Monday, September 9, 2013

Race Recap: The Blue Ridge Relay

The Blue Ridge Relay is insane. Over 150 teams run 207 miles from Mouth of Wilson, VA to Asheville, NC, over two days. There's no stopping at a hotel for the night; every team has an active runner at all times. Teams can have up to 12 members, running the course in 36 legs. On a 12-member team, each runner is responsible for 3 legs, ranging in length from 2.2 to 10.1 miles.

This year I wanted redemption for last year, when I was on a 6-member "Ultra" team, which meant I was scheduled to run 6 legs and 27 miles. I ended up running 7 legs and over 35 miles, at an average pace of 8:14, which should be "easy run" pace for me — not race pace.

So when my friend Rob Ducsay invited me to join team Stache and Dash, composed of elite runners from the Charlotte area, I jumped at the chance. My only request was that I be assigned Runner 7 slot, so that I could reprise Leg 31 of the race, the infamous "Mountain Goat Leg."

To psych myself up, I decided to grow a Steve-Prefontaine-style mustache:

Ready to rock it 1973-style!

On race day, the team picked me up in Davidson and we headed up to Grayson Highlands State Park, where the fun was set to begin at 12:00 on Friday, September 6. Here's our team photo from the start:

As you can see, I was the only one who managed to grow a real mustache for the event — although arguably half the team had a pretty good excuse: We were competing in the mixed division, so 50 percent of our team was female!

Our arch-rivals for the race would be team JITFO, another Charlotte-area mixed team that was absolutely loaded with talent. I believe they had three sub-three-hour marathoners to our one. Both of our teams would be starting at noon, with the second-to-last group of runners (the fastest teams start later in the day so that the race doesn't get too spread out at the finish). The only teams starting later than us were all-star, all-male teams from Charlotte, Knoxville, and Asheville, who would be vying for the overall win. The mixed division was looking to be a battle between Stache and Dash and JITFO.

Each team has two vans that carry six runners and all their gear. I'd be in van 2 for our team, and before the start I helped "personalize" it:

Yep, that's me, adding a stache to the Stachemobile!

I'm going to be writing another post that covers the whole team's race; for this post I will just be covering the highlights of my legs (but I won't keep you in suspense about the result!). 

After the start, our van headed to West Jefferson for lunch, and then on to the start of my leg, Leg 7 (I previewed the leg in this post). I'd be receiving the baton from Van 1's Adrienne Anetrini. Adrienne arrived about 5 minutes after her JITFO rival, so it was unlikely I'd be able to catch my counterpart, Todd Mayes. Todd is 16 years younger than me and a tremendous runner, so at best I'd only be able to stay close to him.

It was a warm afternoon, about 75 degrees, and the leg had some significant climbs, so I doubted that I'd be able to complete the leg at my projected pace of 6:07 per mile, but I figured I might as well try. Here's the profile I recorded of the leg:

If I was going to have any shot at hitting that pace, I'd have to absolutely smoke it on downhill miles 1, 2, 4, and 6, to make up for big climbs in miles 3 and 5. About halfway into mile 1 I began to revise my goals a bit. I was supposed to be making a 5:40 pace while saving energy for the hills to come, and I only managed a 5:48 pace. In Mile 2, there was a bit more uphill than I expected and I slowed even more, completing it in 6:12. If I couldn't even hit 6:07 on a mostly-downhill mile, I couldn't possibly average that pace for the whole leg, right? The hill on Mile 3 wasn't quite as bad as I thought it might be, but I still slowed even more, to a 7:05 pace, slower than I had planned.

Once again on downhill Mile 4, I couldn't get my pace below 6:07, let alone the 5:40 I had planned, and completed the mile in 6:19.

Finally, the climb. It was a big, long, straight road, heading almost to the sky, it seemed. The GPS says the final climb in Mile 5 was 279 feet, and I felt every inch of it. The hill got steeper and steeper as it rose, and my pace got slower and slower. Finally I let myself walk for 30 seconds. Ugh. Then I picked it up again and vowed to run all the way to the top. Well, maybe just to that tree up ahead. Hey, the tree is at the top! Finally I crested the top and started back down the other side, which was just as steep as the uphill. My average pace for the mile ended up at a semi-respectable 8:17. I cruised in the final half-mile at a 5:36 pace, which was the only time I actually broke 5:40 on the leg.

Overall, my average pace was 6:36, which I felt was pretty good given the warm conditions and that steep final climb. It wasn't a 6:07 but it wasn't bad either. I handed off to Rob, hopped in the van, and away we went.

As the day progressed, it became clear that JITFO's Van 2 was considerably more talented than our Van 2. All their 3-hour marathoners were in that van, while none of ours were! We were bleeding time, and we were soon 15 minutes behind.

We handed off to Van 1 at about 8 pm and headed out to dinner while they tried to contain some of the damage. I was to start Leg 19 at about 12:30 am. Fortunately Van 1 had temporarily stopped the bleeding, so we were still only about 15 minutes behind when I received the baton from Adrienne. My goal on this leg was once again a 6:07 pace, and that seemed more doable since the leg was supposed to be a steady downhill. But once I was on the course, things felt different. It wasn't nearly as steep of a descent as I had enjoyed on the downhill sections of Leg 1, and there were quite a few gradual uphill sections as well. Here's the profile I recorded:

The vertical scale is exaggerated here, so these hills aren't very steep, but you can see that there are clearly plenty of climbs in the 4.5-mile leg. This chart probably tells the pacing story better than I can in narrative form:

Miles 1-3 had a net downhill of only 10 feet or so each, and each mile had around 50 feet of climbing. Given that I was already tired from Leg 7, I struggled to keep up even a 6:30 pace. By Mile 4 I had slowed almost to a 7:00 pace, and could only muster a 6:15 for the final downhill half-mile.

