Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The mother of all recaps: The Blue Ridge Relay 2011

By Dave Munger

The first, but hopefully not the last, DART relay event is over. 10 of us — 7 longstanding DARTers and 3 new initiates — agreed to join forces to conquer the formidable Blue Ridge Relay, a 208-mile course that takes 24 to 36 hours to complete. The race has 36 legs, starting nearly a mile above sea level in Grayson Highlands State Park in Virginia and winding through beautiful, mountainous backroads to Asheville, NC.

Our team rented two passenger vans to transport the runners and met up in Davidson at 7:15 Friday morning, packing up loads of gear and heading northward. Van 1 (The Brown Bomber) would carry runners 1-5: Kurt Graves, Dave Moore, Stephanie Sawyer, Chris Brown, and Dave Fischli. Van 2, (The Silver Bullet) carried me, Chad Randolph, Rodney Graham, Marc Hirschfield, and Mark Ippolito. On a standard 12-member team, each runner completes three roughly 10K-length legs, a total of about 17 miles. Since we had just 10 members, six of us — all of Van 1 plus myself — would complete four legs, and the distance each runner ran over the course of the event ranged from 16 to 30.4 miles.

Only one van is "active" at a time -- all of Van 1's runners run their legs, and then Van 2 takes over and the Van 1 runners get a break. Unfortunately the breaks last only about three or four hours, part of which is needed to drive to the next transition zone, so there wasn't much opportunity to rest up before a van needed to get started again. Fortunately, at some point adrenaline kicks in; I rarely felt sleepy during the almost 28 hours we were on the course, despite getting less than an hour and a half of sleep.

After a quick pit stop at Starbucks, we beelined to Grayson Highlands and parked at the summit. The first order of business was to decorate the vans, and a look at our competition showed we were woefully underprepared in that department. We had a few window-painting pens, but others had decorated with inflatable animals, movie posters, and kitschy TV-inspired themes. My favorite was "team Rerun," from the 1970s show "What's Happening." They even had red berets and suspenders for every team member. We did rock some awesome team T-shirts, though, as evidenced by our team photo at the start:

Marc H, Dave Munger, Mark I, Rodney, Stephanie, Chad, Dave F, Chris, Dave Moore, and Kurt are ready to roll
Kurt would be handling the first leg, a 1,000-vertical-foot descent four miles to the entrance of the park. He took off at 11 a.m. with six other runners, at a blistering pace:

Kurt would soon leave nearly all these runners in the dust
Kurt absolutely demolished the leg, running down the mountain at a 5:39 pace to finish his leg in 21:54. My van, the Silver Bullet, maintained intermittent contact with the Brown Bomber via text message, but now we needed to head straight for Exchange Zone 5, where I would be running in about 4 hours. While Dave Moore's Leg 2 headed another 1,276 vertical feet down a gravel road.

We followed the Brown Bomber for a couple miles on this route before turning off; this photo gives you some idea of the terrain we were running and driving on: 

The Brown Bomber (at right) heads down while a lost runner's van makes its way up the hill
Meanwhile, Dave Moore, nearly made a costly mistake. He missed the turn from the highway onto this gravel road, but fortunately a runner who was behind him saw him and yelled at him to turn around; he had run perhaps an extra 800 meters and was able to quickly get back on course. Despite the mishap, Dave burned it up on his leg, running 7.5 hard miles in a 7:33 pace, including the extra time for the wrong turn.

While the crew of the Silver Bullet enjoyed lunch in West Jefferson, Stephanie was out running the first major uphills of the race, a 5.2-mile leg that included 400 feet of climbing. She finished in 40:11 for a 7:44 pace, keeping us ahead of schedule for the race.

Next Chris took the bracelet and cranked out 6.9 tough miles, including 643 feet of climbing, in 49:24 — a 7:10 pace.

