Monday, April 28, 2014

Race Recap: The Smoky Mountain Relay

Six runners, 212 miles, 36 legs. My part would involve running over 39 miles in less than 24 hours.

I told myself I wouldn't put myself through this again. 12-person relays are fun: You run three legs of 10k-ish apiece, and you even have time to stop at restaurants for meals. You can sleep for several hours at a time. 6-person relays are miserable. There's only one van, so there's no time to stop for anything. Sleep, if you get any at all, comes in tiny 10-minute micro-naps.

"But Smoky is different," Sam told me. "You can run your legs in any order, as long as everyone on the team runs the same number of legs. I'm thinking everyone could do two legs in a row. That's just like doing three half-marathons."

"Well, now that you put it that way..." Somehow I was being persuaded, even though three mountainous half marathons in 24 hours still didn't sound very easy.

Fast-forward to Friday. After setting my alarm for 3 am, I meet up with Team DURT (Davidson Ultra Relay Team) in an abandoned parking lot at 3:30. After convincing the local police officer that we were not planning a bank heist or arranging a drug sale (yes, that really happened), four of us hop in the van, along with Sam's wife Stephanie, who has elected to take on the thankless job of van driver. The remaining two members will meet us at the start line. We hope.

By 6:30 we are in the North Carolina Mountains near Brevard, along with 37 other teams of folks crazy enough to sign up for a 24-plus-hour mountain run. Ben has arrived, but Claire is nowhere to be seen. Fortunately Ben has our race numbers, and in the worst-case scenario, we can pick Claire up later on; she's not due to run for another couple hours yet.
Ben, Brandon, Sam, Baki, and I pose for a 5/6 team photo
Before we know it, Baki has lined up at the starting line, and the race is started at 7:00 a.m. with a simple "go."

Baki starts off sprinting
Fortunately Claire arrived just moments after the start, so we loaded her gear into the van and head on down the road. The way these relays work is that inactive runners ride in the van to the next checkpoint while the active runner runs the leg. If you have two vans, then one van can leapfrog the other and those riders get a nice long rest. But we had just one van, which meant we were pretty much bumping along rugged roads or running along them for the entire event. I'm not going to describe everyone's runs here — I'm going to write a separate post later about that.

So I waited patiently in the van for my leg to start while Baki, Ben, Clair, Brandon, and Sam all ran their first legs. Finally, at 1:50 in the afternoon, I was ready to start my first legs -- leg 9 and 10 of the 36-leg race.

Leg 9 and 10
Sam appeared a little later than expected, at 1:51 p.m., but it was clear that he had given it everything he had. I had prepared a spreadsheet with each runner's expected time on each leg, but since we didn't really know exactly how hard the legs were, it was difficult to make an exact prediction. Here I am starting off on my leg after receiving the green race bracelet from Sam:

That's Sam behind me, gasping for breath

Because of this uncertainty and the number of miles I was planning on running, I didn't warm up for my leg; instead I just planned on taking it easy for the first couple of miles. Leg 9 started on the Blue Ridge Parkway at an elevation of 5,600 feet and headed straight onto a trail. I'd be on a trail for 5 miles, then a gravel road for 4, and pavement for the last 1.3 of the leg. The leg would end at 2,700 feet after proceeding almost entirely downhill. Thus, I was expected to run fast.

As planned, I started slowly, gradually increasing my pace as I warmed up and got used to the trail:

Mile 1: 8:48
Mile 2: 8:26
Mile 3: 8:14

I passed a woman, and saw a shirtless man ahead of me. He had taken off about a minute before me and looked to be quick, so I was surprised to catch up to him so soon. In another quarter-mile I blasted past him with an "on your right" and tried to put the hammer down so he wouldn't want to stay with me.

The trail wasn't too difficult but there were quite a few downed branches and trees to run over, so a bit of nimble footwork was required. I could still hear shirtless man behind me so I tried to shake him by running faster and faster.

