Welcome to the first race recap of this young blog. The weekend of April 6-8th, I traveled from Chicago to Tennessee with two other Chicago friends to run the Oak Barrel Half Marathon in Lynchburg, TN on April 7th. Getting its name from the famed oaken barrels in which Jack Daniels houses its legendary No. 7 whiskey, this race was guaranteed to be a memorable experience one way or another. As always, this is a real story from a real runner.
THE DRIVE TO LYNCHBURG
5am in Nashville came a little too soon for my liking.
Due to a lack of affordable (read: cheap) lodging options near Lynchburg (pop: 5,740), my friends Dan, Brian, and myself opted to spend Friday night at an airport Holiday Inn in Nashville. I landed in Nashville right around 9pm, the guys picked me up from the airport, and then it was more or less straight to bed for all of us. The Oak Barrel half was set to start at 8am; with Lynchburg being an hour and a half south of Nashville, and with the three of us still needing to pick up our race packets from the starting area, that meant a 5am wake-up call for our merry band. Quickly packing our things and changing into what we would more or less be wearing for the race, we were on the road by 5:30 or so. With Dan at the wheel and Brian riding shotgun, I sprawled out in the back seat and slept most of the way down, only waking up as we neared Lynchburg to snap a few photos from the car.
Packet pickup at the park pavilion was impressively quick and pain-free. Granted, there were only 1,050 runners in the half and no smaller races to add to runner congestion (like a separate 5K), but I’ve still seen races this size get it all wrong…thankfully, that was not the case with the Oak Barrel. With photo ID in hand, it took all of about 30 seconds to get my race packet, which included my bib, a nice looking Nike long-sleeve tech shirt, and an Oak Barrel Half runner’s hat that I wasn’t expecting. For a mere $50, this was some impressive SWAG for the price.
With our packets picked up, the 3 of us stopped back at the car for a quick pre-race photo, and then we were off to the starting line.
THE RACE — 13.1 miles in 1:48:00 (08:14/mile pace — new PR!)
Going into this race, my goal was simply to break 2 hours. While I’d recently run the Austin LIVESTRONG half-marathon in 1:48:56 in February, I had a few reasons for not being overly optimistic on this one: namely, a lack of training, and then something called Whiskey Hill. Now, I realize that citing a “lack of training” might seem like a pussified excuse coming from a guy that had gone for a run each of the previous 11 days, but the truth is that virtually none of those days had involved any distance training. Dan and I had run the Little Rock full marathon 1 month earlier (in brand new shoes, no less– thanks for losing my luggage, United!), and that race came on the back of running a few half-marathons in January/February, and the mileage had taken a lot out of me. I effectively shelved my running shoes from March 4th until my birthday three weeks later, and I’d been doing more or less the bare minimum ever since.
Whiskey Hill, however, was an very real obstacle that no one could dispute. A stretch of gradual-becoming-steep uphill that covers nearly two miles of road during the first half of the race, the race organizers had warned runners early and often about the treachery of Whiskey Hill. The Oak Barrel folks even went so far as to create a cheeky and entertaining Facebook page for Whiskey Hill, where a lighthearted-yet-sadistic Whiskey Hill posted to taunt runners or discuss current events. I personally thought it was brilliant. Having run a 15K trail run in San Diego about 2 months earlier which gained close to 1,000 feet of elevation, I wasn’t as nervous about Whiskey Hill’s 400-ft gain in elevation as others, but it was still something weighing heavy in the back of my mind as I toed the starting line.
All this being said, I find it easier to recap eventful races using bullet points, so let’s now quickly switch to that format:
- MILE 1 (08:10/mile split): With my only set goal being to break 2 hours, my plan was to run the first few miles in the 08:30-08:45/mile range, then suck wind as I climbed Whiskey Hill, and then hope to have enough legs to run 09:00/mile splits over the last half of the race. That plan went right out the window when I noticed a stunningly beautiful woman to the right of me at the starting line, who began the race by running at around an 08:10/pace. Well…it wouldn’t kill me to try and exert myself juuuust a little harder to keep up with her…right? Right.
- MILE 2 (07:57/mile split): Feeling surprisingly fresh, I left my future wife in my wake, wanting to get in a fast mile or two before Whiskey Hill. If it was meant to be, I’d see her again at the finish line (SPOILER ALERT: I did not see her again). The first mile of the course had taken us out of downtown Lynchburg, which took all of about a 1/4-mile, and we were now running along beautifully scenic country road.
- MILE 3 (08:12/mile split): With Whiskey Hill looming in the immediate future, I made the strategic decision to scale it back a bit….I didn’t want to bust my nut before I showed up to the orgy, if you know what I mean. What, you don’t know what I mean? Whatever, prude.
- MILE 3.2: Shit…here it comes. We runners were warned online that Whiskey Hill would begin around Mile 4 and last for about a mile, but the race emcee had decreed pre-race that the “lead-up” to Whiskey Hill starts shortly after Mile 3. If you want to check out my detailed Garmin read-out for the race, you can see that this is true.
- NOTE: Right before the ascent to Whiskey Hill, the last thing I noticed was one of the most beautiful dogwood blossom trees I’ve ever seen in my life. My brain still had enough oxygen flowing to it that I took pleasure in noting the contrast between the beauty that I was passing, and the beast which laid in wait.
- MILE 4 (08:34/mile split): Well, I guess this is really happening. Now running a full 30-seconds-per-mile slower than my previous paces, I was hoping that it wouldn’t get much steeper….right?
