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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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
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.
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.