In the early morning, before dawn, I run.
This is just like any other day, Helen.
Completely alone, I squeeze the sweaty silver flashlight in my left hand and slender can of pepper spray in my right. My deep, heavy breath the only sound as I
run sprint through the pitch black mountain road towards Pensacola, NC.
This is not any other day. This is my third leg of the Blue Ridge Relay.
Let me take you back to September 7, 2018…
The Blue Ridge Relay is a challenging, at times brutal, relay through the mountains of North Carolina. Most teams consist of 12 runners (some as few as 4) that rotate through 36 transition areas (“legs”) covering 208 miles. The legs vary in distance and difficulty.
I hop into Van #1 at 7:00 a.m. Friday morning in Charlotte with one small bag and 5 runners. Van #2 carries the other 6 runners and our trusty captain/coach Allen Strickland. Fortunately, two devoted van drivers, Joe and Gucci, will forgo sleep and navigate through the mountains the next day and a half. We caravan several hours to the start line at Grayson Highlands Park, VA. The mountain air hot and humid at noon. Start times are staggered, so some teams have already been racing for 4+ hours. I’m feeling humbled and honored to be on team JITFO with such talented, strong runners.
JITFO: Flavia, Ethan, (Me), Ryan, Nikki, Paul N., Paula, Gucci, Lucy, Paul M., Tessa, Joey, Adam and Allen (Joe not pictured, but prob taking the picture).
Guess who else is at the start line? Cousin Allen and team Godiva who also take off at noon!
After cheering Flavia, Runner #1 at the start, we head to the first exchange spot.
The afternoon flies. I’m Runner #5 and my hot, hilly, first leg is challenging. So many turns running through a small downtown. My van drives by, ringing the cow bell, banging on the windows and cheering me along. I dig deep up the last hill towards the next exchange spot, thrilled to see Lucy, Runner #6, and pass off the baton.
A Christmas tree farm makes a lovely backdrop for the first big exchange between Runners #6 and #7. Lucy looking strong as she approaches the exchange.
Van #1 finishes our first set and heads to Panera in Boone where I take a “dude shower.” Body wipes, a fresh swipe of deodorant and some dry shampoo, I feel like a new person. While Van #2 runs, I sneak a power nap in the front seat of the van as the sun hangs low in the sky and Nikki, Runner #12, makes her way to the exchange. Then it’s time for Van #1 to tackle our second set of legs.
Darkness quickly fills the sky. We catch up to many teams decked out in reflective gear, blinking lights and headlamps (and flashlight/pepper spray if you’re overly cautious like me). JITFO leaves a lot of “Road Kill” on the mountain roads during the night legs. Each teammate passes at least 8 or 9 runners per leg. We’re moving.
Around 10:30 p.m., I prepare for my second leg. At the exchange, I overhear one women to another, “I wish my kids could see me do this. I mean, this is crazy.” A surge of excitement. This is crazy. We’re about to run through the night, sleep in a van, shower between a couple tarps at a fire station and eat huge baked potatoes at 1 a.m. I love this.
Around 4:30 a.m., I wake up in the moving van. Only one runner before I start my third and final leg. After shots of iced coffee, a couple Yon Bons, and a pep talk with myself, it’s time to go.
I don’t think I’ve ever been this scared. What am I doing on this dark, winding road? This is insane. We’re far enough ahead now, I don’t see a single runner the entire 6.7 miles. Completely alone.
You have to keep moving forward. It’s the only way, Helen. Just run. One foot in front of the other. Keep moving forward.
I laugh because I’ve never used my mantra so literally.
And then the darkness breaks. Black sky turns to dark blue. Roosters start to crow. I see farm land. Suck in a whiff of fresh manure. It’s a beautiful thing. I’m alive. The sun rises.
Van #2 starts its last set of legs. Van #1 makes its way up the mountain and back down into Asheville on this gorgeous Saturday morning. We trace the path that many runners will cross on foot, like the infamous “Mountain Goat” leg straight up with multiple switchbacks. Brutal.
The Finish Line
Van #1 reaches the finish line in time to see the Charlotte Running Club finish first overall, besting rival Asheville Running Club. JITFO crosses the finish line just under 23.5 hours, 5th overall and 2nd for the Mixed teams.
Then we eat an absurd amount of pizza at Mellow Mushroom. After lunch I put my head down on a real pillow for the first time since Thursday night. Could have easily slept through Sunday, but I rally.
Team Godiva (cousin Allen’s team) placed 4th overall and 1st for the Masters teams. They kidnap John and me for dinner and beers.
“The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team.” -Phil Jackson
When I stepped on the van Friday morning, I barely knew my teammates. But immediately I knew that’s what they were — teammates. We hustled up hills, fought off fatigue and left every mile on the course. Our average pace, 6:44 minutes per mile, a testament to how hard each runner worked on his or her respective legs. My teammates inspired me to run faster, dig deeper and push harder.
I feel like I’ve known them for years. And I guarantee each one has his or her own story to tell about this experience. You’ll just have to ask them.
Can’t wait for next year’s fire station shower and baked potato. Hope to see you there!
Ps. Our driver, Joe Coppolina (Flavia’s husband), was also quite the race photographer. Many of these pics are Joe’s. Thanks for all you did, Joe!
Pps. If you want to know the meaning of JITFO, you’ll have to read this.