The Blue Ridge Relay (BRR) is a really long Benny Hill episode where thousands of masochists abandon both sanity and dignity to run 208 miles from Grayson Highlands State Park in Virginia to Asheville, North Carolina. This year’s race hosted 194 teams of 4 to 12 runners who ran a total of 36 legs ranging from 2.5 to 10.5 miles per leg over the course of a day and a half.
That sounds awesome! How do I sign up? All you need is a group of people that won’t kill each other, a couple of vans, a roll of toilet paper, a llama, and a bag of pretzels. Get that stuff, get registered, and you’re ready to run the Blue Ridge Relay.
Putting together a Blue Ridge Relay team is like casting a straight-to-DVD feel good sports drama comedy on a public school music teacher’s budget. Luckily, our very own Captain Bill is a renowned Dollywood casting director and one hell of a conman. In his best-selling book, You’re Running Dammit: Recruiting a Blue Ridge Relay Team, Bill discusses his three rules for recruiting new members.
Rule #1: Paint a pretty picture. First and foremost Captain Bill strictly forbids veterans from disclosing the sad, painful truth of the race. Instead he requires that all old timers share tales of wonder, happiness, and harmony when talking with potential hole fillers. Isn’t that misleading? It’s no more misleading than going to the dentist for a checkup and in walks your proctologist with a hose and a bottle of MiraLAX. Well, I wouldn’t go to the dentist if my butt doctor was going to be there. And I wouldn’t cross Captain Bill.
Rule #2: Promise the world. Like a true leader, our captain falsely promises the easiest legs to every prospect. Once they’ve committed to the team, he bends ’em over and sticks ’em with the goats. Gross! Wait, what’s a goat? It’s what a mountain road would look like if Escher was the engineer. That sounds exotic. Are you kidding? It’s horrible. One year one of our guys was running up a goat when he was passed by a dude PUSHING A LAWN MOWER!
A sane, rational person would not want to run the BRR if they were told they’d be running anything but leg 10. After all, of the 36 legs, about 60% are rated as Hard or Very Hard, 6% are 87° Mountain Goat climbs, and the remaining 35% are considered Easy or Moderate. That said, on average, each runner on a 12-person team is slightly miserable for at least one leg and quite to extremely miserable for the other two legs.
Need more evidence? It’d be helpful, yes. Great, the chart below breaks down each set of a runner’s 3 legs according to their overall rating (Easy, Moderate, Hard, Very Hard, and MG). Slot 10 (legs 10, 22, and 34) is rated the “easiest” and Slot 9 (legs 9, 21, and 33) is rated the “hardest”. If you’re a new runner you won’t have access to anything rated less than nine so don’t even bother looking at the easy legs.
Rule #3: Orange is the new blackmail. According to Captain Bill, “Rules 1 and 2 help to lure the new guy in, but it’s Rule 3 that brings ’em to shore.” When new recruits are close to signing Captain Bill starts digging into their personal lives in search of the one thing he can hold above them. In the end, the prospects have no choice but to run (in the race). It’s truly magical to watch.
Division of Labor
Once we have a team the next step is to divvy up the legs. Well that’s easy. 36 legs divided by 12 runners is 3 legs per runner. You couldn’t be more wrong. BRR math is fuzzier than a circus clown’s belly lint and it sure as heck ain’t easy. Sure each person gets three legs, but they are most assuredly not evenly distributed. The correct answer is: Captain Bill picks whichever set of legs he wants and everyone else must scratch, claw, and bite their way to their desired legs.
I’ve run the BRR six of the seven times Team GO FAR has participated (I withdrew from 2014 due to shoulder surgery which continues to be a point of contention amongst the team). Of the five previous races I ran the 3, 6, 8, and 12 slots with two asterisks. 1) When I ran the 8 slot in 2013 I ended up running Leg 31 instead of Leg 32 after a teammate got injured, and 2) I begrudgingly ran leg 3 twice. Do you have a point? Yes. There is no preferential treatment. Not for veterans, newbies, friends, or even blood relatives.
