An interview with Santa following the 2014 Blue Ridge Relay

The Blue Ridge Relay is a 200+ mile race that starts in Grayson Highlands State Park in Virginia and ends in Asheville, NC. The 12 Things (in various iterations) have been part of the race for four years. We usually finish in the middle of the pack, but we have more fun and team spirit than any team out there. Here’s a link to the 2014 video made by our official videographer extraordinaire, Gordy Blackwell.

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Interviewer: So, you’re a runner now.
Santa: Yep. Doc said that I needed to drop some weight. I wasn’t about to give up cookies, so I bought a pair of running shoes. Now I’m hooked.

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Ho ho ho! Leg 36, 6.8 mi into downtown Asheville. GO BIG OR GO HOME.

INT: What happened to your reindeer?
Santa: Well, PETA was on my case about the overtime, and the vet bills were through the roof, even with insurance. So I retired them and found them good homes. Now it’s me, my headlamp, and a sack of toys. Overhead is so much lower.

INT: How on earth do you run around the world in one night?
Santa: Subcontractors are the way to go these days. Ultra-running has really taken off, so there are all kinds of weirdos who are willing to run all night. They’re happy to get their long run in so they can spend Christmas Day with their families drinking egg nog and foam rolling. And most of them will work for cookies and a cheap medal, though the real cuckoos insist on a belt buckle. Ho ho ho! You can’t make this stuff up.

INT: Let’s talk about the relay.
Santa: The Blue Ridge Relay is great training as we build up my mileage for Christmas Eve. Plus, it gets everyone in the holiday spirit a few months early. The course is beautiful and the race is incredibly well-run. We have a great team—this is our fourth year—and I’d argue that we have more fun on the Relay than any other team out there. We are known for supporting the runners on every team as well as our own with our wacky brand of Christmas spirit.

11 of 12 Things of Xmas at Santa’s Sleigh, a small family-owned gift shop on Leg 4 in Ashe County. We’re now friends with the proprietor, who dresses as Santa every Christmas Eve.

INT: Word on the street is that you threatened a runner on another team during your last leg into Asheville.
Santa: That’s not true. I merely told him that he’d be on my naughty list if he passed me.

INT: Who was that guy in the yellow tights at the start?
Santa: That’s Elf—name is Jeff. Nice guy and great runner. It wasn’t such a smart idea he had, though, running a sub-7 minute pace down the mountain from Grayson Highlands. We call him “Lightning Tights” now.

Jeff start

Elf leads off the 12 Things of Xmas from Grayson Highlands State Park in Virginia.

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We missed our team captain, so I put his head on a stick.

INT: What happened to the Grinch?
Santa: Our team captain and fan favorite, the Grinch, will be back in 2015. He’ll be grumpier than ever, of course. Growing up with bad weather and worse food (not to mention England’s performance in the World Cup this year), it’s no wonder he’s a Scrooge.

INT: You really stepped up the decorations on your vans this year.
Santa: Not bad for a team of 8 men and 4 women, eh? We had wreaths, stockings, tinsel, and Christmas lights this year. We also lit up our runners during the night with battery-powered Christmas lights. Adds a lot of cheer and safety, too.

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Festive vans that just got better throughout the race. Unfortunately, team attire did not improve.

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We rocked the Christmas lights in our sleds, errrr, vans, and hung the stockings with care.

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“My arm hurts.” “What?”

INT: Any tips on what NOT to bring?
Santa: I put jingle bells on my shoes for my first leg. Wow, that was an annoying 10K on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

INT: I hear you had the Gingerbread Man on your team.
Santa: Oh ho ho! Yes, he’s one of our speedy Peeps. Sometimes his head gets a little big—you know, “can’t catch me!” and all that. But he’s a great teammate, despite his addiction to scented candles, I mean Twizzlers in weird flavors.

Good help is hard to find in today's job market.

Quality workers are hard to find in today’s economic climate.

INT: There were reports of guys on your team wearing ugly, Christmas-themed shorts. Can’t you enforce a dress code or something?
Santa: Unfortunately, no. These guys work for cookies, so there’s not much I can do. I don’t think we did anything illegal, unless it’s illegal to be too white. There’s just not much sun at the North Pole.

