Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Race Recap: The Blue Ridge Relay 2014

It's been a crazy summer, so what better way to top it off than with the craziest race of the year: The Blue Ridge Relay. In the BRR, teams of up to 12 runners compete in a non-stop race from Grayson Highlands State Park in Virginia to Asheville, NC, 208 miles away.

There are 36 legs of the race, ranging from 2.5 miles to 10 miles in length, and averaging about 6 miles each. The team must specify the order of runners and can't change the order after the race has started. That means I knew from the start that I would be running legs 11, 23, and 35, a challenging trio that I blogged about last week.

Our team, Stache and Dash, is now rivals with JITFO, another Charlotte-area mixed-gender team that we narrowly defeated last year to win first place among all mixed teams. This year, two other mixed teams were looking strong, and all four teams started at 12:00 noon on Friday. But JITFO was our primary target, so we monitored them closely every step of the way.

Here's our team at the start of the race:

Blue ridge relay
Well, most of the team...Claire and Janel would join us a few miles down the road.
From left: Sean, Rob, Gisele, Brian, Stan, Me, Johanna, Inga, Danny, and Wen

And here is Laura decorating JITFO's van:

Blue ridge relay
Stache and Dash is off to a flying head start in the spelling portion of the event!

Giselle started things off with a blazing downhill run.

Blue ridge relay
That's Gisele on the left

Then our van (Van 2) dashed ahead to get lunch and meet up with Claire and Janel. Through sketchy cell service, we got updates on the other van's progress, and things were not looking good. We were slowly and steadily losing ground to JITFO. Too bad spelling didn't count in the official results! By the time Van 2 took over we were about 5 minutes behind. Wen, Claire, and Janel logged fast, short runs, and Danny was off to a fast start on his run, when I realized that I was barely ready for my turn, which was coming up next. I had been driving the van and tracking the runners, and hadn't had time to change my clothes or locate my GPS and running glasses.

I was thrashing through the back of the van, tossing everyone's gear outside in order to get to mine. Finally I found everything and got to the exchange zone just moments ahead of Danny.

Apparently after I took off, the van nearly left without all the gear I had thrown outside. It was only Claire who noticed and said "Isn't this all of our stuff out here on this rock?"

Meanwhile, I was charging along on my first leg, an 8.4-miler. I wasn't sure I was in shape for an all-out run of this distance, so I took it pretty easy over downhill miles 1 and 2, about a 6:50 pace. Then I hit the big climb, and slowed even more. Somehow I made it up the hill and was looking for the downhill on the other side, which...didn't come, and didn't come. It was just flat, with a few more uphills thrown in.

Finally the downhill started, and I could pick things up again, but now, 5 miles in, I was pooped. I managed a 6:25 pace. Then it was an uphill slog to the finish, and I got slower and slower: 7:25, 8:11, before finally managing a 7:14 pace for the last 0.4 miles. Average pace for the leg: 7:25, on a leg with 625 feet of climbing. Not very good -- about 25 seconds per mile slower than I was hoping for. Again we lost ground to JITFO.

By midnight we were about 15 minutes behind, waiting for Van 1's runners to show up at a patch of grass and mud, somewhere in Appalachia.

Blue ridge relay
They definitely have some interesting street signs out here!

Again, Wen, Claire, and Janel ran their legs and this time I was determined to be ready well in advance of my leg. Danny sprinted to the finish of his leg in the darkness, I took the baton, and ran past the Penland School of Crafts on notorious Leg 23, where JITFO's runner got lost last year and probably lost them the race. I was determined not to let that happen to me. Sure enough, within a mile, the two runners ahead of me went straight when they should have turned down a gravel road. I shouted to them to let them know they were headed the wrong way, then plunged into the dark and the fog. My first two "road kills" of the race, but at least I had saved them a major detour!

I was on a gravel road. It was so foggy that I could barely see two steps ahead. I plunged forward as best as I could. Suddenly a ditch appeared in front of me, seemingly dug straight across the road! It took a moment to figure out what had happened: the road had veered left and I had continued straight. Eventually I figured out how to follow the line of vegetation along the side of the road, but I was still frustrated because I wanted to run fast, but felt like I needed to slow down because I was basically running by feel.

Finally the road leveled out, then started to climb. It was paved, and much of the fog had cleared, but now I just had to keep my pace up on this long, gradual hill. The hill went on for three miles. I passed four more runners, and had my sights on a seventh road kill when I reached the exchange in a tie. Stan immediately spurted ahead of their runner, so which one of us got the road kill? It was an academic question, of course, but it made for interesting conversation in the middle of the night.

