let’s make sure Brian gets a more favorable draw.

But after Ben’s leg, I wasn’t so confident. Next up, me, JITFO’s elder statesman, then Laura, recently dubbed Broke Toe Mountain. For those of you that aren’t regulars to this blog, Laura, my significant other, broke her toe during our marathon two weeks ago. You heard me, she broke her toe. Still not getting it? Laura was about to run some 17 miles up and down mountain terrain on this:

Are you starting to see why I might have been worried?

Are you starting to see why I might have been worried?

Did I mention we ran a marathon two weeks earlier? And that in virtually every run since, I felt like shit? Let’s just say that I wasn’t exactly overflowing with confidence going into my, then Laura’s, leg.

The day had been overcast, almost cool, with some occasional light rain, favorable running conditions, until nearly time for me to run. Then the clouds suddenly parted and it got downright hot. Oh joy, my two good buddies, Heat and Humidity, were here in the mountains to keep me company – apparently, they had so much fun running the 2012 Boston marathon with me that they thought it’d be fun to tag along in the Blue Ridge Relay.

I jogged around the Ashe County Park parking lot in a desperate attempt to try to loosen up my stiff joints and muscles and then, well before I felt ready, here came Ben cranking up the hill and into the parking lot. He handed me the baton and I was off.

I’m not sure why I was so uptight and nervous – after all, running is what I do – but I was. You’d think I’d relax as I should have been back in my comfort zone after spending hours doing something that scares me and I suck at, namely driving a big vehicle. But I didn’t – I was as uptight as a squirrel in a cat convention.  And what do I do at the start of a race when I’m uptight and nervous? You guessed it – I go out too fast. Granted, my leg did start off with a steep downhill, but I was motoring along at well under 6-minute pace which was a surefire recipe for disaster if I didn’t quickly reel myself in. After a bit of struggling with myself, I finally got things semi-under control and settled in around 6:45 pace, manageable downhill racing for an old fart like myself.

In my humble opinion, this leg, which runs through the heart of West Jefferson, is the worst one of the entire Blue Ridge Relay. Most of the race winds through beautiful countryside, with verdant, breathtaking views of trees and mountains. Not this one – with apologies to all the West Jeffersonians – leg five travels straight through a very unpicturesque little town, all car lots and gas stations and pavement. And crappy, beat-up, crumbling pavement at that. I really didn’t want to subject any Blue Ridge Relay newbies to this leg – they’d end up hating me. So I took one for the team and assigned myself to this leg. After the short downhill, I was already regretting it.

I would run on the sidewalk, until it randomly disappeared, then I was forced to jump onto busy Highway 16. Running on the right side of the road per the Blue Ridge Relay’s instructions, I just knew that any second some drunk redneck in a pickup truck was going to plow me over. Or worse, the S&D runner would pass me.

I was forced to cross over a couple of significant intersections. I got lucky and timed the first light perfectly, darting through just before it turned red. Then Chase, under Laura’s superb navigational direction, drove the van beautifully, easing through the 4-way stop intersection, effectively running interference for me as I ran alongside the van.

Run one-tenth of a mile, turn. Repeat 4 times. Maddening. But at least Gucci was able to snap this cool pic in-between turns:

 

Not the little Mexican town where El Mariachi was shot, although it looks like it. Just West Jefferson.

This is the one picturesque spot in all of West Jefferson. Not the little Mexican town where El Mariachi was shot, although it looks like it here.

I hopped on the pain train through the heart of West Jefferson. And just after exiting downtown, the Blue Ridge Relay rewarded me with about a mile of 7% grade hill. At least it builds character, right?

As I was struggling, practically crawling up this hill, I heard footsteps. I glanced behind me and saw a girl, clad in all dark, rapidly gaining. Much cursing under my breath as I knew it was Stache & Dash’s runner, Inga, who I’d met moments before I started running this leg. Oh how I loathed her as she zipped past.

But a miracle happened – it wasn’t Inga. Oh thank god. I felt like my heart was going to explode in my chest as I, the atheist, prayed for this leg to be over. Yaweh, Osiris, Zeus, Odin, somebody, anybody, please help me!!

After an eternity, I crested the hill and saw Laura waiting at the exchange zone. I handed her the baton, quit worrying about me, and started worrying about her. Why, you ask? Scroll back up and look at the foot pic again. Yeah, that.

But I watched her heading up the hill and she looked fine. Her form looked good – she didn’t seem to be favoring the toe at all.

I staggered around for a minute and caught my breath and grabbed something to drink. I wanted to cool down, but I could barely walk, much less run. I felt bad, and worse, felt like I had let the team down. I disgustedly jumped in the van and we drove to the next exchange zone, Bald Mountain Baptist Church, where Laura would hand off to Mark Ulrich.

