Or an alternate title to this post: That one time I jumped into a van of strangers and went to an isolated cabin in the woods of Virginia and then ran 18 miles on little to no training!
The Blue Ridge Relay is a 210 mile relay from Grayson Highlands State Park in Virginia and ends in downtown Asheville, NC, while winding through the mountains, utilizing some of the Blue Ridge Parkway. I did this race last year and it was my first ever race of this kind – now I kind of feel like I have this whole “10-12 person team in two vehicles for 30-36 hours” thing down!
I actually wasn’t intending to do this race this year because I no longer live in western North Carolina, but in Chapel Hill, NC, and I had no idea what my grad school classes and work load would look like at this point. There was also the other small detail that I had not been running more than 20-30 minutes a few times a week for the past month because I was trying to heal some foot pain leftover from the Lake Logan Half. It wasn’t until about 36 hours before the race started that I committed to be the 12th man on a relay team mostly out of Chapel Hill or connected to UNC in some way.
Funny story on how I found out that this team needed people. I joined CrossFit Carrboro (there will be more on that in another post!) and on our website I saw that this girl Jess posted about needing another teammate for the relay on Monday evening after our big HeroWOD for Labor Day. On Wednesday, the next day I was in the gym, I wrote on the board for her to email me if she still needed someone. That same afternoon (Wednesday) I got an email on the Health Behavior listserve from this guy who also posted that his relay team needed a 12th teammate and that it would be a sponsored spot by the guy who had to drop out (meaning I didn’t have to pay.) So I emailed him back but let him know that I was still waiting to hear from someone else. Well, Jess and I finally communicated with each other and I told her I would join their team as runner 2, the other guy also offered me the runner 2 spot, so I asked if they happened to be on the same team and they were! Team Scut Monkey! By 8:30pm I was confirmed on their team and had the details about meeting up with the vans by the med school building on campus at 5:30pm the next night before going to a cabin they had rented in Virginia near the race start.
So I quickly packed my stuff, prepped some food, made a list of some fruit and snacks I would need to pick up the next morning, and powered through some reading I knew I wouldn’t have the time or energy to do over the weekend. Luckily I had a class cancelled for the next morning so I could handle some last minute errands before a noon meeting and my afternoon class and at 5:30pm I had a friend drop me off with my stuff to meet my teammates!
I recognized Jess from the Labor Day WOD, and had emailed Phil and our team captain Eric, but otherwise I really didn’t know anyone… I just introduced myself to my teammates, hopped in one of the white vans and we navigated our way to a cabin in Virginia.
After finding and hiking up to our cabin (the vans couldn’t make it up the road it was on,) figuring out sleeping arrangements, and getting to know my teammates a little bit, I got to sleep around around midnight with a plan for van 1 to leave at 7am. Our start time was 8:30 am and we anticipated around a 30 minute drive to get to the state park. I woke up and ate some oatmeal with walnuts and a banana around 6:30am, figuring I’d run around 9am and needed something in my stomach for a 7.5 mile run but also needed time to digest a little.
We drove to Grayson Highlands State Park as the sun rose, gorgeous as I remember from last year, somewhere I wish I would remember to go back to when I’m not running this relay! Our first runner was blazing fast on her downhill through the state park, so I had a nice jolt of adrenaline to keep up her pace for the first part of my downhill while I was still ahead of some other team’s runners. I’m only 5 foot 4, so my legs don’t make me the most efficient of downhill runners compared to many others, especially when I’m running on gravel road for over 4 of my miles. The slightly slick mud didn’t help much either. But I didn’t slip and when runners with longer legs passed me I didn’t get discouraged since I was still keeping up a nice pace. I had over 1,000 ft of descending on this run, but I also had 600 ft. of climbing, some of it quite steep, so it was definitely correctly categorized as a “hard” leg. I carried water in a handheld flask bottle, and was thankful since it got pretty warm at first, but then cloud cover worked in my favor so I didn’t ever feel over exposed to sun or heat. I got up my final climb, back onto a paved road, and saw my exchange zone ahead. As I coasted into the exchange I yelled the next runner’s name – no answer. I yelled my team name – no answer. I stood there looking absolutely stupid with my slap bracelet baton extended out in front of me in an offering to thin air.
