Tag Archives: Running

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
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Seeing Red on Labor Day

Tropical Storm Lee has been slowly moving towards Southwest Virginia.  Its precursor precipitation bands arrived Sunday afternoon, and it rained most of Sunday night.  The Doppler radar weather map Monday morning looked like it was painted green, with just a small area around Washington County not showing rain.  It was a small decent-weather window in which to labor through one last long run on the Virginia Creeper Trail before the Blue Ridge Relay race later this week. 

With the rainy weather, it is surprising that the color that is in forefront of my mind today is red.  Running through the matte lighting on the misty trail this morning, I saw more red in the outdoors than anytime this summer:

  • The falling and fallen leaves that are finally turning red (in addition to yellow), signaling the onset of autumn and the fantastic color changes we will be witnessing once again across the mountains very soon;
  • The beautiful orange-red color pattern of an Eastern box turtle that was slowly crossing the trail.  Its brilliantly-colored head was raised high as it scouted the area; and
  • The long, lithesome body and outstretched tail of an auburn-colored red fox darting over the trail only 100 feet in front of me.

All of this was on a four-mile stretch of the trail from the Abingdon trailhead. 

On this website, I usually don’t cover too much about the Virginia Creeper Trail, in part because it’s covered extensively on other sites, and on this site I seek to provide information about some of the less-known outdoor activities near Abingdon.  That said, it is true that sometimes we take for granted that which is closest to us.  The Virginia Creeper Trail is really something quite special; a solitary trip at an unusual time is sometimes the best way to reawaken awareness of how fortunate we are to have this awesome natural resource literally in our backyard.

Burkes Garden and The Varmint Half-Marathon

In eastern Tazewell County lies Burkes Garden, an isolated, circular mountain valley nicknamed “God’s Thumbprint.”  The people who have lived here for generations apparently have known for a long time they own one of the most idyllic mountain valleys in the South.  In fact, at one time agents of George Vanderbilt inquired about building his gilded age mountain estate here.  The local population refused to sell out, and he instead built his house, The Biltmore, at another location outside of Asheville, North Carolina.

Burkes Garden is the location of a scenic half-marathon called “The Varmint.”  Saturday, June 11, 2011, was the 18th consecutive running of The Varmint.  The race is named after a peculiarly large coyote that was killing sheep in the valley in 1952.  As the story goes, this varmint was difficult to catch or kill, so a professional big game hunter was called in to get the beast.  They eventually did get it.  The coyote itself can be viewed at nearby Crab Orchard Museum

Prior to this year I had run this 13.1 mile race a couple of times, so I was curious to go back and see how the race had changed.  To get to Burkes Garden, you have to drive over a mountain that separates the valley from the rest of Tazewell County.  The road, named Burkes Garden Road (Route 663), is about 2.5 miles in length from the base to the top and climbs considerably; I would estimate somewhat less than 1000 vertical feet.  Coming down into Burkes Garden at 7:30 AM, there was a fog which completely engulfed the valley.

As I approached the race, I was surprised by how many people were there.  There were well over 300 people.  The Varmint Half-Marathon is run in conjunction with a 5K road race, so some of the people who were there were obviously there for the 5K.  Nonetheless, the half-marathon has grown a lot since 2002 and 2004 when I last participated.  This year there were groups of runners from Virginia Tech University and West Virginia as well as the more expected contingent of runners from Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee with the State of Franklin Track Club.

The half-marathon is essentially a tour of Burkes Garden.  The race is staged and the start/finish line is at a school in the community.  Racers travel in a counter-clockwise fashion around the valley.  This is one of the more scenic races in the region.  You have to appreciate the scenery, because this is a tough and very hilly course.  The first six miles are constant hills.  Your legs will get pounded.  Thereafter the hills continue, but they are less pronounced.  The last three miles of the race is one long, slow climb with one small out-and-back detour back to the finish line.

After I ran The Varmint this Saturday I retraced the race route and took some photos of the course.  These are presented in the order a runner would see these views during the race.  Click on any of the photos in this gallery to enlarge and read a description of them.

