Blue Ridge Relay 2011

Finally, this year’s Blue Ridge Relay race recap.  Here we go.

Pre-Race

The days leading up to the race consisted of a flurry of preparation, wrapped in the trappings of life’s everyday stresses.  I was still trying to get reacclimated to the ‘real’ world after having just gotten back from Hood to Coast and here I was doing it all over again.

In fact, I was still in the Portland airport and about to hop on my flight home when some of the most significant Blue Ridge Relay email correspondence took place.  Dean and I were advocating for an early morning Friday drive up to Grayson Highlands State Park in Virginia, site of the start, since our official start time wasn’t until 10:00 a.m.  But Todd (that’s right, the 3 PMT Amigos were together again for BRR) was adamant that we go up Thursday night and stay in his cabin in Boone, a little over an hour from the start.  Our point was that it wasn’t worth driving up the night before and risk not sleeping well (6 folks sharing 2 bedrooms and a sleeper sofa) when we could all sleep in our own beds and leave around 6 a.m. with plenty of time to spare.  Todd’s point was if something went awry – like the one year the gang was in an auto accident on the way up – we could adjust on the fly and still make it to the start in time.  As Todd was more emphatic, we succumbed and headed up to Boone Thursday after work.

We all met at my place since I had procured our vehicle, my dad’s mini-van.  Things went smoothly as we quickly loaded up the van.  I had sent an email asking everyone to pack light and luckily everyone did.  We had just enough room to comfortably squeeze in the 6 of us and our belongings.

I was glad to find out that Todd has cable in his cabin so that when we arrived we got to watch much of the Packers/Saints game.  I have Aaron Rodgers on my fantasy football team and he was rolling, throwing a couple of touchdown passes in the first quarter.  (Aside: No way I could possibly lose in fantasy football this week with Aaron going off, even though I was facing Ben Hovis who I never beat in anything.  So far he has bested me in running (of course), ping pong, and putt putt.  But I had him this time, right?  Wrong.  I lost on Monday night when stupid Reggie Bush dove into the end zone late in the game for an otherwise meaningless score, but a TD that gave Ben the victory over me.  I haven’t given up on my quest to find something I can beat Ben at.  Tiddly winks?  Jenga?  Trivial Pursuit?  It will happen one day Ben, mark my words!)

I was anxious when we started divvying up sleeping assignments.  I was a little relieved when Dean and I got a bedroom to share.  Relieved that it was my friend Dean but still rather anxious as I don’t often share a bed with a dude.  I have the typical heterosexual paranoia of something like this going down.  (Another aside – after getting back and telling the story of the entire weekend to Bill, he, ever the comedian, said, “Let me get this straight.  If I were to ask you, “Who was the last person you shared a bed with?”, the answer would be Dean?  Seriously, Dean?”  Hardy har har.)  So even though Dean didn’t snore, my anxiety kept me up, yet again.  Or maybe it was just self-fulfilling prophecy.  Regardless, I slept little.  And in a little karmic twist of fate, Todd found himself sharing a sleeper sofa with a snorer so he got very little sleep as well.  I am declaring it right now – next year, I’m not going up until Friday.  I grow very weary of sleep deprivation on nights before races.

Friday morning, my dad’s mini-van lugged our sleep-deprived crew up to the start inside Grayson Highlands State Park.  We grabbed our race bibs and t-shirts and had this photo taken:

Once again, 1 knucklehead manages to stand out in the team pic. Why didn't that goofball wear his Blue Ridge Relay t-shirt? From left to right: April, Angie, Chris, Yours Truly, Dean, Todd

One of the great things about the Blue Ridge Relay is that I get to see so many runners I know.  As soon as we pulled in, I spotted friends.  I saw my former archrival Boriana and asked her what legs she was running.  I was a little disappointed to find out we were running different legs – it would have been super fun to race her again.  I saw and talked to various Charlotte runners including Stan (who was running the same legs as me) and Jinnie (sitting this one out) Austin, Michelle Hazelton, Emily Hansen, and more.

