This was my 3rd Blue Ridge Relay (and my 5th running relay to date) and this one goes down as the most fun one I’ve done yet! I mean fun in terms of silliness, team camaraderie, open discussions about pooping, and the more general but extremely important “free of drama” aspect. There are still plenty of amusing stories and points of high and low energy, van renting mix-ups, and even an illness, but there weren’t any arguments, injuries, or other “dramatic” issues to take away from the race. Everyone on both teams whether veterans or newbies to the race had an awesome attitude, stepped up when they needed to, and judging by our post-race emails, had an incredible time!
Just a quick run down of what exactly an overnight relay entails: teams of up to 12 (six people are considered an ultra team) relay through the night to cover a certain huge amount of mileage, in this case 210 miles from Grayson Highlands, VA to Asheville, NC. Each runner runs between 3 and 10-ish miles at a time and runs three legs over the course of the two days. The typical way to do this is to have 6 runners in each van and when one van is going the other one rests/sleeps/eats a real meal. Then at the end you celebrate all your accomplishments and share your favorite memories! Easy right? (Just kidding, totally do-able, but not easy in those mountains!)
The race started Thursday with the typical van mix-up problems. Since typical rental places don’t keep large passenger vans in their normal fleet, our team captain had reserved them early but when she went to pick them up there were only 2 vans for us, we needed four for our two teams. It turns out one of the vans was in an accident in transit to Chapel Hill so they had to pull it out of the fleet and they gave our other van away, bummer. Our fearless team captain was able to secure a minivan and a tahoe as the second vehicles for each team, meaning each would have one large passenger van and one smaller vehicle, and this ended up working out perfectly fine (plus we got a hugely discounted rate!) After getting all the vehicles and working out the logistics of getting 23 people to two airBNB homes near the race start in Grayson Highlands, VA and the first major exchange near West Jefferson, NC, we drove through some rainstorms to our respective cabins in the mountains. Two teammates drove up from Asheville, in a Uhaul, because it gave the best rate for returning a vehicle in a different city, and even better, it actually provided an extra bedroom for them to sleep in (I’m being totally serious, they set up an air mattress in the Uhaul!) And I ended up sharing a bed with a teammate who didn’t remember my name the next morning (thanks Ciara!) Because the second vans for both teams were staying at our cabin, we didn’t have to wake up as early as the van 1 crew for our teams’ 5am start time.
When we woke up the next morning the weather was perfectly cool and misty in the mountains. One of my team (Banana Kills) van 1 runners actually stayed with us because she couldn’t leave Chapel Hill till later, so we had to get her to her correct exchange to be with her van. Upon driving up we couldn’t help but notice we were the only van there. A couple of things had happened, one, the race had to be delayed for an hour because a downed tree blocked the road on Leg #2 and the race organizers had to re-route everyone, and two, Banana Kills and Scut Monkey (our other team) were the lead runners!
It turned out that our two teams exchanged the lead for much of the race since we were part of the first wave of teams at 5am, it took quite a while for the ‘elite’ teams to start passing us the next morning. I’ve never been the lead runner so when it got to my first leg (and a half) and I did not pass anyone or get passed, it was a strange feeling! And then during my second leg when my van passed by and updated me that I was a good two miles ahead of anyone, it was kind of unnerving because in the night legs I was used to lots of vans passing me and “keeping me company.” I’ll quote myself from a previous race recap here, an overnight relay is the only time where a slow moving white van creeping up to you is actually a comfort! This relay was also different because we rented a cabin to rest/shower at and somehow the way the course looped, the cabin was 25 minutes away from 3 of the different major exchange zones! I showered twice and got 2 hours of sleep (albeit with three of us in a full sized bed so I had my arm hooked around the mattress to not fall out of the bed for those two hours.)
But I digress, my first run, leg 8, was a quick 5k, with one fairly tough climb towards the end. Then I handed off the Jess but I was only in the van for a short rest because she and I were splitting up this next 5 mile leg since we were down a runner. About halfway to the next exchange we parked the van, in a first for me I tore off my sweaty shirt and ran in just my sports bra for the next 2.5ish miles after getting the bib and slap bracelet from Jess. Then I got a long rest, plus the knowledge that I’d knocked out 1.5 out of 3.5 legs!
