Smoky Mountain Relay: Race recap part 2!

If you haven’t read part 1, you can find it here.

Sorry it has been a long wait between parts 1 and 2! I have had a surprisingly busy couple of work weeks and weekends since the race and to be honest this part two recap is one of my more difficult to write.

This was a hard race, and I mean hard. Mentally and physically it took a lot out of us, and when we learned that a lot of teams had skipped legs in the middle of the night or on the morning of day 2, it was honestly a little demoralizing. We made some tough decisions to get our heads and van back into the race, and I’ll try to portray our day two as honestly and accurately as I remember.


After all our van’s runners finished their second legs (still day 1,) we met up with van two, feeling pretty exhausted and ready for a nap. We made the decision to get a hotel room and then pass of the keys to the other van at the next exchange so that we could try to grab at least a couple hours of shut-eye. After a few hours of sleep at an actual hotel, and a glorious less than 5 minute shower, when went back to meet the other van to do our second to last exchange. When we met them we learned that although they had made back 45 minutes of our projected finish time, they had lost it all again with an injured runner and with our alternate runner, who we were very grateful of for stepping in, but probably wasn’t all that prepared for the demands of this race. They let us know that the injured runner was completely out and that they were going to go rest at the hotel and figure things out for their last legs.

Once our first runner took off, I thought about how rested I felt and told my van that I was going to offer to take over one of van two’s legs if I still felt good after mine that morning. I really felt like I could take on an extra 5 or 6 miles that day, bringing my total mileage from 19+ miles to around 26 miles- basically a split up marathon. The sun rose on day two and we got our second runner going, who wanted to make up for a painful run the day before, and before I knew it, it was my turn, a moderate 6.3 mile run.

It started out with a solid 1.2 mile uphill, then a couple winding miles  downhill before a turn in the road and a climb to the next exchange. I told my van to wait on me at the bottom of the downhill where I had to make a turn. I swear the temperature climbed a good 10 degrees just while I was going uphill, but then I got this glorious downhill and the breeze that goes with it. And then my heart rate sky-rocketed.

About a half a mile downhill a beat up blue SUV pulled up alongside me, coasting at the same speed as me. An old man opened up his driver side door and started talking to me. I immediately sped up and told him “I’m sorry sir, I can’t talk to you, I’m in the middle of running a race!” My heart was pounding and my adrenaline was churning my legs even faster downhill. He muttered something about seeing his dog, (there was a dog in the passenger seat.) I again forcefully told him “I’m sorry sir, I have to ask you to go on, I am running in a race.” He muttered something else, slammed the door and then gunned it downhill. Then I had to stop. Afraid that he was going to find a place to turn around and come back for me, I hesitantly started going downhill again, peering around the switchbacks to make sure his car was still going in the opposite direction from me.

Every time a car neared, I got kind of freaked out again. I knew that my van was waiting for me, but they had no plans to check on me before the bottom of the hill, so I had to make it to them.

When I saw the van I was elated (one of the things I love about relays is that it is the only time in my life where a slow moving unmarked van passing me or waiting for me, even in the middle of the night, is actually a comfort!) I asked them if they had seen an old man in a beat up blue SUV and they told me they had. Apparently he was looking for his lost puppy and was distraught and probably not all there mentally or emotionally. Looking back on it I assume that the car was so old/beat up that the windows don’t roll down which is why he had to open his door. I felt such a sense of relief knowing that he wasn’t trying to harm me, but it still really freaked me out, scarier than any middle of the night run.

2014-04-26 10.02.00

The final couple of miles of climbing passed uneventfully until a dog decided to come out of his yard and sort of chase me up the steepest part of the climb to the exchange point. I was tired, but knew I could recover so I went ahead and tried to text the other van to let them know I would jump in and finish the relay with them. Our next runner was taking on a leg named the “Quad Killer” and it truly was a steep uphill followed by crazy switchbacks down a mountain. The run also crossed the Appalachian Trail at the peak of the mountain and had some ‘killer ‘views.

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The day was getting quite warm, into the 80’s, and we hadn’t had a day in the 80’s yet in western North Carolina so we weren’t acclimated to it. When we got to our van’s last runner, I was getting worried about what kind of effect the heat was going to have on us.

Our van got through the rest of our runners feeling good, but we only encountered two other teams pretty much the whole time, plus none of the volunteers were at any of the exchange points to take down our times. I passed an older man who’s team pulled him off the course, then on quad killer we passed their next runner. The other team we saw was only at a couple exchanges where they were dropping off their next runner then going to the next exchange to start the following runner, having their runners run simultaneously. I wasn’t that perturbed by these tactics, it was just teams trying to get through the relay the best way they could this late in the game, and often without all their runners due to injuries. Our van 1 got to the last exchange point with van 2 with our projected finish time now close to 8pm, (originally we shot for 6pm then revised to 7pm with our already injured runners.)

I grabbed my stuff and hopped into van 2 as their first runner took off. I asked them how it was going, what they’d talked about in their van, (we’d been cracking jokes about a team called Mike Hunt – say it out loud – the whole relay in van 1.) They responded that it had been pretty quiet. This got me kind of worried, their spirits were kind of down and I could tell just by asking them one question! Then came something that really brought us down, we saw a truck pulling up the signs on the relay course. We pulled up alongside our runner and asked her what she wanted to do, she was about 3 miles into her 5 mile run at this point. We talked about it and she hopped into the van, then we drove to the next exchange. The discussion continued about what we wanted to do to try to finish as close to 7pm as possible while still letting everyone run the parts of their legs that they wanted to run.

