Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Blue Ridge Relay Recap

L-R: Mike Beigay, Brian McMahon, Alice Rogers, Anne Falcone, Danielle Crockford, John Compton, Jocelyn Sikora, Billy Shue, Boriana Bakaltcheva, Michelle Hazelton, Paul Mainwaring, Ben Hovis

I had been looking forward to this event for months. Way back in February, captain Hovis had begun to assemble his team. The goal was to take the best available male and female runners in the Charlotte Running Club up to the relay to have a great time, smash the mixed course record and even take on the team that had won the relay every year since its inception, Norm's Maggots. I signed up immediately. Months later and obviously we had had withdrawals and changes to the team (even with a week to go it was unclear whether we would be able to field a full squad or not) but at 8am on Friday 17th September 6 guys and 6 girls set off from the Dowd Y in their 2 van convoy, ready to roll.

Our start time was 1pm. It was weird to think that as we were heading up I-77, the race had already started. As the start times were seeded, some teams had already begun their 208 mile journey. We would be seeing them later.

We got up to the start about an hour before kick off. On the journey we had already taken in the beautiful scenery and experienced the type of terrain we would be running over. Four other seeded teams were to start off with us. Everyone just basically hung out and took photos and chatted. Vans were decorated and bags packed and repacked, we were itching to start!

At 1pm we were off. B Mac (in white shirt above) was our lead off man. His task? To run straight downhill for 4 miles and pass on to John Compton. May sound easy but you haven't seen these descents- absolute quad busters!! 21 minutes later and John was off. Brian hadn't felt great during his run but we were off and running. The adventure had begun! Only 204 miles to go!

We had two vans. Our first 6 runners were in the first van and the other 6 in the 2nd van. Once our guys had exchanged we would all get back in the vans and drive to the next exchange zone to drop the next runner off and watch the previous runner come in. As we passed our runner on the road we would whoop and holler out of the windows to encourage them. This was a moment in your run you always looked forward to! As we passed John on this leg, it was clear the guy was crushing it! He had already passed two people and our 'star man' was ignoring the heavy cold he was suffering and getting it done for the team!

John passed on to Michelle and our first lady was off. You can see from the next photo how strongly Michelle ran!

Billy was up next, then Anne, then Jocelyn. Everyone was running awesomely! At this stage of the race we weren't really concerned about where we were in the race. The four teams who had started with us were all spread out. All we knew was that according to our spreadsheet everyone was very close to their expected times and everyone was running great. The people in the vans who hadn't run yet were chomping at the bit to get their legs underway. Some of the terrain we were driving over was ridiculous! Ups and downs of the sort none of us would ever normally attempt to run!

Jocelyn was the last person in the first van. It was on to the second van now and your's truly was up.

My first leg of 5.4 miles was described as 'moderate' in the course brochure. The first two miles were straight down hill, followed by a steep uphill and some respite before a 'monster' climb in the final mile. Now I had seen plenty of hills already in this race, but none of them had been described as 'monster'! I was worried, very worried! And lo and behold there it lurked in front of me, a mile, straight uphill, could barely see the top! I was running pretty well up to this point and was pleased with how the legs were feeling. By the time I had gotten three quarters of the way up this hill though I was suffering, badly. I felt like I was running 9 minute mile pace. By the time I got to the top I was mad. The last quarter mile was downhill and I just let all my frustration out and passed on to Ben. First leg in the books 5.4 miles at 5:53 pace (Garmin read 5.65 miles at 5:39 pace).

At this point the first van went ahead to the 12/13 changeover point in Boone where they could get some food and Brian could get ready for his second leg. The second van carried on its journey. Ben notched the van’s first ‘roadkill’ of the race as we started to catch earlier starters and Danielle ran an amazing leg keeping in touch with Norm’s Maggots star female runner Amber Moran. Norm’s Maggots was the team that had won this race every year to date. Only the previous year had they even been challenged when both the first and second placed teams broke 22 hours for the race for the first time. Now Charlotte Running Club’s MIXED team was giving them a scare. Up ahead of the Maggots was an Ultra team from Knoxville. To our astonishment this team of 6 were relentlessly churning out fast leg after fast leg. They’ll fall apart at some point surely we all thought. We were wrong!

