A Run In the Smokies

The sky darkened as I ran up leg 13. I came out of the twilight and into the exchange point, grabbing a bowl of beans and rice on my way to the shelter. My spirits dropped as I entered. 

Drew, our fastest runner, lay on a picnic table. Run, recover, rest, repeat is a shock to the system, and it was wearing all of us thin, but it appeared ready to break Drew. He had sprained his ankle on leg 9 and would tell us later that he thought he might have to go to the hospital because he felt so sick. Yet leg 23, the hardest leg of the Smoky Mountain Relay lay ahead, a six mile section that climbs 2057 feet up the side of a mountain.

It was Drew’s to run.

Several weeks ago I (Ryland) read an article called Duel in the Sun, the story of Dick Beardsley, Alberto Salazar, and the 1982 Boston Marathon.  These were two of the best runners of their time and for just over two hours they battled it out in the most thrilling Boston Marathon ever.  

It was two weeks before I was going to run the Smoky Mountain Relay with five of my coaches, mentors, and friends.  Our story was not so different than that of Beardsley and Salazar. 

For almost two years I have been running with Brian, Sims, and Drew.  These men coached me from barely running six miles to my first marathon last October.  During that marathon they took turns pacing me, then, before the final four miles Drew prayed for me and with a literal shove, let me go: “Keep running strong brother!  You’re almost there!”  I finished in the top ten – better than I had thought possible.  Moreover, I couldn’t believe the level of encouragement, coaching, and support these men had freely and eagerly given.  During one of our early morning runs Brian mentioned the Smoky Mountain Relay.

While training for my first marathon we met another Greenville runner – Dean.  He was training for the Marine Core marathon the week before mine so we began training together.  After our races Dean continued to run with us, bringing a few more runners to our number – Mike, Phil, Smoak.

When we got serious about the Smoky Mountain Relay we found out that Dean had done it several times and had already formed a team for 2016, Dragon Az.  So we formed our own team – the Luchadors (Nacho Libre – timeless!).  As we got closer to the race we finalized our numbers; Dragon Az adding Brooks and Tobin, Luchadors adding Rich and Riley. 

We knew before the race we had some fierce competition. Dean’s Dragon Az had participated twice before and owned the course record of 28:37:57. A strong team from NC State was also placed in our bracket throwing a wildcard in the mix.

There had been a cool drizzle all morning. At 11 a.m., under brooding skies, The Luchadors, Dragon Az, and NC State lined up in the Pink Beds, NC, four and half hours after the first teams had started. By leg 10 our three teams had covered over 63 miles and had swapped leadership five times.  It was late afternoon and we were finally starting to work our way through other teams.

In our final stages of training The Luchadors and Dragon Az spent lots of hard hours together, pounding hills during the week and mountains on the weekend.  Both of our teams trained and bonded.  The smack talk was textbook!  Knowing that Dragon Az had run this race several times and had an incredible team, we expected that it would be close, but we had no idea how close. 

Riley dealt a crushing blow to NC State on leg 22 and gained us several minutes of lead.  But with Drew seemingly out it wouldn’t matter. Leg 23 was the hardest leg of the race and was left to Drew, our strongest runner.  None of the other Luchadors could run it without compromising their later legs and our lead. But despite his nausea and sprained ankle, Drew went for it, cramping enough to make him walk.  Although Dragon Az gained several crucial minutes on us, Drew still powered through and maintained the lead all the way to the top.  

At 2 a.m. the weather broke and the full moon shone beautifully.  All three teams had continued to swap leadership and were still within five minutes of each other.  But NC State had just lost a man to an injury and were starting to drop out.  Dragon Az and The Luchadors kept duking it out.

I was the first one to run my 6th and final leg.  At 7:15AM Riley came charging into the exchange and I took off on an eight mile leg, but four miles in I was completely out of gas.  I felt like I was barely keeping the team alive, wasting precious minutes they had fought so hard to earn.  I wanted to cry.  I kept looking over my shoulder, terrified of seeing the Dragon Az runner barreling down on me.  But it was their van, not a runner, which pulled up beside me as I walked up one of the final hills, feeling completely spent.  They gave me a gel and some water, just enough to tap the last bit of energy I had to get through the last mile.  I couldn’t have done it without them!

Over the last five legs of the race everyone did things I never could have imagined.  Drew overcame his ankle, GI pain, and cramping to finish strong. Rich ran his fastest leg of the race. Brian tackled his hardest leg with unbelievable toughness. Sims flew down the final descent at a sub seven minute pace to open the gap further for Riley, who tore through the final leg like it was his first.  

We crossed the line at 25:20:42, 3 1/2 hours earlier than we had anticipated, earning first place and a course record for a six-man ultra team.  Dragon Az finished only minutes later, crushing their previous record by over 3 hours.  

People have asked if I want to run the Smoky Mountain Relay again, and I think I do.  My only hesitation is not related to the pain or discomfort, but to the simple fact that I don’t believe another one could be this personally meaningful or epic.  Every other race I have run was entirely about individual achievement.  This one was entirely about the achievement of the teams, and I couldn’t have imagined being surrounded by better men on both teams.  It was a true and dear privilege.  

The 1982 Boston Marathon ended in unbelievable drama as Salazar beat Beardsley by only 2 seconds.  Both men gave everything they had that day and ran the race of their lives.  Both men were winners.  And both men are better friends today for it.  

Here’s to you Dragon Az!  Here’s to you Luchadors!

  1. Rachel says:

    I really enjoyed reading this! Makes me want to get out there and run!!

  2. Sandy Bryant says:

    Unreal to read. I never knew totally what was involved. Awesome race! What endurance you guys kept on through all the elements mother nature gave you. Your bodies were screaming and you pushed through the pain to victory!!! Totally unreal!

    Sandy (proud mom of Riley)

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