The roads are very lightly traveled in Burkes Garden.  This would make for a great afternoon family or casual mountain bike ride, or a challenging road bike route if combined with the climb over 663 from Tazewell. 

Route 663 actually continues southeast all the way through Burkes Garden and travels up over Brushy Mountain, where it eventually intersects with the Appalachian Trail at the peak of the mountain, then continues down the other side via switchbacks to connect with Route 42 in Bland County.  Leaving Burkes Garden Route 663 however turns to gravel and is essentially an unimproved forest road.  This could be another mountain bike option as well.

Burkes Garden is one of those increasingly rare places where the beauty of the countryside is simple and still pure.  There are no restaurants and no stores in Burkes Garden.  There are also no neon or electric signs, no flashy or tacky homes, and no unnecessary distubances to the pastoral countryside.  It’s easy on the eyes.  It’s just a great place to sit back and relax—especially after 13.1 miles.

Bays Mountain Park

Only 45 miles from Abingdon, Bays Mountain Park and Planetarium in Kingsport, Tennessee is one of the nicest large parks in the region.  It is right off of Interstate 26, Exit 3, Meadowview Parkway.  The entrance to the park is just a few miles to the south of the exit.

With 3,550 acres and an extensive network of 37 miles of trails, it offers a good place to do some trail running or mountain biking in an enclosed, very pretty natural park.  The trails are a mix of old fire roads and single track.  There are several good annual trail running races within the park, most notably the Bays Mountain 15 Mile Trail Race, which is in September and starts from the nature center area, and the Laurel Run Ascent, which is in April and starts in Laurel Run Park (accessed from Church Hill, Tennessee).  I did the Bays Mountain 15 miler several years ago and can attest to it being one of the nicer trail races in the region.

Bays Mountain Park has nature programs and dedicated habitat areas—essentially large pens—for bobcat, wolves, river otters, turtles, and raptors.  This area of Bays Mountain Park is similar to the Western Carolina Nature Center in Asheville, North Carolina.  There are not as many exhibits at Bays Mountain as at WCNC; however, the wolf exhibit at Bays Mountain is larger and better.

The photo gallery below shows some areas of the park close to the nature center.  Click on a photo to see a description of it.

I recently visited Bays Mountain with my son for an elementary school field trip.  (This park hosts many school field trips; during our visit there were also school field trips from Scott County, Va. and from Hawkins County, Tenn.).  With the school group, we visited the nature center, listened to a lecture on the wolves, and watched a program at the planetarium. 

During the wolf lecture, the park official explained how wolves live in packs, their feeding habits and pack behavior, and then demonstrated how the wolves howl.  She prompted the wolves to howl with her own human “howl,” which involved cupping her hands to her mouth and then initiating a howling sound and was unlike an ordinary human imitation of a wolf howl.  The wolves responded slowly at first, and then all of them seemed to howl together.  This lasted several minutes.  It was quite loud, actually pretty fascinating to hear, and was the highlight of the trip.

We then proceeded to the planetarium.  The planetarium has a modern Carl Zeiss planetarium projector that allows the audience to sit back and look up onto the domed ceiling to watch an accurate representation of the night sky.  This was the first time I had seen a planetarium show since I was a child at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, so it was a treat.  The Bays Mountain Park website indicates they also have quality telescopes and allow the public to use them at designated times in the evenings.

Bays Mountain Park has a 44 acre lake named the Kingsport Reservoir that was apparently originally used as the major source of water for the city of Kingsport.  The lake has many inlets, lily pads, and bass and bluegill that were visible from the shore.  Overall, this park is a nice asset to the region, one often overlooked as a place for outdoor recreation considering how close it is to Abingdon and Southwest Virginia.  It’s definitely worth a day trip.

Time in the Outdoors

Recently my minister gave a sermon that explained the concepts of chronos time and kairos time.  Chronos time is that time measured by the clock.  Kairos time, on the other hand, is the concept of the Lord’s time, which does not correspond to chronos time and may not be measured.  Kairos time is metaphysical and beyond human comprehension.  This concept goes back at least to Greek times, when it was understood that time could be more than a measured unit.