Riding in the van, we passed her and again, she looked fine. She was cruising up a nasty hill and gapping a girl behind her. She smiled widely as we pulled alongside her. She was perfectly okay. We cheered wildly and then drove ahead. I was relieved on so many levels.

We arrived at Bethany Methodist Church, the site where one year earlier Boriana had come motoring down the hill to give me goose bumps. We chatted with our van 2 teammates, this being the first time we’d seen them since shortly after the start of the race. I think we were all pretty anxious to see how Laura was doing, and we let out a collective sigh of relief when she crested the hill and came striding in without any hint of pain. And we still had the lead on S&D.

We were through the first six legs and we had about a three minute lead on our archrivals. I was feeling much better about things now because van two was strong, very strong – I had filled that thing with horses – Danielle, Michelle, Maraya, Lisa, Adam, and Mark. Good luck Stache & Dash, you’re gonna need it.

Maraya, #3 in the 49ers uniform, one of Jitfo's 2014 recruits in van 2.

Maraya, #3 in the 49ers uniform – one of Jitfo’s 2014 recruits in van 2. Rob, I hope you found some fast people for S&D’s second van or this thing might get ugly.

But when you start getting cocky in the Blue Ridge Relay, that seems to be the time when things go awry. If anybody enters the Blue Ridge Relay thinking they’ll speed through without any adversity, let me be the first to tell you: No, no you won’t. You’d better expect, and prepare for, something to go wrong. Because it will.

We had a couple of hours to kill – time to find grub. This was the point in the race where we’d nearly screwed up last year – we’d spent a ton of time driving around in search of food and we’d encountered significant difficulty finding our way to the next transition – we barely found the transition zone in time. I was not about to let that happen again.

So I drove while Laura navigated and we found the next exchange zone (not without some ups and downs, but much less painful than last year). Then I pulled the van out and announced to my van mates, “Keep your eyes open for somewhere to eat. We’re not wandering far.” We drove maybe two miles when I spotted a Bojangles’ and pulled in. Ok, so I didn’t really give the team a lot of choice, and I feel a little bad about that, but I also assured us that we could easily get back to the transition with time to spare.

The Bojangles’ turned out to be a godsend. It was quiet and clean. I took a Blue Ridge shower (cleaned up with wipies) in the pristine and quiet restroom, and then Laura and I ordered and sat down. Not the best selection for a vegetarian, but at least they had egg and cheese biscuits so Laura didn’t starve. And Bojangles’ sweet tea at this point in the race was like nectar from the gods. But the best bonus of all was that Ben got to experience Bojangles for the first time in his young life. I’m honored to have been present for such a momentous occasion:

Ben experience Bojangles for the first time!

Ben experiences Bojangles for the first time!

Now is the time in the story where I explain to you how these races typically go down. It’s like this – the first set of legs tend to be all cookies and kittens. You’re fresh, you’re amped, and you’re loving the excitement. It’s easy to find your way around as you just follow the course that’s well marked and the signs are easy to see and follow in the daytime. You’re clean and the van is neat and organized. Your team goes through its first set of legs without a hitch.

But venturing into the second set of legs, things start to gradually change. People have strewn dirty, perspiration-drenched clothing throughout the van. Everyone’s shoes are soaked in sweat and are starting to become, well, ripe. Everybody’s hungry and a tad irritable. Folks’ digestive tracts, on this new, bizarre schedule, start to act out. People are sweaty, tired, and perhaps even a little loopy after a hard run. You start having a more difficult time locating things. Here’s where you tend to encounter your first problems.

And this relay was no exception.  I was feeling good after Bojangles’ – we’d found the transition zone and somewhere to eat without major incident. Now we could head back replenished and ready for our second round of racing. We loaded up the van, turned left onto Highway 421, and started back to the race.

Suddenly I heard a bang on top of the roof. “What the hell was that?”

“Oh shit, there goes our shoes!” And I looked in the rear view mirror just in time to see running shoes rolling down the highway. Several of the gang had left shoes on top of the van to dry out. When I drove away, they flew off. For those of you that aren’t aware, running shoes are kind of important to have for a road race (unless you’re one of those barefoot freaks which none of us were).

I took the nearest turn and wheeled the 15-passenger van around. Just when I was about to get back on the highway, a group of nearby kids playing basketball jumped, waved, yelled and pointed to the top of our van. There were still some shoes up there! Someone jumped out and grabbed the remaining shoes off the top of the van. Then Ben, waiting for just the right moment for a break in the traffic on busy 421, bolted across the highway, gathering running shoes as he went. All shoes acquired, he waited on the side of the road until I shot over with the van and picked him up. Shoe tragedy successfully averted.

If only that was the worst thing to happen to our team.

