State 20: Tennessee (2012 Oak Barrel Half Marathon)

I can’t properly describe my experience at the 2012 Oak Barrel Half Marathon without first going into some recent history involving some running gear.  If you’re only interested in the race recap, please skip the following section and begin with “The Race.”  Fair warning, though, I will probably make a few references in the recap to the gear in the next sections, which might be confusing if you skip it.

Let’s Back Things Up A Bit …

Five weeks ago, I ran the Little Rock Marathon.  Because of a personal blunder (packing my shoes into my checked bag) and United’s merger-caused incompetence, I had to race all 26.2 miles in brand new shoes and clothes.  I was a nervous wreck at the starting line but somehow managed to cross the finish intact and with a personal best (so much for learning anything).  I saw my pace group leader at the end of the race and told him about my time.  “You should keep those shoes,” he said with a proud smile.

Packet Pickup was in a barn – very folksy

And keep them I did.  Since they were about 26% lighter than my regular trainers and fit my gait nicely, I started running on them.  Three weeks after Little Rock, I used them to run a blazing PR at the Shamrock Shuffle 8k (32:01) in Chicago.  They felt fast and my confidence levels were soaring.  With my times getting significantly faster, I thought I had discovered my new favorite shoe.  Around the same time I started demo’ing Motorola’s new MOTOACTV Fitness Tracker and Music Player.  As someone who never runs with music, I was suddenly dashing down my training grounds at dangerous speeds.  Every time a new song would come on, I would change my pace and cadence to match the song’s beat.  I felt unstoppable.

But after a particularly fast 15-miler, my left foot decided enough was enough.

I had gone five months without an injury.  My knee had been acting up in October, leading up to the New York City Marathon, but I ran it without major issues and finished with a good time.  In the four months that followed, my body was structurally sound, not a single complaint from any muscle or joint.  I even stopped stretching and PR’d four times in that time period – everything was going well.  That is, until I started running intensely in different shoes.

That was last Saturday.  Since then my left foot had felt … off.  It didn’t hurt and I wasn’t limping.  It just didn’t feel right.  There was some tightness and a little discomfort, but nothing searing or even worthy of serious complaint.  But I tend to assume the worst and treat it as such, so I limited my running that week to just three miles on Thursday, opting to do stair climbing exercises instead.  With an especially intense racing schedule coming up, I didn’t want to ruin it all by breaking a bone.  But that wouldn’t mean I’d bow out of the Oak Barrel Half Marathon.  So it was with this mix of caution and obstinacy that I found myself in Lynchburg, Tennessee, at the start of a half marathon, very uncertain and nervous.

The Race

The race started right on time at 8 AM.  Otter decided to hang back and line up with the 8-minute sign, while Regan and I stayed closer to the 7-minute runners.  Regan was a new addition to these marathon trips.  He was a fellow Pike at Northwestern with me who ran his first half last October and shamed me with a 1:35 finish, which at the time was faster than my PR.  I guess he ran cross country or track in high school and has excellent muscle memory.  We also duel in 8k races in Chicago, but this was the first half we race together.  With an impressive 1:32 PR, he was the man to beat.  However, he too was experiencing some toe pain, so his confidence wasn’t very high.

Lynchburg Town Square

Earlier in the day, I had jogged around the parking lot of Lynchburg’s Wiseman Park to test out my own foot troubles.  It felt fine, which was very reassuring.  But would it hold up over the 13.1-mile distance?

Well, I thought.  No time to think about that now.  The Oak Barrel Half Marathon is a large loop up and around the hills of Lynchburg, Tennessee, and the first two miles were mostly flat.  “I think I’m going to start off with a few 7:30s,” I told Regan a few minutes before the national anthem.  “Slow down up Whiskey Hill and then maybe throw down some 7:15s.”  He thought that sounded good and agreed to run with me for the first few miles until the hill.  See, around mile 3.7 the course begins to rise.  Organizers affectionately call this part of the race “Whiskey Hill,” and have even given it a portrait and its own Facebook Page, where it posts anything from truculent and intimidating statuses to open questions about growing a mustache or running for office.  But the actual hill itself was anything but silly.

Finish Line

Up until this point, Regan and I had been running in the low 7s, which was PR pace for me.  It’s become standard race practice for me to start off much faster than I intend, but this time I fault Regan for blazing the trail.  Temperatures were in the mid 40′s, crisp humidity was keeping us cool and winds were barely more than breezy.  The thick forest that surrounded the race’s two-lane road provided ample shade.  In such conditions, who wouldn’t be out for a five star performance?  Plus, my left foot wasn’t acting out yet, which made those first four miles easy to cover at a 7:10 pace.

That is, until Whiskey Hill.

By mile 3, most runners had already stopped jockeying for position, everyone running their target pace.  But right at mile 3.7, as the earth rose before us, runners became sloggers and a few let themselves walk.  Regan and I kept a brisk pace, averaging 7:12 with the delicate incline.  But every time the course turned, the road would snap upward just a little more, putting more stress on our legs.  We didn’t stop running, even though we were now at a 7:40 pace.  A little up the road, there was a speaker hidden in the woods blaring a twangy banjo tune.  It felt like we were in line for Splash Mountain, except with more panting and fewer people.  I smiled at the folksiness of it all, but not for long, as the worst part of Whiskey Hill remained ahead of us.  Runners who had decided to run a little more conservatively were left behind, victims of the hill’s mighty slope.  But even we would get sapped completely with the final two switchbacks.  As if mocking us, the course cracks upward even more for the last hundred feet, putting some serious hurt in our legs.  There were spectators at the top of the climb with speakers, blaring 80′s power anthems, enjoying the schadenfreude with every new victim.  The worst was over.