As the Silver Bullet anxiously awaited the Brown Bomber's arrival, Dave F took off on Leg 5, a 5.2-miler with 344 feet of climbing. Dave had told me before the race that he could probably only manage an 8-minute pace in a 10K race, despite having run the entire Thunder Road marathon under that pace last fall. He said he was recovering from an injury, so he probably wouldn't be very fast. I was a little skeptical that he'd be that slow, but as team captain, I thought it was important to take the runners at their word; they knew their bodies better than I did, right?

I had crafted a detailed projection of our team pace, taking into account the terrain, the runners' abilities, and the wear and tear of a long race. So far I had been quite accurate; on each of legs 1 through 4 my estimate was within a minute of the runner's actual time. So I felt fairly confident that Dave would arrive something like 43 minutes after he started his leg, around 2:30 p.m. I took my time warming up, with an easy 3/4 mile jog up the start of my leg and back, arriving near the starting area about 10 minutes before I expected Dave to arrive. The Brown Bomber was there, and everyone was looking out for Dave, but I was probably 20 yards from the official exchange zone.

Suddenly Stephanie shouted "THERE HE IS!"

Could it really be? He was 6 minutes early! I ran over to the exchange zone and grabbed the bracelet from Dave, who had been standing there for several seconds. Then I started sprinting up the hill. Dave had actually finished his leg in 37:05, 6:35 faster than my projection. Finally I looked down at my Garmin and realized I was taking this hill at a 6:30 pace. My leg was a hard 5.2-miler, with 722 feet of climbing spread across two steep hills. I slowed to an 8-minute pace. My goal for the leg was a 7:31 pace, and I figured I'd do the uphill sections at an 8-minute pace and the downhills at a 7:00 pace.

In moments I heard footsteps behind me. Was this how it was going to be, getting passed on my first leg? As the runner passed me, he said "Are we having fun yet?"

"Not yet," I replied. "I'm saving it for the second hill." I had studied the profile of the course and I knew that, while Mile 1 was a tough uphill section, I needed to save something for the 450-foot climb from Mile 2.5 to Mile 4.5. But as we ran along, I noticed that the other guy wasn't really gaining ground on me. He was about 50 feet ahead of me, and the gap seemed to be decreasing rather than increasing. In another minute or so, I was passing him back. I tried to stay calm and confident all the way to the top of the hill. I finished the hill, and Mile 1, in 8:08, a 350-foot climb. Then it was downhill on a gravel road, and I just tried to let my legs carry me as fast as I could. I passed a runner on this section, my first "road kill." Mile 2, a 450-foot descent, was done in just 6:38. Mile 3, half down and half up, was 7:43. Then the big hill started. I was laboring for breath as the hill just kept coming. Would I need to stop and walk? I tried to focus on good posture and good breathing, and I finished Mile 4, with its 212 feet of climbing, in 8:18. Then it got steeper. Breathing got heavier, and I wondered if there was any point to running. I knew that the grade would get as steep as 8 percent. Was it worth it to walk? Finally I gave in and walked for 30 seconds. I started running again, and almost immediately was laboring for breath. I promised myself I'd run for 3 minutes and then walk. I looked down at my watch and saw that only 90 seconds had passed. 

Holy sh-- this was hard. 

Finally I caved and walked again, this time for 60 seconds. Then I started running, even though the hill was just as steep. Suddenly I was at the top of the hill. Now I was cursing myself for walking so long. I picked up the pace. My legs felt like rubber, but I didn't let that slow me down. I kept building up speed as the hill got steeper. Only a half-mile left. I saw the "exchange zone" sign, usually around a quarter-mile from the finish, and tried to run even faster. Finally I saw Chad waiting for me, and Marc, Mark, and Rodney cheering me on. I strode hard to the finish and handed off to Chad. Marc got a nice picture of me in full stride:

I didn't even notice that van behind me...
I finished the leg in 7:36, a little slower than my projected pace of 7:31, but within 22 seconds, so overall I was pleased. But after that effort I started to wonder whether I'd have anything left for the next leg.

