Our Team

Kristi Holland
Kandi Shearer
Jason Reneau
Jane Reneau
Eric Charette
David Ploskonka

We are six runners from Alabama, Tennessee, and Maryland who are training to run the Blue Ridge Relay, September 5-6, 2008. The six of us will share the 208 miles from Grayson Highlands State Park in Virginia to Asheville, North Carolina. We plan to use this blog to write about our training experiences as we get ready to run, and to post updates here during the race itself so our friends and family can follow us along our 208 mile journey.

Here we go!

Kandi Shearer and Kristi Holland

Kandi Shearer and Kristi Holland

David Ploskonka

David Ploskonka

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.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Splits, Stats, and Afterthoughts - David Ploskonka

First off, unofficial splits and stats for my legs of the relay (with actual time of day when I ran the leg as exact as I can remember; as you can see, my memory overnight isn't that good :) ):

Leg 1 (0900-0922, 9/5/08) - 4.0 miles in 22 minutes, 5:30/mile average pace

Leg 7 (1417-1453, 9/5/08) - 5.4 miles in 36 minutes, 6:40/mile average pace

Leg 13 (1818-1905, 9/5/08) - 7.5 miles in 47 minutes, 6:16/mile average pace

Leg 19 (2300 hour, 9/5/08) - 4.3 miles in 27 minutes, 6:28/mile average pace

Leg 25 (0400 hour, 9/6/08) - 7.2 miles in 49 minutes, 6:48/mile average pace

Leg 31 (0900-0953, 9/6/08) - 6.5 miles in 53 minutes, 8:09/mile average pace

Total official running time: 235 minutes
Total official running distance: 34.9 miles
Total average per-mile pace: 6:44
Total unofficial mileage: 12.5 miles
Total mileage: 46.5 miles
Total orange Budget Saver Popsicles consumed: 6

So those are the numbers, and you've read brief recaps of each leg of the race, things that I wrote during the race, on the rare occasions that I could access the internet from my phone. So now that I've had time to reflect on the race (on my 7+ hour drive back to Baltimore), I have a few more coherent thoughts in my head:

First off, I want to thank the other five runners on our team for their efforts. I'm not sure that anybody realized how difficult it would be to effectively run 6x10k hard, with about 5 hours rest between reps, and no sleep. I know that I was surprised at how difficult it became by the end, and so I am very thankful that all of my teammates gave it their all throughout the race. Seeing Janie actually run up a steep hill in her last leg (when Kristi and Kandi were convinced that she would walk it), and watching Eric haul into the finish line . . . and really, those are just a few memories, but the point is, seeing five other people put forth the kind of effort that my teammates did is truly inspiring.

Second, I want to thank Kristi's mother and brother for driving our van, finding stuff in the big mess that the van became, and not complaining a bit. It takes a very special kind of person to provide support on such a ridiculous trip, and for that, I am truly thankful.

Third, I thought this was going to be more coherent, but then again, my thank-yous never seem to be, so with that out of the way, maybe I can be more coherent about the experience itself. This will be a lot of stuff that non-runners probably won't understand (and which may come off as "sappy" at times), but bear with me anyway:

The way I see it, this race was amazing for two main reasons. One, the feeling of being out there, not just for yourself, but for your teammates, is totally unique. Most of the time, I'm out there running because I feel like running, and I run as fast as I've decided to run, and I stop when I decide it's time to stop. To be out there at 4 in the morning, running in the dark through a cloud of dust on a gravel trail, knowing that in spite of the difficult conditions, if you stop and walk, you're disrespecting the effort that five other people are putting forth to finish this race, is something that I've never experienced before. To run as a companion with Kristi overnight, knowing that she wasn't feeling well and needed the moral support, is something that I've never experienced before. I feel that I can take great pride in knowing that I was there for my team when they needed me.

