Editor’s note: The Blue Ridge Relay is a long-distance endurance race held in the mountains of Virginia and North Carolina. Each year, teams from around the country run this 200+ mile race. The following is one man’s story of his first Blue Ridge Relay experience.
Written By JESSE KALUKA
Disclaimer: I wanted to memorialize this experience somewhere for myself and those close to me that were a part of this in some way, so this is lengthy and I know most won’t be interested in these details, so just an FYI.
42 miles, 4275 ft of elevation climb, 6 hours and 31 min running, and 25 minutes of sleep…and this was just my part of the 208 miles and 28 hours of racing covered by my tenacious team in this incredible race.
This journey truly began in January 2019 when two good friends from my F3 workout group, Denali and Michelob, asked me if I had any interest in the Blue Ridge Relay. I had heard of it before as our collective F3 crew from Cary/Apex had sent teams in the past, but I really didn’t know much about the difference in a 12 man, 9 man, or 6 man team, what the terrain was like, how it worked, etc. Michelob (who is truly an elite ultra runner that has won and/or participated in many well-know national 50 and 100 mile races) had always wanted to put together a 6 man team for the BRR. The team consisted of (F3 nicknames) Denali, Michelob, Chanticleer, Squatter, and Largemouth. These guys that I had been doing the occasional “extra credit” pre-run before a workout with convinced me that I could survive on a team like they were proposing. They were taking a big gamble as they probably knew, but something made me want to try this seemingly unattainable goal, and my supportive wife immediately told me to sign up when I explained it to her. What I soon realized was the actual massive amount of training that would be involved over the next eight months to get myself in a condition to complete the kind of miles that were required. I would consider myself a runner when this started, having run half-marathons, Spartan races and other events, but I was barely getting in 12 – 15 miles per week training at best. I soon began to join this crew on morning runs most days at 4:45 or 5 a.m., followed by our standard F3 boot camp workouts. This easily allowed for 20 to 25 miles per week now, and then slowly built as the summer approached by throwing in 1 to 2 long runs per week…a 10.7 mile loop around Maynard Rd in Cary or a 9 mile loop around Apex Peakway were two of our go-to routes. 25 miles per week then turned into 35 to 40, and the last 6 weeks I was doing 40+ with the occasional 50+ week. I say all this as a testament to how inspiring this group of guys has been to me, and the accountability of our eight month long six-way text thread has an amazing amount of power to get you out of bed at 4:30 a.m. many mornings per week. It’s crazy though, you grow to love it after a while and you feel off if you go for more than a day without a solid run.
So, as September approached, the excitement began to build, our F3 crew was sending two 12 man teams, a 9 man team, and our 6 man team. It was constantly a topic of conversation on our Slack message board where we all converse, and most training over the summer was somehow tied to BRR prep. The week finally comes, we have our van rental secured by Squatter who also has shelving and organization figured out, we have our food situation being taken care of by Denali, and we have general oversight of everything from our captain Michelob. Packing and organization during the race is huge, as you are living in a van with 6 people (and a driver, so 7) for close to two days. You are also preparing to run 6 legs of a race, changing clothes/shoes each time, eating enough to replace 6000 calories per day and staying hydrated, trying to get a few minutes of sleep, and having everything you need for your three night runs in the pitch black dark (headlamps, vests with lights, etc). It takes a lot of focus to know where everything is and to keep your routine. We get our official F3 BRR shirts in the mail, then we get our team Beige Bros (our team name, long story…) shirts designed by Squatter, then Denali and Chanticleer each hook us up with a great pair of running socks. We are set, we meet at my house as the outer bands of a hurricane begin to hit us (mildly), pack things up, and wait for our driver to arrive (Snots). A driver is key to a BRR team, as the van is constantly moving to the next exchange zone (there are 36) and it is not on easy to drive roads – many are mountain roads and half of the driving is done in the dark. Not having to focus on navigating the roads took off so much pressure and allowed us to focus on recovering, changing, getting mentally prepared for the next leg, and figuring out our navigation for the running. A huge thank you to Snots for being a key part of our team during this race.
The Trip – Thursday night
We take off around 5 p.m. headed for West Jefferson, NC near the VA border, as our friend Old Maid has generously offered his cabin to us for the night. The place is great, and it is deep in the woods on a dark dirt road. After a stop at Panera for dinner, we find the cabin and get situated for some sleep. Lights were probably out by 10:30, with a 6 a.m. alarm set. Thinking of driving 3+ hours and then getting out and running seems like it would have been difficult, so I am very thankful to be so close to the start line in the morning.