Mile 4: 7:34

Whoah, Nelly! This is probably a little too fast for someone who has 35 more miles to run. Shirtless guy seemed to be dropping back, so I eased off the pace again. Then, before I knew it, he was past me. Damn! I tried to stay with him for a while, taking advantage of the fact that he was a little tentative at stream crossings. But even plowing through the crossings with abandon didn't allow me to completely close the gap, and my pace was really much too strong for the miles I had yet to run, so finally I decided to slow down and let him go.

Mile 5: 8:23
Mile 6: 8:48

Now I was on the gravel road and could open things up again without running too hard, so I cranked out a couple more sub-8 miles before hitting a section so steep that I had to slow down. Finally I reached the pavement and headed towards the finish of Leg 9. I knew the van might not make it there before I got there, but that was no problem since I was running Leg 10 as well.

Sure enough, I reached the exchange zone at Mile 10.3 and my team was nowhere to be seen. Average pace for leg, 8:06 / mile.

Now I was on leg 10, which was a gradual downhill, on pavement. But while it had been cold and rainy at 5,600 feet, now the sun was shining. I had a half-bottle of luke-warm water and I was running in waterlogged Hokas, not ideal for a fast pace on roads. I did the best I could, but my mile splits probably tell the tale as well as anything:

Mile 1: 7:27
Mile 2: 7:40
Mile 3: 8:01

Finally about halfway through Mile 3 the van arrived, and Sam was holding a bottle of water out the window for me. I grabbed it, dumped half of it over my head, stopped to pour the rest in my handheld, then took off again. Sam had hopped out of the van and was running after me to get the empty bottle. Finally I realized I could just drop it and he could pick it up!

"One or two miles left," Sam told me as the van sped away.

That was a relief, I thought. Then I thought again. Which is it? One mile or two? I couldn't remember exactly how long the leg was supposed to be, and since there were no turns on it, I hadn't brought the cue sheet. Again, the mile splits tell the story:

Mile 4: 8:23
Mile 4.45: 8:43

Indeed, it was just about two miles from the van to the checkpoint, and I ran out of gas after about 1.5 of those miles. I couldn't see the checkpoint until I ran around the final corner. Here's a shot of me struggling to finish the final half-mile at barely better than 9:00 pace:


Pace for a downhill 4.45 miles on smooth pavement: A rather embarrassing 7:58.

All I could do was hop in the van, lick my wounds, and cheer on the other runners. The team ran into the night, and the runners in the van did their best to stay fueled and hydrated. My fuel of choice was turkey and cheese wraps, plus lots of bananas, Fig Newtons, and Clif Bars. I must have consumed over 5,000 calories during the race, but amazingly, on Monday morning I weighed the same as I had the previous Thursday.

Legs 22 and 23
After Clair, Sam, and Ben ran up some insane hills, I got the bracelet from Sam again at 12:08 a.m.

Legs 22 and 23 were described as "moderate" and "challenging." As I started off, I was even with another runner. As before, I wanted to start off easy, and the other guy struck up a conversation with me:

"Where are you from?"


"Oh, we have a guy on our team from there -- I think he said there was another team from there."

"That's Jonathan, right? He works at Summit Coffee?"


Secretly I was hoping to be the guy who put away my favorite barista's team for good!

Indeed, after I had warmed up, I found Leg 22 to be quite comfortable, and picked it up to a sub-8:00 pace. After awhile the barista's friend's footsteps faded into the distance.

I had been running for several miles when I realized I still hadn't seen our van. I was running low on water and at a minimum want a top-off for Leg 23. Finally around Mile 5  the van pulled up next to me and Sam asked if I needed anything. I held up my bottle and asked him to top it off. The van slowed down a bit and then pulled back up beside me. I grabbed my bottle and then did a double-take.

The guy in the van wasn't Sam!

Then I realized this was a gray van (ours was white). Some other random team had just helped me out. I yelled "Thanks" as they pulled away.

