It was gorgeous out today. Hard to believe that just a week ago I was running in a blizzard resulting in a foot of snow. The snow has all melted and it appears that maybe Spring has finally arrived. Well, hold that thought, we have a chance for flurries tomorrow. Seriously?!
Well, today I took advantage of the beautiful day. I went for trail run and muddied up a brand new pair of New Balance 1010s. It was awesome. Pretty much the whole time I was running I was thinking about one of my upcoming races. The Smoky Mountain Relay is less than 3 weeks away and I could not be more excited. As I ran some tough hills today, it was the thought of repeating Leg 19 in a few weeks that pushed me up those inclines.
The SMR is a 215 mile relay through the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina. It’s typically a 6 or 12 person team, last year we were 9. I got pulled on to the team by Jordan and his wife Jan, who both worked at FLEET FEET. Jordan was looking for more people to add to the team at the same time I was looking to try something totally different with running. I figured, this is something I want to try, it sounds really cool, so sure, why not? One and done, right? Wrong.
As we got closer to the race, I had a chance to meet the other St. Louis based team members. We skyped with the guys we had picked up from the race website to join our team. We totally scored picking up 2 guys from Utah, who are not only awesome people and amazing athletes, but Mark owns a house near the finish where we all stayed. And will again, even though Mark won’t be with us this time due to the impending arrival of his third child. Not all of my teammates have their priorities in order since they have not planned these things around SMR, but I guess we’ll forgive it since he lets us use his house.
Ken and Jordan started putting together a rough draft of leg assignments. The nice thing about SMR is that you don’t have to stay in any particular order, you can jump around in the line-up however it suits you. The first draft came out and I started scanning it. My first leg: 4 miles, easy. Second leg, same. What is this?! Just cause I’m a girl they are going to give me only easy legs. This is stupid. And then I saw it. The only leg labeled “Very Hard” was given to yours truly. Sweet! Well, I said I like to run uphill, so they let me have it. 5.5 miles up a 2500 foot incline on gravel about halfway through the race which puts us somewhere in the middle of the night. I was pretty stoked that my team had entrusted me with this leg of the race.
Each team starts according to ability and projected time based on 10k time trials for each team member. When I did my 10k last year to see what I was capable of, it was the first time I’ve ever broken 50 minutes. And that was just me, out on the road, getting it done. Put me in a race setting and I’m capable of even more. I’ve since had the chance to prove it. In October, I crushed that when I finished in 48:30, taking home a 2nd place age group award at the Gumbo Flats 10k.
But anyway, we were one of the last teams to start because we were expected to be pretty fast. At the start line, there were some announcements. One of them was this-Leg 19 had been declared one of the hardest legs in any overnight relay in the country, so we were given the choice to opt out of it. My team started looking around, who has Leg 19? I said, “I do. That’s my leg. And I’m doing it. We came to do this and we’re not opting out of anything!”
And so we began the race. Jan started us off and ran a loop through the park, and then Matt continued our trek into the mountains. Some legs were on the road, some were on trails. Some were flat to easy rolling hills, some were intense uphill all the way, some were steep downhills.
I did my first leg, about 4 miles on the road. Other than a couple dogs chasing me, it was no sweat. On the way to my second leg, Craig had to drive like a maniac because of the potential for the van route to take longer than the runner getting to the exchange point. It lived up to its potential. Despite Craig’s driving, and me almost falling out of the van pantless, Mark still beat us. And he kept on running. So when we caught up to him, he said, “Can I please finish this leg? I feel really good”. I jumped back in the van, feeling totally dejected and announced, “I’m stealing Jan’s leg.” So, literally, I took the following leg from Jan. There is nothing worse than having your adrenaline all amped up and then being told to chill. That leg was a fairly easy 4 miler, except that it was dusk and by the end of that leg it was so dark I almost fell into the abyss because I couldn’t see anything.
Finally, at something like 2am, it was my turn to really get after it. Leg 19. Here we go. That leg was a beast. Aside from the fact that it was pitch black and I could see nothing farther than the 5-10 feet in front of me, thanks to my headlamp, it was very much a never ending hill, or so it seemed. I kept thinking about Jordan’s words, “It doesn’t matter how slow you go, just don’t stop.” At only one point did I get about a 10 step break from going uphill, a very brief plateau and then back up. My teammates had asked what I needed in terms of support. I said, wait for me at about 2 miles up and we’ll go from there. They waited. When I got there, Ken gave me Gatorade and some encouragement. I don’t know if it was my ego or being delirious, but I remember talking smack, saying “This is nothin. I own this mountain.” They went up a couple more miles, and waited again at a weird turn. When I saw them again, I was no longer talking smack. I was no longer talking. I was barely breathing. Then they said, “See you at the top” and they were gone. I finally got to the sign that said I only had a half mile to go. Yessss! But according to my Garmin, I still had about a mile and a half. Hmmm…that’s weird. Turns out some kids had moved the sign down the mountain in an effort to be funny. Not. Cool. I kept climbing, slowly, so slowly. At one point I wanted to see how dark it really was, so I covered my head lamp for a sec, uh, yeah, it was total blackness. I was having a mental battle with myself, “I want to walk. No I don’t. Yes I do. No I don’t”. Then the mist started and it got so foggy, I could barely see my hand in front of my face. And just as it seemed I would NEVER get there, I could hear Nate O cheering me on and he slowly came into view. Oh thank you sweet Jesus, I made it!
On April 18, a carload of us will make the roadtrip to NC. And some time during the wee hours of April 20, I will have another go at Leg 19. I am determined to do it even better and stronger than last year. Because I am better and stronger than I was last year. You may not know this about me, but I’m not typically one to back down from a challenge. Leg 19, I’m coming for you. Again.