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Finding inspiration in the backwoods of WNC

Certain memories or events in life stand out as paramount, like a utopian experience that seems more like a movie than reality. This past weekend was one of those for me. Over 24 hours spent running in the backwoods of Western North Carolina bolstered my faith in humanity.

The Smoky Mountain Relay is a 201.7-mile relay run where a team of men and women pass off a slap bracelet as they sweat their way up mountains, along trails, down busy highways and through beautiful countryside. When not running, the rest of the team drives a van to the next exchange point and preps a runner for the next leg of the relay. 

There’s a lot of running, a lot of socializing, very little sleep and meals comprised of nuts, granola bars and fruit. 

When a friend told me about the race last fall and encouraged me to participate, I thought he was crazy. I’m a girl who loves her sleep and the thought of running and driving around in a van for over 24 hours with basically zero shut-eye sounded exhausting, yet also slightly intriguing. 

Ultimately, when it was time to register, I said, “Sure, why not?” 

Life has taught me that if I don’t embrace adventures when they fall in my lap, they may never visit again. This relay certainly sounded like an adventure. 

The relay teams typically involve 12 people, two groups of six who take turns running six legs of the race. While one van of six is running, the other van is resting, fueling and preparing. Our team had 11 runners with five in our van and six in the other, so several folks in our van had to run extra legs of the race. 

I ran three legs, which were 2.4, 3.3 and 4.2 miles. Some of my teammates had more legs and/or much longer legs. With my triathlon training going on right now, I haven’t been solely training on running so I requested the shorter legs of the relay. And I’m thankful I did. I was insanely impressed as I watched some of my van-mates run 7 miles straight up a mountain or 11 miles through the woods. 

Of the three legs, my favorite was running 4.2 miles in the middle of the night. Remember, this race didn’t quit. It started and continued for over 30 hours straight until every team finished, so at one point or another, we were all running when the rest of the world was sleeping. 

I was a little nervous about doing this. As a woman, I was a bit leery of running by myself along a deserted country road at 1 a.m. But once I started, a sense of peace ensued. I turned off my earbuds and enjoyed the crickets and other night sounds. The clear sky was alight with stars and a stunning crescent moon. Aside from a sense of calm within, my teammates met me at certain points along the route to make sure I was OK and on track. 

I’ve never run in the middle of the night and I’m sure it’s not something I’ll do often, but it’s an experience I’ll remember forever and one that left an impact. 

The quiet. The solitude. Just the sound of my feet, my breath and nature. It was awesome. 

When my friend first asked me to do the Smoky Mountain Relay, I was skeptical. When you describe it to someone, it doesn’t sound like much fun at all, but I could see the light in his eyes when he talked about it and the impression it had on him. I wanted to feel that too. 

Besides the feeling of accomplishment for completing the athletic component of the relay, there was a social element that’s even harder to describe adequately. 

Other than my friend, I’d never met anyone else in our van or the other van. Yet, by the end of the race, we were all hugging, having beers and chatting about our kids. A sense of comradery and shared accomplishment resulted from completing such an arduous task together. 

My team of five, especially, became very close. If we weren’t running, we were in the van talking, laughing and telling stories. We had little to no cell service and didn’t listen to music. It was true human connection. 

Everyone along the course, whether other teams or local WNC folks working as volunteers, was smiling and happy. Approximately 470 individuals participated this past weekend. It was refreshing to see so many healthy, active people running and a slew of others donating their time to execute the race efficiently. 

During an era when America feels disjointed and frustrated, this race inspired me and re-affirmed my belief that good still exists in our world. Sometimes you’ve got to get away and shut out the noise to remember it’s the simple joys in life that bring true fulfillment. 

(Susanna Barbee is digital media specialist for Mountain South Media, a columnist for Smoky Mountain News and a contributing editor for Smoky Mountain Living. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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