And two (because when there's a one, there has to be a two), because the legs were very specific, discrete events, this race, more than any other that I've run, had that ability to "etch" things into my memory. One thing that keeps me running (and which non-runners will probably not understand) is that many times when I run, for some reason (or often, for no reason at all), a moment of a run will stick in my head permanently, whether it was remarkable or not. I can still remember running down a road near my parents' house during the spring of my freshman year in high school, on the evening of the Spring Fair, looking up to the gray sky, seeing the treeline in front of me . . . and that's it. That's the memory. And it's beautiful to me, in my head, but probably means nothing to anybody else. I have a memory like that from each and every leg of this race. From my "sprint" to the finish at the end of my first leg, to my climb up the "monster" hill in my second leg, to hopping up to the sidewalk at the end of my third leg . . . I can go on and on, but the point is, I came away with a lot of lovely little memories that I will cherish (for whatever that's worth).

So thanks to everybody for being there and for reading this; can't wait for my next big adventure!

Leg 31 - David Ploskonka

The infamous "Mountain Goat Hard" leg; 6.5 miles of relentless climb, from 2800 feet to 4200 feet. Coming off of all the official and unofficial running I'd done thus far (plus another 3.5 miles with Kristi), my goal was simply to run this leg strong. Taking the terrain into account, I accomplished this goal, with a 53-minute leg, or 8:09/mile pace. I passed only one girl (who was walking), because apparently the macho thing to do is to make sure that your strongest runner gets this leg. When I reached the top (46.5 miles of total running later), I was totally spent, but managed one more ragged Popsicle picture before changing clothes and deciding that I had run my last steps of the day.

So overall, 46.5 miles unofficially, 35 miles officially, in a total of 235 official minutes, or an average mile pace of 6:44. This is faster than marathon pace for me by 7 seconds per mile, and considering the terrain and conditions (particularly no sleep for 27+ hours straight, also a personal record), this is far better than I had hoped. I'm satisfied that I did everything I could to help our team do the best that we possibly can. Can't wait to see Eric finish; I'm off to the finish line now!

Leg 25 - David Ploskonka

Back to this "Hard" business, after running another 3 miles with Kristi, at 10:00/mile pace, on her last leg. This time, the leg was longer (7.2 miles), and complicated by the fact that a large part of it was on gravel, which (1) is treacherous footing at night when you can't see where you're stepping, and (2) results in a lot of dust kicking up behind vehicles as they pass you, further obstructing your vision. I took a copy of the printed directions with me on this leg, and it was a good thing that I did, because I narrowly avoided a wrong turn on 221. At least the train didn't get in my way. I ran conservatively, to avoid getting lost or injured, finishing in 49 minutes (6:48/mile pace). Considering the conditions, I felt good about this, with just one more leg to go . . .

Leg 19 - David Ploskonka

My first leg in total darkness, and I do mean darkness - no streetlights or moonlight to guide me. Equipped with my trusty headlamp, and the mandated reflective vest with blinkers front and back, and motivated by the thought of a flat, easy 4.3-mile stretch, I finished this leg in 27 minutes, for an average pace of 6:28/mile. Not quite as blazing as the previous leg, but I should mention that I came along with Kristi for moral support for 5.5 miles of her climb up Grandfather's Mountain, at about a 10:00/mile pace (Kandi handled the first 4.5 miles with her; this would be a recurring theme for the truly scary night legs).

Leg 13 - David Ploskonka

Apparently our proximity to a shopping center and the threat of injury as a result of careless Friday-afternoon drivers spurred me on to a 49-minute 7.5 mile leg, for an average of 6:15/mile. Yes, for me, that is a borderline obscene pace; hence, the incredulous look that I have on my face in the popsicle picture that we took after this leg is not just due to the misspelling on the sign. Really, this leg was legitimately hard, with its fair share of hills, and I tore it up (also, I am very modest). :)

Leg 7 - David Ploskonka

Writing from a parking lot in front of the Tanger Outlet stores, waiting for Leg 13, a 7.5-mile adventure on a dangerous freeway, with only a reflective vest to shield me from the merciless vehicular traffic. This will be my longest, hardest leg of the race thus far. To recap the last leg:

My 4-mile PR apparently didn't hurt me on Leg 7, in which I covered 5.4 miles in 36 minutes. Yes, a bit more human, but there was a "monster" hill for about half a mile that slowed me down. Still, I passed a few people, and that always feels good (even if they're not in your category, rendering your accomplishment technically irrelevant).