The Blue Ridge Relay (BRR) is a 208ish-mile running relay from Grayson Highlands State Park in Virginia to downtown Asheville, North Carolina. The relay hosts 180 teams of 4 to 12 people who run a total of 36 legs ranging from 2.5 to 10.5 miles per leg over the course of a day and a half.
This year marked my fourth time running the BRR with Team GOFAR. It would have been my fifth, but I missed last year due to an “unexcused absence” (I had shoulder surgery). Lucky for me, there aren’t many people in the area who want to endure two days in a van with sweaty runners and their equally odorous belongings.
The BRR starts in Grayson Highlands near the base of Mount Rogers (5729′), the highest peak in Virginia. The course winds its way through North Carolina’s High Country to the finish in Asheville and features some spectacular scenery including Grandfather Mountain (5964′) and Mount Mitchell (6684′), the highest peak east of the Mississippi River.
About 60% of the relay’s 36 legs are rated as Hard or Very Hard, 6% are super steep Mountain Goat climbs, and a third of the race is considered Easy or Moderate. That said, on average, each runner on a 12-person team has 1 Easy-Moderate run and 2 Hard-Very Hard runs.
Then there’s the difficulty rating of each set of 3 legs. The chart below (put together by one of my teammates) breaks down each set according to their overall rating (e.g. Easy, Moderate, Hard, etc.). Slot 10 (legs 10, 22, and 34) is ranked the “easiest” and Slot 11 (legs 11, 23, and 35) is ranked the “hardest”. In all honesty, there is no easy or hard just nonsensical elevation gains and losses over short and long periods of time.
In previous races I ran the 6, 8, and 12 slots. Insert exception. When I ran the 8 slot in 2013 I ended up running Leg 31 (up the Mountain Goat) instead of Leg 32 (down the backside of the Mountain Goat) due to an injury of one of my teammates. This year, to try something new and because I needed the miles for my ultra training, I snatched up Slot 3.
The Running Experience
Before I give you a mostly inaccurate recollection of my 2015 experience, let me help you understand what each runner endures over the course of the relay. To begin, get in your car and head to the gym. Once you arrive, follow these directions:
Step 1. Jump on the treadmill, set it to awful, and run like you don’t have a care in the world. When you’re finished, go sit in a Waffle House dumpster for 8-10 hours and eat a sandwich.
Step 2. Change clothes in the dumpster, strap on cinder blocks, get back on the treadmill, increase the incline (or decline) to 1 fillion percent, and ask someone to spray your face with a firehose as you run/jog/crawl for 45-90 minutes. After you’ve completed your jaunt, head back to the dumpster for another 8-10 hours, and attempt to sleep for a maximum of 90 minutes.
Step 3. For your last leg, get a belt, some rope, and a dead yak. Tie said yak to one end of the rope and then wrap the other end around your waist. With your shaggy haired companion in tow, ask someone to beat your legs with a cane pole as you run for another 45-90 minutes. When you finish, celebrate the fact that you are alive, then go pass out on the floor.
The Relay Experience
We arrived at the start line 30 minutes early only to find out that our 7:30AM start time was pushed back a half hour due to a giant tree that got drunk and passed out on the course. Since the tree wasn’t moving anytime soon, the race director had to re-route Leg 2 which tacked on an additional 2 miles to that leg. Sorry Bobby.
After much waiting, the race official with the megaphone counted down, blew a horn, and Will took off running down the road.
Leg 3 (5.2 miles, +400′/-479′, Moderate, 65°F, 7:32 pace)
Will passed off to Bobby who started Leg 2: The Director’s Cut and the lot of us drove on down to the next exchange zone (EZ) where we waited for him to arrive. An hour, a cup of coffee, and a half dozen trips to the Porta John later I took the handoff and was on my way like a unicorn in a field of butterflies. My legs were fresh, the sky was clear, and everything was glorious!
My first mile came in just under 7 minutes. Pavement turned to gravel, flat turned to hill, and my pace slowed to a crawl. For ten minutes I bargained with my quads until eventually we reached an agreement and I made my way over the figurative and literal hump whereupon I pushed myself back down to near 7 min pace with a slightly faster sprint to the EZ.
Leg 15 (10.5 miles, +1,222′/-493′, Very Hard, 71°F, 8:20 pace)
Bobby turned up just as the sun went down and off I went into the darkness, nine and a half hours after finishing my first leg. Wait! That’s not how I want to start this leg recap. I want to start it with a hot dog. You see, at the EZ before Leg 15 there’s a country store with fire pits and happiness. Will, who ran Slot 1, decided to go to the store and grab some happiness in the form of beans and a hot dog. Here I am, getting ready to run up a mountain for an hour and a half and he starts chowing down on a salchica! I felt like a puppy waiting for a scrap to fall on the ground. Needless to say, I did not eat a hot dog. ಠ_ಠ
Back to the story…
I’m being generous when I say that this leg is awful. It is a 10.5 mile 1,222′ ascent along Blowing Rock Highway complete with twists, turns, and NASCAR caliber drivers that come dangerously close to your person.
