The Blue Ridge Relay (BRR) is a 208ish-mile running relay from Grayson Highlands State Park in Virginia to downtown Asheville, North Carolina. This year’s race hosted 196 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; the ultra runners do it less than 20 hours.
On the surface the relay is pretty simple: get a team, rent vans, run a bunch, stay healthy, try not to stink too much, don’t kill each other, and don’t die. OK, it’s not really that simple. It’s actually way more complicated.
Birthing a Team
By definition the relay is a team race. That said, you need people. Normally, this part of the relay is the easiest. Captain Bill puts out a call, people respond, and a team is born. This year, things went a bit differently. In June, Captain Bill announced the official GO FAR 2016 relay team. YAY! Three weeks later he sent out a call for a replacement for Old John who had to pull out for some lame reason. BOO! A couple days later, Coop joined the team and we were back to 100%. YAY! Another five weeks go by and another team member bails, and…AND Captain Bill reported that he had dislocated his shoulder leaving his BRR status in limbo. DOUBLE BOO!
Two days later, Mark joined the herd and we were once again at 100%. YAY! Then, on September 5, Captain Bill officially pulled out of the race. BOO! That same day, Old John returned to the team completing the circle of uncertainty and giving our team 12 members once more. YAY? After filling out the roster, Captain Bill confined us all to our respective domiciles to prevent injury and abdication, and he appointed Will to Interim Team Captain (which went straight to his head). BOO!
Once you have your team you need to divvy up the legs. About 61% of the relay’s 36 legs are rated as Hard or Very Hard, 6% are super steep Mountain Goat climbs, and the rest 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.
Each set of 3 legs comes with its own challenges. The chart below breaks down each set according to their overall rating (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 previous races I ran the 3, 6, 8, and 12 slots with one 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, after some confusion between Farmer John and I, slot 3 was mine once again. ಠ_ಠ
The Running Experience
Thirty hours in a van with 5 other runners and their malodorous belongings is awful. Throw in running, sleep deprivation, and constant colon evacs, and the race is way worse than your imagination can ponder. But don’t take my word for it. Strap on a pair of shoes and see for yourself
Leg 1. Drink a tall glass of false hope and go frolic in a field of angry butterflies for 30 minutes careful to avoid shade. When you’re pleasantly uncomfortable find a fresh pile of unicorn turds, wallow about for six hours, and eat a cracker.
Leg 2. Catch a half dozen angry gnomes, tie them to your legs, and run to the top of Mt. Sadness. When the gnomes tire from punching you in the quads, hammies, and calves (usually about 30-45 minutes) head back to the field, find a bloated elephant carcass, and climb inside for a Clif Bar, a 90-minute power nap, and a 5 1/2 hour wait.
Leg 3. Place a single marble in each shoe, strap a boat anchor on your back, and run an out-and-back through the Gorge of Despair. When you’re finished, dig a 2.5′ x 8′ x 6′ hole, hop down, and weep because you just finished the BRR!
The Relay Experience
When Captain Bill registered us for this year’s race he put us down for 9-minute pace. In the past, this pace put us at the start line at a totally reasonable 7:30AM. This year, for some reason, our start time was pushed up to 5AM. You’re probably thinking, “That doesn’t sound bad.” Well you’re wrong and you’re ugly. In order to start the race at 5AM we needed to be at the start line by 4:30AM which was an hour from our hotel meaning we’d have to wake up at 3AM. “You could just go to bed early?” Seriously, you suck at this, and you’re still ugly.
We arrived at the hotel at 8PM. I set my alarm for 2:40AM, 2:45AM, 2:50AM, and 2:55AM, and hit the sack. Thanks to my training (a 7-week-old who’s still figuring out the purpose of bedtime) I was able to peel myself off the mattress and make my way to the van in time to make the donuts.
An hour later we were checking in and prepping Mark for his first leg. “Sit back and enjoy the downhill, Mark.” “Don’t blow your calf, Mark.” “If you get injured on the first leg we will kill you and dance on your body, Mark.” “Have fun, Mark!”
And then the race started.
Leg 3 (5.2 miles, +400′/-479′, Moderate, 61°F, 7:29 pace)
Mark burned down the hill before handing off to Coop who killed the second leg in just under an hour before handing off to me. My legs were fresh and I cruised through the first mile at “Weeeeeeeeeeee!” pace before slowing to “FML!” pace during the mile-long 312′ ascent to the top. With additional time on my hands I took in the scenery, smelled flowers, caught butterflies, solved pi, and watched for other runners.
Context insertion → Our team was one of the first 15 to start the BRR. When Coop handed off to me we were in second place behind the Asheville Fire Department team and just ahead of Blood, Sweat and Beers. If we kept at it, we could (technically) cross the finish line first (or at least be the winners of the 5AM group).
