Category Archives: Uncategorized

Winter Cometh: The First Snow

Yesterday morning, November 17, we had the first snowfall in Abingdon.  It started after I was already at work, so I didn’t get any pictures of it.  It only snowed for a couple of hours; it was not a particularly heavy snow, and the ground was too warm for any of it to accumulate. 

Unlike many folks, I always enjoy the first snowfall in town, as it means we’re in the season where we’ll see more of it in the mountains as winter approaches.

Snowy Whitetop on October 29, 2011

However, the snow yesterday wasn’t the first this fall in Southwest Virginia.  In the eastern end of Washington County we had noticeable accumlation twice in October.

The first heavy dusting occurred on Saturday, October 1, 2011.  When we were camping at Grindstone last month (see my previous article), the campground host told me that it snowed all Saturday that first weekend of October, and there was significant accumulation all over the north side of Mount Rogers.

Mount Rogers and Whitetop, Late Afternoon, October 2, 2011

By the time I took the photo above, the weekend storm cleared out, the sun warmed the day back into the upper 50s°, and most of the snow had melted off of the mountains. You can still see some remnants on the summit of Mount Rogers (on the left side of the photo).  The scene earlier in the day was more dramatic; it is a strange contrast to see snow on the mountains behind the green, deciduous trees in the valley before they’ve changed into their fall colors.

The last accumulation of snow in the Virginia High Country this past Spring was May 5, 2011 (see photo here).  Therefore, even with the relatively mild fall, those who love snow only had to go four months this year–June, July, August and September–before the sight for sore eyes of a white-encrusted mountain top reappeared in Southwest Virginia.
 
 

Autumn Sun

As the sun reflects the autumnal hues of falling foliage, we no longer take the endless days of summer for granted.  Our appreciation of the sunlight grows as each day becomes shorter. 

The sun bursts through golden foliage in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area.

Like most natural resources, our conscious awareness of the sun increases in proportion to its scarcity.  A whole sunny week is a nice thing.  On the other hand, a bright, sunny day following a gloomy, rainy week−now that, my friend, is absolutely glorious!

The warmth of the autumn sun is more palpable in some way, too, and parallels the warm colors of the season.  I find myself consciously glancing up to catch the sun’s rays more often in autumn, sometimes as they are cast through the trees. 

Grindstone Campground

This past October 15-17 we camped at Grindstone Campground in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area.  This is one of our favorite campsites, and it is somewhat of a tradition that we come here at least once almost every fall. 

The elevation, about 3300′, and the climate here usher in a change in the foliage that is usually a few weeks ahead of the change in the towns and cities of the region. 

We enjoyed fine fall colors, with the brilliant early reds and yellows across the mountains giving way to the finer and more subtle burgundies and golds of late fall.  These are the archetypical colors of Southwest Virginia in autumn. 

Our campsite was flooded with color each morning and afternoon.  The long shadows added texture to the imagery.

Colorful Campsite

One tall oak, larger than all the others, stood sentinel over our tent, leaves and branches rustling as the wind blew through the campsite all weekend.

The autumn sun and its accoutrements−the colors, the shadows, the warm daylight and accompanying cool, crisp nights−these things make fall my favorite season for camping.

There’s a Squatch in These Virginia Woods

Bigfoot has been sighted in Southwest Virginia.  Apparently often.  Usually associated with the mountains in the Pacific Northwest, there have been encounters with bigfoot, or sasquatch, all across this country. 

Huge Bigfoot Carving in Mt. Shasta, Northern California

Earlier last month, I was finishing a hike with a client when we saw an 8′ tall, fur-covered, man-like creature stop on the trail about 100′ in front of us.  Standing but slightly hunched, it turned its head slowly and looked back at us, barred its teeth, and then quickly lumbered away down the hill out of sight. 

Neither of us had our cameras ready.  It happened so fast we were not able to get a photograph of the creature.  Dumbfounded, shocked, and in fear, we just stared down the trail and then back at one another.

