MIKE'S BIG RACE!
"Where is he? He should have been here by now?" I said at 3:30 a.m. as I sat in the bucket seat of a seven-passenger van stuffed with spare running shoes, snack food, five guys and a pallet of waters. I was waiting to get the hand-off to run my second leg of the Smoky Mountain Relay, a 36 leg race covering 206 miles of trails and roads in the mountains of North Carolina. My teammate was over an hour late, it was as dark as Zig Zibit Black, and about 40 degrees at that elevation. The leg he was running should have only taken him forty minutes to complete and we had been waiting for an hour and forty minutes. "Should we go look for him?" I said to the four other guys. True panic had filled the limited airspace of that cramped van.
Our next course of action was risky because we could be looking for him for another hour and get lost ourselves on one of the winding mountain roads. After we consulted the weary checkpoint volunteer, who said our runner had been counted as having checked in, we drove on to the next checkpoint. Sure enough, there he was! He was waiting in the warmth of the checkpoint volunteer's car and luckily didn't get eaten by that possum we passed on the side of the road along his race leg. After a short team celebration, we quickly sent our next runner off into the night and drove ahead to the next checkpoint. At this point, our team was dead last and we still had twelve hours remaining in the race. The race began at 8:50 a.m. on Friday and we were anticipating finishing at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday. With the lost runner and another teammate getting hurt we were set back by two and a half hours.
Since our lost runner ran my leg, I picked up a leg for the hurt runner. It was a 4.5-mile stretch starting at 5:00 a..m and my legs were already worn out from descending 3500 feet over 10.9 miles earlier that day. I was wearing my headlamp, a safety vest, winter hat, jacket and running tights as I received the slap bracelet baton from the oncoming runner. As I raced down the mountain I could see my breath in the cold night air and the headlamps of a few other runners on an opposing mountain. I knew I had a chance to catch up to at least one of them. I pushed myself up the two-mile hill as the sunrise was starting to brighten the sky and I was able to pass one very tired runner. After handing off the slap bracelet to the next runner I got a change of clothes and a two-hour nap in the bucket seat in the middle row of the van.
My final leg was a 4.6 mile run with 3.5 miles on a gravel road along the Nantahala River. It was beautiful! The sound of the rushing river and the smell of spring grass kept me going. The last part of this leg was a moderate uphill with a downhill finish. I was glad to make the hand-off and cheer on my teammates running the last few legs. After dropping off our last runner we drove to the finish line. Our team completed the race in 33 hours and we finished in 34th out of 40 teams.
A few takeaways from this race are: One, the mountains of North Carolina are beautiful at all hours of the day and night! Two, when you think you can't go any further you have only pushed yourself 10% of what you can actually do. Three, a cramped van bucket seat is not a very comfortable place to sleep. Four, a hill in the mountains is much steeper than a hill in the North Carolina Piedmont.
This was the most challenging race of strength and endurance I have ever done. I realized that I was ill prepared to face the uphill runs, elevation and even the flat parts of the race course. My friends and I must be gluttons for punishment because we have all committed to doing this race again next year.