In preparation for the free-for-all leg selection Farmer John and I, unbeknownst to Captain Bill, concocted a plan to fill the slots in Van 1 as soon as the process started. That’s sneaky. Our plan was probably the least sneaky of the backroom deals going down pre-leg selection, but we did what we had to do. Anyway, since I had leg 3 the previous two years Farmer John said he’d take 3 so I could have 4. We agreed to agree. A few weeks later we met at Panera Bread for the big day. Captain Bill, having already selected leg 5, gave a little speech then invited the chaos to begin.
Within seconds all the Van 2 legs were taken. Jim 7. Jeff 12 (because he was new and 12 sucks). Will snatched up 10. Thomas got 9 (because he was new and 9 has a goat). Beth took 8. And then it happened. Without breaking stride Farmer John pushed past women and children on his way to the last slot. I was dumbfounded. My mouth gaped as he turned coat and grabbed the last available leg in Van 2 while his new besties pantomimed Nearer My God To Thee. Van 2 was full.
When the shock wore off I turned my attention to Van 1, but it was too late. Steve grabbed 1, Bobby 6, Coop 2, and Ken 4. What the hell just happened? Sure enough, it was déjà vu all over again.
The Running Experience
Captain Bill put us down for 9:00 min pace which gave us a start time of 5:30AM. Since driving four hours the morning of the race is less than ideal we drove out the night before and stayed at the Nation’s Inn, the Biltmore of West Jefferson, NC, located about 45 minutes from the start line.
Coop and I woke at 3AM. He got ready and I took my sweet time (mainly because I was playing a video game). After defeating the Vikings as the Bears, I, too, prepared for the day and the two of us made our way to the van. One by one Van 1 assembled, loaded up, and by 4:05AM we were listening to Siri guide us to our destination.
SIRI: In 6 miles turn right onto NC-194 North.
BOBBY: Nah. Just keep going straight.
ME: You sure?
BOBBY: Yeah, we’ll run into where we need to go and then we’ll turn right.
ME: OK Bobby. I believe you. I believe in you.
Fifteen minutes later we were deep in the heart of Nowheresville.
COOP: (looking at his phone) If we keep going straight we’ll be there in 58 minutes.
Since we wanted to start on time I turned the van around, apologized profusely to Siri, and headed back towards NC-194. By the time we righted our wrong we were half an hour behind schedule and Steve, being the first runner, was less than excited about the current situation. With 5 minutes to spare we arrived at the parking lot, grabbed the race packets, and got Steve to the start line.
Leg 3 (5.2 miles, +400′/-479′, Moderate, 45°F, 7:20 pace)
Steve took off with the herd, and the rest of us motored down to meet him at the EZ. Within minutes of our arrival Steve came screaming down the road leading the 5:30AM pack. Coop went out, Steve cooled down, and off we went to the next EZ. Fifty-nine minutes later Coop floated in and handed off to me.
Having run Leg 3 twice I knew there was a fast downhill before a long uphill. I opted to push myself to sub-7 pace to give me a little wiggle room (mostly so I could walk a couple of the turns; don’t judge me). Just over a mile down the road I turned right, crossed a bridge, and began the mile-long ascent up a gravel road. Once I crested the hill I increased my pace again. My legs felt great. Perhaps it was the cooler temps, or maybe it was the reheated sausage biscuit I had for breakfast. Whatever it was, I wasn’t complaining. I passed two more runners in the third mile and another two in the last mile and a quarter. To quote one of our area runners, “Wee Doggie!”
I saw the EZ, picked up the pace one last time, and yelled for Ken, our next runner. “Well that’s odd.” I thought. “I see Bobby. I see Coop. But, I DON’T SEE KEN!” I arrived and stood around for a second before Ken came running towards me. He was as surprised to see me arrive early as I was to be early.
Nevertheless, Ken was on the course and we were headed to the EZ. An hour later, Bill took the handoff and the rest of us drove into West Jefferson to visit some cows at a cheese factory and drink coffee. Eventually, we made our way to the EZ, dropped off Bobby, picked up Bill, and headed to the Frosty Farm Transition Zone to meet up with Van 2. One leg to go before break time.
