Oh my, where to begin? At the beginning seems appropriate. It was January and I was working in China when Bourbon Chase Cap’n Mike emailed a notice that the Blue Ridge Relay team he was on needed a few more runners. I knew the BRR would be a challenge and especially so because at the time I was working too many hours to do any decent training. I had been in China off and on (mostly on) since September. All the gains from the hard training I had done earlier in 2010 were slowly wasting away. I was tired of being alone though so I replied immediately, “I am too weak to resist an opportunity like this”. A couple more emails, a check sent, and presto, I was officially on the team.
I was back in the US by February and hit the ground running. By April I was back in decent shape. I ran very well in an 80 mile relay in Illinois. I was pleasantly surprised at how well I ran there on some pretty tough hills.
The logistics for getting to the BRR were beginning to look like a nightmare. It was discouraging and I came close to throwing in the towel. I decided to stick with it though and eventually had two hotel rooms booked, one in Boone for the night before the race and one in Asheville for the night after the race. I had also arranged to pick up team member Brian in Lexington so I wouldn’t have to drive all the way by myself and would have someone to share the cost of the hotel rooms. Brian reserved a one-way rental car to get us from Asheville to Boone where we would meet up with the rest of the team.
As the race date approached the logistics were nailed down and more emails were exchanged. The level of excitement was building. One email asked each team member to choose the legs they wanted to run. The legs were rated according to difficulty as “easy”, “moderate”, “hard”, “very hard”, and “mountain goat hard”. I really wanted to run one of the two “mountain goat hard” legs but I also wanted to go for distance. My first choice was to be runner #5 with the longest total distance, 30.2 miles, in four legs. 1st leg, moderate, 5.2 miles, 2nd leg, very hard, 10 miles, 3rd leg, hard, 5.6 miles, 4th leg, very hard, 9.4 miles. My second choice was runner #4 which was only a total of 26.1 miles but included one of the “MGH” legs. My third choice was runner #2 which was 28.8 miles with three hard legs and one very hard leg. I guess no one else was dumb enough to volunteer to be runner #5 so that’s what I got.
After the running order was set for the team another email arrived containing a document with estimated run times for each runner on each leg. Holy cow! How on earth did they get the impression that I could run that fast? Sure I had submitted my time for a 10k, but did they not understand that Indiana is flat. North Carolina is not flat. I had been completely disappointed in my performance at Bourbon Chase last year and I didn’t want another poor performance this year at BRR.
Finally race day eve had arrived. I was at the hotel in Boone, NC where I would finally meet for the first time the 8 other members of the runningjustasfastaswecan team (RJAFAWC). In run order: Kelsey, Kelli, Melissa, Doug, Me, Angie, Dan, Carrie, and Meghan. We actually had two teams entered in the race. RJAFAWC Team 2 members were: Matt, Brian, Mark, Tristan, Ryan, Karen, Ben, Devin, and Mike. Friday morning we loaded up the vans and drove to the start at Grayson Highlands State Park in Virginia. Both our teams were starting at the same time 9:30am. The race would pass back through Boone later in the evening.
The weather was absolutely gorgeous. We could not have asked for better weather, sunny but not too warm and not too humid.
The race consisted of 36 legs. I was runner #5 so I would run legs 5, 14, 23, and 32. After nearly 3 hours riding around in the van it was finally my turn to pound some pavement. Leg 5 was moderate 5.2 miles. My projected time was 37:42 The start was down hill so I took the bracelet from Doug and sped off at a pretty fast pace. After about a mile the course starts going up and is mostly up hill to the finish. The grade wasn’t too severe though except for about a quarter mile at the 3.5 mile mark. I never really knew where I was on the course. The miles are not marked. Actually while running through a small town I was off course. I missed a turn and ran up a parallel street for a block or two. It didn’t shorten or lengthen the course any. When I hit the top of that last steep part I knew I only had about a mile to go. I knew I had been running pretty fast, but didn’t know for sure until the finish. 34:18, so I’m guessing the leg wasn’t quite 5.2 miles. I am capable of running 5.2 at that pace, but not so sure I did on this date. Either way I beat my projected time so it was a pretty good start for me.
