The Birth of A Rivalry – the 2013 Blue Ridge Relay

Blue Ridge Relay
blo͞o/ rij/ ˈrēˌlā/
1. A 208-mile relay road race winding through the beautiful mountain countryside from Grayson Highlands State Park in Virginia to Asheville, North Carolina.
I’ve run this race 4 times before last weekend (One, Two, Three, Four) and loved it every time.  A couple of years ago, when I ran Hood to Coast, while I had a great time, I was a bit underwhelmed – although bigger and better known, Hood to Coast can’t compare to Blue Ridge in terms of beauty or high adventure.  It’s Armageddon versus Almost Famous – yeah, the one is bigger and flashier and more popular and makes more money, but the other is simply flat-out better.
For my fifth go at Blue Ridge, I decided to put my own team together rather than just run on someone else’s squad.  So first things first, I needed a team name.  In April of 2012, when I was staggering around in the sweltering heat of the Boston Marathon, near mile 24 or so, a drunk Bostonian screamed at me, “Jog it out!  Jog it the f**k out!”  And suddenly I had an acronym and a team name:  JITFO.
While I was building the JITFO mixed team (6 men and 6 women), Rob Ducsay was putting together a mixed team of his own, Stache and Dash (officially Stache and Dash Remixed, but for purposes of this blog, namely because I’m lazy, we’ll be calling them Stache and Dash, or even S&D, not to be confused with acronyms representing deviant behavior or coffee companies from Concord).  The mad scramble was on to snatch up the fastest, best runners and just like that, a rivalry was born.  One Thursday night at Triple C, Rob and I made a bet – the losing captain would buy post-race beers for the winners.  It was on like Genghis Kahn.
Finding 12 fast runners is a hell of a lot harder than you’d think.  Originally, the team consisted mostly of my buddies, including Kevin and Leonard.  But Kevin traded in his running shoes for a home brewing kit and Leonard got hurt.  One girl on our team was in a car wreck and couldn’t fully recover from her injuries in time for Blue Ridge.  We met a crazy-fast girl who agreed to join our team but then had to bail about 2 weeks before the race.  Danielle was going to be at a tri with Chad.  Dalena would be in Hawaii.  I swung for the fences, inviting Shalane Flannagan, Desiree Davilla, locals Pezz, Fam, and Alana Hadley.  I asked every sub-3-hour marathon girl I knew, except one, Mo, and Rob snatched her up.  We landed super-fast Claire, the winner of the Scream half marathon, and she was able to recruit Jenn Senos on the Sunday before Friday’s race after it became painfully obvious that Laura’s injury would prevent her from running.  Laura stayed on to help the team with logistics, driving, and whatever else we needed.
Both the Mayes brothers, Adam and Todd, joined, as did Kathy Rink and Michelle Kopczynski.  Two weeks before Blue Ridge, on our flight back from the Santa Rosa marathon, we ran into fellow Charlotte runner Jamie Dodge, so we recruited her and she joined us the following week.  Matt Jaskot agreed to be on the team when another guy was hurt – Matt was a real coup – not only fast, but also a Blue Ridge veteran having run on various ultra teams so he knew virtually every leg and how to get there.  Claire helped us land speedster Joe Rao.  By race day, I had finally piecemealed a solid team together, one I was confident could hold its own against the evil Stache and Dash squad.
Friday, race day, morning rolled around and Laura and I drove one of the vans up to Davidson where the team agreed to meet.  I made sure to have everyone arrive extra early to account for any mishaps on the way, like when I missed the Davidson exit while I spouted off some diatribe on politics to Laura.  I looked up and saw exit 31 – I was supposed to have taken exit 30 to Davidson, a place I’ve driven to a thousand times.  D’oh!  If we made it to the starting line by our official start time of noon, it’d be a miracle.
But somehow we did.  We made a few stops on the way, one to get paint supplies to decorate the van, one for gas.  At the gas station in the mountains, we encountered a lady who made all my Concord high school buddies sound like Oxford grads.  We were all wearing our JITFO singlets so the lady thought we were some elite athletic squad – she asked Matt for his autograph.  She asked me about the race and I explained to which she responded, “Gosh, they’d have to get somebody to ride a mo-ped next to me ‘cuz I’d collapse!  I don’t know how y’all do it!  I guess you practice a lot, huh?”  Yes, we practice a lot.
We (JITFO van 1) pulled into the park with a few minutes to spare.  Laura and crew started decorating the van while I signed us in, got our Blue Ridge Relay t-shirts, and grabbed our bibs, numbers 1 through 12 – not sure how that happened (random?), but it sure made it easy to call out numbers at the exchange zones. When I signed in, the volunteer asked me the question I’d be asked dozens of time before the weekend was over, “So, what does JITFO stand for?”  I gave the Rated-PG answer, “Jog it the frick out” – I didn’t want JITFO to get in trouble like Sad Panda had the year before.
JITFO Van 1 gang at the start.  From left to right, Boriana, Jamie, Michelle, Matt, yours truly, Laura, and Nathan.