We yucked it up with Van 2, inspected another team’s van which had sideswiped a light pole, and watched Coop get creative with markers before Bobby showed up to hand off to Jim and Van 2. Our first legs were complete.
Leg 15 (10.5 miles, +1,222′/-493′, Very Hard, 68°F, 8:52 pace)
From the farm we B-Lined to West Jefferson to grab a hot shower at the inn before refueling our colons at the Cracker Barrel in Boone. After elevensies we made our way to the Transition Zone at Mt. Vernon Baptist Church (aka Cemetery Hill) where we waited for Van 1 and their last runner, Jeff.
We had about 20 minutes before Van 2 would turn up and 40 minutes before Jeff arrived. Coop snoozed in his WindPouch (an inflatable hammock that looks like a hot dog bun), Bill read/napped under a tree, and the rest of us folded ourselves into our seats in an attempt to catch some shut eye.
Before long Bobby got word that Jeff was out and Van 2 was on their way. They arrived bright-eyed and bushy-tailed leading to some discussion amongst Van 1 as to whether or not Van 2 actually ran. Would they really do that? Anything’s possible. All I’m saying is that Van 2 can’t be trusted.
With 10 minutes until Jeff’s anticipated arrival we made our way to the EZ. Around 3PM Jeff rolled in and handed off to Steve.
As for Van 2, they hooked up with a former Team GO FAR relay runner at Beech Mountain for spaghetti, brownies, and some hot tubbing. That sounds lovely. I know, right. Van 2 sucks.
I drove the Van 1 crew to the Blowing Rock Pool and its oasis of clean bathrooms. No kidding. The pool has the best Johns on the entire course. Real bathrooms with toilets and sinks, not plastic boxes with chimneys. Needless to say, I took a few opportunities to enjoy the amenities.
At 4:30PM Steve came in, handed off to Coop, and we headed to the EZ at the Grandfather Country Store; the start of my next leg. Two years ago, while I waited to run Leg 15 for the first time, Will selfishly bought a hot dog and ate the $%#!*@$ thing in front of me. Not cool man. Not cool. It’s been a running joke and finally someone did something about it. Yes, this year, Bobby got me a hot dog. Bobby, you are my hero!
Coop rolled in at 5:22PM and I took off yelling, “Don’t eat my hot dog!” To which my team replied:
Fueled by the thought that my team would actually eat my hot dog I took off down the road on my way up Mt. Sadness to the EZ 10.5 miles away.
If you take a gander at the elevation profile for Leg 15 you’ll see that it goes up and up and up and up and up and up. And up. Last year the heat did me in. This year, I just didn’t have it in me. After just two miles I was showing signs of wear. I came up with a plan: run for a mile then walk for 15 seconds. Around Mile 7 a dude with a No Hate in My State trucker hat blew by with thumbs up a blazin’. A mile later, a wide-eyed shirtless dude hopped up on Brawndo passed me with a “Hey!” and a “Looking good man!” I knew he was just being cordial because I looked anything but good.
I climbed the hill under the Blue Ridge Parkway, passed the Grandfather Mountain entrance, and quickly realized I was just minutes from the EZ. I stopped, looked down at my legs, and had a real heart-to-heart with them. We laughed, cried a little, and eventually my legs agreed to accelerate provided I not make similar requests for the remainder of the day. With my fingers crossed I accepted their terms and we made our way to the EZ.
Upon arrival I handed off to Ken and B-lined for the van. Back in the driver seat I reached for my hot dog sitting on the console. As I did, Coop told me that it wasn’t in there. For a brief moment rage filled my veins. Coop then interrupted that moment with, “It’s right here.” “Heh heh. Yeah, of course it is.” I said, “You guys wouldn’t have eaten my hot dog.” Bill just smiled.
While inhaling my hot dog I happened to glance down at my phone. A message from Farmer John was waiting for me. “He probably just wants to know how we’re doing,” I thought. “That’s nice.”
That wasn’t it at all. There was no text-based inquiry on our van’s progress, whereabouts, or well-being. That’s something a person with a soul would ask. No. That doucheface sent me a single image of Will eating a [bleeper] [bleepin] brownie. I hate you guys. I really, really hate you.
