Chasing Bourbon with Running and Vice Versa: The Bourbon Challenge

I’ve been fortunate enough to do some really fun and bizarre things in my life – at 16 I hung out with a doped up Dennis Rodman as he tried to talk two models into a threesome – but I rank the Bourbon Challenge right up there with the all-time highlights.

Chase map

Each October, 300 12-person teams run a 200 mile relay through Bourbon County from Louisville (more or less) to Lexington. The race is designed to take about 24 hours, with each runner responsible for three legs at ~5 miles each. You can do the math, but that means you run more or less every 8 hours over the course of a day. Because the runs are so short and spread out, you can basically hit each leg at 10K pace. I mean yeah, eventually, the effects of the cumulative effort and hours without sleep catch up with you, but until it does, you really fly.

Several things make this race a once in a lifetime experience:

  • Logistics: While awful in many respects, the sheer lunacy of the logistics of moving 12 people through a 200 mile running relay contribute to the fun, confusion, panic and general tumult of the race. Each team has two seven-person vans to drive runners from relay checkpoint to checkpoint (each team is required to supply its own non-running drivers. These people are literal saints). The runners from one van will run seven consecutive legs, making this van “on” while the runners from the other van are “off” and try to find a good parking spot on the side of the road to get a couple of hours of sleep while crammed into uncomfortable seats with sweaty, stinky runners. The “on” van has to drop its runner, wait for the handoff, CHEER LIKE HELL, then collect the finished runner and hurry ahead to the next stop to do it all again. After six such hops (about 6 hours) the “off” van becomes “on” and starts the whole process again. What this means is that over 6 hours you get a bunch of short bursts of wild cheering, mad dashing (and getting lost) and one really fast (and fun) run. Then you take six hours off, eat something and try, almost surely unsuccessfully, to sleep. It’s more awesome, unpredictable, boring and memorable than I can hope to describe
  • Spirit: I’ve never been at a running event with such good natured, spirited participants. All the ITK teams show up with vans decorated to reflect the team’s name / spirit / favorite color / whatever. Similarly outrageous outfits adorn the more creative and fun teams. People take this race with the appropriate amount of seriousness. That is to say, they run hard when they’re up and just have fun in between. The lack of sleep and need to psych yourself up to run at night, really helps set the tone of pandemonium. But here’s the kicker: the runners are also the fans. Because at any given time, 13/14 runners from each team aren’t running, they’re cheering. Ever wonder what it would be like to run a marathon where everybody cheering was also running (and vice versa)? Yeah, it’s the most enthusiastic group of spectators / runners I’ve ever seen. All around, it’s like no other race I’ve experienced.

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  • Bourbon: The organizers (who are simply top notch) do a great job of taking advantage of the locale. Many of the hand-offs are at distilleries, including Jim Beam, Heaven Hill, Four Roses and Wild Turkey. And you’re not just there to pass the baton, but to tour, explore and taste. My team made the most out of our surroundings and at least a few of us tasted at each distillery. Hey, you’ve got several hours before the next run and when is the next time I’m going to be at the Knob Creek distillery?
  • TURKEY: So this one will only apply to me, but I was fortunate to run with the Wild Turkey team, comprised almost exclusively of employees of Wild Turkey. Running the Bourbon Challenge with the guys who make Wild Turkey 101 is a pretty cool thing to have on your resume. Not only were my teammates top notch, passionate and incredibly knowledgeable (about bourbon) people, but they were great fun and good runners. In addition, Wild Turkey and corporate parent Campari treated us incredibly well, springing for t-shirts, turkey calls, 1st class vans and just as much Gatorade as we could handle. We even got a story written about us in something called the Urban Llama.

Sadly, my buddy at Wild Turkey moved on to another job shortly after the race. When he told me he was leaving I practically begged him to stay so that we could run the race again. Alas, he had other priorities.

Not me. If Wild Turkey ever comes calling, I’ll take the job just for this perk.

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