The Blue Ridge Relay

Some of the beautiful countryside along the Blue Ridge Relay course

Some of the beautiful countryside along the Blue Ridge Relay course

By the time you reach 43, new adventures in life become increasingly rare. But the Blue Ridge Relay is just that – an adventure. If you’re a runner and you get the opportunity to run in this race, do it.

Most road races are nearly identical. The next race is typically very much like the last. A crowd of people simultaneously take off when the gun fires, and everyone races, individually, to the finish. Unless you’re the leader, following the course never becomes an issue since you can always just follow the runner(s) in front of you. The Blue Ridge Relay does not follow this formula.   You’ll be running for a team.  You’ll be running alone in the dark, often unable to see anyone in front, or behind, you.  You’ll run wearing a safety vest, blinking lights, and a headlight.  If you’re directionally-challenged, like I am, you’ll either memorize your route and/or run with a map (I did both).

The Blue Ridge Relay, aka ‘BRR’ (since we’re in America where everything has an acronym), is a 200+mile relay race. It mostly consists of 12-member teams, each running 3 legs, totalling on-average around 18 miles. I use the term ‘mostly’ because there are a few ultra teams, with 6, 4, and in one case, 1 masochistic member.

The race is nearly as much about logistics as it is about running. There are 36 legs across the 200+ miles. You have to get your next runner to the next exchange zone before the last runner gets there – this is not always as easy as it might sound. For example, there are a couple of short, less than 3-mile legs. You literally have to race your vehicle past your runner to have the next person at the next exchange zone in time, ready to receive the ‘baton’ (actually a plastic strip that quickly converts to a bracelet). This can be quite challenging, especially when you don’t know the roads and, as the official website states, most GPS devices don’t recognize many of the tiny, in some cases, gravel, country roads.   You’ll spend a lot of time looking at roadmaps.

In this 24+hour race, you will be sleep-deprived; you will be dirty; you will be hungry. If you don’t have the logistics down, you will be very sleep-deprived, very dirty, and very hungry.  The team I ran with, the Providence Harriers, has competed in the BRR for several years now. They’ve mastered the logistical challenges. 3 vans (with only 2 on the course at any given time as per the rules) of 4 runners each were staggered to share 2 separate sleeping stops – a mountain cabin and a hotel room. We ate, took showers, and caught a few hours of sleep, in actual beds, between runs. This gave us an advantage over many of the other 100 teams or so. I saw people with sleeping bags laid out on grass, in church sanctuaries, and everywhere in-between, across the course.

If you don’t adequately prepare, you could be like 1 team I saw. A runner, just having run 6 miles in the middle of the night, up a brutal climb on a mountain gravel road, sprinted to the exchange zone only to find that no one from his team was there to accept the baton. He cursed profusely and said things like, ‘Why did I just bust my ass?!’ I felt for him. We were very fortunate. My van consisted of 4 runners that had never run this race, and our buddy Todd who had. Todd (unable to run this year due to injury) served as our van captain – getting us from exchange zone to exchange zone, to our rest stops, making sure we didn’t oversleep, reading off a checklist to ensure we had all the necessary gear, etc. He did a tremendous job.

The actual running itself – if you want to be euphemistic, you might call it ‘challenging’. But I think ‘brutal’ is more appropriate. Some of the legs are so steep, you need a sherpa to get to the top. Check this one out – the legs are rated as easy, moderate, hard, or very hard but this one is rated ‘mountain goat hard’ since it winds 6 miles straight-up. Nobody in our van escaped the tough legs – everyone had at least one ‘nasty’ climb. I knew my first leg, # 10, would be tough – it was labelled ‘hard’ and it didn’t disappoint. I’ve done what I consider a significant amount of hill work over the past few weeks, but none of that compared to running up the mountain. I expected this though and gutted my way through. What I wasn’t prepared for was the difficulty and steepness of my second leg, #22, which was designated ‘moderate’. Yeah, it was moderate, if the surface of the sun is moderately warm, if Usain Bolt is moderately fast. Wow. And I ran it after 1:00 a.m. – my first night run anywhere without plenty of street lights. When you run with a headlamp on (it’s a headband with a tiny, bright light on it), the running experience becomes surreal. You have this bizarre tunnel vision. Now run at race pace, up desolate mountain, unpaved roads, and try to focus on where you’re supposed to turn next. Suddenly ‘moderate’ became, for me anyway, quite difficult. But I survived and passed the ‘baton’ to Dean who cranked out his own, equally ‘moderate’ leg #23.

There are so many stories to this adventure. Like during my first leg, a random, friendly dog ran beside me for some 6 or 7 miles of my 8+mile leg. Like the moths as big as your hand that swooped down at my headlight during my night run. Like Rick’s spill during his night/morning leg. His headlight failed to show him the large pothole looming in the darkness ahead and he stepped in it, twisting his ankle, and then rolled across the pavement. He popped right up and kept going, albeit with some wicked scrapes and bruises, and one hell of an experience that he’ll not soon forget. Like when Derrick handed the ‘baton’, curled into bracelet form, to the uber-fast Jonathan, who dropped it. As Jonathan continued running at race pace, the ‘baton’ rolled next to him for a few paces, and he just reached down and scooped it up, barely slowing at all. Like how Christi, a Bank of America empoyee, spent the weekend in tight spaces with, in her own words, ‘the enemy’, as Derrick, Dean, Todd and I all work for Wachovia/Wells Fargo.

All in all, the Blue Ridge Relay is an incredible experience. If you’re a runner and you’re looking for something other than just the usual road race, if you want an adventure, then next year’s race is for you – I highly recommend it. Just do a lot of hill work between now and then.

Postscript:  At the time of publishing, I had not yet heard the official results.  Yesterday, shortly after we finished, we thought we may have finished in the top-10.  I’ll update the post when I find out our official place.

Final Update: The Providence Harriers finished 3rd in the Open division!   The team was pleasantly surprised at how well we placed.

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3 Responses to “The Blue Ridge Relay”

  1. aaron Says:

    How are the legs feeling a week later? Thx for the link to the club site on your blog. Interested in a shirt? Info on club website. just shoot us an email with design and size. Happy weekend!

    • Allen Strickland Says:

      Hey Aaron,

      The legs still feel a little beat up (I did Yasso 800’s on Wed. too, so that didn’t help), but nothing like Sunday when I could barely walk – felt almost identical to the day after a marathon.

      By the way, saw your workout mile times on Facebook the other day. Sick fast dude.

      Yeah, I want a t-shirt – I’ll shoot over there now and order. Thanks.

  2. christian Says:

    I ran leg 23 the last 2 years and can vouch for the fact that both the climb on 22 and leg 23 are in no way moderate! Great run on Salem Lake today!

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