2009 Blue Ridge Relay – 6 Runners 211 Miles!!

211 Miles - done!

211 Miles - done!

If you know me, you know what the Blue Ridge Relay means to me.  I find it hard to adequately articulate my thoughts about this race which is why 2 weeks have passed between finish and writing this.  You will also note that this is the 2nd of what will ideally be fairly frequent posts about running, random life, etc. on the SuttonScoop Blog.  Yes, this is a change, but not a departure from what most likely travel to this blog for:  Pictures of the family.  For years I have considered the consolidation of JasonScoop and SuttonScoop but frankly lacked the courage.  I could capture my thoughts in a journal-like format without ever sharing it with anyone.  But then what is the point of a blog if it is hidden away where few know about it.  So here it is.  Me.  Out there.  Blogging in the open.  For those that may be saying: “Dang, I really just want to see the family/kids” then you can select the category ‘Family Fun’ to weed out all of this narcissistic junk.  No feelings hurt here.  Ok…back to the race…

It is my 4th year running the Blue Ridge Relay Race.  In 2006 we ran a 6-person team (3 of which are back together again this year), in 2007 a 4-person team (afterwards we SWORE we would never be that dumb again), in 2008 the same 4-person team (we lied), and in 2009 back to the 6-person team which was frankly felt a bit like cheating.  Still hard but WOW what a difference 4+ hours between runs means when you are used to 2-3 hours between runs.  So, to put it lightly, I really enjoy running this event.  30+ hours of total running, nearly 40 straight hours in a van zig-zagging through the mountains north of Asheville.  2 states, a bunch of counties, many mountain passes about 200 vans and over 1000 runners this year.  Cool stuff.  Some of my geeky data:  378 minutes of total running for me (6.3 hours) at an 8:05 minute per mile pace over 47 total miles across 6 of the 36 total legs in the race.  I burned about 5700 calories just while running, had an average heart rate of 152 beats per minute while running, slept 3.5 hours (which is about 2 hours more than anyone else on my team – thank you ear plugs) and ran up about 8,000 feet during my 6 legs of the race.

For those not familiar with relay race running events this race is 211 miles in total distance.  It started for our team somewhere in Virginia at 7:20am ET on Friday, September 11 and finished around 3pm on Saturday, September 12 in downtown Asheville, NC.  We had 6 runners but teams compete with as few as 4 runners and up to 12 runners.  4 runners means each runner runs 9 legs of the 36 legs in the race.  6 runners equals 6 legs of the 36 leg race, etc.  Each leg varies in total distance with the shortest leg being just over 2 miles and the longest leg being 10 miles.  Most legs have a considerable uphill and/or downhill section (or multiple ones) making each leg quite different from the next in effort and difficulty.  Distances for our team:  Runner 1 (Jason M) – 34.6 miles, Runner 2 (me) – 47.2 miles, Runner 3 (Kevin) – 25.6 miles, Runner 4 (Alex) – 36.2 miles, Runner 5 (Whitney) – 33.3 miles and Runner 6 (Chris) – 34.6 miles.  We run in sequence order repeating the sequence 6 times – when you are not running you are likely driving, eating/drinking, sleeping or preparing to run.  Pretty simple existence.  Clicking here will get you the results of all 100+ teams (we are Team “4tunate (to have 2 more runners”) and clicking here gets you to the detailed breakdown of our team by runner.  Here’s what I can remember about each of my 6 legs:

Leg 2: Grayson Highlands State Park Entrance to Helton United Methodist Church – 7.5 miles

Start time: 7:46am ET;  Run Duration:  54 minutes 42 seconds;  Pace: 7:20 minutes per mile; 880 Calories; Avg HR: 159

One of my favorite legs of the entire race.  Most of it is spent on a windy dirt road through the hillside.  This leg loses a great deal of elevation with a monster climb about 2 miles into the leg.  The type of climb that you hope you don’t have to walk up in your first leg of the race.  I didn’t this year but can’t say the same for past years.  Teams are still decorating their vans and finding how the inside the van “nest” needs to be.  Lots of vans pulled over sorting it all out.  Every year there are a couple of random small dogs that bark and some even run around in their yard but none ever bother you.  This year the fog was lifting showing hillsides filled with Christmas trees, old barns and cabins.  Its always a welcome sight to see a damp dirt road or hear the water running in the roadside creeks – means the dust kicked up by passing team cars on the non-paved sections of the race will be greatly reduced.  One of the best pictures on the course is from the exchange zone at the end of this leg looking back up the winding country road.  The finishing approach is a good bit down hill allowing runners to show smooth, long strides and a quicker than the rest of the run finish.  The 7.5 miles of this leg always go by very fast.  This year the “Mayor of Ashe (pronounced “EH-sh) County” greeted the teams with a not-so-brief history of the area.  Cool stuff.  A quick hand-off of the flick bracelet to Kevin and my first of six legs was over.  Having only 5 more legs after this one sure beats having 8 legs left!