Van 1, Second Set of Legs

With still plenty of time to spare, I made one more pit stop at a gas station near the exchange zone. The stupid warning display on our van had been flashing “low tire pressure” for both rear tires for the entire trip. More headaches ensued as we scrambled to dig up enough quarters for the air machine – does anybody else remember when those things were free? And apparently I stopped at the busiest goddamned gas station in America as all kinds of madness took place in the five or so minutes we were there. A giant tractor trailer truck, with a driver who had apparently acquired his big rig license the day before, nearly plowed us over – I scrambled to move the van while he stopped traffic and nearly killed a dozen or so folks as he, all other cars be damned, wheeled into the station. No less than three other crappy drivers narrowly avoided accidents as they came, oblivious to their surroundings, flying in to get gas. I could not get out of that parking lot fast enough.

We finally escaped the gas station from hell and maybe two minutes later, pulled into the Mt. Vernon Baptist Church. This is always one of my favorite exchange zones – there’s plenty of room to park, it’s a transition zone so teams have both their vans there, and often you’re pulling in around twilight so there are some spectacular sunset views. I parked and got out and chatted with Charlotte pals from the elite Charlotte Running Club team, Crazy Legs, and of course, Stache & Dash.

I helped Gucci get ready for his leg. Now that it was getting dark, your runner was required to wear a headlamp, blinkies in front and back, and a reflective vest. By the time Gucci donned all the necessary equipment, he looked like some kind of weird, futuristic coal miner. But he was ready to rock and took off to warm up a little while the rest of us wandered around.

When the time neared for our runner, Maraya, to arrive, I received some texts from Danielle and Adam letting me know that they had gotten lost and that Maraya would make it to the exchange zone before van 2 could. If you have to get lost, that’s the place to do it, at a transition zone where the other van already has the runner in place and ready to go. No harm, no foul – another Blue Ridge bullet dodged. If you’re going to do well at BRR, you need a few lucky breaks like this.

Another reason this is a cool exchange zone, you can stand at the top of the hill and see nearly a mile down to where runners are approaching the end of their leg. I waited and watched and soon spotted Maraya flying up the hill. She looked strong and once again I was imbued with confidence. What girl did Stache & Dash have that could keep up with Maraya? I couldn’t think of any.

She flew in and handed the baton off to our futuristic coal miner and I set off on the business of rounding up our troops. Gucci had a tough, hilly 9-miles plus leg ahead of him, so I figured we had a good hour or so before we needed to be at the next exchange zone. But you’d be surprised how quickly this time disappears. I didn’t want to tempt fate any more than I had to.

Laura and I told Maraya about the van 2 tiny misdirection snafu, that they’d be here any minute, and then I gathered all the van 1 runners. We were ready to pull out when van 2 pulled in. We chatted for a minute before I pried the van one runners away. I was not going to dilly dally.

Having finally, successfully, assembled the five remaining van 1 runners, I took off, following the leg signs for the runner – I planned to just follow those to the next exchange zone. Two minutes later, I learned this would not work as a cop parked at an intersection forced me to go the opposite direction of that the runners were taking. When I briefly protested to the cop, “But the sign says go this way”, he tersely said, “That sign is for the runners. You go that way.” Fine. No need to be a dick about it.

Prior to the race, we had printed the handbook and carried it in a 3-ring binder. Laura flipped through and found the section that provided driving directions to the next exchange zone. But – and how do I put this gently, in a politically correct manner? – these directions were mostly, well, worthless.

Somehow, after much consternation and poring over maps and whatnot, we made it to Blowing Rock, site of the next exchange zone. And once we made it to Blowing Rock, we were very fortunate in that Chase was familiar with the area. Miraculously, we found the exchange zone at the Blowing Rock Swimming Pool, and equally miraculously, a van was just pulling out of the packed lot as we pulled in.

While we were pulling in, we heard a girl screaming, “JITFO!! JITFO!!” Somebody in the van said, “Man, somebody loves them some JITFO.” After I got parked, we saw our number one fan running towards us – it was Jamie Dodge, a 2013 JITFO alum. Jamie was onsite and working with ZAP fitness when she spotted the van. Laura and she chatted while I made sure Chelsea was ready for her leg – I needn’t have bothered as she was on it. Headlamp, reflective vest, both blinkies – for a BRR rookie she was amazingly aware and ready!

Then we waited. Some dude warming up wore the exact same gear as Gucci so every time, and it was multiple times, this guy came running down the hill, I nearly yelled, “Here he is!” But then I spotted the real McCoy, Gucci, sprinting down the hill. I screamed over to Chelsea, “JITFO! Here he is!”

But something seemed amiss. Gucci’s path to Chelsea was not the straightest, and he looked a bit, well, wobbly. He handed the slap bracelet baton to Chelsea, she took off, and then he went down like the ol’ proverbial sack of taters. We rushed over and helped him up, but he clearly was not able to stand. Ben and I held up his legs, hoping for a speedy recovery:

Ben and I try to help Gucci recover.