Finally our van pulled up beside me just before I arrived at the checkpoint. It was starting to get hillier but now that I had water I really didn't need anything else. I told them to go ahead to the next checkpoint. I didn't even press my "lap" button when I passed it, so legs 22 and 23 became one mega-leg.

Leg 23 was considerably tougher than 22. There were miles with climbs of 211, 180, 112, and 304 feet. My pace slowed accordingly, especially since I had already run one leg. When the infrequent downhills finally arrived, I could barely summon the energy to speed up. Yep, this leg was definitely "challenging!"

Finally I reached the checkpoint and handed off to Claire. I ran the 12.78 miles in an average pace of 9:07 per mile, including a 12:25 mile on that 300-foot climb. 

As we ran deeper into the night, there were signs of optimism. Baki finished his final two legs. Then Ben finished his with an awesome downhill run at sunrise. But soon after the sun rose, so did the temperature, and I could tell that I was going to be in for a hot final two legs.

Legs 34 and 35
Sam handed off to me after finishing his tough race. I would have about 1.3 miles of level ground before heading up a steep gravel hill. Sam was amused at this picture of us at the exchange:

Note my hand on the "start" button
Sam's comment was "Dave does not know whether it's more important to start his watch or to execute the wristband transfer." I say, why can't we have both?

Leg 34 was definitely my favorite of the entire race. Not so much because it was enjoyable (although it [mostly] was), or because I ran it well (though at times I did), but because it never failed to surprise me.

It started on a flat paved road, but within a mile I had turned onto a side-road, and soon found myself on a steep gravel incline. After about 30 seconds it was clear I wasn't going to be able to run up it, so I decided to power-walk. My GPS shows me the gradient of the slope I'm on, and I watched as it went from 15 percent, to 18, 20, even 25 percent! There's no way that's runnable, so I was pleased with my decision. This went on for a mile and a half, and I had climbed nearly 1,000 feet. My cue sheet said that the road would end and I should continue on a trail. I saw a trail ahead of me, but the road also continued off to the right. Which way should I go? I wasn't at the end of the road, so I turned. A quarter-mile later, I saw no trail, so I turned around and went up the first trail. Argh! 5 minutes lost!

The trail went even more steeply up the ridge, then followed the ridge line for a quarter mile, still not really runnable because of all the branches and sticks protruding from all sides. Finally I emerged onto a gravel road. This road started down just as steeply as the one on the other side. Then it turned to pavement and got even steeper. I was wearing trail shoes, which didn't have the padding of my Hokas. Wouldn't it be nice to have Transformer-shoes that instantly adapted to whatever terrain you were running on? Instead, the shock of every step vibrated up to my core.

The hill was so steep it was hard to run fast. The longer the stride, the more painful the landing. But now, with only 6 or 7 miles left of running, was no time to save my legs. I pushed the pace until I could hardly bear it; each step was excruciating. Down, down the hill continued, over 700 feet of descent in a single mile. Finally, mercifully, it leveled out and I was able to run with a more normal stride.

I came to another gravel road, this one very comfortable to run on. A creek was babbling beside me. I ran along at a good clip for around a mile, until I arrived at a sign pointing to the left: "SMR" for Smoky Mountain Relay. The only thing to the left was the creek! On the other side of the creek, there was another sign. I guess that was the way I had to go, so I sloshed across the creek, now thankful for the trail shoes that would drain faster than my Hokas!

A technical trail led into the forest, then emerged at a broad river, around 150 yards wide. Surely I wouldn't have to wade across that! Then I looked to my left and saw a rickety suspension bridge that looked to be at least 50 years old. The trail wound through the forest to the end of the bridge, and gingerly I climbed on the platform. It was a wide footbridge, with semi-rotten wooden planks to walk on and a chainlink fence for a railing. It started moving in a steady oscillation as soon as I stepped aboard.