Before I knew it, our team, the Providence Harriers, was called to the starting area and seconds later our race began as Chris started the first leg.  I snapped these pics:

Chris, in blue in the middle, lines up. Whatever you do Chris, do not lose to the pimp. Nothing is worse than losing to a pimp, except maybe losing to a taco (and no, that is not code. I literally last to a taco in a Halloween race last year.)

Chris drops the pimp off the line.

Quickly we jumped into the van and raced Chris to the first exchange zone, where I’d be taking the baton.  On the way out of the parking lot, Laura, directly in front of us, looked nervous as she waited in line at the port-a-johns.  I rolled down my window and yelled, “Get out of the way, Laura Sudduth!”  I knew she’d be really nervous and I hoped my levity would help her relax as I stuck my arm out of the window and gently nudged her, pretending to shove her out of the way.

Leg 2, 7.5 miles “Hard”

Elevation charts of Leg 2. Top is from BRR website, bottom is from my Garmin.

Minutes later, Dean took over the driver’s seat from me so I could get out and warm up for a minute.  Chris only had a 4-mile first leg so he’d be showing up any minute and I’d be racing.  The beauty of being in van 1 is that you don’t have to wait very long before you run.  And sure enough, it wasn’t long before Chris showed up and handed me the baton:

Time to rock and roll!

Charlottean and fellow Charlotte Running Club member Dalena Custer (you may know her as Dalena Mae Custer, hence the recent nickname “Run DMC”), running for the Crazy Hot Legs team, had gotten the baton seconds earlier so I thought I’d try to chase her.  I realized very early on that wasn’t happening as she was flying, so I decided to just try to keep her in sight in hopes of staying on course (I noticed she was carrying little laminated cheat-sheets containing the directions for our legs).  But she gapped me so significantly so early that I quickly lost sight of her.  Oh well, on my own.

Maybe a mile into my first leg and I've already given up on trying to chase down Dalena.

Soon, some guy passed me and said something like “Good job”.  I’m sure he was only being nice but being the competitive jerk that I am, I took it as a condescending slight.  As he went by, I watched him carefully and summed him up.  He looked to be about the same age as me, maybe even a little older.  He got a pretty big lead on me, but then he appeared to slow down so that he wasn’t pulling away quickly, if at all.  I decided to try to reel him in.

The leg seemed a little tougher than the elevation chart led me to believe.  Those tiny little bumps on the Garmin elevation chart?  They seemed like pretty significant hills during the run, especially the one at mile 4.  But I just rolled on, ever chasing the guy up ahead.

When we passed one of the ubiquitous yellow BRR signs with an arrow pointing to the right, the guy turned right but then came back – he apparently blew past the sign without looking and he wanted to confirm he was going the right way.  “Thank you”, I thought to myself, “You just gave me 3 or 4 seconds”.

By the time we hit the big hill at mile 4, I could tell he was slowing.  He was coming back to me.  When we hit the downhill, I cut loose, letting gravity do all the work – all I did was try to stay in control.  I was a little concerned – this was some serious quad pounding and I had a very tough 10-mile leg coming up later.  But I really wanted to catch this guy.  When he passed a certain tree, I checked my watch.  When I passed the tree, I checked my watch again.  He had a 10 second lead on me.  About a half mile later, I clocked us against another landmark.  His lead was down to 7 seconds.

With about a mile to go, we navigated a little hill where the guy’s team was waiting at the top.  They cheered him on wildly and he slowed to pump both fists in the air, sort of posing.  “Thanks again”, I thought as I sped up.  When I ran past his team, I heard some guy say, “This guy’s going to catch him” and then he yelled to his buddy, “Speed up and don’t look back!”  This juiced me up more and I sped up faster even as my opponent began to fade more.  His form was getting sloppy and I knew I had him.

Past mile 7, one final significant hill awaited and it was here that I made my move.  I blasted by the guy and said, “Good job!”, maybe just a tad too facetiously.  Yes, I’m a jerk, I know.