During the first few miles things were relatively uneventful. Then they got eerily quiet. Like scary-movie-probably-going-to-die-any-second quiet. Then BAM! Mothra comes flying out of the woods and crashes into my face forcing me to flail my arms, shriek like a banshee, and kill my light.
When I was certain the kaiju was gone I turned my headlamp back on and kept on trucking. F to the U Mothra! Mile six rolled into seven, then 7.1, 7.2, 7.25, 7.261. I was getting bored with going up and began thinking of ways to pass the time. I sang songs, counted Mississippis between lightning strikes and thunder, and scoured the woods for beady-eyed monsters.
On occasion, I would see and overtake a runner which helped my spirits. And when I did I was left alone, again, in the dark, going up a blankity blank mountain! The inverse of that story is when Johnny Fast Face decided to approach me in stealth mode causing me to fill my shorts with squishy turds. Seriously people, give some warning when you pass someone on a creepy godforsaken mountain road.
Mile eight came and went. Then mile nine. Mile ten. And finally, after 1 hour and 27 minutes I arrived at the EZ. Praise Atalanta! My second leg was finished!
Leg 27 (9.1 miles, +371′/-474′, Hard, 64°F and raining, 8:38 pace)
Prior to my last leg I pulled off a miraculous 1.5 hour nap in Bakersville at EZ24 only to be awoken by the sound of rain on the windshield. That’s when I remembered that Beth and Anna were in sleeping bags outside of the van. I nudged John and said something like, “brrskrverberr…your sister…blugityferberlitger…rain.” He cracks the door, notices Beth pulling a tarp over her face, and falls back to napping. Guess we’re good.
More time passes, we say hello to Van 2, and then off we went on our merry way. At 5:33AM, eight hours after I completed my run up Grandfather Mountain, I started my third and final leg…sleep deprived and in the rain. For a half mile I pushed myself to the top where I immediately began a steep 2.5 mile decline to the valley where I began the 6 mile climb to the next EZ.
The road and the incline seemed to go on forever. I did everything I could to will my legs forward. Thankfully, I came across an occasional runner who I used as motivation to get moving. And I returned the favor to other runners who used me as motivational target practice. Finally, after an hour and 18 minutes of searching for Jesus, the EZ appeared, and my race was complete.
With my race over, I cheered on the remaining Van 1 runners before meeting up with Van 2 at EZ30. Not long after, we took off, grabbed breakfast, a shower, and a much needed nap at John’s place.
Around 3PM we joined our teammates in Asheville where the lot of us ran across the finish line together, 31 hours 10 minutes and 8 seconds after our race began.
Hats off to the entire team: Will, Bobby, Farmer John, Anna, Beth, Jody, Jim, Ken, Old John, Steve, and Captain Bill.
Stuff to Consider
I can say with 92% honesty that the BRR is a great race to run and that you should almost absolutely maybe run it. Of course, there’s still that 8% of uncertainty. For that I have some advice:
- Shoulder surgery is not an excuse to break a running commitment.
- Downhill is another word for uphill which is another word for pain.
- Don’t drink coffee near a row of highly trafficked Porta Johns, ever.
- Fumunda sweat smells 1,000 times worse than regular sweat especially when it collects in your shoes.
- If your sister is sleeping outside and it starts to rain make sure she is covered with a tarp.
- The other van always has the easier, shorter legs.
- Some people do not want more cowbell.
- Never count on a bald guy for coffee.
- Moths are scary f****** creatures.
- It is, in fact, possible to use the bathroom 136 times in 24 hours.
- It’s OK to eat nuts off the ground.
- If you eat a hot dog in front of your teammate just before they have to run you have no soul.
- Elevation gain is overrated.
- You can’t un-experience the BRR
Personal Leg Rankings
If you’re thinking of running the BRR you’re welcome to read about my past experiences. Or, you can just peruse my personal rankings of said legs.
The Blue Ridge Relay is a demanding race. If for whatever reason you’re conned into believing the idea of running a 208ish mile relay race through the mountains is a good one you need to be prepared. And by prepared I mean you should run a flight of stairs or two before the big day, wear the same running clothes multiple days in a row, and deprive yourself of sleep for two days prior to race day simply because running is the easy part.
See you in 2016.