I figured either I'd make it across and have a good story to tell, or I wouldn't make it across and I'd have a great story to tell, so onward I went. I didn't dare run on the bridge, but I wished I had a camera. The best I can do is to give you a Google satellite image of my route:

That thin line on the right is my bridge!
Then I headed up another technical trail on the other side, and made my way up to the exchange zone. When I arrived, Stephanie had a bottle of ice-cold water, and Sam asked "What did you think of that?"

"That was awesome!" I replied.

"That's not what I heard," he said.

Then I trotted off to my final leg.

Leg 35 began with a long, exposed, paved uphill. The chart describes the leg as "moderate," and I suppose it was compared to what I had just done, but given what I had just done, it wasn't easy.

But there was a woman runner within sight ahead of me. Maybe I'd just have a chance to catch her. So I set to work doing that, up, up, up the hill for over a mile. Finally the road turned a corner and I couldn't see whether the hilltop was coming or not. I decided to let myself walk for 30 seconds. Sure enough, as I rounded the corner I saw I was at the top; I vowed to run faster on the downhill to make up for my walking.

Once again, I wished I wasn't wearing trail shoes. Once again, I felt the shock of every step through my entire body. I focused on solid running form, moving my arms deliberately to force my legs to follow. Now I was feeling it in my abs as they struggled to pull my legs forward quickly enough to stop me from falling on my face.

Down, down I ran, wishing that the hill would stop so that the pain would stop too.

When the hill finally did stop, I wished I had it back. Now I was running on a long, straight highway that seemed to go on forever, though in fact it was only 3/4 a mile. I felt like I had already given everything I could. But finally it seemed like I was gaining on the woman ahead of me. I could easily see her, perhaps 400 yards ahead. Now she was walking! Keep running, Munger, you'll pass this one yet! But then she started running again. It went on like this for another half-mile, with a walk from her boosting my spirits and a run deflating them.

Finally we turned off that straight road, and I was only about 75 yards back. Where was the exchange zone? It should be close, shouldn't it? We ran along a river, and then I saw a short, steep hill. There were vans on top of it, but we'd have to climb up it to get there. I didn't think I had anything left to give. Now the woman was walking on the hill, and I allowed myself to walk a bit too. Then I willed myself to run, getting closer and closer. Why wasn't she running? She was so close to the finish, it hardly seemed fair to pass her now.

Running past Ben on the final hill

"Run! Run to the finish," I said. I didn't want to pass her if she wasn't running. Then she did start to run -- fast -- and I could see it wouldn't be possible to pass. But at least Claire would have a good chance at a pass on the final leg. Now the whole team was in sight, cheering me on, and I gave a final push to hand the wristband to Claire for the final leg.

I was dizzy with exhaustion. I honestly felt like I might collapse; it was the first time I've ever had that sensation in a race. I don't think I've ever run harder in a long-distance run. I found my way to the shoulder and sat on a pile of leaves.

"What do you need?" Sam asked.

"Water, and..." I couldn't think of the word for what I needed.

"Fruit? Food?"

"No, the tablets"

"Oh, electrolytes!"

Sam handed me two tablets and I drank a bunch of water. Then I was hustled into the van. We needed to meet Claire at the finish!

Fortunately we were able to get there before Claire, so that we could all cross the line together. I could barely walk, and, naturally, was the last to finish. 

The triumphal finish!
But we had done it! We had completed the Smoky Mountain relay. I had slept perhaps 40 minutes over the 31 hours and 24 minutes it took us. We hadn't won, and in the end I believe were were the 4th or 5th Ultra team. But we beat last year's winning Ultra time by more than an hour! We had done well. And we were finished. And we were going to have hamburgers. And showers. And sleep. And it would be good!

In all, I had run 39.29 miles over fewer than 24 hours. I hadn't run especially fast, but I had run as fast as I could. I had given it everything I had, and I think that makes it my most satisfying relay ever. Until the next one, that is!

Details of my runs at the Smoky Mountain Relay are below.

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