Run Mountains, Drink Beer: Smoky Mountain Relay Race Re-cap and Update from the Trail
“Bandito, Bandito!” I was snapped out of my delerious state by my teammate’s enthusiastic call as she ran toward the exchange zone. I quickly checked my headlamp and light-up vest and stood ready to accept the “baton” (a slap bracelet). After a speedy handoff I was on my way, cutting through the dark, foggy night along a dirt road next to the mighty Nantahala River. My hamstrings immediately tightened in protest, as if saying “it’s 3AM…what the hell are you doing running seven miles through the woods?!”
On April 17th and 18th, 50+ teams boldly (or blindly, perhaps) descended upon western North Carolina to run one of the toughest relay races in the country, the Smoky Mountain Relay (SMR). I took a few days off the trail to join my team, The Banditos, for this epic adventure. The rules of the SMR are simple: groups of 12 people (“full teams”) or 6 people (“ultra teams”) run 212 miles from the Pink Beds area in Pisgah National Forest to the Nantahala Outdoor Center as fast as they can. The course is split into 36 legs, meaning people on full teams run three legs each (generally about six hours apart), while people on ultra teams cover 6 legs each. The terrain, however, is anything but simple. Race Director Jim and his crew definitely didn’t take the easy route when determining the course, which is comprised of forest service roads, the Mountains to Sea trail, and a little asphalt here and there. The difficulty of each leg is rated, ranging from “Quad Killer” to “One Tough Mother”. I’d say those descriptions are pretty accurate. At some points, the course climbs and descends 3,000+ feet in less than six miles, forcing runners to crawl and scramble their way through the mountains.
Tough races are nothing new for The Banditos. We’ve run a total of eight relays together (seven for me; I got to the party a little late) and have either won or placed in the top three in all of them. We’re a rag-tag group of folks ranging in age from early twenties to fifties who were brought together by a summer camp/outdoor semester school near Brevard, NC. We’re fast, but more importantly, we’re incredibly supportive of each other, really fun, and a little crazy. We’re known for sporadic dance parties in the middle of lonesome highways and silly antics at post-race parties (involving temporary tattoos and plenty of tequila). At the end of each leg, a crew of Banditos is always waiting to offer a high five and a cold “recovery” beer (or, you know, water). I LOVE these people!
We crossed the finish line at the Nantahala Outdoor Center with a time of just over 29 hours, giving us the titles of 2nd place full team and 3rd overall. We celebrated with Oskar Blues beers and dips in the frigid Nantahala River and cheered on other teams as they ran in. What an awesome adventure within this incredible journey that I’m on!
I’d like to give a huge shout out to the entire Smoky Mountain Relay crew. The race was incredibly well-orchestrated, insanely challenging, and tons of fun. This group spends countless hours marking each leg of the course and considering tiny details, and the race is absolutely fantastic because of their efforts. The SMR has quickly become a favorite for The Banditos, and we will definitely be back next year. Check out their website for pictures and information about the race – www.smokymountainrelay.com.
As it turns out, hiking and running are pretty different, so my body was hurting by the time Sunday morning rolled around. The weather was also looking pretty grim for the day, so I decided to take a “zero” to recover and rest. I spent the morning drinking coffee and laughing with The Banditos and the afternoon eating ice cream and salad (two things I often crave on the trail). It was perfect!
On Monday I returned to the trail with a full heart and sore legs. Thankfully, hiking helped work out some of the soreness, and I felt really strong again by Tuesday. I was able to cover a lot of ground this week, and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. The section I completed began south of Erwin, TN, traversing several gorgeous balds and climbing up and over the majestic Roan Mountain. The weather was beautiful all week, making for incredible views. On one of the balds (Hump Mountain), Grandfather Mountain loomed on the horizon ahead of me and Table Rock stood in the distance to the south. I’ve had significant experiences on each of those mountains, so it was neat to see them sharing the horizon.
Speaking of significant experiences, I felt a shift occur in my way of thinking this week. Hiking the Appalachian Trail has become more than just an experience; it is now my current way of life. Moving through the woods each day brings me insurmountable joy, and I find deep comfort sleeping under the stars every night. My thoughts are beginning to deepen (which I’ve realized is a process that can’t be rushed), and I find myself wrapped up for hours in ideas of spirituality, my relationship with nature, and who I am as being on this earth. I am on the cusp of these massive subjects, and I look forward to learning more about myself and this world as my journey continues. As I hike, I’ve been noticing seedlings in different phases all over the forest floor. Like those seeds, I feel like I am just beginning to sprout. I, too, am in the “spring” of this adventure…a time of rebirth and renewal.
If you’d like to send me trail mail (I know I’ve said it before, but I love it!), I’ll be stopping by Pearisburg, VA in a couple weeks. The address there is:
C/O General Delivery
Pearisburg, VA 24134
Please hold for AT thru hiker
Peace be the journey, Yellow Bird/Liz
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