JITFO Van 1 gang at the start. From left to right, Boriana, Jamie, Michelle, Matt, yours truly, Laura, and Nathan.

We snapped the obligatory team pics and then it was time to race.  Jamie lined up with the other noon starters, including Laura Walls of S&D.  With about 30 seconds til start, Nathan turned to me and asked, “Hey, where’s the slap bracelet?”  Shit.  I sprinted to the van and cried back to Nathan over my shoulder, “Where’s the bag with bibs?!?”  He told me and I scrambled into the van, even as I heard the announcer, “3…2…1…Go!”  I was getting an early warm-up.
I found the bracelet quickly and sprinted back up to the road where Jamie was maybe 60 or 70 meters ahead.  She was motoring so I had to crank to catch her.  I held out the bracelet as I approached when suddenly some stranger, a guy on another team, snatched it from me.  For a second I thought he was just trying to help me out – I believed he was going to catch Jamie and hand it to her.  But I questioned this theory when I noticed that he didn’t have a baton of his own.  “Hey, that’s ours!” I yelled.  “Take it to that girl!” I pointed to Jamie.  The guy responded, “No, it’s ours.  That guy is on my team.”  What the?!?  I turned back and looked questioningly at Nathan who screamed, “No!  I don’t know him!  That’s ours!”  So I snatched it back and sprinted ahead and handed it to Jamie.  The batonless guy stopped and turned around and ran to get his baton from his team.  We were off to a rocky start.
Jamie, minus one baton-bracelet, gets us started.

Jamie, minus one baton-bracelet, gets us started.

Sucking wind from my premature warm-up, I walked back to the van where Matt said, “Or we could’ve just driven down and handed her the baton.”  Well, yeah, but my way was much more exciting.
As my heart rate gradually slowed down to something approaching normal, we drove the van down to exchange zone 2, cheering Jamie (and the other runners, for that matter) on as we passed.  Stache and Dash’s Laura finished the first leg ahead of Jamie, but the lead was negligible and we had 35 more legs and some 204 miles to catch up.  I was not the least bit concerned, probably because Nathan was up next.
Sure enough, moments later as we drove to the next exchange zone, Nathan had already passed Stache & Dash’s runner.  Laura snapped this shot as we approached:
Nathan passes S&D early

Nathan passes S&D early

Here’s where I really started getting a little nervous – my first leg was imminent.  But I’m a veteran of this race after all so there was no need to get too panicky.   We parked the van at the next exchange zone and I warmed up a little.  By now, the sun was high in the sky and we were looking at temps in the 80s.  I grabbed a visor and covered my arms and face in sunscreen.  Moments later I saw someone on the horizon and I instantly recognized the form from having watched Nathan approach on many a Mallard Creek trail run.  He sped in, handed me the baton, and I was off.

As always, I had to make a conscious effort to throttle back.  I told myself to relax and just enjoy the amazing mountain views like this one:

Enjoying the beautiful countryside while trying to stay ahead of Wen.

Enjoying the beautiful countryside while trying to stay ahead of Wen.

I guessed that I had a minute and a half to two minute head start on S&D’s runner, Wen Norvell.  I wanted to run relatively hard, but also easy enough that I’d have something left for my remaining two legs.  So I tried to settle in at something around half-marathon ‘effort’ – notice I didn’t say ‘pace’, because you can throw pace out the window once you start climbing in the Blue Ridge mountains.
I hovered around seven-minute pace on the nice, flat opening mile.  Just past the first mile, I started climbing.  I felt like my heart was going to explode in my chest so I backed off a bit while I gasped for air.  As I ran through a series of switchbacks, I was able to look down and behind me to spot for Wen.  I didn’t see her until I neared the apex of the climb – it looked like I still had a good two-minute or so lead so I relaxed a bit, gathering myself.  I didn’t want to trigger the lactic acid timebomb at mile two of a five-mile leg.  I figured I could crank on the way down.
Which I tried.  My first three mile splits went something like this: 6:52, 9:21, 6:48.  I was nervous about the younger, fresher-legged Wen – after all, I had just run a marathon less than two weeks earlier and I am some 12 years or so her elder.  I pushed pretty hard, but always cognizant that I had two more legs to go so I never went all out.  I locked into sub-seven and held on.
I passed the exchange zone sign letting me know that we only had about a quarter of a mile to go when  I glanced behind me and, shocked, yelled, “Shit!”  There was Wen not five meters back and gaining.  Startled, I jumped, and then sprinted.  No way was I letting the crowd at the exchange zone see me lose the lead to Stache & Dash.  I kicked it in and handed the baton to Matt.  Wen handed hers off seconds later.
Me, sucking wind and trying to pretend I'm not exhausted, while Wen chuckles in the background.

