Saturday, September 15, 2018

Race Report: Osaka Marathon

On a whim, I put my name into the mix for a lottery spot in the Osaka Marathon in April 2017, which would occur over the US' Thanksgiving weekend.  I usually try to find an international race to run this weekend, which provides me two holidays on the fourth Thursday and Friday of that month.  Two months later, I found out I was accepted into the race!  Fast forward to November, and I'm headed to Asia for the second time that year.  I decide to extend the long weekend by an additional two days, spending a couple nights in Seoul as well.  Wednesday night after work, I head to JFK Airport and lounge around at the airport for a few hours before my flight, leaving near 1AM - a whopping 14 hour flight from New York City JFK to Seoul Incheon Airport. I did pretty well for the long flight, sitting comfortably in Korean Air Lines' economy class, one of the better economy classes amongst the world's airlines.  We arrived in Seoul 4am, literally the first people arriving in the airport for the day.  While I make my way through the terminal and with barely any wait in connections, I head to the KAL Prestige Class lounge (thanks to my status with Delta), and catch some z's before my flight to Osaka, which wouldn't leave for another four hours.

The Seoul to Osaka flight was quick, only in the air for about 1.5 hours, and after landing at Kansai International Airport. It's an airport I've always wanted to visit, after learning about its controversial construction; while lauded for its innovative sliding joints technology, built to withstand earthquakes such as the 6.9 earthquake in nearby Kobe in 1995, the artificial island it was built on (which was expected to sink due to the weight of the material used for construction compressing the seabed) sank much more than anticipated, becoming the most expensive civil works project in modern history after twenty years of planning, three years of construction and $15 billion US dollars of investment.  Not only that, it has the longest single airport terminal in the world, a total of 1.1 miles from one end to the other.  Once getting landside, I stood in line to get my "2 Day Osaka Amazing Pass," a ticket that allowed me to not only take unlimited rides on the Osaka Metro, it also provided me free entry or special discount for 35 tourist spots around the city, over the course of 48 hours.  For ¥3300, or just under $30, it's a pretty amazing deal, especially if you take advantage of the discounts and free entries.

Made it to Osaka!
I then proceeded to take a limousine bus into the city, which took me from the airport to Osaka Station in roughly an hour.  This is probably the most recommended way to get from the airport to the city, costing ¥1550, or $14 USD.  From there, I was able to experience Japanese culture firsthand, hitting the ground running (not literally... I had a suitcase with me!) while getting my bearings on the very sophisticated Osaka subway. I eventually found my way to my Airbnb to drop off my bags, at a location near the Temmabashi subway station on the Tanimachi line, just north of the Ōkawa River in the neighborhood of Tenma. I was given the combination to the lock for the mailbox, where the key to my room was located, and in I went.  Mind you, Osaka is not too familiar/wary with Airbnb, so I was told that if I encountered anyone wondering why I was staying here or instead of a hotel, to call it a homestay/staying with friends.

The rainbow carpet at the expo
After dropping off my things, I went straight to the expo, which was quite an experience in and of itself.  The expo was all the way on the other side of town, at the INTEX Osaka (International Exhibition Center, Osaka) on Sakishima Island, an artificial island developed in the 1970s as a planned business, exchange, and trading district in Osaka Bay.  To get there, I took the metro from Temmabashi to Cosmo Square, a 23 minute train ride with a connection. It was a bit of a walk to get from the station to the expo, on a windy day.  When I arrived at the expo, it was a little confusing to get through; when I registered, we were requested to pick a color that corresponds with a charity of our choosing for a portion of our race registration to go to, however we were not considered charity runners for the race.  I tried to follow the basic directions as I could when picking up my packet, but ended up in multiple lines trying to figure out the process.  Eventually, I was able to pick up my packet, despite the confusion.  Afterward, we were directed through a multiple switchback "course" through the hall, zigzagging along past the different booths hawking official merchandise provided by Mizuno to Asahi beer to various energy drinks.  It was somewhat chaotic.
Enjoying an Asahi beer during the expo
So much food at the expo!
Near the end of the booths, I find the INKnBURN Japan booth, and ended up meeting with INKnBURN founder Megan Wheeler Tsuyuki, who created a local "satellite" in Japan to sell her INKnBURN products, many of which they were selling at the expo, including a special Osaka Marathon branded shirt, which I ended up purchasing.  Then there was the food court - never before have I seen a huge focus on food at a race expo than here at the Osaka Marathon expo, but then again, Osaka is the culinary capital of Japan.  Apparently, this is common at race expos; both Tokyo and Nagoya Women's Marathon, which a few of my friends have run, have said this was present at their race expos too.  Here, I have my first taste of one of Osaka's iconic dishes - okonomiyaki - a Japanese savory pancake with a batter made of flour, grated nagaimo (a type of yam), water or dashi, eggs and shredded cabbage, and filled with green onions, thin pork belly, various seafoods, and vegetables, and topped with katsuobushi (bonito flakes). It was delicious, and QUITE filling. I also made room for some takoyaki, another Osaka favorite - diced octopus (tako), tempura scraps (tenkasu), pickled ginger, and green onion all in a wheat-flour based batter, then cooked into the shape of a ball in a specially molded pan.  I didn't enjoy it as much as the okonomiyaki, but this would be the first chance I gave it.. maybe another try later would make it better.