Our Encounter

Actually, that’s not what really happened.

Earlier last month, I was finishing a hike with a client when we learned that Animal Planet was getting ready to film a new episode for the second season of the TV show Finding Bigfoot in Southwest Virginia.  This is what really happened:

As we were arriving at the gravel parking lot, a large, white SUV drove up to us.  The blonde driver stated,  “Hi, I’m a TV producer from Los Angeles, and I’m  trying to find out some areas to shoot footage for our television show.”

He pointed to where we were hiking.  He asked, “Do you know who owns this property?”

My client stepped forward.  She said, “I do.”  

Then, gesturing towards me, she said, “And he’s my lawyer.” 

So our conversation began.  We talked for a while, and we learned he was one of the producers of Finding Bigfoot.  

Last week, the local newspaper reported that the TV show had a “casting call” of sorts, where they interviewed individuals who believe they have encountered bigfoot in our region.  According to the Washington County News:

After a short introduction by the show’s cast, the floor was open for local residents to tell their best Bigfoot stories on camera. Most of the witnesses’ stories had the common theme of spotting an extremely tall, broad-shouldered figure while hunting in the woods. One of the hunters was a man from Piney Flats, Tenn., who told a detailed story about how a large, dark figure with long, matted hair walked up to him, looked at him for a moment, then walked away in a zigzag motion.
“With my hand up to heaven I know what I saw,” the man said after he told his story.
A teenager from Saltville told a story about how she saw the familiar dark figure at the top of a hill outside her home, and soon after she made eye contact with it she was hit by a rock that left a sizeable bruise on her right leg. She even brought in a drawing of the creature to show to the cast.

The Bigfoot Phenomenon

The phenomenon of the fascination with bigfoot is itself fascinating.  Like other paranormal phenomenons, such as UFOs, opinions on the existence of bigfoot are polarized.  Either you believe they exist, or you think those who do are freaks. 

Those who believe in bigfoot argue that bigfoot’s existence without definitive human knowledge is not that far-fetched:   There are other phenomena−far larger phenomena−that have existed without human knowledge through the ages.  For example, until the last 10-15 years, many of the world’s tallest waterfalls remained unknown to humankind (the 3rd, 5th, and 16th tallest waterfalls were only recently discovered).  If such large geographical formations could remain hidden, is it not possible that an intelligent humanoid could covertly exist in remote areas of the country?

Huge Yowie Carving, Queensland, Australia

The phenomenon of bigfoot sightings is world-wide.  Individuals around the world swear they have seen the humanoid cryptid.  In Europe the creature has been known through the ages as the “Wildman”; in Asia it is known as the “Yeti” or the “Abominable Snowman”; in Oceania it is known as the “Yowie.”

The great climber, Reinhold Messner, spent several seasons in the Himalaya and had an encounter with the Yeti.  Messner wrote a book about it, My Quest for the Yeti.  Messner ultimately concluded that the Himalyan Yeti was most likely a bear. 

Perhaps most, if not all, human encounters with bigfoot could be explained in some similar fashion−misconceptions about what people saw or thought they saw. 

Bigfoot Sightings in Virginia

In Virginia, there are several organizations dedicated to bigfoot research.  The Virginia Bigfoot Research Organization  boasts of “combining scientific methodology with shamanistic awareness in the hopes of establishing peaceful contact.”  Based in Northern Virginia, VBRO has a large list of encounters with bigfoot in the Commonwealth organized by region.  There are numerous sightings in Southwest Virginia.  Sasquatch Watch of Virginia, another organization, “conducts initial field investigations and field research within areas of reported encounters or habitual recurring encounters.” 

One website purports to map all of the confirmed bigfoot encounters in the United States.  From my review of the maps, there are more bigfoot sightings in the Eastern United States than in the West.  There are numerous encounters near New York City. 