After cresting the hill I looked back to see two headlamps bouncing up the mountain a half mile back. Fearing the wrath of our Supreme Leader Will Jong Un, I wrote up a contract with my legs, got it notarized, and tore off down the hill under 7-minute pace for the remaining 3.2 miles to the DMZ. I never saw the dude ahead of me, but I never saw the dudes behind me either. Firing squad avoided.
After John, Bobbie, and Will destroyed their respective legs we were sitting pretty with an 8-minute lead on the next closest runner (27 minutes ahead of our 9-minute pace schedule). To celebrate our accomplishment we headed back to the hotel where we took advantage of a late checkout and a hot shower. With the stink of our first legs down the drain we headed to Boone to grab a burger before heading to EZ12 for a 15-minute nap and a much longer wait.
Just before 2PM Van 2 notified us that Laura, our sister from another mister, was approaching the EZ. We rolled up shop and turned Mark loose on Leg 13 with a half bottle of water and a pair of compression shorts. When he left we were about 3 minutes behind the Asheville FD and 9 minutes ahead of Beers. When he arrived 9 miles later, we were back in the lead (not the actual lead, but the 5AM-started-before-everyone-else lead).
Leg 15 (10.5 miles, +1,222′/-493′, Very Hard, 81°F, 8:54 pace)
As Coop ran the course, Farmer John wanted to top last year’s “Hot Dog Incident” and have the whole van eat hot dogs in front of me. Thanks to a Watauga County wiener shortage his plan fell through. He attempted to implement Plan B (hamburgers) but Coop showed up and I was off and running once again.
Within the first mile the heat, the sun, and the Amazonian humidity were all up in my business. I relaxed a bit and slowed to 8:50 pace. After my second mile Farmer John rolled up with the rest of Van 1 and offered me a hamburger. For real. He held a plate with a bleepity bleepin’ hamburger, slaw, and beans out the expletive expletive window. W-T actual F? I told him I’d arrive at 5:45PM and when he drove off I muttered, “whereupon I will remove the foil from the plate, fold it into a shiv, and stab you in the eyeball.”
A few miles later I reached the halfway point and let out a big sigh (or perhaps I was deflating). It was hot. It was humid. I could feel my skin getting flush. And, to top it off, I was getting thirsty. Looking at my bottle I had a little less than 10 ounces of water.
Around Mile 7 I passed a backpacker who was coming out of the woods. “How’s it going?” he asked in a cordial manner. “Bad” I replied. We shared a laugh. I cried inside.
Mile 8 came with an extra treat—a sign stating that Grandfather Mountain was just 2 miles away. Using calculus and a little trigonometry, I calculated that I had 2.5 miles to go.
I recalled the story of The Little Engine That Could and how the little fella just repeated “I think I can” over and again until he drove over the mountain as if his words were some magical incantation. Then I thought that in some alternate universe that story is actually The Little Engine That Couldn’t. In that version the little locomotive was probably going up some godforsaken mountain on a hot, humid day, probably without enough fuel, and then just before he reached the top he ended his catch phrase with “Ahhhhhh!” as he fell off the tracks, rolled down the mountainside, and rusted to death. Stupid universe.
When mile 8 rolled into 9 I was met with a long, gradual incline near the Blue Ridge Parkway. I looked at my water bottle and the remaining ounce of water. Good gravy it was hot.
To conserve energy and avoid overheating I walked off-and-on up the hill until finally reaching the 10-mile mark. Oh boy! Oh boy! Oh boy! I only had a half mile to go. I saw the EZ sign and the excitement became overwhelming. I saw my team member and yelled “GO FAR!” until they heard me and “Water!” once they did.
Farmer John went out, then Bobby, then Will, and at EZ 18 we handed off to Van 2; 25 minutes ahead of our 9-minute pace schedule and “in first” once again.
From EZ18 we B-lined to Bakersville, home of the $5 baked potato and soda. Coop, Mark, and I each had a potato. Coop and I kept it simple. Mark, on the other hand, made a huge rookie mistake by topping his potato with a regrettable helping of chili. After “dinner” I gave sleeping the old college try and managed a solid 45 minutes.
At 11PM I woke the rest of the team, and unintentionally, my stomach. With every step I became increasingly nauseous. Since the day began I had two hamburgers and a baked potato. Surely one of those was causing an issue. Most definitely it was the burger Farmer John poisoned. I popped two Peptos, and turned my attention to getting Mark ready for his leg.
By 11:57PM, he was covered in lights and headed down the road. Ten seconds later he was going the wrong way. After redirection, Mr. Magellan was now a good 9 minutes behind a dude from the 5:30AM F3 Incognitions team.
