WHAT A WEEKEND. There’s a lot of this weekend that never should see the light of day but there’s quite a lot that’s already been plastered all over social media so we might as well just embrace that. We had a hell of a good time – the people who were on the team last year said that it was the best time they’ve had since, well, last year’s relay.
There’s some history here – last year, one of my friends emailed me about some people we knew looking for some people to join a team for this relay but I was already signed up for the Diva Half Marathon so I had to say no. But I definitely wanted in for another year! Unfortunately, a few of last year’s team had to skip the 2015 race due to injuries, children, etc so there were some spots that needed filling! And so I got to become a Blue Ridge Bootlegger. There was a whole lot of planning and preparation that went into making this happen and it sounds like it went a whole lot better than last year according to the Bootlegger veterans. But I’ll skip all that for know and get straight to the race because it’s awesome.
This relay is maybe a little different from some of the Ragnar events – though I’ve never done one. It goes from Nowhere, NC to Nowhere Else, NC with a whole lot of nothing in the middle. I mean, really nothing.
Ok – the actual details for those wanting to check it out. The start is about 30 minutes from Brevard, NC in the Pisgah National Forest and the finish is at the Nantahala Outdoor Center near Bryson City. In between? Well we’re not really sure because it’s seriously middle of nowhere but it is some nice middle of nowhere. It’s about 215 miles over 36 legs.
We packed our vans and left from Furman Thursday afternoon pretty early since last year they left way too late and missed all the fun at packet pick-up. It was in Brevard, NC at the Oskar Blues Brewery which is amazing. We made sure to have a great time hanging out here for a few hours with the other teams and race staff.
We also made sure to have plenty of beer and food truck food. I had a Chubburger which was amazing and it was also the last good meal I would have for 36 hours so I’m really glad I ate it. Once the party broke up, we headed back to the hotel for a quick team meeting before going to bed.
Our team was with the first group of starters at 6 am Friday morning, so we got up bright and early to drive out to the race start. Even though I was in van 2 and we wouldn’t run until late that afternoon, we still wanted to be there to support our team! Unfortunately, this meant no hotel breakfast and the hotel staff was really rude to us when we wanted to take some of the dry goods (bananas and oatmeal) with us for breakfast so we had to munch on van food instead.
We got to wait around the start line for a while since leg 1 looped back around to the start. Our van decided that we would hang out with the rest of our team for the first few legs and then head out to the end of leg 6 so we could get ready. So we hung around and cheered and got some great pictures.
Once we got to the van exchange (a campsite…somewhere), the boring part started. As much fun as these relays are, you really spend a lot of time just…waiting around. There’s lots of boredom eating. And cat napping in the van. Once we started getting closer to the actual van exchange, a bunch of teams starting showing up so there was a pretty good crowd cheering the incoming runners on. Finally our runner showed up and our van was off! Our legs were: 1) 1- 4 miles straight up, 2) 2 crazy technical trails, and 3) 3 easy peasy flat valley runs. Obviously, I had one of the flat valley runs since I am definitely not a trail runner nor in good enough shape for an intense climb.
A word of note for the exchange between legs 9 and 10 – Leg 9 is a really, really downhill trail run and the driving route to reach the exchange is like 45 mins minutes. We had to drive down from the Parkway and all the way around the mountain the get there and when we reached the exchange….our runner was there waiting for us. So our two suggestions would be to either take off from the exchange as soon as runner 8 is done OR send runner 10 with your first van and have them take that person to the exchange. If you have a fast runner 9, the second option may be your only option because we didn’t dilly dally for long and he still beat us.
Anyways, we finished up at exchange 12 and met the rest of our team there for a quick costume contest photo before send runner 13 off*.
Once van 1 took over again, we grabbed our pizza (one of our runner’s parents lives near this area – Cullowhee? and had brought us pizza for dinner) and then headed to Franklin where we had reserved a hotel room**. We crashed for a few hours (also showers) – planning to get back out to exchange 18 for our next legs starting around midnight. Luckily we had cell service*** at this point because we got a text from the other van saying they were about an hour ahead of when we expected them to finish! So our captain dragged us all out of bed so we could hustle out to the exchange. It was raining (of course). Apparently it had pretty much rained non-stop since we finished running earlier that day. And the moment our runner started his first leg, it stopped! HAH. One bit of good luck from the rain magnet.