Me, sucking wind and trying to pretend I’m not exhausted, while Wen, having very nearly caught me, chuckles in the background.

As expected, Matt held onto our lead and handed off to Michelle for what, in my humble opinion, is the worst leg of the Blue Ridge Relay, leg 5.  This leg takes you through the heart of West Jefferson and across several surprisingly busy intersections for a small mountain town.  After the stress of running dead smack through the busiest part of town, the runner is rewarded with a nasty climb before finally reaching the end.  And Michelle had her work cut out for her because S&D had their savvy Blue Ridge veteran, Stan Austin, running this leg.
Knowing that this leg had some tricky, easy-to-get-lost-on, stretches with a lot of turns, we parked the van in town and waited on Michelle with the plan being we’d drive just in front of her and tell her where to turn.  The few minutes of wait time allowed us the opportunity to take this pic, soon to be seen on the cover of John Deere Monthly:
JITFO Van 1 displays their agricultural equipment prowess.

JITFO Van 1 displays their agricultural equipment prowess.

Michelle approached and we jumped into the van and drove slowly so she could follow us through the turns.  At a busy 4-way-stop intersection, I inched the van through so traffic would have to wait on us and subsequently on Michelle.  We got her to the nasty aforementioned final hill of the leg and then sped ahead so Boriana could get a little warm-up in.

Stan gave S&D a solid two-minute or so lead before Michelle came in and handed the baton to Boriana.  But as I had just recently learned, Boriana came into this thing fit.  I was confident we’d shortly regain the lead.  And I was right.  As Boriana charged up the opening hill, it quickly became evident she’d overtake S&D’s Adrienne before their leg was through.

As I drove the van to the next exchange zone, I rolled down the window and called out to Adrienne.  “Adrienne, it’s okay to relax here.  You know, take a walk break.  That’d be fine.”  Adrienne did not appear to take kindly to my gentle ribbing – she gave me the stink eye.  I learned later that she had not felt well through this stretch so I felt a little guilty for giving her a hard time.  A little.

But later, when we had already parked the van and met up with JITFO Van 2 at the next exchange zone (first transition zone), I literally got goosebumps when I saw Boriana crest the hill.  She was flying!  She was at an all out sprint and looked completely smooth and under control.  I was stoked and screamed, “Boriana, you rock!”  It was at that moment I realized we had scored big when Boriana agreed to be on our team.

I continued to cheer loudly as Todd grabbed the baton and took off.  At this point, I was supremely confident and believed we’d never relinquish the lead again.  Boriana had given us a solid lead and van 2 was full of strong runners.  This thing was in the bag.

Things went mostly well logistically.  Like I’ve said in the past and will reiterate here, the Blue Ridge Relay is nearly as much about logistics as it is running.  It does you no good to have faster runners than everyone else if you can’t get your vans to the exchange zones on time.  I wisely recruited fast AND smart people.  Matt Jaskot was invaluable in helping us navigate around.  At one point, I turned around no less than 3 times on 421, but Matt got me headed in the right direction.  And one big monkey wrench was thrown into the works when the Tanger Outlets were no longer an exchange/transition zone this year.  I was confused about how’d we work through this until Matt and Joe set me straight.  JITFO handled these little logistic curve balls admirably.

And so it went.  Our little one-on-one duel with Stache and Dash turned into a duel for the mixed team lead.  The deeper we got into the race, the more we realized that we were battling for the division win.  And it sure looked like the win was ours for the taking as JITFO continued to extend the lead over Stache and Dash.  Fast forwarding now because: A) My memory is horrible and this took place over a week ago and B) I am exhausted after racing again last night and now just want to watch football.  My apologies to the JITFOees and Stache and Dashers who tuned in for second-by-second details.

But here’s how it went down.  We had a big lead on Darth Vader’s, I mean Rob’s, team going into leg 23.  Then disaster struck.  Jenn took a wrong turn and went some 3 miles out of the way before a van of good Samaritans picked her, and some runners she had followed into a wrong turn, up and put them back on course.  And just like that, our twenty-something minute lead was turned into a 10 or 12 minute deficit.   Jenn later told me that there were no directional signs on the course and the rumor was that locals had knocked down the signs.  Whatever the case, we suddenly found ourselves behind.

I was a little upset but there was no use crying.  Time to roll up our sleeves (metaphorically as most of us were sleeveless in singlets) and get to work.  Earlier, I was grateful for the big lead because, exhausted with heavy legs and fried quads after a downhill 2-mile sprint, I was hoping to at least partially coast on my last leg, a nasty 9-mile character builder with the last five miles climbing ever upwards.  There would be no coasting – oh well, here goes nothing.

