Thursday, September 20, 2012

Team DURT: Blue Ridge Relay 2012

In September, of 2011, a bunch of my running buddies from DART rounded up a 10-person team for the Blue Ridge Relay, a 208 mile, 36 leg relay foot race from Grayson County, Virginia to Asheville, North Carolina.  The DART team had such a great time and ran such a respectable race that I resolved to be part of the 2012 team.  Interest among DARTers to do the BRR waxed and waned during the Spring months, and ultimately six of us would form an ultra team, meaning each runner would run more than a marathon's worth of distance during the relay (an average in the mid-30s).  This made me even more excited as my training for the past several months had been geared toward ultra-distance racing.  Team DART revamped its name to DURT: the Davidson Ultra Relay Team.  Go DURT!

Being an ultra team, we would use only one passenger van, and unlike most "open" teams, our van would be active for the duration of the relay.  The make-up of our van was not unlike the lineup of the Seven Samurai--or the Magnificent Seven if you prefer Westerns to Kurosawa.  In the driver's seat was Greta Munger, Dave's wife.  She not only was stalwart in enduring the long hours of driving and the colorful aromas of six sweaty men in a van, but she consistently maneuvered our large passenger van along winding roads and in and out of precarious parking spots with surgical precision.  Dave Munger was our captain, coach, organizer, and statistician.  His thorough research and planning took a lot of the guesswork out of what lay ahead, especially for those of us who had not run the BRR before.  Sam Mishler was our workhorse.  He was slated to do the most mileage of the race.  On top of that, he provided an ample supply of "real food," thanks in large part to his wife, Stephanie.  Bobby Aswell was our veteran runner.  Not only had Bobby run the BRR several times, but he had nearly 200 marathons under his belt.  Two runners I had not met before the Relay were Stan Austin and Bobby Cordell.  Stan was fairly laid back and soft spoken, which belied his solid, unwavering tenacity on the roads.  He would be our silent killer.  Then there was Bobby Cordell...  With a tattooed neck, a grown-out Mohawk, and a conversational pace that nearly matched his running pace, Bobby C was our wild card.  Living in Boone, Bobby C was accustomed to running up and down mountains over ultra-distances every day.  Out of our team, I was the youngest, the smallest, and had been running for the least amount of time, so I viewed myself as the rookie.
DURT! From left: Greta, Bobby C, Sam, Dave, Me (Chas), Bobby A, and Stan

Our team had a start time scheduled for 11:30am, alongside some other folks we knew, including another Davidson-based 6-man group from the Summit Coffee Adventure Team.  We were looking forward to spending most of the Relay going head-to-head with Summit, but more so just enjoying their company at exchange zones (EZs).  Our Friday midday start was the beginning of what would be a hot day in the mountains.  Our intended order of progression though the legs was Bobby C, Sam, Dave, Me, Bobby A, Stan, and then the order cycled  back to the first runner.  As Bobby C was getting warmed up/psyched up for the first leg and drinking who knows what (some combined energy, herbal concoction), the other teams observed him with visible curiosity and--I like to believe--fear.  Eschewing stopwatches and/or GPS units, Bobby C's simple running motto was, "I just run as fast as I can for as long as I can."  This was true of him no matter what the distance, be it 5K or 100 miles.  When the first leg started--a fast 4 miles straight downhill, Bobby bolted ahead of the pack with arms swinging high.