I saw Todd up ahead as I kicked it in.  I came in a little too hot and tried to hand off the baton as I went by but flubbed it.  I had to stop cold and hand it back to Todd, now behind me.  Here’s photo evidence of the botched exchange:

Todd and I screwing up the exchange a little, but at least the baton never touched the ground.

Todd took off for his first leg and I jogged a little in a futile attempt to cool down.  I spotted Stache and Dash, the team of many of my pals, including Laura, Sarah, Anne Marie, Emily, Jamaar, Christi (Carter), Rob Ducsay, Jessica Bilbrey, John Fillette, and even Bjorn who flew all the way from Sweden (or is it Norway?  I get all those Scandinavian countries confused) so I jogged over and chatted with a few of them.  Then the UCRR “Designated Drinkers” van rolled in and I talked with friend and fellow UFC fan Mark Ulrich.  But I only had a few minutes and then it was back in the van to beat Todd to the next exchange.

I tried to fill Dean in on the legs he was about to run as they were the same I had run a year earlier, but I’m not sure how much help I was as my memory is quite suspect.  I did what I could before Todd came rolling in and handed the baton to Dean.

Dean yells at me about my worthless advice on his upcoming leg.

Todd hands off to Dean while some random girl looks on.

Again, we hustled to the van to beat Dean to the exchange zone.  There, I got to chat more with UCRR, who was still neck and neck with us at this point.  But before we could get too deep into conversation, Dean was in and handing off to April.  Back in the van Harriers!

April had leg 5.  Todd ran it last year and I made a mental note – never run leg 5.  It sucks, consisting of a slew of turns in downtown West Jefferson.  It’s everything I hate: running through busy (well not exactly Times Square, but busy for the rural mountains) city streets, lots of turns, etc.  It’s aesthetically the ugliest leg of the race – no beautiful scenery, only ugly little warehouses and dingy storefronts.  And it’s very easy to miss a turn.  Which April did.  Luckily our van was directly behind her when it happened so we honked furiously and she quickly righted her course.  She only lost a few seconds but Scott McCully of the UCRR team seized on the opportunity to pass her (after he missed the turn as well but we pointed it out to him on our way to tell April).

Moments before the missed turn. I know it's before because April is still smiling here. She put her determined game face on after going off course.

We drove ahead and parked at a gas station near the next turn, which was also a little tricky – we wanted to make sure we were there to ensure April, and everyone else for that matter, knew where to turn.  The UCRR team had exactly the same idea as they were already parked there when we arrived.  Scott came through ahead of April, but only by a few seconds.  Once we had April headed in the right direction, we scurried along to the next exchange zone.

There we ran into our buddies from DART, the Davidson Area Running Team, including Chad Randolph, Dave Munger, and Mark Ippolito so we stopped and talked with them for a bit while we waited for April to arrive, which she did quickly, mere seconds after Scott handed off to a UCRR girl.  April handed off to Angie, a very strong runner, a 3:17 marathoner, and our tight battle with UCRR was about to end.

April hands off to Angie...

...and then Angie subsequently drops the poor UCRR girl who picked a bad time to walk up the hill.

Angie flew up the hill and in mere seconds caught and passed the UCRR girl and then proceeded to put an insurmountable gap between our team and theirs.  It was fun battling it out with the Designated Drinkers but now it was on to Stache and Dash.

We raced ahead of Angie to the next exchange zone where we’d finally meet up with the rest of our team, in Van 2, for the first time in the race.  There, they’d hand off the pasta and other food stuffs for us to take back to Todd’s cabin where we’d throw together a delicious pasta dinner.

As we milled about and chatted with our teammates, I ran into various other running friends.  We talked to Joey, a member of our team a year ago, who had since defected to a Greenville team, Booty Call.  I saw Alice Rogers and asked her, “Hey Alice, are you running this?  What team?” and she pointed to her neon-bright yellow t-shirt with huge, bold black letters, “Team Awesome”.

“Ah cool, who’s on your team?”

“A bunch of awesome people!”

Thanks for the details, Alice.  I later found out my buddy and former archrival Boriana was also on Team Awesome – that team was loaded with fast girls!