Which brings us to the penultimate question in this article.  Hypothetically, if there are bigfoot in Southwest Virginia, where would they most likely be? 

My guess would be up on Clinch Mountain, in the Mount Rogers National Recreational Area, or somewhere near the Virginia-Kentucky state line near Breaks Interstate Park.  These are the most rugged areas of this part of the state, where the squatch could reside with fairly large ranging areas and yet hide from humans.

So, is there a squatch in these Southwest Virginia woods?  I can’t wait to hear the testimonials on the TV show and find out.  And next time you are in the outdoors, be extra aware.  Oh yes, keep your cameras ready, too.

The New River, Part II: Camping and Fishing at Foster Falls

This is the second article in my short series on the New River.  This summer we canoed and fished several sections of the New River, first exploring the upper section in North Carolina, then the middle section that flows through Virginia, and finally the section that flows through the New River Valley and into West Virginia.  In the first article, I reviewed the section of the New River below the confluence of the North and South forks of the river.  This article is about our second trip where we fished and camped at Foster Falls in August 2011.

The Cliff at Foster Falls
Shallow Water and Rocks Visible at the Falls

The New River leaves Ashe County and Alleghany County in North Carolina and crosses the state line and flows into Virginia at Mouth of Wilson in Grayson County.   It then briefly crosses back into North Carolina and then back into Virginia again near Fries, Virginia.  The river then flows through the eastern part of Grayson County and into Wythe County.  As the river flows through the eastern part of the Appalachian Mountains in these counties it gains considerable volume and size as various tributaries add water to its flow.

Shortly after flowing under I-77, the New River has a series of step-like waterfalls that spand the entire width of the river and are collectively classified as a class 3 whitewater.  This area is known as Foster Falls and is the site of Virginia’s New River Trail State Park

Great Biking

The New River Trail State Park is a unique Virginia park: A 57-mile linear state park with various facilities located at different segments of the trail.  The main facilities are located at Foster Falls, where there is a small “walk in” campground, river access for fishing and a boat ramp, picnic areas, horse stables, and a canoe livery with a small shop.

The New River Trail itself is a converted railroad bed.  The trail is a packed dirt/ash trail that is excellent for mountain bikes or cross bikes.  The trail has several trestles that cross the river and also has a tunnel or two that cyclists travel through.  The trail is a level grade, with only a few minor hills, and generally follows the New River between Fries and Pulaski.  Foster Falls is the approximate half-way mark on the trail, and makes a good base camp to cycle in either direction on the trail. 

This trail is scenic with minimal traffic and road crossings.  After the Virginia Creeper Trail, it’s probably the nicest off-road cycling trail in Southwest Virginia.

Smallmouth Country

Low water allowed for great wet wading and fishing

The New River is renowned as one of the premier smallmouth fisheries in Virginia.  Actually, it’s one of the premier smallmouth fisheries in the United States.  The river also has large populations of musky and other game fish.  The New holds Virginia’s state records for largest smallmouth bass (8 pounds, 1 ounce) and largest musky (45 pounds, 8 ounces.) 

Isaac nabs a nice 14 inch smallie

There are several areas to fish right at Foster Falls.  I believe the key to fishing any large river, but especially the New, is to spread your casts methodically over fairly large areas of water to reach the most fish as possible and then move on.  Unless you are bait fishing and patient, covering a section of water and then moving on to another section is the best way to cover this river. 

We therefore first bank fished the river, then waded parts of the river where it was shallow and fished across a large island adjacent to the campground.  I fly fished with streamers and caught about 10 smallies with a size 8 olive wolly bugger.  My sons Karl and Isaac used Mepps and Blue Fox spinners on light and ultra light spinning tackle.  They caught about a dozen fish between them. 

Great Camping

Foster Falls campsite. The New River is seen right behind the campsite.

There are only 12 campsites at Foster Falls.  Thus, although it is a group camping area, the sites are dispersed and there is a wonderful absence of what I sometimes call the “Camp Jellystone Effect”−hundreds of sites jammed together creating a permanently smoky area that from a distance resembles a foreign refugee encampment as sometimes seen on the evening news.