Meanwhile Chad was off and running on his first leg, the 7th leg of the race. His 5.4 mile leg was a little less hilly than mine, with 367 feet of climbing and 594 of descending, so I had projected a 7:10 pace for him. We drove past him hooting and hollering and waited for him at the next exchange zone. Here he is arriving:

Nice tan!
He completed the leg in 40:49, a 7:34, and was a little disappointed because he had lost 2 minutes to our projected time. We assured him it wasn't a big deal but he vowed to do better on his next leg.

Next up was Rodney, who had an "easy" 4.6-mile leg with 148 feet of climbing and 361 feet of descent. But as Kurt aptly pointed out on numerous occasions, no leg is really easy because you're going all out, every time. I projected a 7:17 pace for Rodney, and he finished in 33:29, a 7:26 pace. We were still within a couple minutes of our overall projected time. Not bad!

Next was Marc. He was feeling rather unsure of himself because he hasn't had a great running year; he was injured in the Disneyworld Marathon in January and still hasn't regained his form. He felt he was the slowest runner on the team and was letting us down. We told him that what mattered to us was just that he give it his best effort. His first leg was a 5.2 miler, and I had projected a 10:00 pace for him. He ended up doing an 11:21 pace, and was feeling very down at the end of the leg. I told him that the pace doesn't matter and that he had given it a solid effort. But secretly I thought he could do better. We were now about 8 minutes behind our projected pace.

Mark Ippolito next took the bracelet for the first "Very Hard" leg, a 7.9-miler with a lot of gravel roads and 663 vertical feet of climbing, including a 400-foot hill in Mile 3 and 4. He came in at 65:26, a 7:59 pace, within 3 seconds of his projected time!

He handed off to Kurt and the Brown Bomber crew, and as we were packing up, we saw the Charlotte Running Club / Try Sports team pull in to the lot. Despite the fact that they had started two and a half hours behind us, they had nearly caught up! Paul Mainwaring, one of Charlotte's best runners and a great runblogger, hopped out of the van and immediately recognized me, despite the fact that we only know each other because of our blogs. He told us that CRC was about 3 minutes ahead of their rivals, the Asheville Running Collective. This was going to be some race for first place — both teams were trying not only for the win, but also the course record. After a few minutes, Paul went back to chat with his teammates, and the Asheville van pulled up. 

One of the Asheville guys promptly introduced himself and told me they were only behind because one teammate had eaten too much candy and gotten sick during his leg. He was confident they would be able to make up some ground on this leg. We decided to wait and watch the exchanges of the top two teams in the race. We were not disappointed. In about 10 minutes, the CRC runner blazed into the exchange zone and handed off to the next runner, who took off at an inconceivable speed. Not long after, the Asheville runner came flying in, and his teammate took off even faster. These teams were breathing down each other's necks, going absolutely all-out.

After all the excitement, we were ready to eat, and hit up Mellow Mushroom in Blowing Rock for some fantastic pizza:

Yum! Too bad we couldn't have beer, too!
Meanwhile, Kurt was taking on a challenging 6.3-mile leg 11, with 518 feet of climbing. He completed it in 44:56, an amazing pace of 7:08, a minute faster than his projected arrival time.

He handed off to Dave Moore, who had an even harder 7.9-mile leg with 663 feet of climbing. Dave finished in 67:00, an 8:29 pace, 1 minute slower than projected.

Dave gave it to Stephanie, who had a hard 7.1 miler with 486 feet of climbing. They were following highway 221 around Grandfather Mountain, and it was now dark. Maybe the darkness slowed Stephanie, or maybe she was holding back a bit, knowing her Leg 33 would be one of the toughest in the race, but she finished in 60:51 for an 8:34 pace, 3 minutes slower than projected.

Stephanie handed to Chris, who was running the notorious 10-mile Grandfather Mountain leg. This leg had the most climbing of any leg yet — 866 feet, and very little downhill relief. He finished in an 8:29 pace, just 8 seconds per mile off of his projected 8:21 pace.