- MILE 5 (09:53/mile split): Fuck me sideways, why does ANYONE do hilly courses? With the incline unbearable, my pace dipped into the 11:00-12:00/mile range, and it was all I could do to keep my feet moving. I was told by friends after the race that someone had positioned a speaker set in the woods along Whiskey Hill that was playing “Dueling Banjos” during the ascent, but I was so singularly focused on making it to the top without walking that I didn’t even notice. My feet felt like they were rooted to the road, especially during the final steep switchback, but I didn’t stop to walk even once. Whiskey Hill ended just before the Mile 5 marker, and I stopped for a loooong time at the top of that hill.
- MILES 6-10 (08:05/mile average split): WHHHEEEEEEE!!! FUCK YOU UPHIIIIILLLLLSSSS, I’M GOING TO RUN FAAAASSSST AGAIN
- MILE 11: (07:31/mile split):The middle miles between Mile 6-Mile 9 were fairly unremarkable, save for some gradual undulating hills and some awesome country-folk support. I shit you not when I say that every other person standing out in front of their house and cheering was wearing overalls, and it was awesome. After Mile 9, however, the course trends noticeably downhill, as all of the elevation gained during the climb up Whiskey Hill is steadily lost over the next several miles. I pushed Mile 10 with a 07:54 split, and then I upped the tempo to the tune of a 7:31 mile at Mile 11.
- While I was personally flying at Mile 11, my mood was brought crashing down as I passed by a runner bent over on all fours, being tended to by two other runners. It’s something that you don’t like to think about…someone much faster than myself had been felled by the distance and conditions. In a heartwarming show of sportsmanship, though, 2 other runners had abandoned their personal races in order to tend to the fallen runner, who was sitting up and alert by the time I passed. A car had stopped to call for an ambulance, and the ambulance later whizzed past me as I neared the official Mile 11 marker. I learned later that the race organizers were looking to give the two good Samaritans a free entry into next year’s Oak Barrel Half, as a reward for their personal sacrifice.
- MILE 12 (07:48/mile split): With the course flattening out, I kept pushing the pace. 2 hours earlier, I didn’t think there was a chance that I would be running sub-08:00 splits at the end, and yet here I was. I started doing the time/distance remaining math in my head, and for the first time, it occurred to me that I could set a new PR if I maintained my pace.
- MILE 13 (07:49/mile split): At this point, we’re pretty much talking the final stage of the Tour de France. All I had to do was not mess it up, and I would have myself a new PR.
- FINAL TIME: 1:48:00
Well, that was unexpected — I had myself a new PR, by a full 56 seconds. Brian and Dan both crushed their races, as well; they finished 2nd and 3rd place in their age group, and got some sweet oak barrel trophies for their troubles. As a matter of fact, you can read about Dan’s race here.
RACE OVER — IT’S DRANKIN’ TIME
After the race, we lolled around Lynchburg for a bit to take in the sights and breathe in the local culture. We got some BBQ and visited the famous Jack Daniels distillery, but I was really excited to get back to Nashville, one of my favorite drinking cities in the world. While Austin, TX proudly lays claim to the Live Music Capital of the World, Nashville doesn’t lag far behind; with live music at just about every bar, and mostly country, it’s practically impossible to have a bad night out. I’d been to Nashville several times in years past for a rugby tournament called Nash Bash, but I hadn’t visited Nashville was in Fall 2010. I was due to make up for some lost time.
After showering and changing, we headed down to the Indigo Hotel’s hotel bar, where I finally had my first beer of the day, a fantastic local brew by Yazoo Brewing Company called Onward Stout. After one round, we hailed a cab and headed to the strip on Broadway…I was worried that the crowd might be a little subdued with it being Holy Saturday, but that concern was unfounded. After grabbing dinner, our first stop was Robert’s Western World, a honky-tonk that is randomly my favorite bar in Nashville. After drinking a Yuengling or three at Robert’s, we headed next door to The Stage, which is typically the best place to watch live music in Nashville. I had built this place up pretty large to Dan and Brian, so I was shocked when we walked in and there was this incredibly cheesy country singer pandering to a bachelorette party, singing shitty standards like “You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling” and that awful “Summer Nights” song from Grease. We slammed a beer and got the hell out of there, but I couldn’t help but think that the lead singer looked familiar. I realized the next day, as I passed a GIANT billboard, that we had stumbled in to catch a glimpse of country superstar Craig Morgan warming up for a show at the Opry later that night by playing a goofy set at The Stage. Oh well, anyone can have an off night.
From The Stage we went to Legend’s, from Legend’s we went to the rooftop bar at Rippy’s, from Rippy’s we went to Crossroads, and from Crossroads we went to some 3-level bar called Honky Tonk Central. Both Dan and Brian were amazed by the presence of live music at every bar, but that’s Nashville. It was at Honky Tonk Central that our night ended, sometime shy of midnight. I’ll openly admit that I was ready to stay out for some more drankin’, but Dan and Brian had foolishly booked an 8am flight the following morning, and so they wanted to retire at a reasonable hour. In the end, my wallet thanked them — we had done our job of toasting a race well-run by all.
Run this race. Just sign up for it, train for it, and then run it. I have zero reservations about the Oak Barrel, and I have nothing but praise. If you are reading this right now and you want to sign up for the race, just post a comment below, and I’ll run it again in 2013, even if I don’t know who you are. Folksy yet modern, challenging yet rewarding, the Oak Barrel provided all the amenities of a larger race with a heaping helping of genuine small-town southern hospitality. The denizens of Lynchburg could not have been more welcoming, the post-race buffet/festival was excellent, and the presence of Whiskey Hill gives the race a real calling card. For $50, you just can’t beat the value you get for your dollar.