We were off.  At each EZ, the finishing runner would slap our team's slap-bracelet on the runner starting the next leg, and then the crew would van up, cheer along the next runner as we passed him on the road, and await him at the next EZ while the runner on deck warmed up.  Bobby C was the second runner into EZ1, and Sam set off at a more conservative pace for a rolling, more difficult 7.5 miles.  We lost a couple more positions on leg 2, but Sam wisely was conserving energy for a long relay.  Dave's leg was shorter, but also rolling, and he kept a respectable pace for the duration before handing off the bracelet to me at EZ3.  My first effort (leg 4) was 6.9 miles in the late afternoon heat with two significant climbs, as well as a handful of smaller rollers.  Dave's projected pace for me was just under 7 minute miles, and I felt good at that pace--albeit hot--on the 1.5 miles of flat, open road leading to my first climb.  The hill dug into my pace right away, but I focused on my breathing and stride, reminding myself that I signed up for 35+ miles of racing, and there would be plenty more hills along the way.  Coming off the first hill, I spotted my first catch of the day.  He was a ways off, but there were still a few miles in which to catch him.  The second, longer, steeper hill would be where I recorded my first road kill.  Unfortunately, I was passed as well on this hill by one of the Charlotte Running Club runners, whose team started 30 minutes after us.  Ah, well...  Aside from the climbs, I maintained a 7ish pace as directed, and I finished my leg on one last little climb that was more of final insult than a real challenge.  As soon as I passed the bracelet to Bobby A and slowed to a stop, the stagnant air immediately began to cook me. 

Bobby A arrived at EZ5 promptly on schedule, and Stan shot off on his first leg: a hard 10K+ with some tough hills and exposed sunlight.  Stan would like to have run a minute or two faster on his leg (the heat was slowing all of us down), but he amassed a good 5 or 6 kills along the way.  Through our first rotation, we were feeling the heat but still keeping a very competitive pace.  Bobby C, Sam, and Dave sweated out some more sunlit legs before I started leg 10, an 8.4 mile leg with one really tough climb, some nice downhill, and a second, smaller-but-steeper climb before crossing a four-lane divided highway and finishing on a flat into EZ10.  This probably was my best run of the relay.  15 minutes in, the sun began to flirt with the mountain ridges, giving me intermittent shade.  At 2.5 miles, I settled into a mile-long climb that brought 2 more kills back to me.  The extended downhill along the middle miles of the leg was fantastic.  Shaded on both sides of the road by trees, and having a soft dirt road for a surface, I locked into a 6:45ish pace and relaxed.  The second hill was indeed steep, but I could see the top, so it ended up being only a couple minutes of heavy breathing.  I was lucky to get a break in the traffic at just the right time to cross the highway without slowing down, and I strode into the EZ damn near right on time, feeling pumped up and ready to eat!

Bobby A turned in another clockwork performance along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and Stan followed with a gem of a sunset run that ended up being his best leg--he logged 9 kills on leg 12 alone! 
Bobby C's next run took us to the base of Grandfather Mountain, after which Sam had to run his hardest leg: 10 miles straight up the mountain on a winding road in the dark.  Since Dave's leg after Grandfather was set to be a 2.3 mile fast downhill, the van skipped ahead to EZ 15 to drop me off so they did not have to scramble and race Dave down the mountain after Sam's exchange at the top.  Bobby C kept me company during my long wait, and I got geared up for my first run in the dark.  Team Stache-and-Dash, made of of 12 more running friends from the Charlotte area, arrived shortly before the DURT van.  We exchanged some smack talk in order to keep things interesting.  Sarah Keen, with whom I often run in the early mornings, took off for Stache-and-Dash on leg 16 less than a minute before Dave flew down the mountain and passed the bracelet to me.  This was a fast 3.4 mile leg with one steep hill in the middle.  As soon as I got the bracelet, I screamed "Sarah, you're mine!"  Zeroing in on her blinking light, I probably shot off a bit too fast, but I was caught up in the spirit of the competition.  Running at a pace in the low-6's, the hill at mile 1.5 hurt me...pretty bad.  I let up a little when I started getting a side stitch, but I kept the pressure on Sarah and another perspective kill on whom she was closing.  Sarah cheered me on as I passed her, but I could not return the sentiment because I was already out of breath!  Sorry, Sarah!  Just about halfway through this short leg, the hill gave way to a gentle downhill, and I coasted my way to the EZ while still keeping a sub-7 pace.  I made 5 kills on that run, and I would have had a 6th if the leg had 200 more meters.  Sarah passed her bracelet on shortly after me, having made 4 kills for her team.

