South Charlotte

Desperate Housewives tackle Blue Ridge Relay

Jackie John had this crazy idea: find 11 women like her who wanted to run around in the mountains, straight through the night, covering 208 miles in a relay race, and have fun doing it.

Kind of like an extended girls' night out, only a lot sweatier and with less wine.

Two years and a lot of cajoling later, John's vision was realized, and it was even better than she had imagined.

John, 34, an avid runner with three marathons to her credit, first participated in the Blue Ridge Relay with a co-ed team that included a friend of hers from college. The BRR, as veterans know it, is a long-standing race that begins in Grayson Highlands State Park in Virginia and winds through the mountains to its finish in Asheville. Teams must have at least four runners, up to a maximum of 12, who rotate through 36 predefined legs of varying lengths and difficulty.

When John did it two years ago, she had a good time, but she couldn't help thinking how much more enjoyable it would be with a great group of girlfriends.

"I thought the talk would be more fun, it would smell better in the van and I thought I had a few people in mind that would do it with me. But then I got on the phone, and I had to beg and plead with people," said John.

Her good friend and seasoned runner Michele Hochstrasser, 34, was the first to sign on, and together they started building the rest of the team.

"Jackie and I talked about the right chemistry. You had to be fun. We didn't care how fast we went. We started asking people we knew who could be in a van, dirty, sweaty, with no sleep. It was about finding people with the right attitude," said Hochstrasser.

They recruited well.

All 12 women are married and between them they have 24 children from 1 to 12 years of age. They called their team the Desperate Housewives, drove to the race in vans covered with blown-up photos of their children crying and donned team shirts that depict a ponytailed woman holding a martini glass and running away from the kids in her wake.

"Our vans set us apart from everybody. Other women would run by and say 'I want to be a desperate housewife!'" said Ashley Smith, runner No. 8 on the team.

Their collective sense of humor carried them over steep inclines, down gravel roads and through eerily deserted rural areas in the middle of the night, all the while calling out to one another on megaphones with jokes, encouragement, singing and a free-spiritedness most of their kids would be shocked to see.

"We were so crazy out there, and I think we got a reputation. People would say 'We heard about you! You were the ones dancing on the van,'" said Krista Wilson, runner No. 3.

According to BRR rules, the team had to split into two groups and remain in the same running rotation throughout the event, until every runner has completed three legs.

One vehicle is considered "active," dropping runners off then driving ahead to the next exchange point, while the other is "resting" off the course.

Van one began the race at 8 a.m. on Sept. 9, kicking off the team's 30 hours and 37 minutes of consecutive running. The 36 sections of the race vary in length from 2.4 miles to 10 miles, and organizers rate them as easy, moderate, hard, very hard or MG hard. MG stands for mountain goat, indicating the extreme inclines featured in two of the later legs of the race.

Wendy Bentien ran the 31st leg, 6.5 miles rated MG hard with a gain in elevation of 1,398 feet.

"It was an out-of-body experience. I kept thinking I'd walk some, but then I'd keep running," said Bentien.

Before the race, the team's big concerns were where and when to use the bathroom, and what to do if they encountered animals or unsavory characters during their nighttime run.

Kate Lee ran the 5.6-mile 23rd leg around 2 a.m.

"I could hear dogs. Other than that, you just hear your breath." It's so dark, you can't see but like 3 feet in front of you with the headlamp. I don't know why, but it was my favorite run. I felt like there was no competition."

There wasn't, really, because these ladies weren't worried about their time, their pace or their finish.

"It was sort of funny because we were not a competitive hard core team, and there are a lot of those," said Wilson.

The Desperate Housewives did a lot of hugging, especially in the exchange zones. It was particularly emotional for Wilson, who had never run a race of any length before.

"There was not a single person on this team that cared how we did," said Smith.

Finishing the race is an huge accomplishment on its own, but for these women, the BRR was much more meaningful than mileage.

"I felt like the running experience should have been the best part of it, but the camaraderie in the van was the best part," said Christy Parbst, runner No. 1.

Tara Bailey, runner 12, and the only member of the team that doesn't live in south Charlotte (she's from Charleston), couldn't agreed.

"Even though I only knew Wendy (Bentien) before the race, and I just met the rest of them the day before, everyone made me feel so comfortable," said Bailey. "It's such an intense, emotional, incredible weekend, and I was so impressed with everyone."

When the Housewives gathered for a reunion dinner in late October, they spoke of the race experience reverentially.

They are a boisterous, passionate group and their energy is contagious. So much so that Women who said "No way!" to John's request two years ago are now asking for another chance.

Which begs the question: Will the Desperate Housewives be together again for BRR in September 2012? All 12 voices responded with a resounding, "Yes!"

"This experience was, by far, more than I could've ever imagined. These are my great friends. I can share anything with them; I can do anything with them - they are amazing people," said John. "I want to do this with them every year until I can't walk anymore."