Day 1 – Friday morning
Everyone is excited to get to the race, we drive 45 min and we are there at the start in Virginia, high in the mountains, getting ready for Largemouth to get things going. We are checked in, we see some familiar faces from our competing F3 Holly Springs 6 man team and other Cary/Apex F3 teams, and we get to the start. It is a weird feeling when something you have been thinking about for 8 months is finally here, and then the race actually starts. Large runs super fast out of the gate, clocking in 5 1/2 min miles down the hill…exciting to watch. We make it to the next exchange zone to wait for him…vans will generally pass their runners on their way to the next leg too, except when they can’t drive on the same route like the Blue Ridge Parkway, etc…Squatter is next, he is pumped up, he warms up and gets to the start for the hand off of the slap bracelet (baton). He starts his leg so we hop in the van to head to the next exchange. Michelob is next so I’m excited to see him in action in his element. I’m going nuts in my head at this point as I’m so amped up to run after Michelob, and I’m nervous as I’ve never run in this race before, have no idea how hard navigating back mountain roads will be, don’t want to let our team down, need to try and pace myself around 8 min instead of our usual sub – 8 min pace….so many thoughts. Then things took a turn that nobody could have predicted…
Squatter is the steady, methodical, constant in our group who always has a plan, is the ultimate pacer who tries to keep the team at reasonable speeds, knows how to prepare for a race, and is a seasoned runner – the guy qualified for the Boston Marathon this year and has run Ironman Triathlons. He has helped me train as much as anyone on the team this year and I have a ton of respect for him. As we wait for Squatter to arrive, we all are surprised he isn’t right on the dot of when we thought to expect him (by the way, we have all 36 legs mapped out of expected times down to the minute based on pace, elevation gain, etc…courtesy of Hotspot’s amazing spreadsheet). A few minutes go by and we start to get a little curious…then a runner comes in and asks who the Beige Bros are…we speak up and he tells us we have a runner that we should check on. Then another runner comes in and explains the situation in detail, and my heart just absolutely sinks. To think that Squatter is dealing with a potential physical issue on his first leg of a race he has been anticipating the entire year makes me feel horrible for him, and I can’t believe he may have to pull himself out of the race. All any of us cared about at that moment was Squatter and figuring out how we could help him. We sent our driver Snots along with the next runner in the lineup Michelob to find him. 20 minutes later, the van comes back, Michelob is not in the van and what we feared the most happened. Squatter had to take himself out of the race which meant he couldn’t run anymore legs of the entire event, which was impossible for me to comprehend what he must have been feeling. To his credit, he completely embraced the situation, kept such a good attitude, and turned into an amazing coach that ran support and motivated us through the remaining 34 legs. He was always at the start of my legs with me, even in the middle of the night with a good thought or a something positive to say. I can’t say enough about how impressed I was with him and I can’t wait to watch him tackle the course next year.
So, now it was time to figure out a plan, fast. Michelob took over for Squatter to finish his leg as required by the rules, which meant in about 5 minutes, he would be arriving and I would be taking over. The change meant that we would now all be running 7 legs or more instead of 6, and we would be running all new routes except for one…this pushed my mileage from around 30 to 40+…I had never studied any other routes besides my own, so this was the hardest thing for me to stay calm about as I had not even navigated one turn of a BRR race yet. Michelob comes down the hill and all I can do is go, so I take off with the bracelet and the race officially starts for me. So many emotions…I’m feeling terrible for Squatter still, I’m nervous about my new route that I’ve never looked at, I’m crazy excited to finally start running, and I don’t know what the plan is as we haven’t gotten together as a team yet to regroup…lots happening. I have a good 5+ mile run, get in some fast sub 8 miles, but then slow myself down a bit and see a few faces from home on the course running next to me. Build-A-Bear (an F3 beast that I train with and also do Spartan races with) closed in behind me for a chat, and thankfully, it was the only bear that chased me down the entire race. I get to the exchange zone, check on Squatter who seems like he can at least continue to ride with us, and then hear the plan that we are going to keep the new order and attempt the race with 5 of us…and figure it out along the way.
The crew continues on from there to put out incredible performances, fast paces on the legs, overcoming incredible amounts of elevation. The elevation is truly what sets this race apart…running on relatively flat terrain is challenging, but is predictable. Running up 100 to 150 ft of elevation per mile on average is a completely different ballgame, and the surprising part is that the descents running downhill can put as much extra stress on your muscles as the uphill.
My next leg will end up as my shortest of the 7 official legs that I will run, a 3.1 mile 5k distance with about 350 ft of elevation, so pretty hilly for that distance. I feel great at the end and I’m ready to start getting a good eating routine going for some fuel.
Of the first 12 legs, notable ones were Large’s 5 1/2 min mile pace on leg 1, Denali’s leg 4 at 7 miles and 755 ft of elevation gain which he averaged a 7:48 pace and Large’s leg 6 which was a 6.8 mile trek with 979 feet of elevation gain where he averaged a 7:56 pace.
