Archived Outdoors

24 hours of running

By Michael Beadle

At first it seemed like madness.

Why else would anyone freely submit to running 15 to 25 miles up and down steep mountain roads and trails over a 24-hour period?

Little did I know what I was getting into when some fellow runners approached me at a 5K race and asked if I wanted to sign up for the Blue Ridge Relay, one of the longest-running races of its kind in the country.

The course spans 208 miles beginning at Grayson Highlands State Park near the base of Mount Rogers (5,729 feet) — the highest peak in Virginia — and makes its way along the Blue Ridge and Black Mountains of Virginia and North Carolina before finishing up in downtown Asheville. Checking out the map of the race on the Web site, I was intrigued and intimidated by the crazy climbs, the inclines that looked like stock market projections for Microsoft sales in the 1990s. Up, up and up.

Teams from all over the Southeast converge each year for this test of will up hills that turn hard muscle to jelly and leave you breathless as you stride along scenic rivers and majestic mountain overlooks. Generally, teams consist of 12 runners. Each runner has three legs to run, so you can rest anywhere from six to nine hours between legs depending on how fast your teammates are. I was given “medium,” “moderate” and “hard” runs of 5.2, 4.9, and 7.5 miles ranging from running times in the middle of the day to night time to early morning.

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Looking over the legs, some runs looked easy — a 1.9 mile trot mostly downhill — while others appeared beyond comprehension — a 6.5-miler so steep an incline it was labeled “mountain goat hard.” The elevation rose an amazing 1,400 feet! The average runner puts in about 16 miles total for three legs — give or take a few map irregularities (and we would learn the map was not always accurate).

Unapologetically, I begged our team leaders, Jennifer and Scot Worley, to keep me out of those seemingly impossible runs.

While we weren’t running competitively for a specific time, we did have some measure of pride, hoping we wouldn’t collapse before it was over or get lost along the way.

The Worleys eased our minds about the logistics involved in the race — how we would get picked up and dropped off along the race, how we would take turns driving the shuttle vans, how we would gather food, drinks and supplies for this overnight adventure. The Worleys’ organization paid off incredibly — right down to the headlamps and flashlights for night running and laminated directions for each leg of the race.

All packed up, we met at the Olive Garden in Asheville for one final carb-loading dinner before the race, the last regular meal we would have for two days. Our team T-shirts officially declared ourselves to be the “Haywood Harriers.” Our crew included various ages and occupations. An engineer, home-schooled students, a teacher, a mortician, a nurse, married couples, singles. Some had run marathons or triathlons. One had run ultra-marathons. Some savored shorter races like 5Ks. Some were regular fitness junkies. Some had taken up running as a new hobby or an avid challenge.

Morning came early. Our team would split up with six runners per van — one of all males and one mostly females. As luck would have it, I wound up being the token male in the van full of ladies — four of whom were named Jenny or Jennifer.

At 6 a.m., we took off from the hotel and headed for the starting line. Our van would handle the first six legs of the race, leaving the rest of the crew to sleep in and enjoy pancakes for breakfast. Having already estimated our times for each leg based on our running paces, the guys’ van wouldn’t have to meet up with us until noon. However, my van of runners would be finished with all of our race legs first, leaving us time to enjoy our pancakes and rest at the end.

In the fog-shrouded mountains of western Virginia, we found the starting line in a visitor’s center parking lot. Three dozen teams would be competing in all, and based on each team’s estimated times — the slowest teams starting first and the fastest teams starting last — each team would ideally finish about the same time. We started with several other teams.

Each team would be given a Velcro wristband with an embedded timing chip. Teammates pass along this wrist band as the symbolic relay baton.

The first leg was a mostly flat four miles. Our first runner, Jennifer Jacobson, swiftly finished her run eight minutes faster than the time we had estimated. We were off to a great start.

By mid-morning, we had driven 20-plus miles through rolling forests, past Christmas tree farms, through small towns, with stops along the way to make sure our runner was safe and taking the right turns past Blue Ridge Relay signs. In some cases, there were no turn signs. In other cases (as with my first leg), the course took a half dozen turns. Luckily, I had a great team cheering and steering me in the right direction.