Just before mile 12

“I almost puked there,” Regan said as the music faded into the background and we tackled a delightfully flat stretch of road.  We reached mile 5 and clocked an 8:25 mile.  Whiskey Hill definitely left an indelible mark on our pace.  Now it was time to undo the damage.

From there to the finish was all downhill with a few exceptions.  Whiskey Hill had put me on my last gear and it had taken me a few minutes to get my heart rate back down to below threshold pace.  But once back in the low 7s, it was time to focus and keep my head up.  There was one more dastardly switchback just after mile 6 that caught us all by surprise, but once over that sinister ridge, we were faced with a very consistent downhill.  At this point, we were following a reliable pattern: I would use my stork legs to leap my way down and put some distance ahead of Regan, only to have him catch up on uphills and aid stations.  We slingshot like this for several miles until we reached mile 10, where we were almost locked, stride for stride.  By mile 11, he had pulled slightly ahead, but only enough to block the wind.

That’s when my foot started to act out.  It wasn’t a sharp pain, but a dull discomfort that gave me pause.  By this point, we were in the high 6s, charging our way through Lynchburg’s tree-lined roads, the possibility of a PR becoming very real.  I didn’t start this race with the intention of posting a fast time, but by now it was inevitable … almost.  If I could just stay in Regan’s shadow …

But I couldn’t.  I stopped at the last aid station at mile 11.5 for the last swig of Gatorade before the final stretch.  Regan, however, did not.  At that point, he put considerable distance between us, a gap that felt unassailable.  We were now on the main road that feeds into Lynchburg, running on the shoulder.  The downhill had ended and it was all flat until the finish line.  Regan was ahead of me by about forty yards.  Every time I tried to surge, my kick only lasted for about ten seconds before I’d dip back to my established cadence.  An ambulance zoomed past me going in the opposite direction around mile 12.  I hate it when that happens because it reminds me that people do get hurt in these events.  You can’t help but suddenly hear your heart pounding in your head, your frantic breaths becoming louder and more savage.  If I push too hard, it could be me in the back.  But I pushed the thought away and made another attempt to reel in my competitor.

My last surge, like all the others, was in vain.  Regan was getting faster while my feet were getting heavier.  We passed the Jack Daniel’s Distillery on our left just before the 13th mile marker.  Alright, I thought.  My foot might be pretty beaten after this race, so I might as well just give it everything I have.  I began my karate chop sprint and propelled myself forward, cutting sharply into the Lynchburg Town Square where the finish line beckoned me.  I heard the announcer call my name as I crossed the mat in 1:33:58.  God’s country had become PR territory.

Post-Race Discoveries

Domination.  Picture courtesy of Otter.

Regan finished in 1:33:34 and Otter landed a PR to the tune of 1:48 even.  We went back to the car with our awesome wooden medals and changed into dry clothes before returning to the post-race food party.  In addition to the typical staples, organizers had provided chocolate milk, pasta, pancakes and pizza.  It was an excellent race, very well put together and with lots of impressive souvenirs.  In addition to a long-sleeve tech shirt, all runners got a wicking hat and a unique wooden medal with the Oak Barrel and Jack Daniel’s logos.  On top of that, every single volunteer and spectator was extremely warm and approachable.  The race really embodied that Southern hospitality that everyone lauds.

Age Group Podium! Picture courtesy of Otter.

Later in the day, Otter went to get a Jack Daniel’s souvenir for his coworker.  In the store, a friendly local congratulated us on our finishes.

“Where are y’all from?” she asked.

“Chicago,” Regan answered.

“Oh, they were talking about a young man from Chicago who’s tryin’ to run all fifty states,” she said matter-of-factly.  “They said this was his twentieth.”

I told her that was me with a cocky grin.  During the registration process, the Oak Barrel asks if you have any neat stories or stats about yourself, so I told them this was an important milestone in my quest to run all fifty states.  I didn’t actually think they would announce it at the finish line, but they did.  I was just too busy getting rehydrated to hear it.

“It’s you?” she asked and turned to the woman behind the register.  “This is the young man I was talkin’ about!”

We stayed talking to them for a few minutes before heading to lunch at the Barbecue Caboose, a small greasy spoon in the Town Square.  While there we exchanged race stories with a young man who won the 20-24 age group.  The food was okay but at that point, I was so ravenous that I would have eaten my bib and loved it.  Once done with lunch, we returned to the post-race party to find that they had printed out preliminary results and pasted them on a store wall.  I never check results on-site, but I was curious to see how close Regan and I had gotten to an age group award.

And lo and behold, we weren’t just close, we were second and third!  I got third place in my age group!  As a 29-year old male, it’s damn near impossible to place in my age group.  But somehow, in this race of 1,000 people, Regan and I had beat the competition, save one fleet footed young man who ran a 1:27.  I was never competitive in sports in high school or college, so I have no trophies to speak of.  But now I do!  We stayed for the awards ceremony where we were given a piece of an actual Jack Daniel’s oak barrel, engraved with the race logo and the smell of burnt charcoal.  It was a moment to remember, an awesome stamp on my running passport.

After getting to know the Jack Daniel’s distillery, we drove back to Nashville, where we spent the night hopping from one bar to the next, each one with its own live band.  From blues-inspired country to honky tonk, Broadway was the place to be.  With Yazoo beers and a delicious plate of pork shoulder in our bellies, we officially declared the weekend a rousing success.  Not only did the three of us run a fast race, but we basked in good old-fashioned southern hospitality and in the process, I conquered my twentieth state.  If you’re anywhere near Lynchburg, Tennessee in early April, do yourself a favor and run this race.  Most races don’t get this good in their tenth year, but with only three under their belt, the nice folks at the Oak Barrel Half Marathon have mastered the art.

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