Ben and I try to help Gucci recover.

Ben ran off to the van to retrieve some drinks while we tried to talk to Tim, but he was essentially incoherent. He kept saying, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” and I responded with “For what? You crushed it!” Based on my admittedly iffy calculations, he had just put another couple of minutes on S&D. Our lead after thirteen legs stood at over seven minutes.

But I was starting to worry about Gucci. I thought he was just fatigued, but it soon became painfully obvious that he was much worse off than I originally thought. After a few minutes, he still couldn’t stand. Or speak in anything other than monosyllabic grunts. We would try to get him to his feet, and he would stagger a few feet and go right back down. He spilled more than he drank. Shit, this was bad.

And we were running out of time. We had to get rolling soon or Chelsea would beat us to the next exchange zone. I asked Gucci, “You think you can get in the van?” Now I’m no doctor – when Gucci grunted out a “Yeah”, that was good enough for me. I rushed off to wheel the van around.

I pulled the van over and we somehow managed to load Gucci into the van (random aside – why’s it gotta be the 205-pound guy that goes down? Why can’t it be the 115-pound girl?) I took off towards the next exchange zone.

Here is another time where we got crazy lucky. Ben is an exercise physiologist (or he’s in grad school for Interdisciplinary Biology according to his Facebook profile), so he was calm during Gucci’s ordeal. Which is very good because I was getting panicky on the drive to the next exchange zone. From my vantage point in the driver’s seat, Gucci sounded like he was getting worse. I could hear Ben talking to Gucci, but I didn’t hear Gucci talk back. Shortly after we made it to the Grandfather Country Store and parked, I heard this:

“Gucci, can you hear me? Yes or no. I need to know if you can hear me, buddy.”

And there was no response. Shit, shit, shit.

I asked Ben if I should call 911 and he calmly answered, “Hang on, let’s give it a minute. If he doesn’t respond soon, we’ll call.” And he asked Gucci a couple more times to respond. I looked back and saw that Gucci was looking straight at Ben. But he had this confused, “I’m here, but I’m not here”, look in his eyes, like he was trying to see Ben. When Ben said, “Gucci, squeeze my hand if you can hear me”, Tim squeezed his hand. So he was responsive and we all felt better.

Now in retrospect, it seems that being a little responsive shouldn’t be good enough. I mean dying people are often responsive, right? Some dude having a massive heart attack can probably hear you and squeeze your hand. But Ben was calm and in control and seemed confident that Gucci was going to be okay so that was good enough for me. He’s a professional and I assume familiar with such things so I trusted, and deferred to, him.

Oh, and before I continue, for those of you out there that might be judging one Gucci Freshness, let me give you all the facts first. He had one bitch of a leg, 9+ miles with a ridiculously steep, like you-need-a-sherpa steep, climb. Here’s the elevation chart:

Try running this before you start judging anybody.

Try running this before you start judging anybody.

 

And note that it was over 70 degrees out, with 100% humidity. Gucci wouldn’t be the first, or the last, to go down on this night. I heard that the top two elite teams, Asheville and Charlotte, both lost runners to heat exhaustion.

But now that we were getting more confident that Gucci was going to be okay, we could get back to the business at hand, namely attempting to kick S&D’s ass. Again, we had gotten lucky, lucky that Tim had finished his leg. He told us later that he had no memory of the last 2+ miles, that the last thing he remembered was looking at his Garmin when it beeped for mile 7. He thought he hadn’t finished the leg and that was why he kept telling me he was sorry. If he had gone down somewhere before the exchange zone, we would have been stuck waiting with no means of communicating with him. There’s no telling how long we might have waited.

But he had finished and JITFO was still alive in the battle for top mixed team.

We left Gucci in Ben’s capable hands. Chase warmed up while Laura and I kept an eye out in case Chelsea came in early. And soon she came in and handed off to Chase for what is arguably the toughest leg of the race. Here’s where I had planned all along to gap Stache & Dash. I had an elite D1 guy running the longest leg of the race. Alright S&D, if you can beat us here, you deserve to win.

We gave Chelsea a few minutes to cool down then we piled back into the van and headed out. It seemed like forever before we caught up to Chase – he had traversed a substantial amount of ground and was flying. Flying! This is when I knew it was going take a miracle on S&D’s part to catch us, because Chase looked downright comfortable as he cruised up Grandfather Mountain. We saw a long line of slower runners up ahead – they were lined up like bowling pins and Chase was bowling a 300. This picture tells the story of what happened next:

Chase picked up a couple of these on the Grandfather Mountain leg. We really should have written smaller because we ran out of room after his leg.

Chase picked up a couple of these on the Grandfather Mountain leg. We really should have written smaller because we ran out of room after his leg.