Our injured runner was supposed to run the next leg, one of the hardest legs of the relay called “One Tough Mother” but obviously couldn’t, but another runner was game to try it. There is no vehicle access for this 9 mile leg so the van couldn’t support her during the run. We dropped her off and drove around the mountain that she was running up and over, it took us almost an hour to get to the next exchange where she would finish, and when we got there we saw other teams! This was nice to see, after feeling like we were being pushed to quit when we saw the signs start getting pulled off the road. We chatted with some of the other teams and saw a couple of their runners emerge from the trail, exhausted and talking about how hard the run was. We started hearing that the times for this leg were averaging 2 and ½ hours… then, suddenly, our runner bounded out of the trail with another runner looking super strong. She told us that was the hardest thing she’d ever done but she still looked picture perfect! Our spirits were lifted!

The next runner to go was the alternate runner who had stepped up and filled in at the last minute. When our van caught up to her a mile down the road she was in good spirits, but the two runners from the teams that our last runner had passed had already run past our runner. We were losing time that we’d been trying so hard to make up. Inside the van we made the decision to pull our runner in the interest of time, our projected finish was still after 7pm. To further explain this time thing- we were two hours from Asheville once we got to the finish and several teammates we going out of town the next day, so getting home well after 10pm and utterly exhausted was not ideal.

We weren’t really happy that we did it, but we pulled our runner off the road. She really wanted to finish her run so we dropped her off again with a half mile left in her leg and she met us at the exchange. For the first time since the day before, there was a volunteer at this exchange who was keeping track of who was left in the race. Our pulled runner had a little panic upon seeing this volunteer and wasn’t happy about our dishonesty, but myself and another runner went up to the volunteer and explained exactly what we were doing. We told her that we were doing what we could to meet our team at the finish close to 7pm while still letting our runners run the legs they wanted to. The volunteer really didn’t care; she just wanted to make sure she knew which vans were still in the relay.

I ran the first couple of miles of the next leg, until the trailhead that the runner assigned to this leg really wanted to run. It was hot, but I knew it was only two miles so I tried to push it as much as I could at this point. The next runner took over and we told her we’d meet her on the other side of the mountain. We drove the van around and saw her come down a gravel road, talked with her and knew she was in good spirits and left her to finish the rest of her run, which was on another trail that had no vehicle access. Upon arriving at the exchange point, we grew slightly worried when she didn’t emerge at the predicted time. It was getting later and later, but after her we only had two legs left. I told the next runner that if she wasn’t out by a certain time that she should start her leg. Our runner still hadn’t emerged from the trail so she went ahead and started her leg early. I started running onto the trail calling out our runner’s name, another team was getting worried about their runner too and joined me. Finally, just after the other team headed back down the trail, I got a response from our runner! I ran back up the trail and let our team know she was coming and that the other team’s runner was just behind her. Apparently our runner had missed the second trail head and run 3 miles out of her way! We let her rest a little and then drove to the last exchange, hoping that our next runner was almost there.

At the last exchange we had a couple of wonderful volunteers waiting for us, one of our runner’s husbands, and the director of Girls on the Run of Western North Carolina! The last leg we were splitting up between the first runner who had not run her whole leg, and myself. I was going to get to run up and then down the last mountain and bring it in to the finish! We got some pictures at the exchange, our runner 1 and the runner who had run the 3 extra miles started running the first part of the last leg and then the van drove me to the gravel road where I was dropped off to be without van support on private roads into the Nantahala Outdoor Center.

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It was already after 7pm and I was racing against the sun! I had about 1.5 miles up and then 2.5 downhill and kept a headlamp in my shorts pocket, hoping that I wouldn’t have to use it. The views were incredible, the sun setting over newly green springtime mountains. My legs were tired but I knew the whole relay was over when I got to the finish line and that the team would be waiting for me! When I crested the mountain and started downhill I was telling myself just to not get hurt, not to push it too hard, and then when it got really steep I told myself not to slip or fall. There was a volunteer at the one mile to go part and she assured me the finish was just downhill. As it got steeper and more gravelly I knew I just had to hold on. Finally I heard people and music and finally a bright green Girls on the Run Solemates t-shirt belonging to our team captain! She called over the rest of the team to cross the finish line with me but it was only the women from van 1, I had beat van 2 there! We got a finish line picture but a few minutes later we got a whole team picture with our medals when van 2 arrived!

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It was definitely a strange way to end a race. Not a lot of the relay teams stuck around to see the last of the teams finish, my friends on ultra teams had already finished, eaten, and left, so that was kind of disappointing. We were really happy to have completed what we did, all told we maybe didn’t run 4 miles of the 212 mile relay (and then one of our runners tacked on another 3 anyways) but there was still a sense of incompleteness. That sense though is only going to drive me to want to do it again next year… on an ultra team!

My apologies for how ridiculously long this recap was, in the future I’m also planning to write a general guide for putting together and running a relay race based on my experiences!

Also, I’ve still not met my Girls on the Run Solemates fundraising goal for this race and I’d love your help!


One response to “Smoky Mountain Relay: Race recap part 2!

  1. Pingback: Team Banana Kills: Smoky Mountain Relay 2017 | postgradjourney·

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