The Falls Near the Camprground

Also, because these are “walk in” sites, there are no RVs or trailers.  You have to park in a designated parking area and carry your camp gear between 100-200 feet to the designated campsites.  This is not that difficult, and, much to my surprise, the state park provides little wagons for campers to transport their gear from the car to the campsites. 

"Walk In" Campsites

Most of the campsites are either right on the river, or very close to the river (with river views).  The camground also provides a sheltered area with dry wood for the campers.  You simply have to pay a daily fee, and then you may transfer the firewood to your site for your own use.  This was convenient and a reasonable way to provide firewood (if you run out, you simply go back to the covered area and get a few more logs).

Kayaking and Canoeing

Although we didn’t do any boating, there is the possibility of boating both up river and down river from Foster Falls.  Running the falls looked a bit sketchy.  When we were there in August, there did not appear to be sufficient water to successfully navigate the falls.  We saw one kayaker dragging his kayak down the river; it didn’t look fun.

I have kayaked the section of the river above the falls previously (my brother-in-law once took me down this section when a summer lightning and thunderstorm developed in which I feared for my life−getting caught on the water under these conditions can be scary).  During higher flows, this can be a moderately challenging kayak with lots of riffles and fast water, but there are not too many obstacles.  Downriver from the falls the river slows considerably as it approaches and eventually forms the upper part of Claytor Lake.

Kayaker Down River from Foster Falls

We will definitely return to Foster Falls, probably with a bike focus on our next trip.  However, I will also have to bring more marshmellows, Hersheys chocolate, and graham crackers next time.  Because this time, these ingredients seemed to mysteriously disappear each night.

Someone was stealing the S'mores. Who Was It?

Twin Pinnacles

While the most spectacular hike in Virginia is, in my opinion, the ascent of Wilburn Ridge (as described in one of my previous articles), perhaps the best “bang for the buck” hike in Southwest Virginia is the short hike known as Twin Pinnacles.  This is a 1.6 mile hike in Grayson Highlands State Park.  On September 25, 2011 after visiting the Grayson Highlands Festival my family did this little hike.

View from the Little Pinnacle

The trail begins right behind the Visitor Center.   The trail is a loop that takes you out to two pinnacles, or rock outcroppings, that have great views of the surrounding mountains.  The first pinnacle can be reached in less than 300 yards from the trailhead.   The pinnacles afford 300 degree views.  The view in the above photograph is looking south towards the North Carolina/Tennessee state line.  The view below is toward the north.  The rounded, frasier fir-covered hump at the top of the photo is Mount Rogers, the highest mountain in Virginia.

Mount Rogers View
Notice anything unusual in the photo above?  My son Isaac noticed the hawk on one of the outcroppings.  I have circled it below.  You can click on the photo below to enlarge it and see the bird a bit closer.  After a few minutes, it flew away, taking advantage of the thermals that rise up the mountainside.
Large Hawk at the Pinnacles

Looking back towards the north, you can also make out Wilburn Ridge as it rises from Massie Gap and climbs towards Mount Rogers.  In the photo below, it is the rocky ridge on the right side of the photo’

 
Wilburn Ridge View
On the second part of the trail, which involves some up-and-down climbing through some forest, we came across a resident in the middle of the trail who would not move.  Eventually, I had to get a long stick and move it out of the path.  The snake was almost three feet in length.  It was an eastern gartner snake, although I had not seen one this large before.  My daughter was not scared of it, and it seems to have been the most memorable part of the hike for her!
Gartner Snake on the Pinnacles Trail

After the hike, on the way down the mountain in our vehicle we saw a whole group of gobblers crossing the road.  Seeing wildlife like this in the Mount Rogers National Recreational Area is not unusual. 