I was feeling better about things again. Gucci was alive and coming around. He was speaking again. And while he was nowhere near 100%, and it was obvious he wouldn’t be able to run his third leg, at least he was starting to talk again. By this point, he had figured out what had gone wrong – he had overextended himself by trying to keep up with Jess of team Foot RX. What I’ve yet to mention is that while we were in the process of burying Stache & Dash, we were also in the running for the overall mixed win with a couple of other teams, Foot RX  from Asheville and Strictly Running from Columbia. Jess was a girl that ran for Foot RX, and coincidentally rode up with us from Cornelius to the start. And she was fast, very fast, fast enough that it was an error in judgement for even a fast runner like Gucci to try to stay with her. So attempting to stay with her had caused Gucci to trip that lactic acid timebomb, go into oxygen debt, and ultimately pass out. I knew he was back to his old self when I heard him say from the back of the van, “I’m going to friend that girl on Facebook. That’s the least she can do after putting me on the defib.” All was mostly right with the world again. I say mostly because Tim, while able to speak and joke around again, was still in no condition to race.

I drove the van to exchange zone 15, the start of leg 16, and I was confused. I didn’t see parking other than on the side of the road and I was not familiar with this spot at all. This seemed to be a new leg to the race. I parked along the side of the road with everyone else. Ben hopped out to warm up and I went over to check out the exchange zone.

A big crowd was gathered and I hung out trying to surmise the situation. Runners were coming in from the road to the exchange zone which appeared to be the beginnings of a greenway. I was a bit concerned because I knew vans wouldn’t be able to follow the runners here – I was fearful of another navigational headache where we’d have to drive to find the next exchange zone without the benefit of following the runners’ directional signs.

I spotted Charlotte Running Club’s coach/driver, Mike Beigay, standing with super-fast runner Mike Mitchell. So I asked them where the vans went from here. Mitchell set me at ease quickly, “Straight down the road. The next exchange zone is at that elementary school. Remember it from last year?” I did. Good, easy, peezy, lemon squeezy.

The next thing I knew, I heard “JITFO!” and saw lights, Chase’s knuckle lights, rapidly approaching. He zipped in and handed off to Ben who zipped out. Seeing that rapid fire exchange, and seeing how fresh Chase looked after one of the toughest legs on Blue Ridge, I started getting pumped.

And Chase was already pumped and obviously feeling good about the Grandfather Mountain leg as he yelled out, “Very hard?!? Very hard?!? Very NOT hard!” And seeing Chase get more and more pumped got me more and more pumped and I yelled out, “If you don’t know, you better recognize! JITFOOOO!!!!” It was one of those moments that makes the Blue Ridge Relay the incredible experience that it is – a moment of camaraderie, a moment where you realize that you are part of something bigger than just yourself, you are part of a team. This isn’t like the typical road race where you’re just running for yourself – you’re running to help the team and there’s something very special about that.

So my teammate Chase and I laughed and chatted as we ran back to the van, Chase telling me how Daft Punk (at least I think he said Daft Punk – I’m not familiar) was the best music to listen to on a run like that. And I thought how it was dangerous to listen to music during the Blue Ridge Relay – what if a bear snuck up on you while you were listening? Then I thought it wasn’t that big of a deal as Chase could probably listen to Daft Punk while he calmly outran the bear.

I was up next and anxious to get on with it. Chase and I got to the van and jumped in and I was ready to take off when I did a quick roll call. Everybody was in the van except Chelsea. “Chelsea?” Silence. “Anybody seen Chelsea?” Nope. Uh-oh.

Ben had a relatively short leg at just under five and a half miles. He should be done in a little over half an hour. Chase and I had already killed a few minutes. I told everybody to sit tight while I tracked down Chelsea.

I ran out of the van and started calling out, “JITFO! Chelsea?” I yelled it at the port-a-johns. Nothing. I yelled it as I ran towards the exchange zone. “JITFO! Chelsea?” Nada. Oh man, here comes that panicky feeling again.

I got to the exchange zone and called out, “JITFO! Chelsea?” “Over here!” Oh thank god. She told me that she was waiting by the exchange zone to see how far back Stache & Dash was and I responded, “Too far back. We can’t wait for them now. Ben’s got a pretty short leg – we need to hustle.” Before Chase took the baton going into the 10+ mile leg, we were some 10 minutes up. It was probably in the neighborhood of twelve or thirteen now – too long to wait if we wanted to safely make it to the next exchange zone in time.

I drove like a NASCAR driver to Newland Elementary School I was so scared Ben was going to beat us there. I wheeled in and pulled up to a curb in the school parking lot and scrambled to make sure I had all the Blue Ridge accoutrements – blinkies, headlamp, vest – you know the drill by now. Chase lent me his knuckle lights to try out, but I couldn’t figure out how to work the strap and I was too anxious to spend the time to find out. I didn’t know the turns on this leg and I couldn’t find the quarterback arm sleevie thing to carry them, so I was starting to freak out a bit. I carried the little slip of paper that contained the turns and hoped that’d be good enough.