In the middle of the night, I grabbed the baton from Nathan knowing he had to have cut into the S&D lead somewhat.  I had delusions of trying to catch Wen, but I knew on a 9-mile leg, I’d better play it smart or I would crash and burn and do more harm than good for JITFO.

On the first 3 down-to-flat miles, I tried to crank while simultaneously saving something for the dreaded climb at the end.  Again, I hovered around 7-minute miles and felt reasonably okay.  Then the climb began.  Up, up, and ever up.

I saw blinkies off in the distance and chased them down, ever hoping the next one would be Wen.  And there were a lot of blinkies to chase as we were reeling in the slower teams who had been given hours of lead time – the Blue Ridge Relay staggers start times in an attempt to have everyone finish at nearly the same time on Saturday so that the faster teams typically start catching slower teams around this point.  I passed more people than I’ve ever passed in Blue Ridge before.  Unfortunately, none of them were Wen.

I was done, D-O-N-E.  Once I handed off the baton to Matt, I could barely walk.  I staggered around a little before asking Laura how long ago Wen had come in.  It had been several minutes and apparently I had made up no time.  I was frustrated, but my frustration wasn’t going to help anybody.  I quit whining and, sopping wet and disoriented, jumped back into the van.  I was confident Matt would make up ground.  We just had to keep chipping away at the lead and hoped we could catch up.  There was no point looking back.

Matt made up some time and handed off to Michelle.  While she ran her last leg, we got this sleep-deprived pic that nobody seems to recall and yet here it is:

Exhausted and sleep-deprived, none of us seem to recall this picture being taken.

Exhausted and sleep-deprived, none of us seem to recall this picture being taken.

Michelle ran her last leg, then Boriana hers, and then we scarfed down some pancakes as Todd started the notorious mountain goat leg.  The members of Van 1 hopped back in our van and chased Todd up the mountain.  We cheered our lungs out as he stoically, heroically climbed switchback after switchback, all the while gaining on S&D.

Todd ran 6.5 miles straight up, then handed off to his brother Adam who raced 9.5 straight down.  And Stache and Dash’s lead narrowed.  Adam handed off to Kathy who, to steal a line from Snatch, is as tough as a coffin nail.  Evidence:

Kathy, one tough cookie

Kathy, one tough cookie

When I saw Kathy take the baton, I started to believe.  Cranking, she attacked the mountain and I was glad I wasn’t running against her.  We drove past, cheering all the way, and just a couple of minutes later we came upon S&D’s Leah.  Walking.  I was feeling good again.  We’ve got this.

When Joe got the baton, S&D’s lead was down to about 4 minutes.  And he looked determined.  I screamed motivational things at him and when Kathy came blazing in and handed him the baton, he took off like the proverbial bat out of you know where.  Ah, yeah!

Joe erased the Stache and Dash lead with only 2 legs to go.  Jenn took the baton in the lead but she had her work cut out for her.  S&D had Mo up next, and Mo is legit.  I knew Mo was strong, but I didn’t know how strong.

Mo regained the lead for Stache and handed off to their anchor John Filette.  And then we waited for Jenn.  And waited.  And waited some more.  Once it was clear that the lead was greater than 4 minutes, I knew we were done.  Jenn came in some 7 minutes or so after Mo.  And while our anchor Claire is a strong runner and could probably make up some ground on John, the lead was insurmountable.  John could have held off Galen Rupp with the lead Mo gave him.

Claire did manage to chip a little into John’s lead, but not enough to overtake him.  S&D emerged victorious and we took this picture with them in triumph:

Homage to ABC's Wide World of Sports - the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

Homage to ABC’s Wide World of Sports – the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

At the post-race celebration (for S&D – it was more mourning for us), I handed my credit card to Rob to pay my bet.  Wen called me over and said something like, “I feel bad about this.  How about instead of buying our beer, you just post on Facebook, “We lost to Stache and Dash.”  And I replied, “Enjoy your beer!”

Oh well, we gave it our best shot and came up just one wrong turn away from victory.  Next year, we will write directions on our arms.  The rematch is on Stache and Dash.  Bring it.


2 Responses to “The Birth of A Rivalry – the 2013 Blue Ridge Relay”

  1. Kati Says:

    I’m not all that great with numbers, but it sounds to me like a wrong turn is what beat your team, more so than another team. Still, valiant efforts on all accounts, so congrats to JITFO and S&D. Also:

  2. Clint Says:

    Great Race. Kicking Ultra Asphalt got lost at Palmetto and costed us the ultra win and nearly the life of our runner. We bought QB wrist coaches to put our maps in for all future races. We haven’t gotten lost since. I highly recommend it.

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