This race report is from 2014 since then the Kentucky Bourbon Chase has been taken over by Ragnar Relays but the course is basically the same.
Although I have run many a marathon, up until now I had never run a multistage relay, so it did not take a lot of convincing to get me to head for the hills of Kentucky with the Canadian Club team for the 200 mile Bourbon Chase. Our highly organized leader Dave Morton had everything arranged, all I had to do was show up. In fact, even now, driving home from the race I am not sure I could find Kentucky on a map.
We met in Ottawa at a Starbucks which was an appropriate spot as trips to Starbucks were to play a key role in the days that followed. We drove to Syracuse, picked up a rental 12 seat van and drove 15 or so hours with an overnight stop, to Louisville Kentucky. The race weekend started with a 70’s disco theme party under a bridge in the middle of the city. It was a great venue and the race director later told us that the rental fee was a grand total of $150! There were costumes, disco dancing and free bourbon. The free bourbon was a continuing theme for the event. I confirmed what I already knew, I don’t particularly like bourbon. But we had a good time anyway.
The race follows the Kentucky Bourbon trail, from distillery to distillery, through the hills of Kentucky and trust me when I tell you that there are hills in Kentucky. There are 36 legs in the race which can be done as teams of 12 or as an ultra-team of 6 and there were 400 teams entered. We had to be different so we entered as a regular team but we only had 9 runners, 5 in van 1 and 4 in van 2. Captain Dave built us a highly sophisticated spread sheet and estimated our completion time to be 30 hours and 30 minutes
We checked in and started the race at the James Bean distillery at 12:30 on Friday. Many of the vans including ours were decorated. We had the advantage of having a graphic designer on the team so our vans were both witty and artistic. Quite apart from the amusement factor having a decorated van made it possible for us to find it again among the sea of white 12 seat econoline vans. (it appears that all rented 12 seat vans are white econolines ) It must be an insurance company nightmare, 800 people driving through the night in large vans they were not used to driving. We got stuck in the mud in the middle of the night but escaped undamaged but we did see one with a big dent.
The teams started in waves 15 minutes apart based on estimated finish time, there were 15 teams in ours. Wendy was our first runner up and the whole team was there to see her off. Van 2 with the second half of our team then got a few hours off while our van drove to the first hand off where I took over as the second runner. My first leg was a relatively flat 6.4 miles. Most of it was beside the highway and not terribly scenic but I passed a couple of runners and I did not get lost. We continued along until leg 6 where van 2 was supposed to take over so we could have a rest. They had spent the afternoon at the next distillery on the route and when our runner arrived they were nowhere to be seen. They showed up a few minutes later after getting lost on the back roads of Kentucky. We drove to the next major hand off point the Makers Mark Distillery where we were again offered free bourbon.
My next running leg was at 9 pm at night. After dark all runners were required to wear safety vests, headlamps and red blinking lights on the back. Even through there were 400 teams they were still very spread apart at this point. The nighttime legs were all pretty straight forward but it was still a little strange running through the night along unfamiliar roads with no one in sight. The occasional red blinking light of a runner ½ a mile ahead was a reassuring sight. No matter how many times I told myself I had to be going the right way I always had a nagging feeling I was going to be lost forever in the Kentucky night.
After running our second set of legs our van of runners made a brief stop at a hotel for an hour’s sleep. We then headed off into the night again. The biggest challenge apart from the lack of sleep was that every time we stopped running we got stiffer and stiffer. It got better once you actually started to move but the first few steps were painful. Leg 3 for me was another run through the dark. There was a head wind and all the signs had blown over but there were no turns so I did not get lost. The night is still something of a blur of little sleep, a period of pouring rain and some quite pleasant running through the still of the night.
We saw the Sunrise at the Four Roses Distillery which was my favorite because in addition to the usual free bourbon they were serving chocolate bourbon balls which we all concluded were excellent for whatever aliments we had at the time! I had more than one.
I ran my final leg through some lovely country roads past fields of horses. Because the faster teams started first with the intention of all teams finishing within the same time period I also saw lots of other runners on this time.
The finish line and finish line party (which you will not be surprised to hear included bourbon tasting) was in downtown Lexington Kentucky. I waited around the corner with a Canadian Flag and the whole team crossed the line together with our final runner. They even played O Canada for us. Our finishing time was 30 hours 28 minutes, 2 minutes off our estimated time!
The finish line party consumed a couple of city blocks with food, music and many teams in costume. The party continued the next day with a tailgate party and a trip to the races all arranged by the race organizers. It was my first ever trip to a race track and I bet on the horses with the coolest names (how could you not bet on Bingo Kitty?) I came out even.
Overall it was a great experience. Incredibly organized by Captain Dave and a great group of teammates. We laughed all night, even in the pouring rain. Highly recommended even if you don’t like bourbon.
Three things I learned:
- Foam rollers are your friends, if only I had brought one!
- Everything is funny when you have only slept for an hour.
- Stepping on a frog is like stepping on a balloon filed with chocolate pudding (credit for this amazing fact goes to Shelley who stepped on one in the middle of the night and provided this remarkable description.)