The following legs by Bobby A, Stan, and Bobby C were a bit of a blur to me because I tried unsuccessfully to get some shut-eye.  I sat up in a haze sometime in the dark, early hours of Saturday morning feeling the fatigue of the day upon me.  Maybe I was not doing a good enough job of conserving my energy...  Sam looked a little worse off than me.  He was eating and hydrating, but from my opinion, it may not have been enough to keep his energy up for the heavy legs ahead of him.  Visibly fatigued and in a bad mood, he was dreading leg 20, a 5.6 miler with a doozy of a steep hill in the middle.  He warned us that he was going to shuffle through it, but Dave, Greta and I became ever more worried waiting for his long overdue arrival at EZ 20.  When I finally recognized his blinking lights coming up the last hill to the EZ, I could see Sam had a bit of lean to him--a phenomenon that affects ultra-runners when they are depleted and just trying to maintain forward motion.  The exchange wasn't pretty.  Sam passed the bracelet off to Dave and dropped to all fours, sick to his stomach.  I rushed some cold water to him and gave him a small moment to breathe, and then I coaxed him into the front seat of the van since Dave had another short, fast leg, and we needed to get to the EZ in time for me to catch the next exchange.  Poor Sam didn't even get any quality fresh air.

We arrived at EZ 21 a few scant minutes before Dave, and then I was off on my 4th leg, a 5.4 mile route with one moderate hill in the middle and a long, steep hill in the last .75 mile up to the end.  I was beginning to feel my side stitch from the last leg, but the cool air felt good anyway.  The moderate hill hurt, but I was able to maintain a decent pace.  I was dreading the last climb, but I resolved to low-gear it all the way up.  In retrospect, I expected the climb to hurt me a lot more, but I'm sure I was muttering swear words between gasps the whole way.  The EZ was a welcome sight, and I finished leg 22 in what I believed to be a respectable time for that given point of the relay.  Off went Bobby A.

Sam would stay in the front seat of the van for the rest of the night.  We all tacitly agreed that it was better for him to have more room and better access to road visibility and car comfort controls.  The wait at the following EZ for Bobby A was another nail-biter.  Bobby was overdue, which had been unlike him so far.  20 minutes after his anticipated arrival, we were contemplating getting in the van and driving down the route to search for him.  I trod down towards the arriving runners to act as a spotter.  Just when I was about to retreat and get on board with the idea of a search party, I heard Bobby's voice on the course yelling "DURT!"  This was our signal to get the next runner ready for the exchange.  After passing the bracelet to Stan, Bobby confirmed that he had taken a wrong turn a half mile from the EZ and added an extra 2.5 miles to his route!  This was not our night.

It was not Summit's night either.  Chri, their second runner who shared the same legs as Sam, was even worse off than Sam.  Sick to his stomach, Chri was also beginning to have the shakes.  Tim, Brian, and the rest of the Summit team made the decision to pull Chri from the race.  While Sam wasn't having the shakes, it was evident that he could not continue, so we too were pulling our #2 runner from the race.  It was no longer a game of good-natured insults and friendly competition between our teams.  It was a matter of finishing a relay without killing ourselves in the process.  Summit eventually would withdraw from the BRR to save Chri the discomfort of being inconsolably ill in a van for 13 or 14 more hours.  DURT decided to carry on with our remaining 5 runners. 
Dropping a runner from a BRR team meant that the rest of the team had to maintain sequential order throughout the remaining legs, so Bobby C (#1) would be passing the bracelet to Dave (#3) from now on, and the actual assigned legs shifted for the last two rotations.  Bobby C and Dave would have to do an extra, 7th leg, Bobby A and I would be adding significant mileage to compared to our originally scheduled legs, and Stan would about break even with just a couple extra miles.

Stan finished his 4th leg feeling unsatisfied--not being able to make up much time in the short, 3+ mile distance, and Bobby C ran a conservative 5th leg.  Dave ran leg 26, a hilly 6.9 miler that would have been Sam's, and I prepared for my next run: 9+ miles instead of the intended 7.4. 