Wild Turkeys

Overall, this was another nice day in the mountains.  The Twin Pinnacles Trail is a bit short in and of itself to justify a long trip to Grayson Highlands State Park.  It is, however, a perfect complement to a picnic or a nice side trip while visiting.  It is also a really good family hike:  Just the right distance for younger children or those looking for a less strenuous, shorter hike with great views.

Autumn Arrives in Southwest Virginia

This past Sunday afternoon my sons Isaac, Karl and I went for a five mile loop hike on the Iron Mountain Trail / Forest Road 84 off of State Route 600 in Smyth County.  These photos were taken at the Skulls Gap scenic parking lot, which is about 3500′.  The colors are starting to change at higher elevations and all foliage is taking on that golden hue in the evening that signals autumn has arrived.  Click on any of the photos to enlarge to appreciate the panoramic views.

View from Skulls Gap of the Valley
View from Skulls Gap of the Valley. Clinch Mountain is barely visible on the horizon.
Skulls Gap Parking Lot

September Rainbows

Rainbow over Whitetop Mountain from 15,000'+

On the evening of September 21, 2011, a series of beautiful rainbows appeared over the mountains.  From Abingdon, they appeared to rise from behind Holston Mountain and Whitetop Mountain.  I took some quick photos of them.  Somewhere 15,000′ or more above sea level in the sky, my friend took a photo of the same rainbows.  I thought it was unique to have these two different perspectives, thus this post.  Compare the photo on the right with the photos below.  It’s amazing that no matter where you were, the rainbows appeared to rise to the heavens. 

Rainbow over Holston Mountain
Rainbow over Holston Mountain. Note the fog in the valley near Tennessee.
 
Rainbow over Abingdon
 
Whitetop Rainbow from 15,000'+
 

Blue Ridge Relay

It is 3:30 AM.  We are parked on a rural hilltop next to a gas station that closed for the night five hours ago. 

Blue Ridge Relay Runners with Headlamps at the Grandfather Mountain Entrance Gate

The gas station is several miles outside the little town of Bakersville, North Carolina.  We’re less than 10 miles from the Tennessee state line.  Dozens of other passenger vans are lined up on the hill next to us, here, in a place that can only be described as the middle of nowhere.

Wincing, I slowly extend my right leg in order to begin to exit the cramped van.   My teammates and I have just traveled 100+ miles over winding, mostly secondary mountain roads in North Carolina since leaving Grayson Highlands State Park in Virginia at 10:30 AM yesterday morning.  At least one of us has run every single mile of this journey.  And we’re only a little over half way to our destination.

After 15 miles of hard running yesterday and no sleep this night, my legs are sore and my eyes are bleary.  This is the third time I’m doing this running drill.

I don my headlamp and a reflective vest with blinky lights in that cool, slightly foggy air so typical of the wee morning hours in Southern Appalachia.  I gingerly walk over to the “exchange zone,” an area consisting of orange cones with race officials carrying clip boards and stop watches.   I inform them of my race number, 314, and the race number of our team captain, Jasen, who is currently on the course and who will shortly hand off to me the large, blue wristband stamped “BLUE RIDGE RELAY” that we are carrying by foot to Asheville.

Many of our competitors are wandering around the same area, several like me trying to loosen up their knotted muscles before the exchange.  Some of my own teammates are awake, too, perhaps ingesting a nutrition bar or banana or drinking water to get much needed calories or fluids.  (“Ingesting” is a better description than eating, for there is little pleasure in forcing the food down at this hour after the latest gut-wrenching ride).  Others on the team are in the van trying to get at least a few moments of uncomfortable shut-eye before their next run. 

Those of us who are awake peer into the blackness where the road disappears.  We are waiting.  After a while, a few headlamps and blinky lights begin to appear at the base of the hill.  Human shapes emerge slowly as we begin to recognize the runners who approach.