Questions rolled through my head: I beat my van? My van got lost going to the second exchange zone? They abandoned me? I didn’t have a phone number, I only knew one of my teammate’s first and last names at this point (frankly I was proud I knew all my teammate’s first names at this point!) Some other teams offered help and if they could call anyone, they asked if I wanted to join their teams! Finally, after 3-5 agonizing minutes, I saw my van pull up and our next runner hopped on out, I gave him the bracelet and he took off. My van driver was so frazzled that he tried to pull the van right back out onto the road without me in it yet! Finally, while climbing into the van, they explained that they tried to go another way around the terrible gravel road that I ran on, and they got lost or it took longer than intended. I was just thankful to have a team!
I cooled down at the next exchange zone and stretched out a little, but I felt surprisingly good, especially with what was a solid 9 min per mile pace over those 7.5 hilly miles. I had over 11 more miles to run in the next 20 hours though, I ate some more food, and tried to just chill as much as possible and rest my body.
All the next runners legs were without incident. We got to the exchange with van 2 and hung out with them for a bit before driving into Boone to grab lunch at Coyote Kitchen. I was sitting in the van when someone needed back where I was so I started to scoot myself over a seat when my foot slipped and the top of my foot essentially kicked a piece of metal under the seat in front of me. It hurt. A lot. The top of my foot started to swell immediately. I had an icepack that I put on it immediately and then my doctor teammate grabbed his bottle of Motrin. I took a pill, it was 800 mgs of Motrin, that is a huge pill and dose. It came back to hurt my stomach later. After icing it for a while, I saw that the swelling had stopped and tried to walk around on it a bit. It hurt, but not as terribly as I thought it would and more movement seemed to help.
We got to the exchange point before my leg and I put on the most cushioned pair of socks I brought (thanks Balega!) and loosened my shoe laces so that I could fit my swollen foot into my shoe. I took a couple of laps around the parking lot we were parked in in Blowing Rock, NC and it felt sore but not painful. Then my gut started to tighten up. Well pretty soon I was waiting for my teammate to run in and I knew I just had to suck it up and go for it, but I did ask my teammates to check on me after my first up and downhills to make sure I was doing okay.
I started uphill, this run was just over 6 miles and had over 500 ft of climbing and over 500 feet of descending, all on paved road and ending at the base of Grandfather Mountain. My foot held up okay on both uphills and downhills, so I waived on my van when they passed. My stomach was tightening up more and more though, the only thing I could think of was the giant Motrin dose I took. I rarely take medicine, especially for pain, and this was a big dose. I’m pretty positive it wasn’t anything that I ate because I shared a rice bowl at lunch with someone else on my team and didn’t eat anything new that I hadn’t had during or before a run before. I was a little slower on this run and was only holding a little over a 9 min/mile pace, but given the circumstances of foot and gut, that’s not too bad. The redeeming part of this run? The gorgeous sunset gradually turning to darkness the closer I got to Grandfather Mountain.
At the Grandfather Mountain general store I passed the slap bracelet off and doubled over. I tried to use the port-a-john, but I wasn’t “productive” if you will. I sort of felt like I wanted to throw up but couldn’t, but I also felt hungry – I’ve really never felt all of those at once from food so I was even more certain it was the giant dose of ibuprofen. The hours of rest ahead of me were definitely welcome. We drove the 10 miles up Grandfather Mountain, checked in on our runner, and wished we could enjoy the scenery in daylight (another place I need to go back to during a non-relay weekend!) In good news, the swelling in my foot went down! And our runner was killing this run, one of the longest and hardest in the relay! And I was able to eat a piece of fruit! The last runner in our van finished before midnight and we met up with our other van, wishing them luck on their night leg. Then we drove to a friend’s parents house for showers and rest.
Having a shower and an hour of sleep was amazing! So was eating the steamed sweet potato I had with me that seemed to finally set my stomach right. Huge thanks to Jenn’s parents, I can’t thank them enough for their hospitality. Far too soon, at around 3am, we were back on the road to meet van two at our next exchange for our final legs.