It was now moving towards dusk. We were starting to catch up with vans that had started hours before us and for the first time we had noticed we were in a bit of a race with Norm’s Maggots. Ben had mentioned that he thought they were catchable this year but I really hadn’t paid any attention to that. I just assumed that we would win the Mixed division and break the course record but hadn’t considered that we were good enough to catch the holders’ 11 guys and 1 girl team who had never previously been beaten by anyone! Alice flew on her stage covering 10 very hilly ks in 38:39 and we drove into Boone ourselves to meet up with the other van and see Brian get our second rotation underway. When we got to the Tangier Outlet Mall it finally hit us that we were part of a big event. We pulled into the parking lot and there were white vans everywhere!! We were now a third of the way into the race, it was 8pm, dark and we were starting to put our game faces on.

Van 2 decided that it was time to get some food sorted and drive ahead to the 18/19 changeover point where we could possibly catch some shut eye before the long night ahead. Word came over the cell phones that Brian had overtaken a Maggot and passed on to John with us now in second place overall! Could our sick star runner consolidate our position on the longest stage of the race, 10 miles up Grandfather Mountain? You bet he could! 1:02:15 for 10 of the hilliest miles you could imagine! Then it was Michelle’s second leg. Loving the 2.4 mile downhill stretch, she covered this leg at an average 5:42 pace!! Billy took over and consolidated our position. Meanwhile we had driven ahead and the opportunity to sleep was forgotten immediately as we found ourselves in a throng of white vans. I was getting prepared for my second leg now just wandering around chatting with people I knew. We were looking out for Allen Strickland’s van but couldn’t find that. We did bump into fellow Charlotte Mixed Team ‘Team Awesome’ though and exchanged pleasantries with them. They had started a couple of hours ahead of us and we had eaten into about an hour of that.

As I got ready for my leg which was forecast to start at about midnight word came over that we had had our first geographical mishap of the race. Anne had missed a poorly placed marker but luckily the van had noticed and Anne was able to salvage it, only losing a couple of minutes. This was however enough time to let Norm’s Maggots gain significant time on us and as Jocelyn was handed to the word was that we were going to be pretty much neck and neck by the time I started out! I was now at the start line of my 2nd leg, wearing my reflective vest, headlamp and blinky lights front and back. I chatted with my Maggots rival as we waited for our runners to emerge from the dark behind us. I found out I had beaten his time by 40 seconds on the first leg- useful information to have. Suddenly the cry “Maggot” went up, quickly followed by “CRC”. Jocelyn and her rival were neck and neck heading into the exchange zone! After 11 hours of racing to our limits the two teams were side by side! As we started the next leg it was like the start of a 5k, I hadn’t expected this to happen!

This leg was an easy one, 4.3 miles fairly flat, mostly downhill. I gapped Frankie shortly after the first mile and managed to put 30 seconds into him by the end. Ben and Boriana consolidated this lead and Danielle came into her changeover to Alice ahead of Amber. The Maggots appeared surprised by this. We weren’t.....

Then disaster almost struck. Alice headed out into the fog and pitch darkness. We piled into the van again to drive past her and on to the next exchange zone. About a mile into the stage we took a sudden right turn that was very poorly marked. As we proceeded slowly along there was no sign of Alice. That sinking feeling came over us, Alice was lost. The van went quiet, very quiet. We couldn’t turn around so we decided we would drop Mike off at the next exchange zone and then circle back and drive Alice’s leg again and see if we could find her. We weren’t worried about the race at this point, we were worried about Alice. It was pitch dark, increasingly foggy and pretty scary out! We drove the leg again. Still no sign. Now we just had to hope that Alice had found her way back on to the course and had passed off to Mike. And as we approached the exchange zone there she was smiling as if nothing had happened! Our prayers had been answered!

It transpired that Alice had missed the sharp turn we had noticed in the van and just at that exact point we had passed on the correct route. A minute later and she was back on course and adrenaline flying, minimal damage done to our overall time.

So we moved on to our third rotation. It was now 4.30am and time for the vans to split apart again. While van 1 carried on notching road kill after road kill and battling against the Maggots while running their final legs of the race, our van went ahead and found a quiet exchange zone and we grabbed about an hour’s sleep spread out around our van. Ironically, just as we were trying to get some shut eye at last, Danielle was calling her husband with her alarm call for him to get up for a Tri he was racing that morning! I was in the front seat of the van feet up on the dashboard, luckier and smaller souls had snagged a row of seats each. We woke at 6 ready for my next start at 7. After discovering we were actually at the wrong exchange zone we headed down to the correct one and I got myself prepared for my hardest leg of the race so far, the infamous ‘Mountain Goat’ Stage, the profile of which is shown below...