By now it was dark. On passing back through Boone we stopped at Chik-Fil-A where I bought two chicken sandwiches. I ate one (about an hour before my run) and saved the other for after this leg which was 10 miles, 866 feet of ascent and 177 ft of descent. Not the hardest climb I’ve ever done, but definitely no walk in the park. Projected time 1:15:00. The steepest part of the course was in the first two miles. I was pounding along pretty steady and starting to feel that chicken sandwich trying to fly back out. That bird didn’t fly but I won’t make that mistake again. Once the road leveled off a little I just kept plugging away, trying to increase my leg turnover. A few miles into the race I started seeing the mile markings for the Grandfather Mountain Marathon. This gave me a pretty good idea where I was on the course and I knew for sure each time I had clicked off a mile. At one point the team van passed me and someone yelled out yeah Jeff, your kicking Grandpa’s a$$. That inspired me to keep pushing hard and it also started a conversation in my head about how I would post that on facebook. The conversation with myself kept my mind off the fact that my legs were really starting to burn. With about two mile to go the course again became a little steeper and now the tables were turned. Grandpa was now kicking my a$$. Finally I saw a sign with my favorite two words “exchange zone”. Time 1:17:50, about 3 minutes off projected time. Not too shabby. And a cold Chik-Fil-A sandwich never tasted so good.
This leg kicked off sometime around 2:30am. A couple steep down hills followed by a steady up hill climb for the last 3 miles. My projected time 42:00. The first half mile was relatively flat on a paved road. Then there was about 1.5 miles of gravel followed by a steep paved down hill for a half mile or so. Running on the gravel in the dark was called for intense focus on the surface to keep ankle twisting to a minimum. The full moon at times helped a little and each time a van would pass me from behind I could see very well. The steady climb took its toll on me and for the last mile or so my legs were feeling like jello. Just keep the jello jiggling up the hill. The road at this point was straight so I could see the exchange zone up ahead. No time for crying, just keep pushing, almost finished. Time 44:20, just a little off projected. I gave it my best shot and I was pleased with my effort.
It’s 10:20am Saturday and by now I’m just plain tickled at the fact I’m still able to get in and out of the van unassisted. Also I’m glad I to be running down this mountain rather than up. 9.4 miles down all the way to the finish. Steep down in the first 5 or 6 miles. Total descent 2093 feet. My projected time 1:10:30. I knew that after the pounding my quads would take in the first 5 or 6 miles that the relatively level last 3 miles would be torture regardless of how fast or slow I ran the first part. So I ran the first part as fast as my legs would allow. I’m
guessing in some of the steeper spots I was hitting close to 6 minute miles. Oh, did I mention this was a gravel road? Yeah so in my state of sleep deprivation I intense focus on the surface was difficult at best and to make matters worse the cool morning air was making my eyes water. So in other words I was practically falling down a mountain with my eyes closed. About six miles into the run the road is paved and levels off a little. My legs are screaming by now but I’m trying to drown out their screams by singing the song “Put In Me”. I passed two or three runners in the steep gravel section. Now on this more straight, more level paved section I can see another runner up ahead. I’m gaining on her. I now use the thought of passing this runner to take my mind off the pain. It works, one more road kill. I’m now very close to the finish. I was told there would be a nice creek with cold water where I could soak my aching feet. Ahhhh, the exchange zone, the creek, happy feet. I am finished, time 1:05:24. Good fulfilling effort.
As I write this it has now been five days since the race and I think I’m still experiencing the runner’s high. I can’t tell you when I’ve ever had more fun pushing myself this hard. I think there are at least a couple factors that inspired me to push myself to the limit. One is the support, encouragement, and example of the other members of the team. Everyone on the team always seemed to be giving 110% when they were running and when they weren’t running they were shouting encouragement to those who were running and not just to runners on our team but runners on every team. Finally and probably most inspiring was an email I received after my first leg from my friend Kim. In the email she wrote out a prayer for me. I re-read that prayer again before my third and fourth legs. That prayer really touched my heart and inspired me to push myself as far as I could.
Father, protect Jeff as he starts this day of dedication to what he has trained so hard to do. Be with him and give him the strength and endurance he will need to complete his goal. God, I pray that you will fill Jeff with your presence and that this physical journey is a time of worship for the two of you. Father, I pray that your surrounding beauty will envelop Jeff and he will be reminded and be in awe of how great You are. In your Son Jesus’ precious name, Amen
God did give me strength, I felt His presence, it was a time of worship, it was beautiful and I am totally in awe of how great God is, amen!