INT: So where were you most sore after the relay?
Santa: My abs are killing me! It’s not easy sucking in your gut for 6.8 miles while people are driving by taking pictures and video.

INT: Oh, come on. Santa is supposed to have a belly like a bowl full of jelly!
Santa: Yeah, sure, and the whole world knows it. Even Santa struggles with positive body image.

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The 12 Things of Xmas finish strong in Asheville, NC!

INT: Will there be a video this year?
Santa: Yes, of course! Our official videographer Gordy is already hard at work putting it together. I’ll post the link here when it’s ready.

INT: What is your advice to folks who are thinking about doing the Blue Ridge Relay?
Santa: Pick great friends for teammates who can be flexible and roll with the unexpected. Drive safely. And don’t forget to soak in the experience, to have fun and to share the holiday spirit along the way.

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31.5 hours, 208 miles, 12 happy and exhausted teammates. 27K feet of elevation gain and an equal amount of loss. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

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Classic Crazy Fun at the Little River Trail Run

Overheard conversation at yesterday’s LRTR:
Scene: medical tent, post-run. Anonymous woman walks in and waits for the PT guy to finish his conversation and notice her.

PTG: “How are you? What can I do for you?”
AW: “Hey, I’m fine. But I was wondering…if you’re not busy, could you help me wrap my ankle up the right way with my Ace bandage?”
PTG: “Sure thing. What’s wrong with your ankle?”
AW: [cheerfully] “Oh, there’s nothing really wrong with it.”
PTG: [smiles] “And yet, here you are.”
AW: “Well, I turned it pretty hard a couple of weeks ago and it was swollen for a week. But it’s fine now. I was really careful today and didn’t roll it. It’s just a little sore.”
PTG: [clearly amused] “How do you know there’s nothing wrong with it?”
AW: “Well, Uwharrie is in two weeks, so there can’t be anything wrong with it.”
PTG: [knowingly] “Ah. Well, I’ll be helping out at Uwharrie, so look for me there.”

I bet PTs see wackos like this all the time.
*****
Conditions were wicked for my 5th running of the Little River Trail Run. I concur with the Running Down theory that the race is always held on the coldest day of the year. I’m a scientist, so I view any hypothesis with skepticism. However, I have long-term data to support this hypothesis:

2008 – OK, truthfully, I don’t remember the weather. The race was 9 miles then.
2010 – 17 degrees at the start. Had to squeeze the water cups at the aid stations to break the skim ice.
2011 – Temps in the mid-20s with snow on the ground.
2012 – Temps around freezing. And the rest of the winter was a big joke.

According to the usual scheduling, LRTR is typically held the 2nd weekend in January. Well, last weekend’s weather (foggy and nearly 70 degrees) would have been wrong. It can’t be mere coincidence that the race was scheduled a week later. When it rained for three straight days last week, and Winter Storm Iago rolled in on Thursday night, I knew it was time to trek to Rougemont. And while not much snow accumulated, conditions at the start were classic Little River: temperatures just below freezing, snow on the ground, icy bridges, and slippery mud from the overflowing creek.

As for the rest of 2013, I predict a pretty mild winter. Let’s face it, LRTR is a better predictor than that sketchy Sir Walter Wally (Raleigh’s answer to Punxsutawney Phil).

I would have been even more gleeful (for some reason, ugly trail conditions make me happy—even if I have a horrible run, there will be good stories), but the conditions were not optimal for someone (yes, me) who has a slightly sore ankle and Uwharrie 20 in two weeks.

And, there’s something about doing a favorite race each year that makes it hard to hold back. I’ve bettered my 10 mile time every year, and crept up the age-group rankings. Last year I knocked 9 minutes off my PR and pulled into 4th AG. I knew I couldn’t do that this year and needed to take care not to turn the ankle. It annoyed me.

But in the end, I love Little River: the race, the people, the course, the awesome volunteers, and the post-race breakfast at Foster’s with the Peeps. And I was happy and grateful to be out there with some of my trail buddies on Saturday.

This was my son Stephen’s second time running the 7K; my friend Aimee’s daughter was also there for her second year running. Awesome to see them loving running and single-track. Lots of Peep friends signed up so we had a great crowd toeing the starting line for both the 7K and 10 miler. The first stretch is always fast, jumping off the road and onto a dirt road, which spreads people out. Typically I run this as hard as I can, but I tried to take it easy. My mantra for the day was “Uwharrie in 2 weeks! Uwharrie in 2 weeks!”

