NEWLAND — The Blue Ridge Relay, one of the longest running relay races in the United States, wrapped up this weekend. Teams of runners were up against 209.2 miles of terrain as beautiful as they were challenging in Virginia and North Carolina. The race started at Grayson Highlands State Park and wound its way though North Carolina’s High Country, including a stop in Avery County and Newland on Friday Sept. 9, before ending in Asheville on Sept. 10.
The BRR consists of maximum of 12-person teams that rotated through 36 transition areas. Each relay team member ran three legs of varying lengths and difficulty and covered an average total distance of 16.6 miles, according to race information.
The race has been attempted solo by four different runners, with only one successful attempt in 2009.
This year, a Charlotte-based running club finished first overall, running at a 5:46-mile pace, a new course record. With a race of this size, it’s more about finishing at all than finishing in first place for most competitors.
“The agony of it all is a part of it,” race director Ken Sevensky said. Sevensky and his wife, Kristin, started the race in 2005 after Sevensky found himself searching for a way to get more involved with the running community.
“I got to get up every morning and look at the beauty of the place I call home and wanted to share that with others,” Sevensky said. With that, a relay race like no other was born.
A race of this magnitude would be nothing without plenty of volunteers, and Sevensky was quick to praise the excellent work done by the 200-to-300 volunteers from communities here in the High Country every year.
“The volunteers worked around the course, around the clock, doing a fantastic job of making the runners feel welcome within the community,” Sevensky said. “The Avery High School Key Club has helped us the last few years and they always do great work. They provide great service for the race and it’s an excellent chance for them to get involved with the community, so its a win-win situation.”
The event attracts teams from across North Carolina and surrounding states, each with a unique perspective on what makes this event special.
Jean McDonald has competed the last two years and recognizes the unique challenge of this race.
“Running can be a fairly solitary activity, but a relay makes it a team sport. Because it’s a relay you get that sense of urgency because not only do you not want run well for yourself, but you don’t want to let your teammates down,” McDonald said.
McDonald has been running the relay with team Be Loud!, a group that runs the relay to raise awareness for the Be Loud! Sophie Foundation, an organization that supports adolescent and young adult cancer patients.
This organization was founded after a dear friend of McDonald and the rest of Be Loud! team, Sophie Steiner, lost the battle with cancer at the age of 15. The team has appreciated the unique opportunity to raise awareness that the relay offers.
The team works with Sophie’s old high school each year to decorate a van which serves as a temporary home for the competitors, then travel across the state to reach the race.
“It’s just so important to get the word out about the unique needs of adolescents with cancer, and being able to drive the van across the state, and anybody who sees the van go by will ask questions or want to know what we represent,” McDonald said.
Sophie’s original poetry, “...Be loud and move with grace/explode with light/have no fear...” was ringing in this team’s head as it raced.
Inspirational messages like the one this team shared helps create an experience bigger than just another road race, which is what BRR has successfully sought to cultivate over the years.