Next up was Dave F. He had a 2.3-mile downhill leg and by now had realized he was in better shape than he had thought. He burned into the town of Linville with a 5:29 pace. He was going so fast he failed to notice that he had actually passed through the exchange zone! Once again, I wasn't expecting him, and he had to run back and give me the bracelet. Still, he had run over 4 minutes faster than his projected pace for this short leg.

Now, at 11 p.m., it was my turn once again. My leg was an "easy" 3.4-miler, with a fairly steep 266-foot hill from Mile 0.5 to Mile 1.5, and downhill to the finish. I decided since the hill spanned two different splits, I'd try to keep every split under 7:30. I kept the pace under 7-minutes for the first half mile, then hit the hill. It was harder than I thought, but I reminded myself that this was a short leg and I'd have downhill soon enough. I finished Mile 1 in 7:27 — just barely under my goal. At the start of Mile 2 I wondered if it would be possible to keep my pace fast enough. I was slower than an 8 minute pace. But then I felt myself going faster. Maybe the hill was flattening out. I couldn't tell if I was going uphill or downhill, but each step seemed a little easier than the previous one. Near the end of the mile it was obvious I was going downhill, and I started to run all-out. My pace for the mile ended up at 7:06. The downhill kept going, and I kept speeding up, completing Mile 3 in 6:41. Now the finish was just .4 miles away. Or was it? I kept running at top speed, but I couldn't see the exchange zone. Thinking about the mishap with Dave, I realized that it might be a good idea for me to yell something as I approached the exchange, so Chad would realize he needed to be ready. Finally I realized that I should be yelling "Chad," and just at that moment the finish line came into view. I yelled, and Chad waved at me. We had made contact. I sprinted in and handed off to him. My final bit was run at a 6:23 pace, and the Garmin clocked my pace for the whole leg at 7:01, so I easily beat my 7:14 projection.

Or had I? My total time for the leg was 24:47, slower than my projected time of 24:34. As it turned out, either my Garmin's mileage of 3.53 was off, or the official race measurement of 3.4 was off, but either way I hadn't quite made my time. And I also didn't have any road kills on the leg. Grrr.

But Chad was on a mission. He wanted to beat his projected time for this leg. Here he is getting ready for his leg:

Runners wore tons of reflective gear — and needed it on dark country roads
This leg was a 4.9 miler with 500 feet of climbing, no easy task. Chad easily beat his projected pace of 7:46 with a 37:14 effort, an average pace of 7:36.

Next up was Rodney, who had a dizzying 1,217 feet of descent in a 5.9-mile leg. To add insult to injury, there was a steep 250-foot climb in Mile 4. Rodney mastered it, matching his projected pace of 7:49 almost exactly, with a 45:54 finish and a 7:47 pace.

It was past midnight, and we'd just completed 18 legs of the 36-leg course. We were halfway done! Rodney handed to Marc, who had a 4.3-miler. Once again, Marc was feeling down, and was concerned about his final leg, his hardest. As we drove past Marc, he said he had seen a couple dogs and was looking spooked. There was little we could do but shout encouragement and head to the next Exchange Zone.

Somehow, throughout all this excitement, Rodney had become the team's champion sleeper. Nearly as soon as he hopped into the van, he was splayed across his bench seat. I don't know how he did it. He slept through our shouts, through bumpy backroads, through almost anything.

As Marc arrived at the exchange zone, he was once again disappointed in his pace, finishing in 48:44, 6 minutes slower than projected, an 11:20 pace.

He handed off to Mark Ippolito, who had another very difficult leg: 7.5 miles, with 673 feet of climbing. The elevation profile of the leg made it look like there was just one significant hill, at the end of the leg, but as we drove along it, we could see that there were really several steep hills, each bigger than the next one. Mile 6 was a solid, steep grind before the route finally descended back to the exchange point. Mark beat his projected time by a minute, but looked horribly spent at the end of his leg. He had run the challenging leg at an 8:07 pace.

Rodney slept through all of this.

