Tuna Run 200 - 2018 Race Report
This was my third year running the Tuna Run 200 relay race from Raleigh to Atlantic Beach, so by now I’m feeling pretty pro at it. Sleep deprivation? Check. Running fast for the team? Check. Snoring in a van? Check. Smelling like goats? Check. Making some new memories with great friends? Check check check.
I was once again Runner #9 on the 12 person relay team. As usual we had two vans of six runners each; we all gathered at the start line at Lake Benson at 5am to cheer off David, our first runner, and then my van (runners 7-12) headed off to the first major exchange zone to do a little napping (and van decorating) before we raced. Our team this year was “Taco Bellas and Fella” and we were fully embracing the taco theme: taco checkboxes for ticking off our legs, taco gear, taco van tags, taco bellas logo, and even a giant taco float that we tied to the back of the van!
The first major exchange zone is where vans one and two exchange runners and is located at the Civitan center in Four Oaks, a small town in Johnston County that doesn’t mean much to most people but is a familiar place to me. I took the opportunity to snapchat a few friends of mine from that town to say hi and remind them I’m still thinking of them.
Of course our taco van 1 rolled up to Four Oaks in style; Jill hung out the window calling out “tacospirations” - inspirational quotes that have been butchered with tacos, such as: “How cool is it that the same God who created tacos and guacamole and margaritas, looked at you and thought the world needed one of you too?”
We had a few minutes to wait for Jill A. (Mama is a Runner) to arrive, so we socialized a bit with friends on other teams such as Las Tortugas (who kindly tagged our van with a tortugas magnet and a cuddly plush turtle window cling) and chatted up other teams, such as the team from last year whose teammate Darrell ghosted on them (their van this year paid homage to that) and the BumbleBee Tuna team. It’s always fun to see returning teams and the Four Oaks Civitan center can sometimes have a reunion feel to it as runners and teams catch up with familiar faces.
Next thing we knew Jill was coming around the corner and the hand-off was done! Our van was now in action as we tackled legs 7 through 12. Natalie took off on her 9 mile leg while we headed off to the next exchange zone. We’d eaten breakfast at 6am at a diner in Four Oaks before napping and van decorating, but it was almost noon when we got to the next exchange zone, so I looked at Lauren and said with a twinkle, “Hey Lauren, want some avocado toast?!” It’s somewhat a joke that McCrae will sometimes wake up early to make some avocado toast for me before a long run; with the good fat and carbs and a bit of salt and pepper it’s pretty much the pre-long run breakfast of champions, and I was prepped for my first leg with a fresh avocado and some bread. It might not have been the toastiest avocado toast, but it hit the spot.
And soon enough it was my turn to run! In Benson I received the baton (a slap bracelet) and headed off on my 5.71 mile run.
I was runner #9 the first year I ran Tuna in 2016, so I was familiar with my second and third legs of the race, but not the first since that was the year several legs of the race (including my first leg) were washed out because of damage from Hurricane Matthew. Eastern North Carolina has suffered through quite a bit of storm damage in recent years, including this year’s devastation from Hurricane Florence and Hurricane Michael; as we raced across the state there were countless times when we ran past houses with trash bags in the front yard piled as high as the roof, full of home furnishings and family belongings destroyed by flooding.
And perhaps that’s part of the reason why I love this race: it reminds me to connect to my rural eastern NC roots and to be mindful of those rural experiences. It’s a benchmark to see how scenes from my childhood change over the years and to see how I race over the years.
So while I hadn’t actually run leg #9 before, it turned out that it overlapped significantly with my first leg from last year. The race course changes every year depending on road closures, available exchange zones, and other logistics, so after a mile into my run I was on familiar ground. Fortunately this year the weather wasn’t crazy hot and I didn’t have to stop for heavy farm machinery, but it was still a tough run. When I started my watch it freaked out and decided to spend half a mile installing updates before it started recording my run. I raced along the country roads; I knew I was pushing the pace but I had no idea how hard I was actually going. 9:20 pace? 9:10? 9:00? Maybe as low as 8:50 at times? My watch claims I did that first mile in 10:37 but it’s got a 2 minute gap of recording nothing at the start while it installed updates, and when it started recording I was holding around a 9:10 pace, so I expect 9:15 or so is more accurate for that mile.