And suddenly Ben was there, yelling “JITFO!” and handing me the baton. As I exited the parking lot, one of the volunteer kids asked, “Do you know where to go?” and I replied, “Not really!” so he ran next to me and gave me directions. I was both grateful and annoyed – grateful for the directions, annoyed that he seemed to be able to effortlessly run next to me while giving directions.

This leg is easy to describe: Up. That’s all you need to know – it just kept climbing. I kept waiting to crest this mountain and start down but it never happened – whoever came up with that phrase “What goes up, must come down” has never run the Blue Ridge Relay.

My splits went like this: 6-something, 7-something, 8-something, 9-something. I kid you not. I just wanted it over with. I have no recollection of the exchange with Laura. I just remember I suddenly wasn’t running anymore, and for that, I was most grateful.

Now it was getting late and I had two legs under my belt. The memory gets spotty as I was becoming more and more fatigued and loopier and loopier after hard runs. I remember being at the next exchange zone and looking over the leg assignments that were about to change. Van 2 was there and I was trying to remain coherent and explain to everybody what was about to happen.

Since Gucci was now out, everybody’s legs would change as we all backed up one to cover. Van 2 would run through their second legs as planned, but when they handed back off to us, Chelsea (runner two) would get Gucci’s leg #25 (instead of her #26). Chase would take Chelsea’s old leg, Ben would take Chase’s old leg, all the way down the line. This was no big deal for most of us, but I tried to have longer chats with those folks who were especially affected. Like Danielle, who went from a 5.2 mile uphill leg to a 9-mile downhill leg, and Adam who basically did the exact opposite. Mark was the big winner in all this as he would be shifting from the 6.5 mile mountain-goat-hard, straight up, leg to a 4.4 flat and easy one instead. But to a man, every single member of the team was awesome about this change – not a single person complained (at least not to me). Don’t get me wrong – folks were worried, like Laura who lost her easiest 4.4 mile leg and would instead run a 7-mile hard one (did I mention she was running on a broken toe?) But nobody complained and everybody agreed to do whatever it took for the team.

Here’s where things start getting really hazy as I was sleep deprived and race-loopy from here on out. Van 2 ran their second round of legs while Chase, with Ben navigating, drove us ahead to leg 25, exchange zone 24, the Bakersville Fire Department, home of the world-famous middle-of-the-night-Blue-Ridge-Relay baked potato. Laura spread out, leaning against me, and tried to sleep and I just tried to rest (having tried to sleep in this race many times before, and failed, I knew better). Again, the directions to the next transition were, what’s the right word, fucking horrible, and we got jammed up behind vans breaking the rules by stopping for their runners (I’m looking at you, Mamas Kicking Asphalt, who did this over and over again – please go home and read the handbook and rules before next year. Please.) But we eventually made it with plenty of time to spare.

I, with most of van 1 in tow, headed straight for the firehouse and the potatoes. Now I’ve heard a lot of people complain about the quality of the Bakersville Fire Department’s spuds, but to me, for whatever reason, they’re the most delicious thing in the world at 2:00 in the morning, or whatever time it was. I queued up as fast as I could and loaded my potato down with every single saturated-fat-laden topping I could find (except for the chilli – even I can’t stomach the chilli). Most of my teammates did the same, except for Gucci whose stomach was still not right – I think I forgot to write about the projectile vomiting earlier. You’re welcome. Gucci opted for Pepsi only.

Stomachs full of baked potato and cheese and sour cream (and one with Pepsi), everybody went back to the van and crashed, except for me. I just kind of wandered around, occasionally hanging out at the exchange zone and watching other teams hand off. I can’t tell you how many times I saw somebody come barreling in, only to find that their other runner wasn’t there. I was so glad that wasn’t us.

I kept up with the progress of the van 2 runners by periodically texting Danielle and Adam. I was a bit concerned as we were nearing the point in the race where last year we’d had a girl take a wrong turn which effectively ensured the victory for Stache & Dash. Around this time, my friend and former Hood to Coast teammate Ghost, aka Mike Moran, texted me for an update. He’d run this race before and was following how various teams were doing – not only the JITFO versus Stache & Dash saga, but also the 3-way elite battle at the top between the Charlotte Running Club, the Asheville Collective, and the Knoxville Track Club, who were still pretty much in a dead heat at this point.

I was in a sleep-deprived, potato-filled-belly, haze. But at least I was just lucid enough to fill out the injury report on Gucci. I didn’t want us losing on a technicality. Once I handed in the slip, we officially became an 11-member squad.

When I got the text from Danielle around 3:10 AM that Maraya had started her leg, I knew we only had about 20 minutes so I went to the van and made sure Chelsea was awake and ready to go.