Leg 8: Zion Methodist Church Mill Creek to Cranberry Springs Road (Riverside General Store) – 5.9 miles

Start time: 12:41pm ET;  Run Duration:  45 minutes 17 seconds;  Pace: 7:38 minutes per mile; 812 Calories; Avg HR: 164

My shortest leg of the race but also my hottest.  Although hot around noon the temperatures were mild compared to last year or training run temperatures.  I was able to pass a few runners on this leg.  Because of bridge troubles this leg was re-routed from a very flat 4.4 miles to a mostly flat 5.9 miles.  A more scenic route following the New River for a while it did have a few unexpected dairy barns along the way.  While pretty to look at upon approach they weren’t all so pretty to smell.  If I were to do this leg again I would have held back less.  Last year after my 2nd run I was feeling seriously tired and starting to get sore.  The result of that experience was applying a more conservative pace to this run.  While it likely helped me in the long run there were minutes left out on the course here.  Knowing the elevation gain was milder than expected will allow me to approach this one more aggressively next year.  Alex filmed me coming into the exchange which I believe is one of the first times I have seen myself running on video.  13.4 miles down roughly 34 miles to go.

Leg 14: Grandfather Mountain Store to Grandfather Mountain Entrance – 10.0 miles

Start time: 7:09pm ET;  Run Duration:  1 hour 23 minutes 11 seconds;  Pace: 8:24 minutes per mile; 1143 Calories; Avg HR: 152

A great deal of time lapses between my last leg and this one due to the longer legs my teammates are running in between.  At this point in the race we have run a few legs on the actual Blue Ridge Parkway, stopped into the outlet mall parking lot in Boone and driven through the heart of Blowing Rock.  From this exchange point (and really from the outlet mall in Boone) it is all up until reaching the entrance of Grandfather Mountain.  Like most other years we reach this leg around dusk which is a great time to run up Grandfather.  The sun disappears over the mountain you are running up and while rounding the south-side corners of the ascent you get some great sunset hues to watch.  Red to orange to pink to purple and then black by the time you reach the end of the leg.  I was only passed by 2 teams on this leg and I have to remind myself that those runners are likely running their 2nd of 3 legs after 10 or more hours of rest since the last.  Still hurts to see them go by.  Each one that passed this year offered strong encouragement and gave me a target to keep close to as long as possible.  The cool part is I was able to pass a runner right before reaching the top and end of this leg.  I also passed some serious roadkill and a small snake too.  This year Grandfather Mountain was very wet as there were 5-6 really good waterfall views on the way up.  The course follows the last 9 miles of the Grandfather Mountain Marathon which is familiar territory for me and the mile markers from the marathon are easy ways for me to keep track of progress (no “runner math” issues here!).  At the top all of the teams are in full night gear with reflective vests, blinking red lights a headlamps.  The really cool part of this race has arrived!

Leg 20: Green Valley Fire Dept to Mount Carmel Baptist Church – 7.5 miles

Start time: 11:33pm ET;  Run Duration:  1 hour 08 minutes 27 seconds;  Pace: 9:04 minutes per mile; 903 Calories; Avg HR: 144

It’s almost midnight.  The van is starting to get quieter with each passing hour.  We are constantly having to look into the benches to make certain we aren’t leaving the exchange zone without someone. Maybe next year we need a flag or something to designate when a runner is in the van but sleeping.  The exchange zones are still pretty charged and active.  Teams are still pouring from vans at each exchange to send of their next runner.  Not quite the isolation of the wee hours that we will soon start to see.  This fire station exchange is a great one.  Super-clean bathrooms.  Cool local folks who spend lots of the normal life hanging around the fire station.  Granted most of them find this event ridiculous and lacking common sense.  They are still friendly and kind enough to keep that sentiment to themselves.  Jason Martin comes flying in after a quick leg.  This leg for me has always presented problems.  My morale is very low here due to a quick turnaround from my last leg.  I finished running Grandfather around 3 hours earlier and as usual, I had trouble convincing myself to eat and drink properly.  Add to this that our 3am wake-up call nearly 20 hours back is starting to make me feel sluggish.  I take the bracelet and run off down 19E into the darkness.  All would be well if we didn’t have to make a right in a little under a mile.  The right comes and it goes from dark to pitch black.  The bouncing white light from my headlamp creates a weird halo-effect that at times can make you dizzy.  And then it is up.  Crazy steep shots of up that come in quarter to half-mile intervals.  The walk-faster-than-you-can-run-up it kind of ascents.  I walk.  A lot. At one point I walk past an entire van full of people cheering me on.  They get it but it still hurts.  Walking my Heart Rate is above 160.  On this leg you hear dogs backing above and below you.  Vans pass and their taillights disappear into the winding hillside levels above you.  I start thinking about whether I can run with my eyes closed.  I try it.  Nope.  Can’t do that.  Dodging road kill, uneven pavement and running the outside of switchback corners (yes, the longer but less steep route) I eventually start a pretty decent decent.  Checking my laminated map I find that I am within a mile of the finish.  6+ miles down.  I run fast.  Sub-7 minute pace into the exchange zone.  I see the coveted two words on a race sign:  “Exchange Zone”.  Only a few more minutes until the van.  Dry clothes.  Food.  Sleep.  Bracelet to Kevin.  Kevin points me to the van on his way out.  Aaahhhh.  Only 2 legs left.  That one was rough.  A morale buster.  I feel like I let my team down a bit there.  That leg will spend a year in my head.