Stan handed off to Gisele from Van 2, then we made our way to the final transition zone at the bottom of the infamous "Mountain Goat" Leg 31. Stan offered to drive, but within a few minutes he felt himself starting to doze off and asked if I could handle the drive. We switched positions, and I drove for about 10 minutes before I felt the urge to sleep as well. Everyone in the van was now asleep, so I decided to just pull over to the side of the road for a 20-minute power-nap. I woke 18 minutes later, feeling much better. I started the van up again and pulled out into what I thought was an empty road, but as I glanced in the mirror I saw headlights right behind us. I gunned it and avoided disaster.

I later learned that Wen, sleeping on the floor in back, was awakened by the sudden acceleration and thought someone had stolen the van! She was too afraid to say anything at the time but had a great story to tell later!

Finally we arrived at the exchange zone with enough time for everyone to get 90 minutes or so of rest.

Meanwhile the rest of our crew steadily lost ground to JITFO. We were in third place, though, and ahead of our pace from last year. Everyone was running as well as they could, JITFO was just that much better than us.

As the day grew brighter, Wen nervously prepared for her run up the Mountain Goat leg. About 20 minutes after JITFO came through, Wen took the baton and headed up the mountain. We followed behind, stopping a couple of times to cheer her on.

Blue ridge relay
Here's my attempt at a photo of Wen passing two guys (I was driving...)
Wen did awesome on her leg, and we continued to plug away. Claire had a great downhill leg, then Janel took over on the second Mountain Goat leg. Not only did this leg have the steepest climb on the course, it also had a crazy-steep downhill!

Janel loved every minute of this descent!
After a quick leg from Danny, it was my turn to run my final leg of the race, leg 35. The elevation profile of this leg kind of says it all:

That's a whole lotta purple!
After a steep, steady two-mile climb of 900 feet, I'd have a downhill-to-flat section of the Blue Ridge Parkway. My goal was simply to finish the climb without walking, and to have something left for a final kick.

Up, up I went. After about 2/3 of a mile, Stan drove by in our van, saying "I didn't realize it was this steep! The Rockies ain't got nothing on this!" Although I appreciated the sentiment, I couldn't help but think that Stan had probably never been to the Rockies. It was damned steep, but the hill seemed to get ever so slightly less-steep after Mile 1. I picked up the pace a bit (not much -- my pace on Mile 1 was 9:59; on Mile 2 it was 9:20. As my watch beeped "Lap 2 complete" I looked for my downhill. It was nowhere to be found; the road continued up and up! Finally at Mile 2.14 the road started to level off. Trust me, I felt every inch of that .14 miles!

The next third of a mile dropped over 150 feet, and I did everything I could to take advantage, but since I was still gasping for breath, it wasn't easy. Soon I turned on to the Blue Ridge Parkway, where the road leveled considerably. I was going to have to exert some effort to pick up the pace. I managed a 7:16 for Mile 3 -- not bad, but not as fast as I had been hoping. Now there were a couple of runners ahead, and I felt a surge of adrenaline that helped me pass them while picking up my pace to 6:42. Still not great, but I was at least salvaging a bit of speed. After Mile 4, I was hoping I'd be able to see the exchange zone, but the road turned a corner. I gave it everything I had, and finally the crowd of runners there came into sight. I handed off to Stan and tottered around in a daze while I caught my breath. I was done, and we had just one race leg left!

Soon we were in downtown Asheville, looking for parking. After we had finally found a spot, as we walked to the finish, we got a text from the other van: "You missed it. Stan is here!" Oh well. We strolled to the finish line and posed with the team for the obligatory finish line photo:

Sean, Danny, Me, Janel, Rob, Johanna, Claire, Inga, Stan, Wen, Brian, and Gisele

JITFO had beat us, but they hadn't finished first; that honor went to team Strictly Running. So while we had beaten the team record with a time of 24:49:24, JITFO finished second for the second year in a row. Still, we were good sports about it and posed for the traditional winner-lords-it-over-losers photo:

Well, all of us except Stan were good sports about it!
A couple things to note about this picture. First, I'm by far the whitest guy on the team. Second, Allen (above me and to the right), who has a blog called "Allen's Road to Boston," was the happiest I have ever seen him... and I saw him right after he qualified for Boston! It was almost worth losing to see someone that happy!

Overall, I was a little disappointed with my running. I gave it everything it had, and had a pretty good final leg, but I'm definitely not in the kind of shape I was in last fall when I PRed in the Runway 5k. My plan for this fall is to focus on the 5k to 10k distance. I'd better get to work.

My GPS records of my runs are below.

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