Teams tackle the Smoky Mountain Relay with costumes, water balloons, breast pumps, and 80s music.
John Mitchell, a 34-year-old from Hendersonville, N.C., has been running on Western North Carolina’s roads and trails for a couple of decades. But that experience didn’t prepare him for running the Smoky Mountain Relay for the first time in 2015.
He remembers one cold and drizzly night in particular. He’s lying on the floor of a passenger van trying not to puke as the driver navigates a winding gravel road tucked along the mountains outside of Franklin, N.C.
He knows a few of his 11 teammates, but the rest are folks he’s just met. One of them, a woman named Caroline, is sitting on one of the bench seats pumping breast milk for her four-month-old. Another guy named Mike has jacked up the volume on the van’s stereo to 11—projecting a sonic boom of the Last of the Mohicans theme for miles. The team’s captain, Butch, even convinced a few people to fly in from Alaska to run with his Appalachian-based pals, which inspired the team’s name: the Appalaskans.
Oh yeah, they’re all wearing animal masks and costumes and the outside of the van is decorated with a theme of “What does the fox say?”
It’s been fun, but John’s fried. The team’s been moving for 30 hours and he’s already run two legs totaling something like 15 miles. He just wants to go to sleep. But he has one more leg to run—an eight-miler—and he’s not sure he can do it. Caroline hands him some kind of goo-based energy drink, and he throws it back while trying to munch down a stale bagel.
The van pulls over at a checkpoint: this is where they’ll meet Jen, who is running now and will pass the snap-on bracelet to John so he can start his leg. Just then, as the team spills outside the van, the sun begins to break across the ridges. The honeyed-light dripping over the landscape seems to activate something inside John and his teammates. DJ Mike begins dancing with a guy alternatively nicknamed PowPow or Speed Goat. When the beam from Jen’s headlamp peaks over the hill, everyone begins screaming, hollering, and cheering.
John still wants to quit—to tell his teammates he can’t do it. But he knows they are counting on him. Everyone is posting incredible split times—they’re egging each other on to run faster than they ever have. He figures he can run at least a little bit farther before his heart explodes.
As Jen stretches out to hand over the bracelet, DJ Mike blasts out the theme to Chariots of Fire—which sends a chill through John’s spine. He grabs the bracelet—and takes off.
Team relays have become increasingly popular among runners in recent years, especially in the Southern Appalachians where road races like the 208-mile Blue Ridge Relay (BRR) and even new events like Ville-to-Ville—where runners will travel some 73 miles between Asheville and Greenville, S.C.—sell out in minutes.
But the Smoky Mountain Relay (SMR), which takes place from April 20-21 this year and covers some 206 miles—often goes overlooked. Like the BRR, the SMR was modeled after the famous Hood to Coast race that takes place in the Pacific Northwest. What makes the SMR special, as least for many of the teams that have run it since it began in 2014, is that it stretches through some of the most stunning scenery you can find in our area.
Starting out at Pink Beds State Park, teams of runners—which range from six to twelve—and their support vehicles weave their way across the landscape on mostly forest roads and, in a few cases, trails and bridges. Each team will complete 36 legs—each with its own unique twists-and-turns and ups-and-downs—over the course of about 36 hours until they cross the finish line next to the roaring rapids of the Nantahala Outdoor Center.
While there is always a healthy sense of competition, most teams focus more on having fun. There are even prizes awarded for the best costume theme. Creative standouts over the years have ranged from Pac-Man and Forrest Gump to a squad of Star Wars-themed storm troopers. An all-female team called the Pussyfooters (featured image) ran clad in leopard-print gear. There has also been a team of six male runners who called themselves DILF—which rhymes with MILF, if you know what we mean—which included one runner who dressed up as a policeman who “arrested” runners from other teams while another ran his routes in a Borat-inspired thong.
The unique combination of scenery, camaraderie, and just plain zany fun is why the people who run SMR are so passionate about running it again year after year. But there’s some scuttlebutt that this year might be its last unless more teams sign up—which just baffles anyone who has run it. After all, this relay isn’t just for PR-obsessed runners; it’s also about groups of friends coming together for a wild weekend running through the woods.
John runs his final leg by focusing on putting one foot in front of the other. Left right—left right. The road hugs the Little Tennessee River, where the rising sun zaps foggy-wraiths rising from the water. He thinks he might be seeing things. With about a mile left to go, the van pulls alongside as his teammates whoop and holler their encouragement. He waves back at them. And then, with a flourish of triumphant noise, his team speeds off to the next checkpoint to await him on their way to the finish line.
“We did something special together in the dark coves and high ridges of the Great Smoky Mountains,” says John. “For a moment, we forgot about everything but fulfilling our promises to one another. Friendship is about shared experience. That is what team running is all about.”
For more information, check out smokymountainrelay.com