I quickly overtook one runner, and then about halfway through the leg I finally overtook a runner I had been chasing for the first couple miles. Overall I kept the pace around 9:30 but it was a blistering pace for me: the asphalt was hot under my feet and the road was rough and banked, so my feet slid in my shoes until hot red blisters welled up on my toes and soles. I hadn’t had blisters develop on my feet in ages so it was hard to grit my teeth and push through the pain, but I came in on time and glad to hand off the slap bracelet to Lauren.
I’m pretty happy with that 9:30 pace. I’d estimated that I would run the first leg at 9:30 and I came in exactly on time. Plus this was a huge improvement from last year. Last year I’d run 4.94 miles in 10:07, though to be fair last year it was significantly hotter for that leg.
The next stop was Bentonville Battlefield, which is always an interesting stopover. Bentonville is a Civil War battleground and I remember visiting it as a kid for a field trip and seeing re-enactments on the site. (This was also where the 2016 Tuna Run re-started after the washed-out legs from Hurricane Matthew.) It’s a bit strange visiting a battlefield under racing conditions: I want to be respectful of historic site, but at the same time there’s so much excitement built up around the race that I also just want to socialize and bask in my completed first leg. Fortunately everyone at the historic site is real friendly; one guy came out and chatted about the sudden infestation of fire ants in the area.
“I’ve been spraying every day for the past week and I’ve barely made a dent,” he said with an apologetic shrug. “I’m so sorry for the ants, and please tell your friends to watch out for them.” We reassured him it was fine; if he’s not going to complain about our lack of decorum at a historic site then I certainly won’t complain about some fire ants (thank you Bentonville for kindly hosting us every year!) There also was a team sponsored by some sweet potato farmers and someone had dressed up in a sweet potato costume and another person was handing out sweet potato smoothies. I was a bit baffled at how someone gets sponsored by sweet potatoes and a little surprised by the smoothies, but they tasted thick and earthy with a hint of cinnamon, and I was happy for anything cold.
After Lauren handed off the slap bracelet to Jessica we all headed off to the cotton field across from the battleground. There always seems to be one person on my team who has never seen cotton up close and in person, so it’s actually kinda fun to see them in awe of the crop, squeezing the cotton between their fingers and exclaiming, “It really does feel just like a cotton ball!” Natalie modeled in the cotton field while Lauren showed off her gymnastics skills and I finally fulfilled my dream of taking photos of people in a ripe cotton field.
From Bentonville we headed to Selah Christian Church, the last stop before the next major exchange zone and the promise of dinner and a few winks before our night legs. By this time it was late afternoon and we were running off very little sleep, so we were excited about our upcoming respite and seeing our friends in the other van near Mt. Olive at the big exchange zone.
It’s always a party when Heather, Lauren, Jill and I get together. I wasn’t surprised to find the tres capitanes playing around on the playground so of course I joined with my camera.
And then, all too soon, Amanda was coming in to hand off the baton to David in van 1 for his next leg.
We got dinner at a long-standing favorite Mexican restaurant in Mt. Olive (it’s a favorite for both its food and convenience) and then headed to Pink Hill Elementary School to camp out and get a few hours of sleep while the other van ran their legs. I’d camped out at Pink Hill last year in my hammock and did alright, but this year I was able to set up my hammock in a darker and quieter corner near the playground and actually got a few REM cycles in. And when you’re massively tired and have a fully belly and you’ve just run a 5.71 mile PR there’s nothing more satisfying than putting your feet up in a hammock and getting forty winks.
All too soon though it was time for us to get ready to run again. At 11:30pm we packed up our gear and got ready for van 1 to arrive at the big exchange zone. With sparklers. Because of course we did. I got out my tripod because I was eager to try out some long exposure night photos - trying to get a long streak of light from headlamps and safety lights while freezing the subject with flash at the end of the exposure. It was fun to experiment, though I think I’ll have better luck with a more controlled environment and more time to adjust my settings. (Soooo hey who wants to go on a night run for me while I take photos?!)