Now we had just over two and a half hours to drive to the next transition zone, try to get some sleep, and get ready for my next leg. The transition was at Red Hill Baptist church, and there were tons of people and vans there. We actually had trouble finding a parking spot, but eventually found a space right in front of the sanctuary. I noticed the porch was carpeted, and suggested we sleep there. Marc, Rodney and I decided to get our sleeping bags out, while Chad and Mark stayed in the van. I set my alarm to go off in an hour and a half and tried to get some sleep. Rodney was asleep before I had finished arranging my gear.

Meanwhile, Kurt was running an easy downhill 2.3-mile leg. He whipped through it at an amazing 5:37 pace, two minutes better than projected!

Next Dave Moore had a hard 5.6 miler, and he beat his projection handily as well, running it in 46:07 for an 8:14 pace, two minutes better than predicted. 

Stephanie took the bracelet next for another hard 5.6 miler, again on dark country roads. A few miles in, she saw a coyote, perhaps tracking a deer in the forest. She was completely alone, and soon noticed that the coyote now seemed to be tracking her. She tried to call her van to come and scare the coyote away, but she had no phone coverage. There was nothing to do but just finish the leg, which she did, with the coyote following her for two miles. She completed the leg in a 52:01, showing an impressive bit of resolve until she finally collapsed into the van.

Chris took over for a downhill 3.2-miler. He was projected to run it fast, in a 6:13 pace. He ran quickly but not quite that fast, completing the leg in 22:00 for a 6:53 pace.

Chris handed off to Dave F, who had been destroying his projected times on every leg. This time was no exception, as he ran 4.3 miles over rolling hills in 30:57 for a 7:12 pace.

Meanwhile I had been ahead at transition zone 25 trying to get some sleep. Runners and vans kept arriving and departing, so my sleep was fitful at best. At about 4 a.m. some women had the liveliest, chatteriest conversation I'd ever heard. Hello?!? Do you realize some people are trying to sleep here? Finally at about 4:25 I gave in and got up. I jogged a few warmup laps around the parking lot, attached my blinker lights and reflective vest, and headed down to the exchange zone to wait for Dave. Rodney, naturally, was still asleep.

Our exchange was better, but still not perfect, as Dave ran by me once again and I had to catch up to him and make the exchange. But I got the bracelet quickly enough and dashed off into the darkness. I knew the 4.5-mile route had two hills, one at about Mile 1 and another at Mile 3. But what I couldn't remember is which hill was bigger. After running the downhill first mile at a 7:15 pace (and passing a runner almost immediately), I saw the first hill. I hoped this was the big one; it looked plenty big. I tried to maintain a sub-8-minute pace, and somehow I succeeded, cresting the hill and finishing the mile at a 7:52 pace. The next mile was a solid downhill and I cruised past three more runners, at a 6:44 pace! Finally I hit the second hill. Halfway up, I realized this was the big one. It was much steeper, and full of switchbacks. Looking back at my Garmin record of the leg, it involved 266 feet of climbing before finally cresting and starting downhill. I was slower than a 9-minute pace for portions of the hill, but by the end of the mile I had sped up to an 8:18 average. Just a half-mile to go, and I finished it at a 7:06 pace. This time my Garmin recorded only 4.41 miles, compared the 4.5 mile estimate we got from the race officials, so I had officially made up for my previous leg. According to Garmin, my pace for the entire leg was 7:29, slower than the projection, but I came in at a 7:21 pace if you went by the official race map. Either way, I'll take it. As before, I yelled "Chad" as I approached the exchange zone, and our exchange went off without a hitch.

Chad's next leg was a 9-miler, with a downhill start and a long, gradual uphill finish. It would be the last leg in total darkness, and Chad handled it with ease, finishing in 70:41 for a 7:51 pace, a minute faster overall than his projection. This was Chad's last leg in the race! Just 10 legs to go.

Chad handed off to Rodney, who had a hard 7.4 miler. It was just starting to get light as Rodney started  in a chilly fog, but because it wasn't yet 7:30, the race rules required him to wear a full set of reflective gear and lights. He crushed his projected time by three and a half minutes, finishing in 62:36, for an 8:28 pace.