Before I knew it, it was my turn to run again. Gut settled and foot swelling down, I was prepared to rock this short run. Short, but not easy, with nearly 700 feet of climbing and 700 feet of descending over just 4.5 miles! I didn’t get a starry night sky to run under, but instead a misty fog. The rays of light from my headlamp illuminated the floating mist while tiny water particles clung to the hair on my arms. There is absolutely nothing like the sensory experience of night running. Sight: only able to focus on the few feet of road ahead of you that your headlamp beams upon. Sounds: listening to animals from dogs to frogs, creeks and streams, and the vans passing by. Feel: Every angle of the road, every piece of gravel your foot covers then uncovers, and in this case that clinging mist. Breath: with every breath taking in the smells of the trees of the mountains, that fresh dewy scent of early morning. You literally just try to take everything in stride.
The night running was incredible, the route was not. Someone had stolen the signs to signal turns on the route. I tried to memorize my turns and at which mile they occur, but I had to wait at the top of the first hill because I hadn’t seen a van in a while and I was at a fork in the road with no sign. A van and another runner came up and we looked a the leg map together, the fellow runner and myself ran the rest of the leg essentially together, me catching him on the uphills and his longer legs gaining some yards on me on the downhills, his blinking red light lighting the path in front of me. 4 miles in, with only a half mile of downhill to go, I heard several vans behind me and saw their headlights as they came to a stop. I turned around to look back while I was getting into downhill gear and saw 4-5 runners jump out of the vans and start running. Then I had 4-5 runners pass me, and my fellow running buddy. Two of them had the nerve to tell me “Great job! We’re almost there!” I was frankly pissed. I churned my legs like hell to try to keep up with them, my steady breathing turning ragged with the mixture of anger and effort. I know they got lost and probably ran the same mileage, but they got dropped off on the last downhill, with a half mile to go or less!
I almost sprinted into the exchange and handed off to the next runner but then I couldn’t find the van! I yelled my team name with no replies. It was just before 6am, I knew they probably weren’t very awake yet but I was still pissed and needed someone to vent to! Finally I found the van tucked around he corner of the church we were at and vented about the signs and the runners who passed me at the end. I had to walk it off, I don’t think I’ve ever finished any run upset or angry before. A teammate talked with me and we decided to ask the volunteers if they knew about the signage issue and if they had contact with the previous exchange zone to have them warn runners and vans. They didn’t, but they had the race director’s number so we texted him. He replied that he was aware and had told the other exchange zone – it made me feel a little better. I felt sore, I really pushed it on that last leg, I would have had well under 9 minute miles even with all that climbing had it not been for the couple of minutes I waited for a van/runner at the top of that hill.
I’m gonna go ahead and say that 18 miles with 1700 ft of climbing and 2700 ft of descending over a period of 20 hours is probably the maximum I can do after taking a month off of running!
There weren’t any other incidents with our next runners (or the signage,) the sun rose, and the fog lifted. I tried to walk around at the exchange zones as much as possible to not tighten up too much, but I was definitely walking kind of funny. Van 2’s last legs are some of the hardest of the relay, and include two “mountain goat” legs, so we wanted to support them as much as possible. Eventually though we went ahead and drove into downtown Asheville, my first time back since I moved! My vanmates went to get coffee and I went to the race finish to see some of my friends finish with their teams. Then we grabbed a welcome beer at Wicked Weed where one of my non-running friends met up with us, and then I grabbed a veggie burger and sweet potato fries at Farm Burger! We actually drove back up to the Blue Ridge Parkway to see our final runner off on her run from the parkway to the finish downtown. Once back downtown we waited while some cold rain came through, a little bit of a refresher from the hot sun.
Finally we saw her turn the corner and we ran across the finish line together, a little over 30 hours and 210 miles after we started!
After pictures, everyone else got some food, I drank another beer and pretty soon we were back in the vans to drive back to Chapel Hill. A strange and quick visit to Asheville, but a welcome and wonderful trip to the mountains. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to run this race again, and to be able to run it with this team! It isn’t very often I have the opportunity to bond with strangers this way, by stinking up a van together, but we found all sorts of connections between us and I now consider them new friends.
If you’re a runner and haven’t done a relay, you should try it! Just don’t kick the piece of metal under the seats in the van!