“DIRTBAGGERS!, DIRTBAGGERS!,” one of the runners exclaims.  It’s Jasen.  He is letting us know he’s coming and for me to get ready to start the next leg.  Lumbering up the long hill, panting hard, he hands me the wristband.  I turn back to salute his effort, but he’s yelling at me and pointing down the road.  “GO! GO! GO! GO! GO!”

So motivated, I run off into the darkness, continuing the race.  Within a few minutes, I am once again all alone.  It’s just me and another long stretch of asphalt, though I can only clearly see about thirty feet ahead by the illumination of my headlamp.  Although running alone, I’m not lonely.  That’s near impossible when your legs are windmilling downhill and your heart rate is pushing past your aerobic threshold.   

The Dirtbaggers’ passenger van whizzes by, leapfrogging me to the next exchange zone.  My teammates in the van hoot and holler and shout encouragement as they roll past.   I acknowledge them with a raised right arm.  Geez, I can’t let these guys down by cracking on this leg of the race.

My first, foremost thought at this ungodly hour is that I must get to the next exchange zone as quickly as possible and hand the wristband to Aaron, who will carry it through Bakersville and another stretch of darkness until the next teammates—Keith, Sean, Scott, Mike, Cam, Bruce, Jim and Byrum—do the same thing as we travel the remaining miles of our meandering route (and then three of us will run yet a fourth time to reach the finish line in Asheville). 

My second, intermittent thought is, “What the hell am I doing here?” 

My third thought—organically evolving from the second, contemplating the totality of this event—causes an almost imperceptible sideways head nod of virtual disbelief and a slight grin:  “This is so totally and utterly insane, it’s awesome!”

Then there’s no further deliberative thought.  There is only movement.  Movement, and the will to keep pushing through this run.

Welcome to the Sixth Annual Blue Ridge Relay

Relay Race across the Mountains

Race to beyond the horizon: View from the Little Pinnacle at Grayson Highlands State Park the morning of the Blue Ridge Relay, September 9, 2011.

The Blue Ridge Relay, or BRR, is a 208 mile running relay race that traverses back and forth across the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains with a cumulative elevation gain of 27,000 vertical feet.  It’s arguably the toughest relay road race in the nation.  The tagline for the race is “Consider All Others a Warm Up.” 

BRR has 27,000 vertical feet of climbing.  That’s like climbing Mount Everest more than twice (remember Everest climbers start at 17,000 feet).  No, it’s not a truly analogous comparison, but it gives you an idea of the vertical climbing in this monster race. 

The start of the 10:30 AM wave. There were waves of runners from 6:00 AM through 1:30 PM.

On September 9th and 10th, 2011, our team, named “The Dirtbaggers,” ran the 208 miles in just under 27 hours at a 7:47 minute per mile average pace.  We came in 20th place out of the 120 teams that started the race (several teams DNF’d).  Amazingly, the winning team, the Asheville Running Collective, ran 208 miles in a little over 20 hours with a scorching 5:53 minute per mile average pace. 

36 Individual Races

The BRR is one of the oldest road relay races in the Eastern United States.  The concept of super long relay races goes back a couple decades or so, with several of the first ones out West, most notably the Hood to Coast 200 mile relay race in Oregon.  They have picked up much greater interest in the last decade on the heels of the big running boom the United States is currently experiencing (marathon running is up 37% percent since 2000; this year was the first year that even those runners who qualified for the Boston Marathon had to be chosen by a lottery in order to get a place on the starting line).  While most runners still consider ultra-running and other mega running events like the Blue Ridge Relay as extreme, these kinds of races are enjoying a concomitant growth and increased interest for those looking for the next challenge after the marathon.    

Relay Sign near Todd on the New River on Leg 9

The relay has 36 sections, each of which is between 3 and 11 miles in length.  Starting at Grayson Highlands State Park at over 5000’ elevation in Virginia, the race includes some of the most scenic and highest mountains in North Carolina, including a climb up the ramparts of iconic Grandfather Mountain (5900’) and around Mount Mitchell (6600’), the highest mountain in the East.  Several legs are on or adjacent to the Blue Ridge Parkway. 