Race organizers sent an email out the night before that had a barely discernible edge of panic about the trail conditions. Among other things:

  • Every wooden bridge and walkway will be slick. Slow down. Walk if necessary. We want everyone to return safely and without injury, a goal that is largely under your control.
  • The river flooded with the recent rains, washing silt onto the trail along the river. The trail along the river is extremely slick and there is standing water in some places. Slow down, watch your footing, allow space between you and the runner in front of you, and heed the advice of the course monitors.
  • For 10 milers: The trail along the river beginning at marker 38 is especially difficult.  The trail runs very close to the river. We’ve placed traffic cones and additional course monitors in the area to remind you of the danger.

They weren’t kidding. The trail was very wet and muddy, and the stretch along the creek was laughably slick. Every bridge and boardwalk was glazed with frost. I kept my stride short and tiptoed through the muddy places—not to keep my feet dry, because they were soaked before mile 2, but to keep my footing. Even people who walked the the slippery creek corridor were falling, but I managed to stay upright and start the long switch-backed climb away from the river.

Still, I was grinning because there was a bagpiper near the top and the music, combined with the sun shining through the bare trees, the fast-moving river, the chill, and the dusting of snow were all so perfect.

The pre-race email also had a contest that I was sure I could win. They attached a photo of the trail and we were supposed to try to figure out where it was taken. Before the race I heard people saying that it looked like 100% of the trail, and I figured I was a shoe-in. I happen to be a forest ecologist and the photo did NOT look like 100% of the trail to me.  For one thing, the photo was in a hardwood forest, not pine. The trees were not large, but the tree density was low. There was a lot of snow, so it was probably on a north-facing slope or somewhere where it wasn’t getting direct sun. The trail was muddy, not rocky. And it was definitely in an upland, not along the river. So I watched carefully, but that was easier said than done. I ran through 3-4 sections where the photo could have been taken, but it was so slick and muddy that I had to focus on the trail and missed the spot. Apparently none of the guesses were anywhere close, either, so I guess we all adhered to the race directors’ advice to be careful.

LRTR is also fun in that the later miles have looping sections where you see groups of runners nearby yet have no idea whether they are in front or behind you.  It’s a huge game of chase through the woods. I tried to stick with my plan, but it wasn’t easy. I found myself rationalizing that I did, after all, have TWO WEEKS before Uwharrie, so as long as I didn’t hurt my ankle, I could run pretty hard. [Note: these are conflicting goals.]

Shout-out to the volunteers at the race, who stood in the cold for hours and cheered us on. The aid stations seemed especially enthusiastic this year, especially the last one, which is 1.7 miles from the finish and had a festive Mardi Gras decor. But I’ll stand by my assertion that the second-to-last mile is the hardest in any race. It seemed like ages after we passed the aid station that we started hearing the cheers from the finish line. By this point I was running with just a few others and we were spread out. My friends Audrey and Kerry cheered as I came out of the woods and around the corner to the finish line in 1:33 and change, a few minutes off my PR from 2012.

Just after I arrived at the finish I heard the race director paging two of my friends. With a sinking feeling, I went straight to the tent and found my buddy Richard, the dubious recipient of the Trail Love award for the greatest contact with the trail. He had fallen down the embankment near the last aid station and had a gruesome-looking cut on his eyelid that was bleeding profusely. His teammates collected his pocket first aid kit prize and traipsed him off to the ER for 12 stitches.

Several of my fellow Peeps took home awards, including Missy winning Master’s, Karen and Audrey winning their respective AG in the 7K race, and Kerry winning her AG in the 10 miler. Ken and Bob both completed their longest trail races, and Carolyn did her first trail race. Stephen had a great run as well. Many reasons to celebrate at our post-race Foster’s breakfast! Another classic Little River Trail Run is in the books. And Uwharrie really is in two weeks. Hopefully, I will be visiting the medical tent afterward only to say hello and assure the PT that there really was nothing wrong with my ankle.

Some of our Peeps post-race. Great day!

Some of our Peeps post-race. Great day!