In regards to morale, this was a real low point for me.  I already had run 24+ miles at a fast pace, and instead of 11 more to go, I had 18+!  On top of that, my side stitch was killing me, and I was feeling muscle soreness in my quads.  This did not bode well considering my last leg of the day eventually would be 9.4 miles with 2000+ feet of quad-busting downhill!  But that still was hours away.  Now, I had to suck it up and survive this next long leg.  Shooting for a slow 8:20-8:30 pace, I told Greta and Sam to expect me at the next EZ in 78 minutes.  Dave arrived with the pass-off, and off I shuffled.  The first 1.5 miles was a steady downhill, and I already felt a rocking agony in my rib line from my side cramp, as well as a burning pain in my quads.  It was still totally dark outside, but that would not last for long.  I passed one runner at 2 miles, and then I settled in on a long road that ran parallel to a pleasantly flowing river.  The sun rose behind me, and in no time, total darkness became broad daylight.  At the 4 mile mark, I closed in on another runner and anticipated another kill, but the runner surged ahead as soon as he noticed me on his heels.  OK, whatever, I wasn't so much worried about road kills anymore anyway.  Besides, there were a lot of miles left in this leg alone.  For 4 more miles, I stayed within yards of this guy, closing slowly, watching him surge away, and trying to remain indifferent.  I finally passed him with impunity with about a mile left in the leg. "Thanks, buddy, I enjoyed it," he said as I passed by.  I didn't, but I kept that part to myself.  After a little more than a mile and a couple more road kills, I passed the baton to Bobby A after a perfectly predicted 78-minute run, and I headed for the van.

I was really beginning to worry about the worsening cramps in my side and the integrity of my quads for the upcoming long downhill.  Bobby C suggested that I might be outrunning my own respiration--this from the guy who runs as hard as he can for as long as he can.  Under his advisement, I doing some deep breathing whenever I wasn't eating or trying to lay my head back.  Meanwhile, Bobby A and Stan were doing their part to carry the team and keep us on a decent schedule during their legs. 
Dave's 6th and penultimate leg was the infamous leg 31: a 6.5 mile run with 1300+ feet of elevation gain and virtually no decent.  It was one of two legs rated "Mountain Goat Hard" out of the 36 legs of the relay.  Dave was a trooper, and he was set to muscle his way up the mountain with no real complaints.  As we passed Dave and drove up the mountain, the sky opened up with rain.  That was just insult to injury.  We saw many runners walking up the mountain road, and we fully expected Dave to take longer than he expected to make the climb, so we waited at the chilly, wet summit.  On the bright side, Sam was looking and feeling a lot better.  He had taken over as navigator, and he advised my to stay in the van as long as possible to stay warm before my run while he acted as a spotter.  No argument here.  Soon, I glimpsed Dave coming up the gravel mountain road through the rear view mirror of the van.  Sam and Greta's signals confirmed it, and I jumped out of my seat to cheer him on from the exchange point.  He had made good time and was looking strong.  Now I had to uphold my last responsibility. 