Rodney passed the bracelet to Marc, who had been having a bad race up until now. This was the leg he had been dreading, a 7.5-miler with several hills. But I knew he could make his projected pace of 11:05 per mile if he just kept a steady 10-minute pace and gave himself a 60 second walk-break every mile. We headed up to exchange zone 29 to wait for him on a gorgeous mountain morning.

Beautiful scenery abounded on our final day
It was an idyllic valley with the sun just cresting over the ridge to the east. We kept checking for Marc, hoping he'd show up at his projected arrival time of 9:22, but prepared for him to be late. Finally, at 9:20, he came around the corner, running determinedly towards the exchange. He handed off to Mark I at 9:21, ahead of his projection! He had done it!

Marc checks his watch after handing off to Mark
Mark finally had an "easy" leg, a 4.4-miler with 203 feet of climbing. 

Chad shouts encouragement to Mark as we drive by
Mark's projected pace was 7:45, and we were expecting him at exchange zone 30 by 9:56. We drove ahead to meet the Brown Bomber for the final major transition. Mark brought it in in 7:32 per mile, at 33:07 for the leg. 

Dave F and Chris wait for Mark
This was everyone's last chance to hang out with the Brown Bomber's crew before the Silver Bullet headed to the finish line in Asheville. I'd be transferring to the Brown Bomber at this point and the six of us would finish the race.

Rodney and Chris wait for Mark
Eventually Mark showed up and handed it to Kurt for the notorious Leg 31, a 6.5-mile, 1,430-foot lung-busting ascent that ended in seemingly endless switchbacks. I had projected Kurt to finish it in 57:30, but all projections are out the window on such a long, steep climb. I hopped in the van and Chris drove us to the top, stopping next to each runner we passed to ask if they were okay or needed anything. The runners looked uniformly exhausted, and "runner" was really an optimistic word at this point because most of the time they were walking. The grade, at 6 percent, wasn't prohibitively steep, but because it was incessant it was nearly impossible to run the whole way.

There was a pack of vans waiting at the top, and everyone yelled encouragement to any runner who made it. Finally we saw Kurt round the final corner and we shouted him home. He had completed the leg in 62:00, faster than most of the others around him but a little slower than projected. The rest of us were just grateful it was him running the leg and not us!

Kurt hands off to Dave Moore
Next Dave Moore had a 2,093-foot descent on a gravel road for a 9.4-mile leg. He took off at a fast pace and never let up, and when we met him at the bottom he had completed it in an average pace of 7:46. He had run over 30 miles, the longest distance of anyone in our group, with a whopping 4,133 feet of descent, nearly double the thigh-pounding of any runner on our team. He said the hardest part of this leg wasn't so much the downhill as the flat stretch on hot pavement for the final three miles.

Dave handed to Stephanie, who had another extremely challenging leg: An 833-foot climb up a 13 percent grade. Then she'd have to run down an equally-steep, switchbacked hill for a mile and a half to the finish. As we drove up, we saw lots of walkers and practically no one running. Frankly, it's nearly impossible and much less efficient to run up a grade that steep. We stopped at the top of the hill to cheer her on, and several runners passed before she arrived. When we told them they were at the top, they could hardly believe us, so we had to repeat it several times: "This is it! It's all downhill from here." It was really something to watch their facial expressions change when they finally realized they'd get to start downhill.

Finally Stephanie arrived, looking amazingly strong for what she had just accomplished:

Kurt had to lie on his belly to get this amazing shot as Stephanie crested the hill
We goaded her on with coyote calls, which seemed a little cruel, but I think she cracked a smile as she started down the hill. We drove down to the finish line so Chris could get ready for his leg. Stephanie arrived, still looking strong, and handed to Chris ahead of her projected time, running this tough leg in 49:40 for a 9:33 pace. She had passed five runners on the hill!