With each new leg, we were flushed, ready for a cold bottle of Gatorade and a welcome audience to share another first-hand account of a tough run. We’d meet other teams and support vehicles tagging along with shoe polish spelling out mantras and puns in their windows. There were teams with wacky names like Asheville’s “Norm’s Maggots” (this year’s team winner) and Murphy’s Law (from Murphy, N.C.). Some teams settled on the obvious — “12 Runners Running.” Some teams didn’t have the recommended dozen and had to double up on the number of legs. One man chose to run the whole course on his own.

Along the route, we encountered runners we would see again and again. One earned the moniker “Steve” since he held a resemblance to legendary runner Steve Prefontaine. The ladies in my van dubbed another runner with a muscular physique “White Meat.” There were plenty of other nicknames. We also spotted wild ponies, deer, barking dogs, and possum roadkill.

By our second leg, we could feel the strain of miles in our bodies. Pavement and gravel, sidewalk and bridge, grass and gutter. We ran over it all. And there was no shortage of hills. Ultramarathoner Jennier Ennis got her first taste of an evil hill during her first leg. I marveled at how Jennifer Worley somehow made it through 10 grueling miles up to Grandfather Mountain.

Roads curved and dipped into dusk and dark. As day waned, we sang along to ‘80s hits, dozed in and out of consciousness, and laughed over weary attempts at conversation.

By 9:30 p.m., I found myself running alone with a flashlight up a hill that refused to end. With no sign of another runner or team van, I started to panic. My main fear was that I had missed a turn and wouldn’t be found until hours later. Just when I thought the road could climb no higher, my prayers were answered: downhill and into civilization.

The only danger was from oncoming traffic. Bright beams could temporarily blind a runner. Sharp turns concealed the unexpected car veering out of its lane. Gladly, none of us got lost, injured or hit by a car. We would meet up in exchange zone parking lots to check in with our other van of teammates, take bathroom breaks, and make cell phone calls if there happened to be a signal.

Deep into the night for our final leg, we found brief rest at a campsite, took hot showers, chomped down a quick snack, and sprawled out in sleeping bags for an hour-long nap.

Then we were off again. Our van’s first runner, Jennifer Jacobson, started at 3 a.m. While race rules forbid vehicles to follow close behind runners, we felt it was a rule we had to forego in the interest of safety. In the pitch black along a winding, gravel trail with few if any houses, our runners chugged along with our doting van lighting the way behind or pausing a quarter mile ahead.

By the time I made it to my last run, it was early dawn. According to the map, this 7.5-miler would include a few rolling hills and then go mostly downhill and flat along the picturesque Cane River. I passed another runner going uphill into Burnsville, a ghostly town bathed in fog. Running through the town’s central roundabout, I eased out a smile, knowing I was through the worst of it. I wouldn’t see another runner for miles. Mostly downhill from here.

And it was. But even the flat, curvy roads were aching. I felt like I’d entered a dream. The hush of rushing water entered the cadence of my breath. Thoughts come and go with a runner. I tried to concentrate on a mantra, but all I kept sensing was the voice of pain, the cloud of doubt, the agony of wondering where the road finally ends. I ran through it all, stopping briefly for a bottle of water left on the side of the road a few miles from the exchange zone. A few times, I broke down and walked.

This journey was no longer a matter of miles or minutes or what you thought important in that world far from these quiet roads. When I made it to the parking lot for the relay exchange, I felt like I had pushed myself farther than ever before.

Some six hours later in Asheville, our last runner, Jeff Tomkinson, made his way to the Home Trust Bank finish line. With teammates cheering and clapping and photographing, we ran with Jeff over the last 20 meters to the finish line, our calves cramped, our limbs limp. This was a victory we could all savor with equal pride. Relieved and exhausted, we were all due a good, long rest.

Until next year.

I’ll be training.

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