Anticipation had been high for the months leading up to the latest edition of the Blue Ridge Relay. Over the past few years, Knoxville Track Club (KTC), Asheville Running Collective (ARC) and Charlotte Running Club (CRC) had stamped their authority on the event and had some memorable clashes but never had all THREE teams really battled against each other in the same race.
This year, KTC had eschewed their usual presence at Hood To Coast to concentrate their efforts on Blue Ridge and with 13/14: 5k guys everywhere you looked, had undoubtedly the fastest 12 man squad on paper in Blue Ridge history. ARC, the dominant champions of the previous two races had assembled potentially their fastest ever squad and were loathe to surrendering their crown to any 'out of towners'. CRC, only able to field a ten man squad last year after the epic race with ARC in 2011, were quietly putting together the strongest team in their history adding Blair Teal (2:20 marathoner), Joey Thompson (UNCG graduate/stud), Jesse Mcentire (recent arrival in Charlotte from the hills of Brevard) and App State alumni Mike Mitchell and David Brinkley to their already talented and motivated ranks.
Facebook team pages had been established, newspaper articles had been written, the stage was set for an epic battle and a three-pronged attack on the elusive 20 hour barrier.
Over the next few paragraphs I will provide an overview of the race that followed from my perspective as the lead off man for the CRC team....
CRC ready to roll (Brad Popple, Rocky Falcone, Paul Mainwaring, Josh Baker, Mike Mitchell, Blair Teal, Mike Beigay (captain), Jesse Mcentire, Dan Matena, Billy Shue, Joey Thompson, Joe Lanser, David Brinkley)
Away we go
At 1:30pm Friday afternoon, myself, Javan Lapp (ARC) and Elijah Shekinah (KTC) were unleashed down the mountain to set the ball rolling. 153 other teams were already heading towards Asheville on their own journeys. 4 miles downhill, all downhill. Just under 20 minutes later, according to form and expectations, ARC handed over in first place with a very small lead over KTC and CRC. From a personal point of view I was happy with the leg. To legitimize my presence on the team after only confirming my availabilty a month before I figured a sub 20 minute performance was needed, to only be a few seconds down on the other 2 teams an added bonus. I jumped in the van, my feet burning from the impact on the downhills and we headed off to see how the second leg was playing out.
Leg 2 is also predominantly downhill and is traditionally reserved for the strongest runners on the team as this rotation includes the glamour leg 14 on Grandfather Mountain. The three horses of their teams were on course.
7.5 miles and 37 minutes later Billy Shue was quietly warming up a few hundred yards away from the exchange zone. All of a sudden Blair Teal came powering around the corner and Billy had to sprint to the start line to get there in time to take over the baton. The CRC man had smashed the previous course record and left two supremely talented rivals in his wake. A new BRR star had been born.
Over the next 6 legs CRC consolidated and extended their lead, with 5 new team leg records being added to the two already established by Mainwaring and Teal. Brad Popple showed he meant business on leg 8 by beating the all time leg record and the last addition to the team, David Brinkley, bashed out a great leg along the river. CRC clearly meant business but knew there was a long time to go, we were only a quarter of the way into the race.
Original team member David Willis paid us a surprise visit on leg 6/7!
Brinkley ready to roll on leg 9
Leg 10 saw the first pause for thought for CRC. In the midst of running the 8th team leg record out of 10, Josh Baker felt his calf tighten significantly. Close attention was going to be necessary to ensure he could power through his other two legs. Additionally, the studs of KTC were beginning to make their presence felt. Nick End, 2:19 marathoner, had knocked a three minute hole into CRC's lead, which was now down to about 4 minutes, with Asheville not far behnd and still very much in the race.
We were now just over 5 hours into the race and beginning to catch up with the rest of the teams. As darkness descended, Jesse and Joey bashed out two solid debut legs and now every member of each team had run. It was time for Vans 1 to set out again. The drama and unpredictability of night racing was about to begin.
It was my turn again. I felt pretty decent warming up for my run. The burning feet had cooled down and my legs felt pretty fresh. Good job too as the first two and a half miles of this leg out of Blowing Rock were straight uphill! I tried not to red line so I could take advantage of the more forgiving second half of the leg and ended up doing a pretty good job, finding out later that I had extended our lead over KTC while only losing a small amount of time to 3rd place ARC. Now is as good an opportunity as any to congratulate my Asheville counterpart on his performance in his first BRR. Armed with 2 new course records after this race, Javan will surely be a fixture in the Asheville team for years to come. Elijah, meanwhile, lost a few seconds to me on this leg but beat me comfortably on the other two legs. Such was the depth of quality in this year's race that even team leg records were not always enough to hold off your rivals.
The glamour leg
As mentioned earlier leg 14 is often seen as the marquee leg of BRR. Featuring just over 10 miles of gradual uphill on Grandfather Mountain, the 60 minute barrier had only been breached once in the race's history. Soon that amount was trebled. Blair Teal continued his dominating form, knocking nearly two minutes off the previous course record in 58:01 and unofficially passing 35 other runners. Roadkill indeed. Mark Driscoll, last seen by CRC runners during his sub 25 8k showing and victory at the Club's own 8k event, turned in a fantastic 59 minute performance and the KTC runner only just missed the 1 hour mark. Wow!
Yippee Ki Yay
Now it was Billy's turn again. Armed with a mile PR in the 4:50 range, Shue somehow flew down his c. 2 mile leg in a new course record of 9:56, shouting "Yippee Ki Yay" as we passed in the van! Van 1 continued to knock down every CRC record one by one. When the dust had settled after the race, it transpired that 16 of 18 CRC Van 1 records were taken down and Joe Lanser got in on the act on leg 18, putting yet another overall course record in CRC's hands. Halfway through the race and it appeared only navigational errors or injury could stop CRC now. The potential for both were not insignificant, however. KTC and ARC had already made a couple of small errors and were both now about ten minutes back fighting nip and tuck over second place.