Fuel during a race like this is a guess for me as I haven’t done anything like this, but my plan ended up working out great. A solid meal after every two legs (chicken and rice, hamburger, bagel with turkey/cheese), at least 24 ounces of water with hydration tablets after every leg, 1 chocolate milk after each leg, a Gatorade after each leg, and the occasional stinger energy waffle. On the course I took a 6 pack of CLIF Bloks gummy energy chews and ate one every 1.5 to 2 miles as a reward. A handful of pretzels filled with peanut butter was another constant snack. I figured out that I burned 6000 calories each day during the race, so in any attempt to put some of that back in, I would have to be eating every hour.
My favorite part of the entire race was when we got to the exchange zone to start leg 13…and on a side note, every exchange zone is like the starting line of a race…it feels like you are visiting 36 starting areas with tons of people, food, excitement, adrenaline…all in a day, which is crazy. So leg 13 was my first leg with a “very hard” rating so I was a bit nervous as it was 9.4 miles and had almost 1000 feet of elevation gain…Denali told me I would need to dig deep on this one, so I knew this could be challenging. Largemouth just continued to tell me how great the views were going to be and that I would love it (a good distraction). The exchange zone was one of the best, it had an incredible hilly backdrop in a huge church parking lot with pizza and the largest gathering of vans I had seen yet…mainly because vans had a good 45 minutes before they had to leave to get to the next zone due to the length of the leg. We got a few good pictures, Michelob came flying in, and I was off. This run was on the Blue Ridge Parkway, so I knew I wouldn’t see my team until the middle of mile 7 as vans are not allowed on the parkway (Squatter ended up walking up from the exit and met me with a water, which was perfect timing). The climb up the mountain was long and intense, but the views at the three lookout points were incredible and probably some of the best views I’ve ever seen running, especially as the sun was starting to set. Those are the moments that just make you incredibly thankful for the opportunity to do something you love and experience God’s creation in a special way. Coming into Blowing Rock was great, as running downtown was a nice change and seeing our team and two other F3 teams from home was a nice finish…I was a little out of it right when I got there I think, I remember feeling a little light-headed…my 8:43 pace was decent, but pacing would continue to be key in order to finish the entire race. It was starting to get a little dark, so the true test was about to start.
Running in the Dark
Legs 14 through 27 would now be run in complete darkness, which changes everything when it comes to navigating the roads while running, while driving, and just getting what you need in the van in-between legs. Additionally, fatigue and lack of sleep will start to become a factor during this time, and on a six man team, sleep is almost impossible. You must have a bright headlamp, a reflective vest with lights on the front and back, and the ability to look for flashing blue lights when there is a turn on a rural mountain road. I’ve run so much in the dark since we train so early in the morning that the dark didn’t bother me, but not knowing where you are running and knowing you may run for an hour without seeing anyone else in the middle of nowhere creates a little anxiety/adrenaline the first time you do it. My first leg like this would be 18, and I launched around 10:30 p.m. The exchange zones are a little more exciting at night I think, just a fun atmosphere and people are either getting pumped up or some are dragging out their sleeping bags if they are on a 9 or 12 man team and have a little more downtime. Throughout the entire night, I only managed to fall asleep twice for a total of 25 minutes…there just wasn’t enough time to go through the routine in-between legs and get calmed down enough. As I was leaving for leg 18, I saw hamburgers on a grill so Squatter and Snots got me a burger and ketchup and I thought about that thing during my entire run. This was interesting, it was the most desolate and dark of the night runs, and I heard lots of dogs and coyotes, had bats swoop in front of me, ran by a guy playing his guitar in his front yard at the top of a mountain, got passed by a ridiculously fast runner up a hill, probably from the elite Charlotte or Asheville teams…a very interesting journey. Although leg 13 was challenging, leg 18 was my first real mental battle to not walk a little up the steepest parts of the mountain…I never walked and was able to avg a 9 min pace which I was fine with given what was still in front of me. I knew from here on though, it would be all in my head if I would finish each leg.
Leg 23 was my next dark one around 2 a.m., and as I was launching, two other runners were as well and one of them had a very similar pace…we started talking and then went on to run the entire 5 mile leg together which was a blessing to have someone to take my mind off of things. We ran a good chunk along a major road or parkway, but not many cars came through…it was a long uphill finish, but I made it through and felt OK still.
Of Legs 14 through 27, notable ones were leg 15 that Chanticleer ran up Grandfather Mountain in the dark…driving it was painful, so running it must have been a beast…10.38 miles with 863 feet of elevation, an 8:12 pace was awesome. The most fun looked like legs 16 and 17, both were downhill and around 3 miles…Leg 21 was another beast, 7.8 miles with 1100 feet of elevation, Largemouth crushed it with a 9 min pace which is awesome. Leg 27 was also a tough one, and I remember Michelob blasting through it and coming out of the dark suddenly for me to take over on 28, when I wasn’t really even expecting him yet.