This stage was going to be 6.5 miles long. The first 1.5 miles flat along the valley and then a relentless 5 mile climb to the top of the mountain. Having not fared very well on the other huge hill I had negotiated in the race so far, I had to mentally prepare myself to attack this hill differently. It was going to call for a patient grind of a climb. I had to avoid going into the red too early otherwise it was going to be a long old haul up there! My legs were very tired at this point from the other two stages I had run. My warm up was token, a few shuffling strides and some stretching. Captain Ben was wandering around feeling very sorry for himself, throwing up three times and unsure whether he would be able to actually run his final leg. Contact had been reached with the other van to discover that we were still (can you believe it?!) running neck and neck with the Maggots! It was 7am and still fairly dark as the overnight fog was lingering. I made my way to the exchange zone and renewed my acquaintance with Frankie (on a side note we have become Facebook friends since the race!). Also standing on the line was friend of mine and occasional running partner Lat Purser whose Team Awesome we were just about to catch up with on the road. I was in for another race alright!

Emerging from the mist, Team Awesome’s runner Shenna appeared first, closely followed by the Maggot. Lat and Frankie ventured off down the road. 30 seconds later Jocelyn arrived to hand over to me and I was off. The first mile was pancake flat. The two guys were up the road fighting amongst themselves. The temptation was great to try and catch up to them quickly but the keyword on this leg was going to be patience. Our vans passed us, I was still a good way back and covered this easy mile in over 6 minutes- just what the doctor ordered. I felt like I was in a stage of the Tour in the Alps at this point, cruising along the valley floor with the dreaded mountain looming alongside me. We hit the start of the hill and within the first mile of the ascent I could tell I was gaining on Lat and Frankie pretty rapidly. As I pulled alongside them both were breathing pretty heavy. I checked myself, I was still in control. So I carried on at the same pace and had soon put a gap between us. Team Awesome’s van was stopping at every turn to blow their Vuvuzuela and cheer us on. I knew most of the people on that team so they were cheering for me almost as much as for their own teammate, this was great!

As we got towards the top the hill became switchback after switchback, I could have been on Alpe D’Huez! My breathing was still under control and I was splitting miles at about 6:50 pace. This was turning into one of my best running performances ever. As I approached the final corners of the climb I passed 3 other runners and was holding on waiting for the sight of my teammates to spur me on to the finish. Remember that at this point they had no idea what had gone on below. For all they knew I was still behind Lat and Frankie! Then I came into view and the screaming and hollering started! I think everyone was genuinely surprised to see me get up there first and with such a decisive lead as well! The last 200 yards were flat and my adrenaline was pumping rapidly as the cheers and screams of disbelief continued. I handed over to Ben who had restored his composure ready for his final leg and I went off to the side of the road for a few moment’s peace and reflection. Then it was time to get straight back in the van and check how Ben was doing and position Boriana for the next leg! I had covered the 6.5 miles in 43:41. A Maggot came up to me and congratulated me saying he thought the time was probably a course record, it was certainly faster than any Maggot had ever run it.

Ben’s leg was 9.4 miles of quad busting downhills which he somehow managed to cover at a 5:31 pace. We were about 2 minutes up on the Maggots now but knew they had the advantage over the next couple of legs and would probably be in front again by the time it got back to Alice. Boriana's final leg was simply ridiculous. We drove it in the van and the hill the course went over was the steepest and longest you can imagine. And with this one you didn't get to stop at the top, you had to plunge over the other side at the same grade! In my opinion from what I saw this was the most difficult stage of the race. Unfortunately Boriana's rival chose to have by far his strongest run over this leg. A decisive lead was grabbed by the Maggots and they were to maintain that gap until the finish in Asheville. Danielle, Alice and Mike finished off their legs so strongly, everyone had run great!

As Mike headed into the finish area we were able to join him as a team crossing the line together. We had covered 208 miles in under 22 hours at an average pace of 6:22. Only 5 minutes behind the previously invincible Maggot's team and only the 4th team ever to go under 22 hours. We beat the old Mixed record by over three hours and overtook 94 of the 100 teams on the road having started in the last group.

It was an incredible experience. After hanging around for a while congratulating the other teams and discussing the race with new and old friends it was off to the YMCA for a hard earned shower and Mellow Mushroom for even harder earned pizzas and beer. What a weekend!


  1. Way to represent, Charlotte! Shout out to old rivals, Ben and John. Great job.

  2. Awww I loved reading this. Such an incredible job you all did!!! Man... you guys run faaaaaaaaaaaast. :)