Thursday, September 11, 2008

Reliving the Relay

As always, it seems so strange to be back at work, sitting at my desk, with all the usual day to day things going on as they always do. Once again I’ve spent a little over a weekend on an adventure unlike any I’ve been on before, and I find it difficult to focus on the mundane as if I’m not a little changed by what I’ve done.

My adventure started Thursday morning as Jason and I rose early to pick up Eric in Knoxville. The three of us drove to Boone, NC where we spent the night before heading to Grayson Highlands State Park in Virginia on Friday. The drive was gorgeous. I’d never been to that part of the country and so my eyes couldn’t get enough of the scenery as we wove our way through the Carolina mountains.

Arriving at the entrance of the state park, I could hardly contain myself, and Jason and Eric seemed to feel the same. We stopped to take pictures and we laughed as we foresaw how our feelings then would probably change as the relay progressed.

We met our three other teammates and their two drivers, received our t-shirts, took pictures and got ready to cheer for David as he started us off at 9:00.

And then the waiting commenced! I was impatient and starting to get anxious. Not a bad anxious – an excited kind of anxious. But this anxiety I felt, whether good or bad, started to put a stone in my stomach that didn’t go away until I passed Eric the bracelet for the last time.

Finally it was time for Jason to run. I was after him, so Eric and I hopped in the car and headed to Exchange Zone 5 where I would start my 5.15 mile leg. I pinned on my number, found my watch and my sunglasses, tore out the directions for my leg, and walked to the exchange cone to wait on my husband.

Leg 1

He arrived, slapped the bracelet onto my wrist, and my relay began. I ran with all I had, and I was surprised at how hard my first leg was. It was labeled “moderate” but with the steep hills, it didn’t FEEL moderate! I ran through a small town (Jefferson, I think) and the sun beat down on me. I pushed hard anyway and finished my leg in 43:40, giving me an average of 8:28 per mile. I was content.

Leg 2

My second leg was my favorite. Even though it was one of my longer legs, at 6.05 miles, it was mostly along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and I had shade, birdsong, and breathtaking views to accompany me as I ran. Toward the end, I heard footsteps behind me and I raced these footsteps until the end when they overtook me on the last hill. I fought hard, though, and finished my second leg in 56:10, giving me an overall pace of 9:17 per mile.

After this leg, the wait was a bit longer before we would run again. The other three members of our team had longer legs this time, one of which was a 10 mile run up Grandfather Mountain. I tried to eat in order to sustain the energy I’d need to keep running my legs…but all I could handle were salty baked lays and a few Danish wedding cookies.

Leg 3

When it was time for me to run again, it was dark. I put on my head lamp, a flashing light on the front and back of my shorts, and a reflective vest. When Jason ran up to the exchange zone, he handed me the bracelet, but did not stop as we took off on a 4.9 mile leg in the dark.

I have never in my life experienced such darkness before. It was pitch. Blacker than pitch. All I could see was a little circle of light at my feet where my head lamp shown for me. I hated it. We climbed and climbed, and I couldn’t see where the hill was going to end. I started to get stitches in my side and even though I took deep breaths, I could not get them to subside. This became a problem when the uphill turned downward and I could hardly take a breath. I didn’t want to put on the breaks, but I couldn’t get the oxygen I needed to run at that down hill speed.

Eventually we reached the exchange zone and I happily gave Eric the bracelet. I completed this 4.9 mile leg in 48:10, giving me an average pace of 9:49 per mile.

After Eric finished, we were all weary and ready for sleep. I caught some in the backseat, but awoke several times cold, damp, salty and sticky. It was uncomfortable and only going to get worse as I ran two more times before I could do anything about it. I tried not to wake Eric and Jason as I stepped out of our vehicle and made my way to the port-a-potties.

Leg 4 

Around 3:00 a.m. I did my 4th overall leg, my second in the dark. Eric had agreed to accompany me this time, and so when Jason ran up with the bracelet, Eric and I took off on my 5.6 mile leg. It wasn’t as bad this time because I knew what to expect from the darkness. Eric’s hand lamp was MUCH brighter than mine and better at lighting the way. We ran on gravel for a while before reaching a smoothly paved road. I tried to run hard, but I could feel my body slowing down, asking for rest that it couldn’t have. We finished in 58:16, giving us an overall pace of 10:24 per mile.

Eric took the bracelet and kept running, while Jason helped me change into dry clothes. The rest this time was much better, and even though exhaustion was setting in, I didn’t mind the next leg so much because it was going to be light when I started. For that I was SO very grateful.

Leg 5

My 5th leg was one of my hardest as well. It was long and winding, but not too hilly. It was supposed to be 7 miles, but ended up being 7.5. I ran through an empty down town area and eventually followed the road out of town and back into the mountains. I ran along a babbling river and that was pretty much my only company. With every bend in the road I looked for the bright yellow Exchange Zone sign, but never saw one. Finally I saw a line of cars, and I wanted to cheer. A girl stepped out and gave me a high five as I ran to gratefully pass the bracelet to Eric. I finished this 7.5 mile let in an hour and 24 minutes, giving me a pace of 11:16 per mile.

I had absolutely NO energy by this point. My legs were so weak and I could barely take off my wet clothes for my last pair of dry ones. Once again Jason helped me change and followed that with strict instructions that I must eat.

I was already starting to feel triumphant by this point. I was weary beyond belief, but I knew I only had one more leg. It was labeled “hard” and I believed it, but as I sat in the car alone holding a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in my lap and looking at the biggest willow tree I’d ever seen, I didn’t care. I knew I’d do it. I knew I’d run whatever was set before me. It was to be a 4.5 mile leg and I knew I could do that distance.

Leg 6

Eventually my turn came to conquer that distance. It began with a steep two-mile climb, a sharp downhill and then it leveled out. The climb was unbelievable. There were actually switchbacks that were so steep, I could walk up them faster than I could run. I knew this two-mile stretch had to end and I prayed that it would hurry. Eventually I reached the down hill portion, which leveled out showing me gorgeous views of the blue ridge mountains.

When I saw Jason, I grinned from ear to ear and threw my hands in the air! He cheered for me with tears in his eyes and I handed Eric the bracelet for the very last time, saying, “Take it! I don’t want it anymore!” I completed my very last stretch in 52:25, giving me an overall pace of 11:38 per mile.

Eric finished strong giving us a relay time of 29 hours and 48 minutes. We were thrilled with what we’d done and ended up placing 4th amid the other ultra relay teams.

I have personally never been more ready to have a shower and to eat a decent meal. I smelled horrible. I was sticky and grainy from the sweat and the salt, not to mention covered in whatever invisible germs reside in the countless portable potties I visited throughout the relay. We got to our hotel room and I bee-lined for the shower. We had a little time before we were to go back over to the finish line for the awards ceremony and after getting clean, Jason and I fell asleep, almost missing the ceremony altogether.

At the ceremony I could hardly stand. I was so tired and so weak and so hungry, it was all I could think about. Jason talked the race director into giving me a pair of socks since it was our anniversary and tradition…and the race director did! It is too bad they weren’t giving away flip flops because I left mine at one of the exchange zones and my feet were missing them sorely.

SO, that brings me to now - the week of the ordinary where great feats are left behind for the desk and the computer. I have no doubt that we will attempt something like this again sometime, some where. It was an amazing race and an amazing adventure, and I shall live on my memories of it for quite a while.

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