Back on the road we drove to the next EZ and arrived just before Ken did. He handed off to Bill who took off on his short, 3-mile jaunt.
Let me pause for a moment to share an unspoken Team GO FAR relay rule. As a driver and a teammate it is my duty, my responsibility, to provide words of encouragement in the form of heckles to my fellow teammate. That said, as we headed to the next EZ, Bobby recognized Bill up ahead and noticed that he was walking. Cue me.
I caught up to Bill, slowed the van just a bit, rolled down my window, and said, “Aw, COME ON!” He replied, not with words, but with non-verbals of pure hatred and anger that seemed to say…
At the EZ, Bill came in, handed off to Bobby, looked me directly in the eyes, and said, “Not a word. NOT ONE [blankity] WORD.” I think he was trying to say that my comforting words had missed the mark. Though I’m not entirely sure because after I boosted his spirits with my kind prose he felt inspired enough to start running again. So, maybe he was just tired and he didn’t want to process incoming auditory communication. Hard to tell.
Eventually Bill cooled down (in more ways than one) and we went to meet Van 2 at the Transition Zone to grab Bobby. In the sea of vans we were able to locate and meet up with our inferior teammates. Those buttholes skipped the expected small talk about how our legs went in favor of sharing their fantastic, Willy Wonka-esque tale of pasta and baked goods whilst soaking in a hot tub. To add to their last place finish in the Miss Congeniality contest they bragged about the leftover brownies they left behind ON PURPOSE! Man, I hate Van 2.
Leg 27 (9.1 miles, +371′/-474′, Hard, 52°F, 9:08 pace)
We ditched the loser half of our team at the Transition Zone and took off for Potato Town; the Transition Zone at Bakersville Fire Department. I bet potatoes are a real treat after all that running. Well, I hope you didn’t bet the farm because when they say the potatoes are loaded they mean with angry diarrhea-causing parasites. Sorry, Bakersville…
E-coli aside, Bakersville has really got their act together. They’ve got a great operation, and there are a couple thousand runners who appreciate their efforts. Thank you Bakersville. Well that’s the nicest thing you said all day. Shut your face!
We had about two hours before Van 2 would arrive which meant we might, if we were lucky, be able to sneak in a few Zs. Bill headed off to sleep near a creek or in a creek or maybe he was lost or he went off to die; Coop grabbed a bivy and his inflatable hot dog bun; Steve and Ken were passed out before I put the van in park; Bobby was…uh, in the van, I think, he was somewhere…near to something, who knows; and I was contorting my legs around the steering wheel and dash in my relentless, failing attempts to get comfortable.
At 12:00AM I raised the white flag and began waking folks up. I figured that if Van 2 wasn’t slowed down by the pasta and brownies from earlier they’d be arriving around 12:15AM and Jeff would come in about 15 minutes later. 12:15AM came and went. Then 12:30AM. Finally, around 12:40AM Bobby got word that Van 2 was on their way and Jeff would likely be in around 1:15AM.
By 1:12AM, 3 minutes ahead of schedule, Steve was back on the road and we took off after him. We passed Steve, exchanged phone numbers, and continued towards the EZ. On the way, a runner flagged us down with a bloody palm. Apparently she had fallen down and her team had already passed her or left her or just didn’t care. We did our best to tend to her wounds and followed up with her when she got to the EZ. That was nice of you. We’re not animals.
Steve showed up, Coop went out, and we drove to the next EZ. I dumped extra weight, filled up my bottle, and took the handoff from Coop at 2:22AM.
Leg 27 starts with a half-mile climb followed by a 2-mile downhill and then a nearly 7-mile gradual incline to the EZ. It’s not bad, but it’s not the ideal leg (to run last…in the middle of the night…in dense fog…when it’s cold…and you’re sweating…with pointy nipples).
I made the half-mile climb then hitched a ride with gravity on the downhill. About 2 miles in I heard a train approaching. You see, about a quarter mile from my current location there’s a railroad crossing. The previous two years I hadn’t encountered a train. This year, I did. Thankfully, it was a short train and was gone by the time I reached the tracks.