Me, in the yellow singlet, killing time at the exchange zone, while Henry "The Mayor" chats it up with other teams as Kurt looks on.

Angie hands off to Rick, the fastest of the Providence Harriers.

Anne Marie and Sarah hopped out of the Stache and Dash van so I yelled, “You’re going down Stache and Dash!” to which Anne Marie responded “At least we’re not riding around in a mini-van!”

This is the point in the race where the Providence Harriers gain their advantage.  While most other teams are still stuck, crammed together in a van, just waiting around for hours, we head over to Todd’s cabin and eat like kings, take a shower, and even catch a nap in a real bed.  I hope Anne Marie was comfy in her ‘real’ van while I was sprawled out on a queen-sized bed.

But time fast forwarded through the luxurious moments in the mountain cabin and it seemed like mere minutes before we were headed back onto the course.  This time we met our teammates at the busiest exchange zone of the race, the Tanger Outlet.  Here I chatted with even more running buddies, including my Hood to Coast teammate Mike Moran, aka Ghost:

Big Kahunas Ghost and Tracker at exchange zone 12, the Tanger Outlet.

And then Chris was running again and we were driving past him to the next exchange zone where I’d be running my second, and nastiest, leg, leg 14, a brutal 10-mile climb up the side of Grandfather Mountain.

Chris runs his second leg.

Leg 14, 10 miles “Very Hard”

Yeah, this looks fun. If you forced someone to do what I was about to do for 'fun', it would be a violation of the Geneva Convention.

The second leg is when things start getting tough.  You’re running your second race in about 10 hours.  I was tight and sore and my achilles hurt.  The temperature was rapidly dropping (which, while not good to wait around in, would be very good to run in).   I put on my required reflective vest, blinking lights in front and back, and my headlamp.  I slogged, er limped, around trying to warm up.  I was not looking forward to my 10-mile climb.

We were still battling it out with Stache and Dash, but had a slight lead on them at this point.  Jamaar showed up, ready to go head-to-head with yours truly.  I took the opportunity to talk some smack, “Stache and Dash might pass the Providence Harriers but it won’t be during Jamaar’s leg” but Jamaar was nice and magnanimous, effectively nullifying my bravado.  Dalena lined up as well as we were still neck-in-neck with Crazy Hot Legs too.  She had her little laminated cheat sheet until I told her she wouldn’t need it- there were no turns during our 10 miles, only climbs straight up the mountain.  She ditched her directions as her runner came in and she was off.

Absolutely glowing as I await Chris' arrival while Todd looks on.

Cutting up moments before being tortured on the side of a mountain. Todd, in black sweats, and Angie, apparently in a snuggie, look on.

Jamaar, being his usual, friendly, self even as I talk some major smack. Todd wisely wears all black with no reflective gear while in a dark and busy exchange area.

Chris rolled in and handed me the baton as I made a conscious effort to start out easy.  I needn’t have worried as my sore achilles guaranteed a slow start.  Eventually it warmed up and the pain dissipated as I began to climb.  And climb.  And climb some more.

I had counted on a tough uphill climb.  What I hadn’t counted on were strong winds and, the worst part for me, a steeply crowned road so that I felt like I was running sideways and about to topple over at any second.  Whenever I could, I moved to the very center of the road and ran between the yellow lines, on the flattest, most even, part of the road.  But I constantly had to move over as team vans, and a few other random cars and trucks, came by.  At one point, some what I assumed to be local kids, most likely drunk local kids, blazed through and apparently intentionally, screaming like the hillbillies they probably actually are, ran me off the road.  I cursed and dreamed of being alone with each of them, one at a time, in a UFC cage.  But nothing much I could do about it except get back on the road and run.

I tried to maintain sub-8 pace, which I did whenever the road leveled off, which seemed rare.  It was more above 9’s on the way up, sub-7’s on the level and down bits.  I was grateful when our van drove by and cheered for me (which we did for each of our runners on every leg) and for the occasional cheers from other teams as well.  Otherwise, I struggled along on my own, the quintessential loneliness of the long distance runner never more apparent.

