Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Bourbon Chase: The Recap

Shuffling down Main Street, I looked like I was doing anything but running toward a finish line. A pair of denim jeans hugged my hips and bright pink Chucks slipped on and off my heels. A Starbucks grande decaf Americano (spiked with bourbon) splashed out of the lid as I tried my best to keep the cup even.

But there I was, surrounded in a sea of identical orange shirts, crossing the timing mats finishing the journey of 200 miles.

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I've spent the better part of the past week trying to discern what makes a relay so special. The Bourbon Chase is challenging in terms of elevation and distance, and the general conditions of a relay can be draining. Many of us will lament about how big of a hill we climbed or the rumble strips on the highway as we retell each leg.

But, there in that last sentence, lies the answer. It's having someone to share the experience with. It's being a team.

Though we may sign up to participate in a race with a friend, it's not often that we cross the finish line with her – much less 13 others (11 teammates and two drivers). We don't always have that push to run faster, go harder to make a contribution to the other. But, with a relay, you do.

And it's really frigging awesome.

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The Bourbon Chase, a 200-mile relay along the Bourbon Trail, begins at the Jim Beam distillery in Clermont, Kentucky. In addition to Jim Beam, runners go through Maker's Mark, Heaven Hill, Four Roses and Woodford Reserve distilleries. The 2015 race is the second time I've participated, having been runner No. 12 in 2014. 

This year, I had the distinct honor of starting the race for Pirates of the Bourbon Trail.

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And I did it well by doing a shot of Jim Beam apple before making my way to the start line. I'm not even going to pretend to be sorry about that. It was smooth and delicious.

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Sort of like that first run.

Leg 1 runners head (downhill) out of Jim Beam to tackle the 7.1-mile leg. Shortly after exiting, we picked up a hike-and-bike trail.

I wish I could describe this trail to you but I'm not sure words would do it justice. It was wooded and the leaves in the canopy were beginning to turn. Starting at 9:45 a.m., the sun was poking through the breaks and illuminating the dirt path. Leaves crunched, birds tweeted. And the air. Crisp and sweet, it smelled like fall.

I wanted to slow down, take it all in. I wanted to enjoy every foot of that trail – after all, of late, I've been disappointed that I don't get to spend time on the trails. But I couldn't. I was too excited. I was too ready to take it on.

And so I flew.

Mile 1 was 8:44 – 45 seconds faster than my goal pace and 1:45 faster than my projected. I tried to bring it in as I tackled the early climbs, winding through the patchy woods, but still logged an 8:58 for mile 2. My third and fourth splits were better – 9:07 and 9:11 – but the thrill of a strong run coupled with the fantastic fall foliage was hard to fight. 8:56, 8:44 miles followed.

By this time, I was running on Deatsville Road, which took me past a Four Roses outpost and residential homes. I was moving well. I was happy.

And then I followed the curve of the road.

A hill met me. A giant friggin' incline at the start of mile 7. I wanted to scream. I wanted to complain. But I didn't. Instead, I walked. I let myself slow for a tenth of a mile. I had ran good enough, I reasoned. I was still coming in under projection, and I didn't want to bank too much time.

But after that tenth, I made myself chug along. When the exchange was in sight, I picked it up more. I didn't try to slow for a smooth hand-off. I wanted to run. it. in.

7.3 miles, 1:06:21, 9:05 pace

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Run No. 2 – Leg 13

We were running ahead of schedule, our team running strong. I thought I had more time but as I made my way through the crowd in Danville, I heard my number being called.

"8-6-0. Team 860."

I shoved people aside (and, more than likely, into the Nuun tent – sorry I'm not sorry) as I took the bracelet from Josh.

My second leg, a seemingly short 4.5 miles, began in the heart of this cute Kentucky town. I tried to find a strong rhythm as I navigated the sidewalk. Down the curb, up the curb. I headed into the street as we passed a gas station and headed east on US 150 toward Stanford. It was dark, just after 7, and the air was still cool. I looked up and thanked those stars that the weather was perfect for the Chase this year.

Heading up the highway, the blinking lights of runners marked the route. Up, up, up they went. I hugged the shoulder and tried to find a good footing. Stupid rumble strips. They made for some precarious footing but it was either that or be in the lane. And I didn't want to be in the lane.

The route climbed. Solidly. The last mile was straight uphill. My pace, which had hovered in the 8:40s, surely dropped. I'm not sure by how much as my Soleus battery was low and dropped satellite.  I tried to use the lights ahead of me as a way to push forward and maintain a solid effort. 1, 2, 3. Grind. Go. Catch. 1, 2, 3. Grind. Go. Catch.

But it wasn't easy. I had to dig, and I found myself repeating a new mantra: You are strong. You are fast. You are fearless. In my head. You are strong. You are fast. You are fearless.

You are done, I thought, handing off the bracelet once again.

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Run No. 3 – Leg 25

My alarm went off at 5:15 a.m. – 5 minutes before the others in the room of our hotel. I was going to take a shower, get dressed and have a cup of coffee. I would eat a Clif bar and chug a bottle of Nuun. By the time we would need to leave for the next major exchange, I would be ready to take on my last run.

But as I got out of the shower, there weren't teammates wiping sleep from their eyes and stumbling around the room. There was rushing and confusion. We were further ahead of schedule. We needed to leave – and leave now.

The things I was hoping to do at a leisurely pace were now being juggled in the back of the van as I pumped. I needed to be ready to go once we got to Wild Turkey.

The van pulled up to the drive, and I hopped out. I reasoned that it would be quicker to walk to the exchange from there than to sit restlessly in the van as we looked for parking and then hoofed it down the hill.

I trotted down, remember flying down that hill the year before, and tried to find the mental space to run. It was the last one. It was only 3.4 miles. And, I thought, it was an easy leg. It would be less hilly.

It was a nice thought – while it lasted.

I headed down the hill from Wild Turkey and crossed the "S" bridge over the Kentucky River. I took a deep breath and stared at the sky. It was dark, the sun not even showing signs of rising, and the stars shone bright. I looked for the dippers, the only constellations I can identify, and tried to savor the steps. I had nearly 12 miles behind me and only 3 to go. I wasn't ready for the weekend to be over.

But the hills ... they could be done.

The real challenge began just after the first mile beeped on my Soleus. It was a sharp climb, almost a half mile, before turning into more rollers. I believe I gasped "Fuck" when I saw it and started the shuffle up. I was told later by a fellow runner whom I had passed that I also said, "This hill blows." All I know is that I had to really work.

For reference: Soleus has me gaining 423 feet of elevation on this run. A typical route in Fort Wayne is usually no more than 38.

For as difficult as it was for me, I didn't repeat a mantra. I didn't try to dig. If anything, I wanted to slow down. Take my time. I wanted this run to last. I wanted to see the glint of sunlight come over the hill because I knew that the route would be gorgeous in the early morning light.

But, I did not get to see it. The night sky still overhead as I passed off to Bryan 30 minutes later.

I took a deep breath and walked to the van, the blinking light on the back of runner No. 2's shirt fading in the distance.

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  1. Killer job on those hills! Did your team finish way faster than you guys predicted? It sounds like you were flying, and some of the other people were, too!

    I love how you described the scenery of your first run. Ahh, love those fall runs!

    1. I think we were a good half-hour, 45 minutes ahead. At the end of 24 legs, we were up 27 minutes. I know my van lost some during our last set but the van 2 folks ... damn. There were some fast guys in there and the girls were killing it, too. I think some of us got scared after last year and padded our predictions.