A talk with Ray Russell as he runs the Blue Ridge Parkway

Ray Russell (center) pauses during his parkway run for a photo op with friends. Photo courtesy of relaywithray.com
Ray Russell (center) pauses during his parkway run for a photo op with friends. Photo courtesy of relaywithray.com

Parkway and people.

Those are the two words that Ray Russell, a professor at Appalachian State University and owner of Ray’s Weather Center or raysweather.com, used to describe his experience thus far on his relay to help raise awareness and donations for the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation.

“The relay is a celebration of the parkway” said Russell, a board member on the Blue Ridge Parkway Association. “It is also been about the people we’ve met along the way, the people we’ve encountered, and the people who helped make this relay happen.”

“Relay with Ray,” the title of his relay, began on May 17 in Waynesboro, Virginia. He described his first day out as one that was thick with fog as well as one that was quite cold for his audience.

“When we started on May 17 in Waynesboro, it was 50 degrees – rain, fog, and it was dreary – and we needed to work in order to stay warm that first day,” Russell said. “It was cool – and that’s actually good running weather. For runners, there is a rule to running that if it’s comfortable to spectators it’s uncomfortable for the runners, and when it’s uncomfortable for the spectators it is comfortable for us runners.”

This is the first time Russell has ever run the parkway, and this year is especially important in significance because it is the 100 year anniversary of the National Park Service.

“We are trying to celebrate the parkway in the centennial year of the park system, and we just wanted to call attention to all the good things that are there, the needs that are there and how people can be involved in supporting the park service – particularly the Blue Ridge Parkway,” he said.

You're under arrest...not really. Photo courtesy of relaywithray.com
You’re under arrest…not really. Photo courtesy of relaywithray.com

According to his blog, relaywithray.com, the inspiration for the relay was not only in celebration of the National Park service, but it’s been something that Russell had been planning to do for years.

“I’ve had the idea for five years… wouldn’t it be cool to run the entire Blue Ridge Parkway?” wrote Russell in his post “Gentle on the Land.” “When the Blue Ridge Parkway was conceived in the 1930s, I doubt anyone imagined someone would be so foolish as to run it. The road was built for cars!

“Stanley Abbott was the original Parkway Architect. One of his design principles was to build a road that would ‘lay gently on the land.’ I want to ‘feel’ the process that shaped the road.”

With help from a few fellow forecasters, the diversity of people who join in on his daily runs and the people cheering him on through commenting on his blog, Russell said his main support comes from his wife, Rhonda, as he makes it through each and every day on the relay – who, he said, even ran 12 miles with him one day.

“I have a support team, and that support team has mostly included my wife for the last couple weeks,” Russell said. “The director of development for raysweather.com, David Still, started with me – he is my support by taking care of water and fuel, things like that and getting me from A to B.

“But Ronda has been with me since Roanoke, Virginia.”

Russell posts to his blog after every daily run – even when his dead tired, he said he still types up all he can every night for his devoted audience.

Ray and friend running with a view. Photo courtesy of relaywithray.com
Ray and friend running with a view. Photo courtesy of relaywithray.com

His most viewed post would be Day 14, which was the Memorial Day weekend run. That entire run was dedicated to his son-in-law who passed away in Baghdad.

“That day (Memorial Day Weekend post) I got more feedback by far more than any other day,” Russell said. “I did a little tribute to our son-in-law, and that was difficult one for me to write.”

Russell shared that while this may be the first time for the relay, he also said that it will be the last. As he has been running the parkway, he said it has taken a quite a toll on him physically. Not far into his run Russell suffered a torn muscle right above his ankle, which he says has been his biggest obstacle to overcome so far.

What has been his greatest triumph? To him, he said it will be finishing this relay.

“This is such a punishing physical activity, I can’t imagine doing it again,” he said. “I mean, I’m a good runner – not a great one, but a good one. I know people who could do this better and faster than me – maybe a thousand people could.

“Every day I try to go out and do it as well as I can, but I leave enough in the tank so that I can get back out there the next day and do it again. Managing that has been my greatest triumph.”

However exhausting as this relay was, he said his interest for the parkway has not changed.

“The parkway has been important to us since about the time we moved up here to North Carolina,” he said. “It’s such a unique entity. It’s a thin ribbon of land that connects Shenandoah National Park to the Great Smokey Mountains National Park.

“Meteorologically, as a forecaster, it is the most important geographical feature in the Eastern U.S. for doing weather forecasting because it affects the weather so much. It was the huge barrier for the settlers who were trying to go west. It was the point where the settlers got to and said ‘oh crap we aren’t going any farther!’”

The Blue Ridge Parkway, Russell said, has a lot to offer to not just forecasters such as him, but it should be experienced by everyone.

“As we become more urbanized, so many people do not understand the wilderness, the forest, being outside, being connected with nature – we lose because of that,” he said. “We’ve lost something in our background, our culture and in who we are in the urbanization of our society. Having the parkway available to us is vital to connect to our kids and ourselves with what wilderness and living outdoors is like.”

“It may be even more important now for us to protect the parkway.”

There are a lot of current threats to the Blue Ridge parkway’s vitality, but Russell said the major issue lies in its funding.

“Budgets are always a threat,” he said. “As the federal budget gets squeezed, it becomes very difficult to keep the funding that is necessary. The National Park Service is so underfunded.

“It’s just difficult times.”

This is the heart of the relay, raising awareness about the importance of the parkway and trying to get donations from citizens so that everyone can enjoy its legacy.

“It’s one thing to start something like this,” Russell said. “It’s another thing to finish it.”

Russell just passed through Asheville on June 5, and is headed on his way towards the end, which will be in Cherokee Thursday, June 9.

Russell added he’s looking forward to coming back to greet his new grandson, which he said he hopes that the baby can wait just a few more days for the relay to be over before coming into the world.

You can check out relaywithray.com to find Russell’s daily run plans or to check out his posts, or you can check out your local weather on raysweather.com.

For those interested in donating, you can find out more information at brpfoundation.org.

“I want to see every curve and undulation,” Russell wrote on his blog. “I want to see things even a cyclist would not notice. I want to photograph every overlook, admire every bridge, and meet as many people as I can.”

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About Jane Morrell
My name is Jane Morrell and I am a student from Troy University in Alabama. I am working as an intern for the Mountain Xpress over the summer. Follow me on Twitter @JaneMorrell2 Follow me @JaneMorrell2

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