In our modern age, chronos time is what drives us both at work and home.   We constantly confront deadlines, whether imposed by a third-party, our boss, or ourselves.  In my profession, for example, the court sets deadlines in litigation for filing lawsuits, filing papers, scheduling these cases for hearings and trials, etc.  Clients set deadlines for projects and transactions.  My profession also measures my worth, or value, based upon chronos time.  For most legal work, the billing unit is tenths of an hour, or six-minute increments of time.  

Most jobs are similar in that meeting deadlines and time spent on the job wholly or to some extent measure performance.  Scheduling and time commitments are also ubiquitous aspects of personal life.  There is always so little time and so much to do.  Indeed, in an increasingly busy, complicated and technological world, even “finding time” to be outdoors can be difficult.

In most outdoor sports, chronos time determines victory or measures success.  Whether racing against a competitor or directly against the clock, we are competing in chronos time.  When we race, we are conscious—usually very conscious—of the passage of time.  We wear watches that can keep track of it down to the hundredth of a second, and we time ourselves even in training.

We also, however, can experience kairos-like time in the outdoors.  Upon reflection I believe this may be one of the most important reasons those of us who are attracted to the outdoors spend time there.  In the outdoors time can become metaphysical.  The beauty of outside and our exertion somehow converts ordinary chronos time to kairos-like time or at least may allow us to experience something akin to kairos time. 

Reinhold Messner, the great mountain climber who has spent as much time alone in the mountains as anybody, has stated that while climbing his perception of time could become altered.  Messner has reported that while climbing he has had conversations with his deceased brother, and that at times when at altitude his entire existence seemed to be reduced to nothing more than a single, breathing lung.  Reading through literature, it is apparent that mind-altering or other virtual out-of-body type experiences like this are not that uncommon among extreme outdoor athletes, especially when they are alone and in remote areas.  They also almost universally experience kairos-like time.

A friend of mine who hiked the entire Appalachian Trail once told me that his journey completely altered the way he experienced and viewed time.  “Time was meaningless for me on the trail,” he told me.  This was one of the most memorable and important experiences of his 2000+ mile journey.  When I run, time may become slower and faster—sometimes simultaneously.  Time can seem to palpably slow as my mind relaxes, clears and yet races through thought.  For example, I wrote this entire essay in my mind within a one mile section of the Virginia Creeper Trail while running. 

When we get in “the zone”—and all endurance athletes know what this means—time as we ordinarily experience it is altered or may even seem to stop altogether.  In “the zone” there is a zen-like state of mind, feelings of a sort of euphoria, and temporal freedom.  Our mind relaxes until there is only the pleasantly repetitive, meditative stride while hiking or running.  While cycling, there is only the trance-like pedaling cadence, legs “ticking like a metronome,” as the saying goes.  We don’t always achieve this state of mind on every outing, however when we do it is a truly transcendent experience.  It’s part what keeps us coming back to these activities.

“The zone” has been extensively studied by scientific experts, and its cause is not well understood.  One possible yet inconclusive theory is that it is somehow related to the endocannabinoid system.  Like “the zone,” the phenomenon of kairos-like time in the outdoors has not been scientifically explained.  Are these experiences merely a perception resulting from the mind-altering physiological effects of exercise in the outdoors, an endorphin-induced high no different from the effects of a drug?   Is our perception simply the calming effect of being in nature?  Or is the different kind of time experienced in the outdoors not just a perception, but a reality:  Perhaps the closest we can come to appreciating an actual ordered yet unmeasured kind of time like kairos?

I am thankful for time spent outdoors.  There usually is not any analysis of it, though.  When I come back later than planned from a bike ride, run or hike and my wife asks what happened, I don’t get into a religious, spiritual or philosophical discussion with her.  I just shrug my shoulders and tell her, quite honestly, “I guess I just lost track of time.”