Leg 26: Pleasant Grove Baptist Church to Whitson’s General Store (Green Mountain) – 6.9 miles

Start time: 4:23am ET;  Run Duration:  53 minutes 45 seconds;  Pace: 7:47 minutes per mile; 882 Calories; Avg HR: 148

Rice pudding at 1am in the morning is the perfect food for a tired stomach.  Followed by Chef Boyardee’s Cheese Ravioli, a tomato and cheese sandwich from the Green Mountain fire fighters and some Gatorade-water mix.  My last Gatorade.  The metallic taste has set in.  What is it about Gatorade that causes that?  I eat better than I have since the 2nd leg.  I sleep for about an hour wake, do some light driving, cheer on some runners on a creepy windy section of the course.  I feel really good.  Better than I can remember before at this point of the race.  After changing into my damp and lightly smelly running clothes I hop from the van into the misty fog with a much smaller group of people awaiting their team.  The exchange zone has a muted-ness to it.  Tons of vans stacked up or looking for a parking spot but few with any lights on inside.  People mostly whisper then you hear some short outbursts of laughter.  My teeth chatter.  Anticipation even 25 legs into the race still sets in.  Jason comes up the last hill hollering my name.  I take the bracelet and head into the misty darkness with my haloed headlamp light and blinking red flashers.  The first mile of this leg is easily the toughest and then downhill/flat for the rest. I walk up a steep section then race on down to the river section.  The downhill is filled with the sounds of running water.  I maintain a decent pace to the flat section at the bottom where I see then hear a big train across the river.  Creepy train noises (squeaky wheels, diesel engine, engineers talking, etc.) keep me pre-occupied for several minutes and then I see the bouncing of a second light coming behind me.  Street signs light up before you see the light or hear the feet of runners coming by you.  Each of the 2 runners who pass me mention how excited they are about running their last leg of the race.  Ugh…not so much for me.  I feel good for having run 38 miles by the end of this leg.  Better than I have felt ever at this point.  Arriving into town at the checkpoint I enjoy the downtime before piling into the van and driving off to the next exchange.  Still mostly quiet although the sun will rise in about an hour…only 2 hours after the half moon rose on my leg.  Cool sight.

Leg 32: Hawksnest to Barnardsville Elementary School – 9.4 miles

Start time: 10:19am ET;  Run Duration:  1 hour 11 minutes 30 seconds;  Pace: 7:36 minutes per mile; 1143 Calories; Avg HR: 145

Last leg and after watching the Mountain Goat Hard climb Jason M. is suffering up I am thankful I get to go down it.  Oh yeah, did I mention I slept nearly 3 hours prior to his leg starting?  Woke up just in time for coffee at the pancake breakfast exchange.  Beautiful morning. The Mountain Goat leg is crazy-filled with switchbacks.  The ridiculous kind where you literally double back in the opposite direction.  Jason M ran strong up it.  At the top we parallel parked the dualie van on the edge of the dirt road going down the back side of Hawksnest and waited.  Port-o-John #5 awaited me and after my coffee-induced “quiet time” I awaited for Jason M. Once he handed off the bracelet he was done with his race.  Only 9.4 miles stood in front of me and my finish.  5 miles down, 4.4 miles flat.  The run down was quick.  Right on 7 minute pace.  Footing was my primary concern.  Cramping was secondary.  At the bottom of the dirt road/switchbacks I settled into a upper 7-minute pace and played tricks with myself to avoid walking.  Run to the sunny part of the road and by that point I wouldn’t want to prolong my time in the sun any further with walking so I kept running.  Count the telephone poles.  See how many steps in a row you could run on the white line. I pass a guy.  He’s suffering.  Walking has grabbed his mind and won’t let go.  He’s walking every shady spot.  There are many.  Then I get passed by a long-strider…looks like he’s doing half the work I am.  I keep up but eventually I think he gets annoyed at hearing me and speeds up (or at least I told myself he sped up).  I’m tired.  The defined line of cramps has been set – run any faster and my legs remind me not to with a sharp cramp.  I see the sign turning us left toward the school.  Less than a track lap to run for me in this race.  I want to speed up but I also want to finish with dignity.  They are mutually exclusive.  I hold steady and raise my hands after 47 miles over 27 hours.  Done.  Alex and Jason are soaking their feet in what looks like a drainage river.  I plop down shorts and all into it.  Aahhhhh!  Done.  Great race!  I already want to do it again next year.  Moreso I want Bojangles.  Beans.  Biscuit.  Hot Sauce.  Sweet Tea.  Bring it!

Before the end of the race we come across the solo runner.  211 miles on his own.  We got to see him finish.  57 hours of running.  When he wasn’t running he was walking sideways.  Somewhat amusing but not enough to distract me from how crazy I thought he must be to do it.  Strong but crazy.  And somewhat impressive.

Details of our pre-race prep and team can be found at http://brrscoop.wordpress.com. Check it out for more of the same.  It is one great event!