We waved goodbye to Van 2, made fun of our directionally challenged teammate, and headed on down to EZ25. Within minutes of our arrival, the F3 dude showed up. Three minutes later, Mark turned up. Sweet mother of Moses! Mark had managed to make up 6 minutes. Van 1 continued to rock the house as Coop followed suit by passing the F3 runner. Unfortunately, he was caught by a firefighter (who was clearly hopped up on pop rocks) before passing the baton to me.
Leg 27 (9.1 miles, +371′/-474′, Hard, 66°F, 8:32 pace)
I started Leg 27 about 200 yards behind the firefighter. I resisted the urge to push the initial climb, but started to conservatively close the gap on the mile-long downhill. At mile 2, I was preparing to make the turn at a base of a hill when a muscle car approached with two kids inside. The driver slowed, rolled down his window, and said to me,”Hey man. Be sure to wear your hazards. There’s a road check up ahead.” Now, on the inside I’m thinking, “WTF are you talking about? Also, don’t murder me.” But on the outside I said, “OK. Thanks man.” The two samaritans took off up the hill in search of more good deeds, and I returned to not dying.
A quarter mile later I was closing in on the firefighter who was clearly starting to slow. I thought about what to do next. If I passed him, the inner competitive a-hole in me would do anything to ensure he didn’t reciprocate; inevitably burning what remaining fuel I had in my tank. If I held back and rode his heels he’d likely turn around and sock me in the ear for being creepy. I like hearing things so I opted to pass him. When I did, he didn’t greet me with “Hello” or “Howdy”. No, he said, “At least it’s a wet heat.” While a strange way to greet someone on a dark, country road, alongside a river that could easily carry my body away after being bludgeoned by a dude bothered by humidity, he wasn’t wrong. It was pretty miserable.
A mile later, I could no longer see the beam from his head lamp. I did, however, have my colon emptied when three demon cows appeared from nowhere and gave me a good “You’re our hamburger now” stare.
At Green Mountain Road, just before mile 6, a runner approached from behind. When I turned to greet the firefighter I was surprised to see an F3 trucking by. “Want some company?” he asked. “Uh, nah man. Thanks. I’ll see you at the EZ,” I replied. He took off and I was roadkill.
All alone once again, my legs started barking. I pleaded with them to shut their pieholes. They refused, and sent a couple of intestinal henchman to teach me a lesson. I started to burp bile. Then came the dry heaves. I prayed to all kinds of gods over the next 3.5 miles. Miraculously, some deity heard my calls because I was able to keep the lid on the cookie jar before handing off to Farmer John.
After two bottles of water, I popped a couple more Peptos before driving to the next EZ. Around 3:25AM an F3 turned up. Five minutes later John flew in and handed off to Bobby. An hour later Bobby swooped in and handed off to Will who then handed off to Van 2 at 5:18AM. Our race was complete.
We drove to the Asheville YMCA where we took $5 showers before swinging by Denny’s for a bite to eat. My breakfast was good, but not as good the second time. Back in the van, I took a much needed nap as we waited for Van 2 to arrive and end our misery.
Just before 11AM Laura arrived in Asheville where the lot of us ran across the finish line, 29 hours 51 minutes and 39 seconds after our race began.
Hats off to the entire team: Mark, Coop, Farmer John, Bobby, Supreme Leader Will Jong Un, Steve, Duncan, Jim, Old John, Laura, and Sarah. OK, and our injured Captain Bill. After all, it’s his fault you’re reading this.
Stuff to Consider
I can say with an almost straight face that the BRR is a great race to run and that you should possibly absolutely maybe run it. Or not. But if you do you should consider a few things
- Shoulder surgery is never an excuse not to run even when you’re the captain.
- Volunteers will show up when they’re good and ready.
- Offering a hamburger to a runner during a run is a total Richard move.
- The other van always has the easier, shorter legs.
- There is a 206.2 mile stretch of road where dogs outnumber humans.
- Interim status is temporary by definition.
- Bring your ribbing A game.
- 1-ply toilet paper folded many times over is still sandpaper.
- One man’s incline is another man’s decline.
- Flash your hazards when there’s a road check, even if you’re not driving.
- Cows are scary f****** animals.
- Headlights do not help you sleep.
- Christening a Porta John is a tremendous feeling.
- An Escher painting makes more sense than a mountain road at night.
- The sun is hot.
- 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 (since I ran slot 3 twice I added both years to the rankings as my love or hatred of them did not remain the same).
The 5AM start time definitely took the wind out of my sails near the end, heat and an unquenchable thirst was a beast on my second leg, and running through nausea sucked arse. That said, this year was as an amazing experience as I’ve ever had. We ended up finishing 74/191 overall (5 teams DNF’d), 46/115 in the Open category, and first in the 5AM group. If I haven’t discouraged you enough from running the BRR I’ll look for you in 2017!