Day 2 – Back in the Sunlight
Leg 28 would be a tough one for me…it started in complete darkness and it would be a run without anyone around, through a very remote area…the hills were up and down the entire way…this was the height of the mental battle for me, where I was going through everything I could think of in my head…I had spent a lot of time talking to God during the prior runs, and I was trying to do the same by praying in detail for each person in my family…when that was finished, it turned into a game of get to the next point I see and then figure out the next landmark to run to… “those car tail lights look like they just disappeared, so that must be a downhill coming up…” I was at 28 cumulative miles before starting this leg, so by far the most I have ever run in a 24 hour period. When the sun started to rise and I looked like I was approaching civilization again, I knew I could finish things up and I did.
Legs 29 through 36 would take everything we had, and were the hardest grouping of the entire race. Two Hard ratings, two Very Hard ratings, and two Mountain Goat ratings which we hadn’t seen yet.
Leg 31 – This was insane, mountain goat rating, 1398 feet of elevation gain and 1 foot of elevation loss…I heard a team joking with their runner about how that 1 foot was going to feel so good. Largemouth crushed this, and driving up this windy double black diamond-looking grade hill for 6.5 miles was CRAZY – him making it to the top was amazing, and a dog was following him part of the way too. The respect of everyone at the top when runners finished could be felt. I think this was by far the hardest leg on the course.
Leg 32 – Michelob was next up for a Very Hard rated 9.4 miles with 2000 feet of downhill, which can take a toll. He did it in a 7:29 pace!!! So impressive.
Leg 33 – It was now getting close to leg 33, which for the first time of the race, I was seriously worried about finishing. My legs felt like they couldn’t run even a mile and getting out of the van was very painful. I really thought I had no chance. This leg is the other Mountain Goat rated hill called “The Nippler” and it has a lot of history as being a crazy leg of this race. Squatter got me prepped and told me that even if I had to walk the whole thing, it was OK and we were going to finish. Denali gave me a great idea of picking a goal to run to and then allowing for some run/walking when the grade got silly and there was no longer a benefit to trying to run. So, I did that…picked the point of 2.5 miles to run to , then I would slow down until the summit at 3.4, and then haul down the hill for two miles to make up some time. Right in the beginning a runner settled in behind me to draft, and we got to talking…it was his third run and when he found out it was my seventh, he immediately got in front of me which mentally and physically helped me get up the mountain and we made it running at a good pace to the 2.7 mile mark…that was great to run this one with someone. When I got close to the very top, I could see the vans from my team and another’s, and I see a toilet paper finish line right at the summit for me to run through…these guys are the best, that is what I needed in that moment, and I couldn’t believe I had made it that far. I ran down the mountain as fast as I could, trying to get there before my quads seized up on me, and passed the baton to Denali for leg 34.
Leg 34 – this went well for Denali, 4.5 miles with 282 ft climb, it didn’t appear to be too hard for him but the miles were adding up for everyone at this point
Leg 35 – This had a hard rating and 920 feet of elevation gain which I’m sure took everything Chanticleer had left…the majority of it was in the first two miles – he nailed it and came flying down the hill when we expected him, the guy is an incredible runner.
Leg 36, the Glory Leg
At this point in the race, all of us were at 40 miles or more and we had all completed 7 legs. For someone to do an 8th leg would have been near impossible, and nobody had 8 “Very Hard” miles with 324 feet of elevation gain and 1323 of elevation loss left in them. We decided to take a strategy that some of the established BRR teams had done in the past, where all team members would run the last leg…this is within the rules as if a runner chooses not to continue their leg and drops out, the next runner in the cycle must take over. Largemouth and Michelob started us out with the first 3.5 miles, then the guys took me out on the Blue Ridge Parkway and dropped me off as I took the next two miles…then Denali and Chanticleer finished off the last 2.5 miles through town and into the last 100 yards that we all ran together to the finish line at Highland Brewing. The feeling of finishing was incredible and the majority of our F3 teams were all waiting for us at the end.
I wanted to write all this down so I didn’t forget how this experience felt in the moment, as all memories fade a bit over the years. I think there are so many emotions you go through during something like this as you are on sensory overload with the nature around you, the adrenaline of the exchange zones, the physical test you are giving your body, the mental battle you are playing with your mind for 28 hours, and the camaraderie and brotherhood you experience with your team and friends. Nothing brings you closer to a group of people than taking on a massive challenge, and in this case, adapting on the fly to a new set of circumstances. To quote Mike Tyson as Denali did at that second exchange zone, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth…” This experience helped all of us to take the circumstances we were given and figure out how we would accomplish the original goal, without much time to think about it. I can’t thank my teammates enough for the chance to train and compete in this race with them, and a big thank you to my family for being so supportive. I’m certain that this experience will always remain a highlight of my life.♦