Chris dashed quickly down the hill for his 4.2 mile leg. As it turned out, he started a little too quickly, because the leg ended with a tough 250-foot uphill and he was reduced to walking a couple times. He finished the leg in 32 minutes flat, for a 7:37 pace, about 2 minutes slower than projected.

Next Dave F headed out for yet another extremely difficult leg, with a 951-foot climb up an 11 percent grade over two solid miles. Once again we drove past many "runners" walking up the hill before arriving at the Blue Ridge Parkway for the final 2.2 miles of the leg, where gorgeous views and a downhill finish awaited. Dave called it the most brutal, but also one of the most beautiful runs he had ever done. Once again, Dave was early finishing his leg, by nearly three minutes, for an 8:55 pace, but this time I was ready for him and our final handoff was completed without a hitch.

As captain, I got to assign myself the final 6.7-mile downhill leg into Asheville. But first I'd have to run a mile and a half uphill, over 240 vertical feet. I wanted to take the uphill pretty fast, knowing my lungs, if not my legs, would get a rest on the downhill to come. The hill was a little steeper than I thought it would be, though, so all I could manage was an 8:05 pace for Mile 1. Finally in Mile 2 the hill crested and started heading down, very gradually. I picked up the pace as much as I could, and finished Mile 2 in 7:09. This was downhill running, to be sure, but it wasn't as steep as I remembered from our drive-through last week. Mile 2's elevation loss was 104 feet. Mile 3 started the downhill in earnest, with 191 feet of descent, which I complete in 6:54. Somewhere along here I was surprised to see a runner ahead of me. I hadn't remembered a lot of runners making exchanges before I did at the exchange zone, but I was glad to have a target for passing, and easily got my sixth road kill. Mile 4 didn't seem quite as steep as Mile 3. It even felt like it might have some uphill — was that an illusion? Not according to Garmin, which indicated Mile 4 had 244 feet of downhill but also 53 feet of uphill. I finished it in 7:09. During Mile 5 I spotted another runner in the distance; he seemed to be moving at a faster clip than my previous road kill, but I was definitely gaining on him. I tried to pick up the pace a bit and completed the mile in 7:04. 

Finally at Mile 6 the hill really started getting steep. It was still runnable—about a 10 percent grade— but running it required all-out abandon. Since there were only 1.7 miles to go, I decided to go for it, at last catching and passing the runner I had seen, just as another runner appeared ahead. Road kill #7 congratulated me on my good running, and I told him I thought we'd both pass the next guy. Sure enough, this guy wasn't going nearly as fast and I passed him easily. I finished Mile 6 at an unbelievable (for me) 6:21 pace. That is not just the fastest mile I've run in a race this long, it's the fastest I've completed in any road race, ever. Sure, I was helped by 455 feet of downhill, but it's still amazing to me to be able to run that fast for that long.

Soon I emerged from the beautiful tree-lined residential street I had been running on and into the heart of downtown Asheville. Suddenly I was running on busy city streets. Fortunately, there were plenty of race volunteers to point the way. I knew there was a pernicious bit of uphill before the finish line, but it was actually a bit of a relief not to be running downhill anymore, so I kept a pretty good pace. Before long, I could see Chad holding a team T-shirt for me to change into as I approached the finish line. Even amid all the excitement, Rodney managed to snap a picture of the change as Stephanie watched on:

Need a Port-a-Jon? That will have to wait until later
Shortly after, the entire team joined us, and we raced across the finish line! I had completed the final 0.7 miles in a 7:18 pace, even with the shirt-change. My overall pace for the leg was 7:08, which I think would be a PR for me at the 10K distance. Here's the team photo at the finish line:

Overall, we had finished the race in 27 hours and 58 minutes, for an average pace of 8:03 per mile. We were exhausted but exhilarated and exuberant at what we had accomplished. As the remaining teams crossed the line, I congratulated my Leg 36 road kills, and the second guy I passed actually thanked me for motivating him to run faster. 

We finished in 35th place out of 120 teams, and 3rd among the 5 teams with 10 members like our own. It was an amazing, breathtaking experience. Is it too early to start thinking about next year?

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