I spotted a few red blinking lights ahead in the distance and I focused on reeling them in.  I got a little cocky when I came upon 2 guys and 1 said, “I hear fast footsteps.  There’s a strong runner approaching.” as I blew past them.  Moments later, some guy blazed past me and much more emphatically, quickly than I had passed those other guys.  I recognized him – a gray-haired buddy of Jordan’s whom I had met on a Davidson long run once, although I couldn’t recall his name.  “He must be a stud”, I thought to myself as he passed me on a downhill when I wasn’t exactly jogging.  I was probably hovering around 6:30 pace, maybe even a little faster, and he blew by me like I was walking.  All cockiness instantly erased.

I continued to plug away, occasionally looking over the wall to my left.  My headlamp illuminated a ways, but the dropoff went much, much farther down – it looked like a bottomless abyss.  And with the grade of the road driving me down towards the ledge, it was harrowing to look over there – I stopped looking to my left.

I was worried that Jamaar might roll up on me any second and I kept looking for the Stache and Dash van to pass.  But they didn’t come by until 8 miles into the leg.  I figured I was safe at that point – the Harriers must have had a substantial lead on S&D by that point.

Finally, what seemed like days later, I reached the exchange zone and handed off to Todd.  I was downright loopy, reminiscent of Coach after his hilly leg 20 (I think it was 20) in Hood to Coast.  He had stumbled around and I had laughed thinking he was joking.  He wasn’t joking.  Now karma played me a little visit as my legs nearly gave way beneath me.  I was sopping wet and rapidly getting chilled in the windy, cool night of the mountains.  I’m quite fuzzy on details for the next few exchanges.

We were at a logistically tricky part of the course but luckily Todd had worked out our strategy in advance.  I was still basically incoherent from my run,even more so than usual, and just did as I was told, which was basically “Get in the van.  Now.”  We had to rush because Todd and Dean both had short, fast legs here and if we didn’t plan carefully and hustle, a runner would beat the van to an exchange zone.

But at some point – I’m still hazy as to when exactly this occurred – we stopped and I got out and fumbled around in my bag in the back of the van to try and find some dry clothes to change into.  I managed to gather some stuff and then headed over to the port-a-johns to change.  I was grateful a few minutes later when Chris called to me “Allen?  You okay in there?”  I was and told him so, but I just as easily could have been passed out in there.  I finally got changed and stumbled back to the van as we rushed to the next zone.

About the time I started to normalize, April was getting ready to run again.  The officials instructed us there had been an accident near the next exchange zone.  Man, April was having some bad luck on each of her runs.  But nothing could be done except to take the baton and run as Dean came storming in and handed off.

We got stuck in a mini-traffic jam of stopped vans, queued up behind the tow truck pulling away a van ahead.  We were on the verge of panicking, especially when April passed us, but then the tow truck pulled out and we were all moving again.  We were able to park and get Angie to the exchange zone just as April ran in.  Angie took off and April told us how she had been chased by dogs!  But she was smiling as she relayed the story so I could only assume she was still having fun.

We encountered the ever-present Nazi volunteer (like that dumb guy that won’t shut up in a meeting, there’s always one) after Angie’s exchange.  Angie finished at almost exactly the same time the Charlotte Running Club and Asheville Running Collective rolled through in their epic battle for running supremacy.  You are required to check in at every exchange, but it’s usually a simple matter of telling the volunteer “Runner 438 coming in.  Runner 439 going out.” and they write it down without issue.  But Nazi volunteer got overwhelmed when CRC and ARC flashed through, along with 3 or 4 other teams, so that when Angie reported our exchange, the volunteer was flustered and she decried, “I’m penalizing your team.  You didn’t check in properly.”  This is where sleepy, cranky Allen chimed in and argued with her.  We jawed back and forth for a second until I realized I was wasting my breath – there was no logic whatsoever to her argument as she said things like, “This is a person’s house!  People are standing in the road!”  Seriously, things like that.  It was like trying to argue that you didn’t commit a foul in a basketball game and the ref says to you, “There are people yelling in the stands!  The buzzer is really loud!”  I walked away, hoping we wouldn’t be penalized time.  But Todd allayed my concern by saying something like, “Christian’s a lawyer.  If they penalize us, he’ll mount a strong appeal.”  I was confident we’d be okay.