Generally, the race bounces between 1500’ and 4000’ vertical feet practically every three or four legs.  The map of the entire course shows it generally travels south.  The race officials generated topographical maps (which do not do the course justice and don’t show all of the hills) for each of the 36 legs.  I ran legs 2, 13, 24, and the brutal, penultimate 35 (containing a 7-11% gradient climb up to the Blue Ridge Parkway).

Each leg is rated easy, moderate, hard, very hard, or “mountain goat hard.”  As we ran this race, we realized, however, that easy, moderate, and hard are relative terms. 

Vans lined up at the top of the first "Mountain Goat" leg near Mt. Mitchell

Even the so-called easy runs usually had hills that, in their own right, would be called hard by anyone other than the organizer of a 208-mile race in the mountains.  The longest leg was 10 mile all-uphill run on Route 220 that essentially paralleled the Blue Ridge Parkway as it climbed the bottom half of Grandfather Mountain. 

There were two mountain goat legs, each of which had climbs that exceeded 13% gradient in places.  There were also long, unrelenting downhill runs that would punish the hamstrings and knees.  One all-downhill run was nine miles in length!

A Group Effort

I love individual races; they provide their own reward.  There’s no hiding in an individual race.  You wholly own the result, for better or worse.   The Blue Ridge Relay was not necessarily a “better” race than a solo race, but it was definitely different.

The Dirtbaggers aka TPE: Byrum Geisler, Jasen Eige, Sean Murphy, Jim Thompson, Bruce Coakley, Keith Polarek, Eric Thiessen, Cameron Bell, Aaron Sink, Scott Sikes, Mike Owens (Click to Enlarge)

The beauty of the relay race concept is that while only one member of the team is racing against the clock at a time, there is a collective team effort that in some ways elevates the event beyond an event of comparable or greater individual effort such as a solo marathon.  At the same time, because the BRR is a mountainous course, no leg is exactly like any other leg in length or topography, and direct comparisons between the runners is difficult.  Each team member just has to run the best they can on their unique segments of the course.

Not just a fashion statement: Reflective vests were mandatory on Blue Ridge Parkway. Byrum describes leg 11, a Parkway run, to teamates Sean, Mike, Bruce, Cam and Aaron. Mountains near Boone frame the background.

Running for a team puts a different sort of pressure on you; for me, this different motivation was refreshing.  The camaraderie and fellowship of doing the relay together with my teammates was more “fun” than a purely individual race.  Obviously, how much “fun” a race like this is depends on who your teammates are—you need to think about with whom you want to spend a sleep-deprived night in a van in the mountains when you put together your crew.  Although every single one us had not been on a team with every other one of us before this race, most of us had a connection to several others on the team.  We were fortunate, too, in that the guys on the team were cool, got along, and jelled well.

The Blue Ridge Relay is as much about the non-running aspects as the runs themselves.  The whole thing was a great experience that is very different than an ordinary race.  On top of this, not knowing exactly what to expect (none of us had done the BRR before) and the grand scale of the race made it a true adventure.

A Logistical Nightmare

The race organizers did a good job putting this race together.  When I first learned about this race, it seemed to me to be a logistical nightmare.  In addition to organizing a start and a finish as in a traditional race, there were 35 “exchange zones,” or finish lines to the individual legs and staging areas for the teams who were starting the next legs.  The various exchange zones were post offices, volunteer fire rescue stations, church parking lots, the Penland School of Crafts, and the odd gas station. 

BRR was an undulating course with lots of scenery. A sign in Barnardsville, NC warns a steep climb on the next leg.

Since a lot of these were in very rural areas and were used in the middle of the night, there obviously was a lot of planning done before the race.  In addition, there was a lot of local support from the communities through which we ran, including police support (most notably when a red Trans Am type vehicle zoomed through one of the late-night exchange zones and had to be chased down by a local police officer).  Literally 100s of portable toilets were at the exchange zones throughout the race.  The courses for the most part were well-marked, with signage at almost all of the turns.