I crossed over and began the slow ascent. It was dark, foggy, and eerily quiet. No crickets. No cicadas. Just me and my meandering, stupid thoughts. I counted mailboxes and spider eyes; pondered an escape plan should a bear jump out in front of me; conjured up images of a matriarchal gang of bulls stomping down the road wearing pleather jackets led by a patch-eyed cow with three utters and sunglasses all mooing and drooling; and I wondered for a good five minutes if it were possible to bedazzle dentures (all I’m saying is that there’s an untapped market of aged individuals who want to enjoy life as much as today’s youth). At one point I turned off my head lamp for no reason other than just because. Don’t ever do that. After crapping my pants I turned on my headlamp fully expecting to crap my pants even more.
Thankfully I re-entered reality around mile 6 when a runner passed me by. “Oh no you ditn’t!” I thought. I sped up with the intent of passing him. I got closer and closer. I came within a few steps. I had him. Then…BAM! My hamstring pulled back on the reins and a schoolboy shriek escaped my mouth. Holy donkey balls. I grabbed my leg and limped to a stop. Wincing I realized that if I wasn’t such a competitive arse (I could probably just say “arse”) I might’ve been able to outlast the guy on my way to an early finish. Instead, I had to start walking. That’s what you get for making fun of Bill. You’re wrong. Karma had other plans for me for that one. Maybe Karma had two plans for you. Maybe I hate you.
The last few miles were brutal. I got passed by four people; I think one of ’em was running backwards. Eventually (and thankfully) I saw the lights from the EZ in the distance and sucked it up to the finish. With my head hung low I handed off to Ken and hobbled to the car for some Aleve and a Gatorade chaser. My contributions were complete.
Our final legs went quickly (for me at least). Ken’s leg was a hard 8 miles and I think he came back because Bill took off around 5AM. As he ran I drove past him to see if he wanted some coffee from McDonalds. Before I could open my mouth he made it abundantly clear that he wasn’t in need of inspiration. He also didn’t want coffee.
We left Bill and took Bobby to our last EZ. At 6:02AM, Bill came in and Bobby went out. We drove down to JHOP (Jesus’ House of Pancakes) in Pensacola, found Van 2, and waited for Bobby. Forty minutes later he arrived and Van 1 was finished.
From JHOP we headed into Asheville for a full breakfast at Tastee followed by a hot shower at the YMCA.
Around 12PM Van 2 showed up and we ran in with Jeff at 12:40PM; 31 hours, 10 minutes, and 8 seconds after we started.
Kidding aside, my hat goes off to the team: Steve, Coop, Ken, Bobby, Jim, Beth, Thomas, Farmer John, Will, Jeff, and Captain Bill. I really do enjoy the camaraderie of the relay and truly believe that every runner should experience the BRR at least once in their life.
Stuff to Consider
I’d be remiss if I didn’t share a few considerations before you entertain the idea of running the relay.
- Pepto Bismal tablets are perfect for drawing chalk outlines.
- Brownies are the new hot dogs.
- There is a human whose nickname is Sir Poops-A-Lot (and it isn’t me).
- Don’t tend to a teammate’s wounds until they finish their leg.
- If you wreck your van you can still finish the race.
- Some people don’t want more or any cowbell.
- Keep your enemies close and your relay teammates closer.
- One man’s incline is another man’s decline.
- “Fresh Porta-John” is not an oxymoron.
- Don’t shake hands with anyone.
- Karma truly is a female dog.
- If you ride in the back double up on the Dramamine.
- Every leg ends on an uphill, even when ending on a downhill.
- If you heckle your captain you will run leg 3 for all of eternity.
- The other van always has the easier, shorter legs.
- 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 three times I added all three years to the rankings as my love or hatred of them did not remain the same).
The Blue Ridge Relay continues to be one of the most well organized races I’ve ever run. The director is great. The volunteers are great. The communities are great. Apart from how great those folks are, my team is great! I’m really stoked by Team GO FAR’s performance (127/194 overall and 74/115 in the Open category), and truly proud to be part of the team. As for you, if I haven’t discouraged you from running the BRR, I’ll see you in 2018! Unless I don’t.