We grabbed some food and beer and headed to the cabin where I showered, chowed down, had a session IPA, and put my legs up and read for a while. Pretty soon we were back in the van, some GPS trouble/putting the wrong exchange into our phones had us scrambling for a minute but we made it in plenty of time to see my roommate (in our van) come into the exchange absolutely hauling ass (and in the front of the pack after passing our other team’s runner.) We told our van 1 to get some rest and went after our runner. Leg 20 was up next for me, a fairly steady, and sometimes brutal climb up the top of a mountain, then a screaming 1.3 mile downhill to finish. I actually can’t believe how fast I did that downhill on that rutted road in the dark. Just over 8 minutes for 1.3 miles! 2.5 legs down! It was a moonless night, but there was some heat lighting in the distance that lit up the sky, and the clouds were clear enough over us to give us an incredible night sky – one of my favorite things about overnight relays. We finally made it to the baked potato exchange to pass off to van 1 and we once again headed to the cabin.
I was already awake, but I was about to wake up the others when our other van called, we needed to skedaddle out of there pretty quick. One problem, team captain Jess was sick. Since I was the most awake I told her that she wasn’t running and we’d somehow cover her leg and let her jump into our other van when we met up (there was a doctor in that van.) So we packed up and I carefully, but with speed, drove us through the rain to the exchange, passing my roommate as he was about to overtake a master’s team runner and the sky cleared with the sunrise. (We cut it pretty close.) Ciara started her mountain goat leg with the beautiful switchbacks up Eagle’s Nest, and we regrouped with our other van. We recruited our young gun Charlie to run Jess’s leg, and since my roommate was already planning to run a 4th leg, we had a packed mini-van, not to mention a 1:1 male to female ratio for the first time (prior to that we had only 1 brave male in our van!) We stopped on the switchbacks to cheer her on and take pictures, then proceeded to the top, where I would take over and run 9 miles downhill on the gravel road. At the last minute I grabbed my Tufts Marathon Team hat noticing that the drippy/misty morning wasn’t going away – I sensed more rain.
Once Ciara slapped that bracelet onto my wrist I took off. Thankful for my trail running shoes, within a mile my ankles were feeling the gravel and my quads were on fire from the downhill (did I mention over 2,000 ft of downhill?) Oh, and I was correct, it started raining, pouring really. But I felt like I was in the jungle! I love that western NC is part of a deciduous rain forest! While my legs were feeling it, it wasn’t too bad until I got off the gravel road and onto paved road that looked never-ending. When I say my quads were feeling it, I think I really mean that I could feel my quads. They felt 5 times their usual size, something akin to a professional track cyclist. I kept my pace pretty steady throughout and was able to pass off to my roommate at the next exchange, I meant to say “nice shorts” in reference to his NC flag running shorts, but all that came out was “nice sh…s” which could have been a reference to the fact that the whole team knew more about his bowel movements than is typical of… well anyone. I needed out of my soaking wet clothes immediately, so soon after my quick change we’d piled back into the van and were on our way to watch my roommate beast his mountain goat leg!
The last 6 legs of the Blue Ridge Relay are probably my favorite, I don’t know if that is because they are some of the most difficult that happen towards the end of the race, or if they just get my closer and closer to my old home. Incredibly quickly, we were parking the van where the Blue Ridge Parkway meets Town Mountain Rd, the last exchange before the finish and a place I know very well. I cracked open a beer there and called my mom (since I knew there was phone service.) She knew I was beaming through the phone. This was by far the most fun I’d had during a relay, it was by far the best entire team experience I’d been a part of – zero drama, no injuries, just Jess’s unfortunate GI issues.
After our last runner, Dalia, successfully got the slap bracelet, we all headed down Town Mountain to downtown Asheville. We hobbled around the finish area, saw team Scut Monkey and waited for our runner so team Banana Kills could cross the finish line together. We all ran across the finish line with Dalia, hugged, took pictures, and headed to Farm Burger for much needed grub. One incredible veggie burger and basket of sweet potato fries later, I was brimming with happiness, good food, and good drink. All too soon we worked out the logistics for the drive back to Chapel Hill and I ended up driving one of the giant passenger vans (really a small bus) back home. Incredibly, I ate some more on the drive, let the others nap, and processed the great fortune I had to be a part of such a welcoming, kind, funny, and badass team of runners. Till the next relay!