A Laid-Back Race   

"Pimp My Stride" Runner

While there definitely was some nervous energy at the beginning, this race was informal from the get-go.  Most of the passenger vans were decorated in some fashion or, like ours, at least had some race-related graffiti written on the windows.  For example, before the 10:30 start of our wave of runners, one of the teams huddled its members together and loudly, publically proclaimed that it was time for “The Prayer.”  I was not sure what to expect.  The team then opened their passenger van to reveal a jacked up speaker system, and blasted the audio of the Prayer from Talladega Nights for everyone.  Some of the runners were dressed up in costumes for the intial leg of the race.

As far as any nutrition, the teams were pretty much on their own.  You had to bring all of your own water, food, etc. that your team would need.  There were very few places during most of the race where you could re-supply; in addition, since the race is through the night, most of the few stores that were on the course were closed when we passed them.

The finish line was at Battery Park in Asheville.  While the location was good, there was no significant designated area for racers or their friends or family after the race. This may have been because the teams necessarily come into town in waves throughout the day.

The Dirtbaggers' Van, Our Home for the Night

There was not as much “swag” as I expected for such a large race (actually, there was none); the finish line reward was a refrigerator magnet (not a medal, trophy, or anything to memorialize actually finishing the race); there was no congregating area or water or food at the finish.  You just sort of went through the finishing chute, got your magnet, and were told you did a good job.  The thought may be that finishing in Asheville, you have tons of eating and drinking options within a couple of blocks from the finish line.   In any event, these are minor criticisms to what was an overall fantastic experience.

After the race and after some rest, our team went out for refreshments at Asheville’s local watering hole, Barley’s Tap Room (while aging a little bit, it’s ambiance still equals that of the Barley’s in Knoxville, see my story about that one here).    The winning team, the Asheville Running Collective, was there, too.  One of their members came over and talked to us about the race. He had run the Hood to Coast relay previously, and he told us that BRR blows it away in terms of vertical climbing and overall difficulty.

Finishing the Blue Ridge Relay was a tour de force for our team.  If you have a group of 6 to 12 individuals who want to punish themselves and have fun doing so, this is a great race.  Bring your A-game, though, and save some for the middle.  Because at 3:30 AM, this race is a beast.

Our Team - Satisfaction at the Finish Line

Brumley Creek

This photo taken with a point-and-click camera shows Brumley Creek the day after the heavy rains from Tropical Depression Lee last week.  Normally, this creek is only about 10 feet wide during low water.  As a point of reference in the photo, the distance from the bank on the right side to the large tree in foreground in the middle of the creek is about 15 feet (and the width of the stream from the tree to the other side is at least about another 10-15 feet).

Brumley Creek Flooding

We went down to the creek in the evening to look around, and to see how high the water would have risen from the storm water runoff.  Usually this section of the creek is quiet, but there was a roar from the water that you could hear as soon as you opened the car door.

How do trout survive in such a rapidly changing environment?  This week over at the Orvis Fly Fishing Blog Drew Price explains.  Simplifying the explanation, the torrential flow we view from surface is moderated at the bottom, and there are places where the fish can hold and stay safe.

A little bit about Brumley Creek:  Technically, it is the closest trout stream to Abingdon.  It’s a small stocked creek less than 10 miles from town.  It doesn’t have a reputation for producing large or many fish, as there are not many holdovers from the previous seasons.  It’s also not regulated, i.e., it’s open to all fisherman who hold a trout license during the stocking season.  As stated above, it’s also small.  It’s still a pretty little creek though.

Note that this description is of the stocked lower section of the creek, which has about 1/2 mile or so of fishable water, on Trout Road.   The creek flows from Hidden Valley Wildlife Management Area and down off of Clinch Mountain.