Virtually every race in BRR history has been impacted by teams going off course. In the night hours especially, when tired and cranky runners are more liable to miss turns or local kids have seen fit to move signs around, teams often make navigational errors and run off course. This year proved to be no exception, with both KTC and ARC going off course on a couple of occasions. To the eternal credit of CRC no such errors were being made. Over the next 6 hours through the middle of the night, a combination of people taking close individual responsibility for knowing their leg directions and help from fellow van members saw CRC extending their lead even while KTC and ARC were occasionally running significantly faster leg times than the CRC team up the road. In the midst of this it should also be noted that Josh had notched another course record for the team, putting to bed any doubts we had about his calf.
A significant moment in the race came at about 5am Saturday morning. 15 and a half hours into the race, speedy veteran Rocky Falcone passed the last remaining runner in front of his team on the course. Now not only were CRC leading the race by a solid margin, they were also the team furthest along the course in the race, with over 7 legs of the race still to run! As van 1 finished off their stints and sat back in the van to rest their weary legs, van 2 were pumping themselves up to finish off the job.
The last 6 legs of the race all have their own unique characteristics and often provide the most exciting racing of the event. First up is the infamous Mountain Goat stage which features 5 miles of uphill, turn after turn, Alpe D'Huez style. Last year, CRC's Aussie Mountain Goat, Dan Matena, had broken the course record in a famous performance made even more impressive by the fact that he had to run 4 legs during the race. With only two legs behind him this year Dan was on a mission to break his own course record and further consolidate CRC's lead. And he didn't disappoint. Climbing the hill in complete darkness and isolation, Matena rolled a new course record. He was so far ahead of his scheduled time that Brad had to be rushed to the exchange zone in time to be handed over to. "Aussie Aussie Aussie" indeed!
Leg 32 takes the teams down the mountain they have just come up! Of particular note this year was the fact that CRC were so far ahead of course record pace that it was still pitch dark as Brad took off down the mountain! Normally the day is dawning as leg 31 is being negotiated. As the first few miles of this leg unfold over steep downhill rutted gravel paths, more than one CRC team member was concerned that Brad was running so fast in the dark that he may slide off the mountain! As it was Brad made it safely to the bottom of the hill and maintained his close to five minute pace for the few miles along the valley floor. As he handed over to Brinkley for the last time after an awe inspiring average 5:05 pace for 9.5 miles (this having already run 12 miles on his other two legs remember!) Brad crashed to his knees, completely spent, everything left out on the course in the name of CRC. He literally had to be carried to the van.
Behind him, though, word was coming through of an epic fightback from KTC's horses.....
The grand finale
Up next was 'the nipple', known for its 13% grades both up and down, one of those legs that while driving it in the van you can scarcely believe your runner will conquer it. As Brinkley passed us he was taking it in his stride. We drove Josh ahead to the next exchange zone and waited.
We had noticed that the KTC van was pulling into the exchange zones closer and closer to us. We hadn't really paid much attention to the lead we had during the night, we were just concentrating on getting the legs done and not making mistakes. Unbeknownst to us, KTC had made another navigational error and our lead had stretched to over 15 minutes. Our lead was like a red rag to a bull however. First, team captain Ethan Coffey, two course records already safely up his sleeve, absolutely massacred the Mountain Goat stage I just described, making it to the top in just over 40 minutes- 4 minutes faster than the record that had stood at the start of the race! Not to be outdone, Kyle Stanton beat Brad's time by over two minutes. These two new records may be very long standing. KTC were not going down without a fight and behind them ARC continued to head towards their fastest ever time on the course, ready to pounce if either of the teams ahead erred.
As David's expected arrival time passed we started to get a little concerned, we were so near but so far from victory. KTC were pressing. It transpired that David had suffered cramps at the top of the nipple and was unable to push as hard as he would have liked on the downhill section. What a warrior though, gutsing it out to minimize our losses. He passed over to Josh and we timed the gap to KTC at 10 minutes. With three legs to run, realistically we weren't going to get caught, but your mind starts playing tricks on you at this point. On leg 34 we knew that Josh had it all to play for against KTC stud Nick End and we also knew that on the fast last stage ahead, KTC had a 3:58/13:50 closer!!
No need to panic, Josh actually put time into Nick on leg 34, yet another team leg record and what a time to do it! Jesse headed up the ridiculously steep two mile section of leg 35 and we could taste victory at last. After another sterling leg from debutant Mcentire it was left to Joey to bring it all home. We headed down the mountain into Asheville in our vans and parked up, ready to accompany Joey over the finish line in the time honoured BRR tradition. As he came around the corner still focussed on the job at hand it finally dawned on us that we were going to win! We ran in behind him, cheering as we went. And guess what? Yes indeed, the cumulative time was 19 hours and 58 minutes. The previously untouchable 20 hour barrier had been breached.
CRC, Blue Ridge Relay Champions 2013.
Joey Thompson leads home the victors
After the obligatory team photos we waited for our valiant adversaries and congratulated each other on our performances, mutual respect abound. KTC came home in 20 hours and 7 minutes, ARC in 20 hours and 25 minutes, just outside their previous course record. Later on, after some deserved refuelling and napping, members of all three teams were seen sharing beers and war stories at Wicked Weed and various other Asheville establishments. You don't see that in many other sports! Roll on Blue Ridge 2014 when surely even more legends will be written!
ARC hand over the belt they had taken from CRC at the Winter Classic 8k in January. Firm friendships and rivalries formed, the next battle to hold on to this belt is bound to be intense!
Awaking with sore heads and legs on Sunday morning, CRC were greeted with the day's headines