Van 2 rolled in while Chelsea and I waited at the exchange zone. I spotted the Strictly Running team congregating too and thought to myself, “We’re still in this thing!” But after their runner took off and it was still another 10 minutes or so before Maraya rolled in, I thought, “Maybe not.” But she cranked it in, handed off to Chelsea, and I made sure to yell to the officials, “JITFO, runner 11-12 in, runner 11-2 out!” We were strictly by the book for the duration, again making sure a technicality didn’t derail our shot at redemption.

I chatted with Adam, and even Stache & Dash (Trotter) for a bit. Adam relayed to me how close we had come to disaster. Michelle had nearly taken the same wrong turn we’d taken the year before, but fortunately for us, someone behind her yelled and set her back on track, thank goodness. Next year, I will make sure we know leg 23 if I have to drive up there and paint a glow-in-the-dark arrow on the street!

But yet again, we’d avoided the costly mishap. The team had one more round of legs (well, one runner would have two) and we were done. Nut up or shut up, Buttercup – this is where it gets really tough.

Final Legs

The first two legs aren’t exactly easy, but by the time you get to the third, you’re exhausted, sleep-deprived, and your system has been thrown totally out of whack. You can’t think clearly and navigating becomes something akin to calculus or rocket science or rocket calculus. Put it this way, nothing’s easy now, not even staying awake.

Luckily for you the reader – my mind is a blur so I’m going to fast forward to my next leg. I don’t remember getting there – I just remember thinking I better get ready to run and walking up to the exchange zone when I heard, “JITFO!” and there was Ben holding out the baton. “Shit!” None of my lights were turned on, I was tight, and I was far, far from being ready. Oh well, I fumbled around with my lights, started my watch, and tried to ease into it.

I told myself we had a big lead on Stache & Dash and I just needed to focus on not screwing up. Just run and take the correct turns and we were golden. Oddly enough, I felt good – better than I had on either of my first legs. This is probably attributable to the fact that while this leg was climbing, it was not doing so at the alarmingly steep rate of the first two legs.

I settled into around my marathon pace, 7:40-something, figuring this was good enough to hold our lead, and slow enough that I wouldn’t crash and burn. I passed a driveway with a bunch of people in it, cheering for me at 5:30 in the morning! That was certainly unexpected, but welcomed.

I was locked into the 7:40 range until I started climbing. Again. I’d done more climbing in this race than a 1953 Sir Edmund Hilary. If you don’t get this, come on man, read a book occasionally! By 6 or so miles in, that “feeling good” business was long gone. I switched to just-hang-the-fuck-on gear. My mind clouded over as I got race-loopy again.

When I neared a left turn, I saw the sign but was confused – it had me turning left on what appeared to be a major highway. I thought that couldn’t be right so I started to climb what looked to be a church driveway, which also didn’t look right. Then Rob pulled up beside me in a van – he said something but I couldn’t make it out, I just yelled, “Where do I go?” and Rob, no doubt thinking I had completely lost it, which I had, pointed me onto the highway, so that’s where I went.

I was super confused through here, but I kept running. There was construction on the highway with an entire lane coned off from traffic – this would have been a great place to run, but it was still dark and I couldn’t see clearly. Thinking the construction lane might end abruptly, like maybe just fall off into an abyss or something, I was afraid to run that route and instead ran on the busy highway. Like a big dummy.

With about a mile to go, I heard footsteps. “Shit, some jackass is going to make me race”, I thought. So I sped up – so did the footsteps. Then they came up beside me and some guy said, “Come on, finish strong!” I was sleep-deprived cranky and for a split second, I hated this guy. I just wanted to scream, “Fuck you! I just want to lie down in the fetal position and sleep, you asshole!” But instead, I channeled my rage to my legs and took off. Just stay ahead of him. Just stay ahead of him. “Finish strong?!? How’s this for finishing strong?” I thought as I kicked.

I saw Laura up ahead and I sprinted for her. I glanced behind me to see the guy encouraging me was from Strictly Running! Hurray, I held him off, we have the mixed team lead! I helped the team – I hung onto the lead! I handed the baton to Laura while my Strictly Running competition handed his off to his teammate, who instantly zoomed past Laura.

The Strictly Running guy was super nice and said things like, “Great run out there! Way to make me work!” And I felt a little guilty for hating him. A little, but not much.

I staggered around again, and felt like hell. I talked to Chelsea who told me there was no way she could run a fourth leg. So back to the officials I went to fill out a second injury report. Moving back another spot, Chase would be running a fourth leg for a total of 27 miles.

At least I was done. I toweled off and changed out of my sopping wet running clothes. Then we gathered up the troops and drove ahead.