These legs were all in the middle of nowhere, mostly gravel/dirt packed road and very much in the dark (and fog). Leg 19 is the run from hell – so just know that. Legs 20-23 are moderate elevation change on pretty good gravel forest service roads – nice for running, but an….interesting van ride. Leg 24 was back on pavement but all uphill. I had 23 which was probably the worst quality road of all of them. It was very muddy, rocky with lots of loose gravel. Some good things to have for these night runs: A headlamp (mandatory), reflective vest (mandatory), blinky red light (mandatory) and a running flashlight. We had a couple of these Nathan lights…they are the best thing ever. It definitely kept me from busting my face on the rough road and it was extremely helpful in the fog. There’s not much to say about these runs – we didn’t take any pictures or even talk much but it was really cool. Very peaceful and maybe a little creepy, but beautiful.
Exchange 24 was at the top of a ridge – you couldn’t tell at first because of the dark and fog but as it got closer to dawn, the fog cleared out a bit and you could see the mountains and so many stars. Really cool place.
The other van took over again for their last legs and we took off back to the hotel for one last little nap. We slept for a bit, then decided that a real meal might be nice so we packed up early and found some breakfast at a pretty good diner in downtown Franklin (at this point it’s about 9 am on day 2).
Then we went out to wait at exchange 30 to start our last legs.
These last legs are more of what you’d expect – big hills. With the exception of one (my leg, of course), these were all very challenging, include the appropriately named “One Tough Mother” leg (32, if you need to know). I had leg 33, which was 5 miles dooowwwwwnnnnnn. It’s a good opportunity to run fast, even if you’re tired because it’s 1200 ft of lost elevation.
Once we dropped off our last runner, we took off for the finish line at the NOC to wait for her.
We rented a cabin at the NOC so after we finished our post-race beer, we went back to the cabin where a couple of the runner’s SOs had been preparing dinner for us (nicest people ever) and there was much celebrating (and eating).
So, I don’t think I can say enough good things about this experience. We had an absolute blast the SMR team did a great job. I can only hope to encourage more people to give it a try because I’m pretty sure there’s nothing else like it!
Some general notes
*The goat story: This happened…sometime during leg 14. I wasn’t there but we got the story from our other van. Apparently one of the runners from another team was being followed by what they thought was 2 dogs and as he got closer…
Yes, you will see that this is, in fact, not a dog, but a goat. Apparently it was very friendly, so it was someone’s pet goat. Then some crazy lady tried to come and get the goat because she knew who it belonged to or something….it’s not entirely clear but it’s definitely the kind of story that captures what SMR is.
**Some notes on cell service. Most of this relay is spent with NO cell service. The race guide does a pretty good job telling you where there will be service but be prepared to keep it turned off most of the race. If you’re concerned about safety, a CB radio may be a good idea -also good to communicate with your other van.
***The hotel room: This was the BEST THING EVER. Apparently last year they slept in some barn near exchange 18 and it was miserable, and this year the race director gave us information for a great deal on a Microtel Suites in Franklin. It was like $55 – split between 12 people, it was probably the best $5 we’ve ever spent. The hotel is about 30 mins from exchange 12 and less than 20 from exchanges 18, 24 and 30. Basically right in the middle of everything.
$: Costs. This is not a cheap endeavor. I feel like this gets kind of glossed over but it’s important. Race Entry, night before hotel, vans, gas, hotel on Friday night, food, cabins at NOC, t-shirts, more food. It definitely adds up.
^^: Elevation. Haha the SMR team picked on Ragnar a little because they were bragging about their hardest leg: 10 miles and 2800 ft of elevation gain. Leg 19 (the hell leg) climbs 3000 ft over 5.5 miles and it is truly terrible. This is a challenging race and training is a must. Lots of sustained climbs, trails, and rough roads. It’s not the Rocky Mountains, but these are no joke!