I accepted the bracelet with burning quads and cramped breath.  "It may be 9.4 miles," I thought to myself, "but at least it's my last 9.4 miles."  The gravel road began to roll downwards immediately after the EZ.  Clad in compression quad sleeves on my upper legs, and shod in a new pair of ultra-cushioned Hokas, I shuffled my way down the first mile.  The whole while, I practiced the deep breathing that had given me some relief in the van.  I also concentrated on keeping a short, high-cadence stride to curtail my downhill speed and save my legs, much like a truck locking into low gear.  Only, there were no runaway truck ramps on this leg.  The rain, which had let up briefly, began to fall once again in earnest, which felt kind of nice at the time.  After a mile and a half, it felt better to breathe, and my legs were not protesting so much, so I relaxed...and relaxed...and eventually settled into sub-8 minute miles.  So much was I dreading this leg, but by golly, I was starting to have some fun with it!  At my 3 mile mark, the DURT van passed by me on their way down the mountain, cheering as they went.  I cheered back and threw both fists in the air.  At mile 4.5, the gravel road became paved, and while the surface was not as soft, it was smoother and faster.  I spotted another tired runner ahead of me, and I passed him after a few more blind curves.  There was plenty of decent left to go, but I could tell the grade was softening.  Another road kill.  More flattening.  Fewer trees and less shade.  6.5 miles in, a runner I had heard from behind overtook me.  However, as the remainder of the downhill gave way to flat road, he stayed within reach.  Passing people had not been my concern for the past two legs, but this kid wasn't pulling away from me.  I pulled past him and kept him behind me for the rest of the leg.  I now was fully exposed to the warm sun and running on a flat, paved surface, but I was keeping a consistent pace in the low-7s.  Two more miles...less than 15 minutes of pain.  One more mile...  I dared to glance behind me and saw a ponytail closing in quickly.  I didn't want to end my relay as some other runner's fresh road kill, so I surged.  6:30 pace...6:20...6:15...I had to keep accelerating to hold her at bay.  When I saw the sign for the approaching EZ, I let it all out, taking my last quarter mile of the relay at a 5:30 pace.  After I passed the bracelet to Bobby A for his last leg, I saw the ponytail come into the exchange zone fewer than 50 yards behind me.

After shedding my compression gear and sliding on some comfortable sweatpants, I checked my email and text messages.  The registration for the Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Run had opened and sold out all while I was running my leg.  Our friend and fellow DARTer Chad Randolph had acted as my proxy and got me into the race before it filled.  There is a mixture of emotions when you literally have just finished running 42.5 hard miles and you find out you are officially registered for a 100 miler! 

Anyway, I was done for the day, but the rest of the team still had work to do.  Bobby A was on leg 33--the other Mountain Goat leg.  The giant hill in the middle of this leg was not the largest of the relay, but it contained the steepest ascent and steepest descent of the entire 210 mile course: 13% grade!  Bobby finished strong like we all expected, and he looked even happier to be done than I did.  I yielded the large back seat of the van so he could decompress as I had for the last 50 minutes.  Stan busted out a quick leg 34--about the only tolerable leg of the last 6--and accumulated a few more road kills in the process.  Stan had our highest kill tally, with 32 for himself.  The rest of us were in the high teens or mid-20s.  Bobby C began his 7th leg, which had one last brutally steep climb before the final leg into Asheville.  As the van passed him, Bobby was looking strong, dropping his arms and bouncing up the hill, seconds away from getting the team another kill.  Bobby took his time on leg 35 because the descent following his climb was reeking havoc on his right quad, which had been bothering him for a while and was visibly bruised, as he pointed out with pride. 

At the final EZ, Bobby C passed our team bracelet to Captain Dave.  During last year's BRR, Dave had the honor of running DART's last leg into the city.  You can read about that run here.  Only the dumb luck of our mid-race, rearranged leg order pegged him once again as our anchorman.  His downhill run into Asheville undoubtedly was a much different experience than in 2011, partly due to the fact that he already had run more miles in 24 hours than he ever had before.  Greta drove us down the route to park the van one last time, and we got to see the winding, high traffic downhill that Dave and the other leg 36 runners would have to negotiate.  As we hobbled over to the finish line at the Mellow Mushroom, we donned our DURT shirts and Sam grabbed Dave's.  The team waited a block away from the finish and I ran ahead to the turn ahead with Dave's shirt to catch him on his way in.  When he finally broke out into the city streets, he looked great.  Or, if he was in pain, at least he was hiding it very well.  He threw on his shirt, and we strode across the finish line as a team.  Official time: 28 hours, 10 minutes, and 50 seconds.  As a team, we maintained an 8:03 pace.  We finished in the top 20% of all Ultra teams, and about the same for all of the relay teams, period.

We all agreed that DURT's 2012 BRR effort was an amazing experience for all involved, and for most of us, another BRR may be in the future...but we may think twice before forming another ultra team.