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Real Deal' Asheville team takes on 208-mile relay

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9/6/2012 - 'Real Deal' Asheville team takes on 208-mile relay
by Karen Chavez - Asheville Citizen Times

ASHEVILLE -- Running in the wind and snow? Been there.

Running at 5 a.m. before heading off to run a small business? Done that. Running in between babysitters and breast feedings? Done that, too. That's why these 12 Asheville women are "The Real Deal."

The running dozen -- a collection of friends, colleagues and acquaintances ranging in age from 20s to 40s -- will set off this weekend as team The Real Deal to compete in the eighth annual Blue Ridge Relay, a 208-mile footrace that starts Friday in Grayson County, Va., and ends more than 24 hours later in downtown Asheville.

Some are looking forward to the race as one of life's exciting challenges, some as a wild and crazy girls weekend, and some, a mini vacation from the kids.

"We do a lot of races together and were intrigued by something different," said Rachel Bemis, 41, the Real Deal team captain. "We've done them all -- half marathons, Thomas Wolfe 8K, Biltmore Classic 15K -- we just thought the Blue Ridge Relay looked fun and different, and the idea was born."

The team comprises Bemis, human resources director with Mission Medical Associates, and a core group of friends who have been running together for five years, and other runner girls they have coaxed into the race along the way.

"We meet every Wednesday and Friday at the crack of dawn, no matter what the weather -- rain, snow, ice, cold, dark, light -- and every Sunday for a longer run," Bemis said.

"We're working professionals, moms with very busy, hectic lives, but we have made running a priority for years, through personal tragedies, happy things, new jobs, babies being born, we've been through it all. We're the real deal."

Armed with a confident team name, an extended training plan, and matching hot pink shirts, the group has prepped for the past few months for the adventure that will take them on a nonstop running relay through the backwoods, the Blue Ridge Mountains and dark of a moonless Southern Appalachian night, without a break.

The race begins Friday and ends Saturday at the Mellow Mushroom on Walnut Street in downtown Asheville.

Relay racing on the rise

In its eighth year, the Blue Ridge Relay is bigger than ever. Even with its grueling reputation, race director Ken Sevensky of Blue Ridge Endurance said it grows every year, with 140 teams this year hailing from across the country. He even had to turn some teams away.

The race follows mountainous, backcountry roads, starting at 6:30 a.m. Friday in waves from slower to faster runners. It continues through the night, ending Saturday at the Mellow Mushroom -- a change from past years, when it ended at Roger McGuire Green.

Teams of 4-12 runners rotate through 36 legs along the 208-mile course, rotating in a set order once the race begins, with a support van carrying supplies and the other teammates and supplies, Sevensky said.

It passes through seven counties, gains more than 12,000 feet of elevation and drops 14,000 feet over the course. Vans are not allowed to "shadow" runners, who must carry maps and headlamps to find their way until the next transition.

One of the longest relay races in the country, the Blue Ridge Relay is popular with runners in Asheville. In 2011, the winning team was the Asheville Running Collective, a 12-member, all-male team sponsored by Myers Chiropractic, Jus' Running and Foot Rx Running, which set a new course record in 20 hours, 24 minutes.

"We have more than 15 teams specifically from Asheville," Sevensky said. "It's probably one of the biggest cities that sends teams, after Charlotte and Raleigh."

The race is a fundraiser for the Ashe County affiliate of Habitat for Humanity and the High Country Toy Run, which provides toys and winter clothing for 800 children in Ashe, Avery and Watauga counties.

This year there are more women than ever, Sevensky said, with 17 all-women's teams and 30 coed teams. The biggest appeal, he said, is the challenge.

"It's a combination of people -- elite runners, and men and women who have a passion for running full lives and full-time jobs," he said.

Girls' weekend

Amanda Herbert, a school counselor for Buncombe County schools, and mom of two, said she had to be coaxed a little by Bemis and her running friends to join the Real Deal.

"I needed some encouragement, but a big part of me that really wanted to do it from the very beginning," said Herbert, who will run 18.2 miles over three legs in the relay. "For me, it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience with a great group of women, and I like the challenge. I'm looking at it as a time of camaraderie, just a really fun, special time."

Chrissie Gulden, 42, executive director or WNC Group Homes, said she signed up for the fun and the challenge.

"The time commitment of training with my running group is a gift I give myself three or four days a week," said Gulden, who has two children and is also working toward a masters degree. "Working full time, raising children and being in graduate school does not leave a lot of down time, but finding the time to run keeps me grounded."

Marlene Clevenger, 42, only started running last year, but was so enthralled by the sport, she has done more than 30 races and jumped at the chance to join the Real Deal.

"I don't have kids, and I was looking for something to excite me," said Clevenger, manager of Jewels That Dance. "I love things that are over the top. I always want to do the next big thing."

For Kelley Conley, 29, the big thing about the Blue Ridge Relay will be getting out of the house. The West Asheville mom of three gave birth to her youngest daughter five months ago and has not left her children since her first, now 4, was born.

"The girls just called me (a couple of weeks ago) because someone dropped out," Conley said. "I got the email in the middle of the night when I was nursing my baby. It doesn't seem like something that I would have said yes to, but my husband said he's been trying to get me to go do something for four years."

Conley said she ran right up until giving birth, and began running again two weeks after, so she feels ready.

"I'm just in it for the vacay. I'm really excited about the running aspect and the team and being supportive of one another," she said. "It takes a lot to get me to leave my kids."

For Bemis, a mom of two young girls, it almost seems the hard part is over before the running begins.

"The running will be easy compared to the planning," she said. "Trying to coordinate 12 busy women, raising kids, running around, going to soccer and dance, making rosters, meetings, T-shirts, getting van rental, hotel, night lights, easing everyone's fears as best I can about getting lost on the night run..."

She has made sure everyone knows their route -- each woman will run three legs for a total of about 22 miles. She cut out laminated maps of every leg for the women to pin to their pinks shirts so they won't get lost.

They are traveling in two vans, with cases of water, Gatorade and food, changes of clothes and lots of baby wipes for "bathing" on the go, while sharing driving, navigating and cheerleading duties.

Bemis will be the first runner off.

"It's a really different kind of race -- no kids, no husbands -- it's just really fun for us as girls to spend time together and have dinner away from home," she said.

"There are some people on the team who are more competitive than others. My goal is to do it for fun, just doing something different and spending time with my girls. It's been worth it already and we haven't even done it yet."

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