Having finished our next series of legs, Van 1 headed to a little motel we rented in Spruce Pines.  There we’d enjoy our second logistical advantage – more showers and more naps.  On our way, the most bizarre event of the entire race awaited us.

We passed one of the signs for a turn on a short leg.  Just past it, we saw a group of runners who had missed the turn and were turning around to get back on course.  Maybe 2 miles later, we saw a lone girl running and it looked as if she had missed the same turn and had gone miles the wrong way.  We yelled out of the van, “Hey, so sorry, but you’re going the wrong way!  You missed the turn way back there!”  She stopped and looked confused and started to turn around but then thought better of it and continued the way she was going.  We tried to convince her again but she just said, “No thank you” and continued the way she was going.  Her team van was behind us and we saw them call to her and she continued on.

Then it hit us, actually it hit Todd and he told us what had happened.  She was going the right way.  Todd explained that the leg continued winding around then put the runners out ahead where she was.  Here’s the bizarre part.  This exact same thing had happened to our runner, Christi, 2 years ago!  On the exact same leg!  A van had yelled to her that she was going the wrong way, when she wasn’t.  And we had yelled to her, “Don’t listen to them Christi!  You’re going the right way!”  We never fully understood what had occurred until now.  In a bizarre twist of fate, very karmic, very Twilight Zone-esque, we had been thrust into the role of the other van!

But no harm, no foul, she was on course so nothing left to do but head to Spruce Pines to shower and sleep, which we did.  A couple of hours later, with our brains still hazy, we were heading back to run again.

Leg 26, 4.5 miles “Moderate”

I was in a daze after having slept about 1.5 hours.  Just enough to dip into a deep sleep.  But I was yanked awake.  I threw on the night gear and zombied my way towards my next run.

Before I knew what was happening, I was running again.  And honestly, I remember little about this leg.  It was gut check time.  I was sore and tight and exhausted.  I shifted into auto-pilot and gutted out 4.5 miles.  I was just grateful that the leg was short.  It was over pretty quickly and I was relieved.

Things were a blur.  The next thing I remember, we were at the big exchange zone and Angie was handing off to Rick.  Van 1 was finished racing.  We hit the pancakes and sausage and I chowed hard.

Rick had already finished the toughest leg of the race, the Mountain Goat leg, by the time we were back on the road.  We snapped this photo of Kurt on our drive towards the finish in Asheville:

Kurt runs his final leg.

Todd drove us into Asheville as I drifted in and out of consciousness.  We finally found the Y who was allowing all BRR participants free showers.  We ran into CRC members and friends John Compton, Billy Shue, and Chris Lamperski.  I was shocked to discover that Asheville had somehow managed to beat the loaded CRC team, by a razor-thin margin of 2 minutes!  What a battle – both teams destroyed the course record as a rivalry was born.

We showered and headed over to the site of the finish to wait for Henry, our final runner.  Crazy Hot Legs finished before us while we finished before Stache and Dash.  As I had all along the course, I chatted it up with various running pals.

Then in came Henry and we all gathered and had this pic taken:

The team minus Rick. He showed up for the next pic...

Rick makes it in this pic, but he and Henry whip around as a finishing runner approaches.

And then, my favorite part of every Blue Ridge Relay – the post-race at Mellow Mushroom.  Pizza, beer, fun, and friends – how can you go wrong?  Bonus – when Stache and Dash showed up, I got to talk even more smack, especially since we beat them.

Blue Ridge 2011 successfully completed, my second relay in 3 weeks (only Mike Moran ran more).  I look forward to next year when I’ll combine members of this year’s Providence Harriers and Stache and Dash teams and name the new team “The Harrier Staches” (assuming Anne Marie doesn’t kill me first).  See you in the mountains next year!

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One Response to “Blue Ridge Relay 2011”

  1. Stephen Spada Says:

    Great job Allen…simply brilliant!

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