Apparently, I had spent more time changing clothes than I realized, and/or Laura was running faster than I thought she could go on a broken toe as by the time we passed her, she was probably four or five miles into her 7-mile leg. We booked it past  her and drove up to what Mark dubbed “the bridge Nazi” exchange zone, so dubbed because a man there wouldn’t let anyone walk on the bridge where the runners would cross. We parked near van 2 where Mark, the luckiest Blue Ridge Relay runner of all time, was getting ready for his third short, easy leg.

I looked like Nostradamus because earlier when folks asked me when to expect Laura, I had answered, “7:35″ and she crossed the bridge and handed the baton to Mark at exactly 7:35. Chase grabbed his stuff and jumped into the other van since he would now be anchoring. The rest of van 1 climbed in and shot ahead to leg 31, home of the famous pancakes.

Again, some people complain about the pancakes and coffee here in the Blue Ridge Relay, but again, I think they’re some of the most delicious food I’ve ever eaten. There’s just something about sleep deprivation to me that makes food taste good. I pounded coffee here because I was starting to crash hard. Gucci, Ben, Laura, Chelsea, and I sat around and ate pancakes and told anyone who would listen about how Gucci had nearly died. We saw Jess “Defib” Alley and Gucci told her the story of how she’d nearly killed him.

And we were done. We finished our breakfast, piled back into the van, and I drove us towards the finish line in Asheville. Since I inadvertently took a couple of cat naps on the interstate, I stopped at a gas station and bought a Kickstart. Those things work because I was wide awake after that! And I made it to Asheville without falling asleep and killing everyone, so that was good.

After much consternation over trying to follow the directions in the handbook again, we finally found the Y and parked so we could take the race’s traditional free showers. When we started walking in, Paul Mainwaring, of the Charlotte Running Club team, was walking out, furious. “Don’t bother!” he cried. “They’ve just said that showers are $5 even though the website clearly says they were to be free!” I walked in and tried to negotiate, but the Y held firm. “We know it says free on the website, but the race director put that out there before he cleared it with the Y. We have to charge you $5 – we just talked to the YMCA executive director and he confirmed.” I tried to negotiate, but the best I could get was he’d let anyone with a Y membership card in to shower for free.

Without a Y membership, I refused to pay $5 for a shower. It was just the principle of the thing. So I went to the van and took another Blue Ridge shower instead. After all, I had a hotel room, complete with a shower, waiting for me – I could take a nice, long luxurious shower in a few hours. I’d wait. Gucci held out his keys to the little scanner, said “Beep!”, and just walked right in and took a free shower. He was feeling better.

We made our way downtown to the site of the finish line. And soon, I spotted Chase sprinting up the street. I yelled to the team and we all ran in together as Chase came by. Here is a photographic progression:

Here comes JITFO

 

jitfo

 

jitfo

jitfo

jitfo

 

jitfo

 

jitfo

the end 7

the end 8

Down goes Frazier!

Down goes Frazier!

Chase crossed the line and went down and I got a little nervous because it was way too reminiscent of Gucci. And another deja vu moment occurred when Ben ran over and held up Chase’s legs. I yelled over to Ben, “You spent almost as much time holding up people’s legs as you did running!” But Chase proved to be alright, albeit a little light-headed.

We were finished and we snapped a few finishing line pics. But we weren’t leaving until Stache & Dash finished! There was still some unfinished business. So we waited for them. And we waited. And we waited some more. When they finally came through some 25 minutes later, I waited patiently as they took their own team photos. Then I grabbed Rob and made him and his team assume the position they made us assume one year earlier:

I waited a year to have this picture taken! Kudos to Dave for being the one brave enough to grow out the Stache! That should be a requirement to be on their team!

I waited a year to have this picture taken! Kudos to Dave for being the one man brave enough to grow out the Stache! That should be a requirement to be on their team!

With the race finally over and all the photo ops complete, we headed to Mellow Mushroom, or as we affectionately like to refer to it, the 37th leg. There,  we completed the final installment of the 2014 JITFO versus Stache & Dash rivalry. Rob bought a round of drinks for JITFO. And I must say he was probably a better sport about it than I was a year ago:

Rob buys a round for JITFO!

Rob buys a round for JITFO!

It was an epic battle. We finished second in the mixed category, and tenth overall, and most importantly, higher in the results than our Stache & Dash pals. And while I swore on Saturday that I’d never run the Blue Ridge Relay again, today I’m not so sure. I really would like to bring home the mixed title at least once, and maybe even break the 24-hour barrier in the process.

Kudos to each and every team member of JITFO 2014 – you really are all my personal heroes. If I do put together another team next year, I hope you will consider running with us again for a shot at the mixed title!

JITFO!

JITFO 2014! Front row (from left to right): Adam Mayes, Michelle Hazelton, Maraya Slatter, Lisa Sluiter, Laura Gray, Chelsea Holt, Ben Gordon. Back row (from left to right): Danielle Crockford, Mark Ulrich, Tim Baucom, Allen Strickland, Chase Eckard

 


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