I think part of the problem on this leg was the fact that there weren't any other runners around. I only passed one other runner, so there was little to motivate me to keep up the pace. When we arrived at Mo's leg 23, we were probably about 20 minutes behind. We expected her to make up some ground, but were surprised when she arrived ahead of her JITFO rival, who happened to be my running buddy Jenn. We found out later that Jenn and 3 other women had taken a wrong turn at an unmarked intersection and run an extra 3 miles before a van found them by chance and returned them to the course. We were suddenly 10 minutes ahead!

Now all we had to do was maintain the lead — no easy task given JITFO's superiority in Van 2. After a tough, drowsy drive to the transition zone where I'd be taking the baton again in the morning, we managed about 90 minutes of sleep in the van before we woke up and tried to figure out if we were still ahead. I'd later find out that we had about a 13-minute lead when I received the baton at the start of the infamous Mountain Goat leg.


After two somewhat disappointing legs, this was my chance at redemption. I didn't think I could go faster than Todd up the hill, but I hoped I could minimize my losses. I'd be happy if I lost less than 5 minutes on the leg. I'd be ecstatic if I lost less than 3 minutes.

The plan was to take the flat first mile somewhat easy, saving my energy for the hill. There was a runner about 50 yards ahead of me running a similar pace to me on the flat, about 7:30. Then the hill started. Here's what it looks like on the GPS:

That's a total of 1,400 feet of climbing, with nary a speck of downhill. Other than Mile 2, with "only" 164 feet of climbing, all the last 5 miles were steady climbs with over 200 feet/mile of climbing.

JITFO's Van 2 passed me somewhere along here and Kathy Rink, who was driving, told me to "just take it easy." Yeah, right... Gradually I caught up to the runner ahead of me, then passed him with authority. Soon after I passed him, another runner was in my sights... and another, and another. I passed them all, and kept climbing. My initial plan had called for 7:45 miles, and I wasn't quite hitting that pace but I wasn't caving in, either. Mile 2: 7:49; Mile 3: 8:00; Mile 4: 8:05. I was prepared for Mile 5 to be slightly easier, and it was, but I was also laboring for every breath. 

I wanted to stop and take a walk break. I wanted to stop and take a nap. I decided to let myself slow down, for just a bit, and then pick it up again. It seemed to help, and soon I was back at an 8:10-ish pace. Then I saw another runner ahead, and went for the pass. I finished Mile 5 in 8:19. Just 1.5 miles left, but Mile 6 was the steepest of them all, with 262 feet of climbing, and a series of switchbacks that never seemed to stop.

But fortunately, here was where my van-mates decided to stop and cheer me on. I couldn't stop, not now. I kept pushing and passed more runners. I was gasping for every breath, but I pushed with everything I had. It felt as if I had picked up the pace, but clearly exhaustion was taking its toll, because I actually only mustered an 8:28 for Mile 6. Just a half-mile to go!

There was another runner ahead of me — a walker, actually. I couldn't believe he was walking so close to the finish, but I showed no mercy and passed him, striding as hard as I could up the final hill, past a dozen vans, to the very top, where I gave Rob the baton and slumped in exhaustion.

At the top of the mountain! (Stan Austin photos)

My teammates surrounded me, elated. My running buddy Claire, technically an "enemy" on team JITFO, congratulated me and said "now I know why you did so much training on stairs!"

I had passed 9 runners on the leg — the most I'd ever passed in three Blue Ridge Relays. But I knew Todd was behind me, probably running faster than me. Or was he? One of my teammates told me they didn't think Todd was running any faster than I was. I suggested we wait at the exchange zone to see when he finished. I had completed the leg in 52:40, for a pace of 8:03 per mile. I was quite happy with that and wanted to see how Todd was doing. Five minutes went by, then seven, with no sign of Todd. Finally we decided we needed to leave, to make sure we passed Rob and gave our next runner plenty of time to warm up. Van 1 stayed at the aid station and later told me I had only lost 2 minutes. Not bad.

Rob did even better, losing just 20 seconds to Adam Mayes, Todd's brother. But on the next two legs, two of their strongest runners would be running. By the time Mo took off at the start of Leg 35, she was 20 seconds behind.

Amazingly, she won her leg by 8 minutes! John had a huge cushion for the final downhill leg, and he ended up needing just one minute. We waited at the finish line in Asheville for John, and all dashed triumphantly across together. We won! We beat JITFO! In fact, we beat all 27 other teams in the mixed division, and finished in first place, in a total time of 24:56:51, an average pace of 7:12 per mile. We beat JITFO by 7 minutes. We had done it!

Here's a photo of the team at the finish line:

This was not only my first victory at Blue Ridge, it was my first victory in any road race, ever. And boy, did it feel good. Simply an amazing experience, start to finish, with each teammate giving it everything he or she had. I still can't believe I was a part of it. And I can't wait until next year!

P.S. If you're interested, here are links to my Garmin records of each leg:

P.P.S. My average pace for the entire race was 7:11, pretty much identical to the team average, and quite a lot better than last year's average of 8:14. I'll take it!

1 comment:

  1. This really captured the moment well. Glad to have been on your team.