Soon enough it was my turn to run. I was running the 2am leg of 5.62 miles. Ahhh the night run. This is usually my favorite part of Tuna. At this point we’re in dark sky country and the stars are usually incredible, the roads are clear and open, and it’s just such a unique and moving experience to run past open fields by the silver light of the moon and the bobbing light of my headlamp. This year, however, it was cloudy, and my vanmates lamented with me that the stars were hidden on that muggy night. My feet hurt like crazy from the blisters, and odd noises rustled in the brush on the road shoulders at my feet, but I pushed on, and briefly towards the end of my run the skies opened a little and some stars peeked out. It wasn’t the big full glorious dark sky I was hoping for, but yet that short window of cloudbreak felt like a blessing just for me.
Even though the run felt harder than I thought it should have, and even though it didn’t turn out to be 5.6 miles of dark sky star-watching bliss, I still managed to run my fastest time for a night run. The first year I ran the leg I did it in average pace of 10:29 with my dual-team partner (we ran two teams - 24 runners - that year and everyone ran with a partner). Last year I did my 4.2 mile night run with a pace of 9:52 per mile. This year I managed to crank it down to 9:43 per mile - not bad! I love seeing constant improvement at least.
We grabbed our pre-paid burgers and veggie burgers at the Comfort fire station (the volunteers there sell food as a fundraiser) and then shortly after Amanda left Trent River Campground for her 6.4 mile leg I passed out in the van and I didn’t really come to until 8am. I slept through the hand-off from Amanda to van 1 and stay snuggled under my blanket in the van until noises outside at the following major exchange zone woke me. Pancakes! The Methodist church that hosted the final major exchange zone also fundraises through serving meals, and I was so happy for pancakes. (Breakfast foods are the best foods. Everyday, no matter what time!) Our anticipation was growing; we were getting close to the beach!
Tuna 200 technically requires you to run on average a 10:00 pace, and our team was averaging ever so slightly slower than that. We were about 30 minutes ahead of our predicted time, but even so we didn’t want to be late to the party at the finish line. If a team starts to fall behind you’re allowed to start another runner before the last runner comes in, which is exactly what we did. We started our van’s next legs before van 1 arrived at the exchange zone, noting the time and circumstances with the race volunteers. So at 9:30 Hannah took off for her third leg and we propelled the team forward sans slap bracelet.
It was during my 5.94 leg that van 1 caught up. I was running on the bike path, struggling more than a bit with the heat and humidity and blisters and the fact that my phone had finished up the audiobook I had been listening to and I didn’t have much else to distract me, when, like a mirage on the long flat beach highway, our van 1 appeared, taco float strapped to the hood and Heather in just a sports bra and rain jacket halfway out of the passenger window cheering me on like I was a star athlete. I wish I had a picture of that van speeding down the highway with Heather hanging out the window, but lucky for me I won’t forget that sight anytime soon.
Heather ran back a little ways from the exchange zone to meet me and hand me the slap bracelet and take a few photos - proof that I was actually at the race since I tend to be behind the camera instead of the subject. I was just so happy to have the slap bracelet back; it’s just so satisfying to slap it onto the next runner’s wrist and watch them speed off.
It was a tough leg - I was tired, the leg is a little boring, and I had some focus issues - but I was still really close to my predicted pace. I’d estimated that by my third leg I’d be tired and would run a 10:00 pace; I ended up running a 10:06 pace with a couple really tough moments along mile 5 but with enough gas in the tank to crank out sub-9:00 pace for the last third mile (which is basically when I came in sight of the exchange zone and decided to belt it out to the finish).
At this point we were speeding along from Emerald Isle to Salter Path to Atlantic Beach, so tantalizingly close to the end. We could taste the salt air, we hungered for the seared tuna at the finish line, and we were maybe a little delirious from lack of sleep. Which might have explained why we took the Las Tortugas plush window cling, tied it up with taco lights, and sent a pic with a ransom to our friends on Las Tortugas demanding 1000 tacos in an unmarked paper bag at the finish line. (Needless to say they did not oblige. Guac-ward!)
And then YES we were crossing the finish line! We’d done it! Once again we’d run from Raleigh to Atlantic Beach just for a paper tub of tuna and to dip our toes into the ocean. So totally worth it, like always.