Tempozan Ferris Wheel
Tsutenkaku Tower lit up at sundown
After spending a decent amount of time in the expo, I decided to make use my Osaka Amazing card for entry onto the Tempozan Ferris Wheel (at the time of its opening in 1997 the tallest ferris wheel in the world, but now in 19th place), getting an opportunity to view Osaka from 369 feet above during the 17 minute ride, then raced back into downtown to get another view now that the sun was going down at the Tsutenkaku Tower. At 338 feet tall, this tower is one of Osaka's most symbolic landmarks since it opened in 1956.  While there, the observation deck on the 5th floor has become a shrine of Billiken, the God of Happiness or "things as they ought to be." The statue of Billiken, a popular American charm doll that came to Japan in the early 20th century, became closely associated with the tower and is a popular symbol of good luck. Thousands of visitors place a coin in his donation box and rub the soles of his feet to make their wishes come true.  Additionally, the tower also has a floor dedicated to all things Pocky, a popular Japanese snack food of biscuit sticks usually coated with different flavored coatings, from chocolate to strawberry, to more exotic flavors such as green tea matcha and chestnut - which of course, I bought lots of to bring back home to friends, especially flavors that are unique to Japan, and aren't sold in the US!


The vibrant Dotonbori District!
It was still somewhat early, so before heading home, I decided to make a trip into the what can be deemed the "pure essence of Osaka," the Dotonbori District, to take advantage of the Japan Night Tour, another offering of the Osaka Amazing Pass. With multilingual guide Hachhan (who spoke not only Japanese, but also English and Korean,) I joined a small tour group of four other people and visited various sites all around the Shinsaibashi and Dotonbori area.  Stops included Hozenji Temple, located right in the center of this district (providing some beautiful ambience with beautiful paper lanterns lighting the adjacent street, Hozenji Yokocho, which literally means "street beside Hozenji;") Ukiyo Koji, a neighboring alleyway that served as a miniature history museum featuring reproduction maps of the cityscapes of Shinsaibashi and Dotonbori as they would have appeared in the Taisho Period to early Showa Period; the Aiaubashi Bridge, the site of a 300+ year old bridge regarded as a place where couples could sever their ties to each other; and the famous giant "Glico running man" neon billboard, installed in 1935 as an advertisement for the Glico confectionery company - all during the 45 minute tour.

Posing in front of the gate at Hozenji Temple
So much takoyaki!
Of course, the tour also included recommendations of the best food to find in Dotonbori - some of the food Osaka is famous for can be found in food stalls all around the area. Osaka, in fact, even has its own word closely associated with the Dotonbori district to describe its food culture... the word "kuidaore" is a Japanese word literally meaning, "to ruin oneself by extravagance in food." Before the evening ended, I tried takoyaki one more time... and once again, it wasn't for me. To me, it tasted like tires, or rubber... maybe the octopus texture just wasn't the way I like it (I prefer my octopus to be grilled!)  I headed back to my Airbnb, ready to crash after a full day of sightseeing... with still much much more to do!

Japan Night Tour complete!

The beautiful pagoda at Shitennoji
I woke up early the next morning, ready to take on a very full day of sightseeing, all using my Osaka Amazing card!  First up was the Shitennoji Temple, regarded as the first Buddhist and one of the oldest temples in all of Japan. It was founded in the year 593 by Prince Shōtoku, a practicing Buddhist when Buddhism was still not widespread in Japan. He named the temple after the shitenno: four heavenly kings of Buddhist tradition who guard the world from evil.  The prince had prayed to these kings during a time of war, and when the war was over he had the temple built in order to give thanks. While some of the buildings have been destroyed by fire and rebuilt multiple times over the centuries, they have always been carefully reconstructed to reflect the original 6th century design. In the pebble covered courtyard of the inner precinct stand a five-storied pagoda that can be entered and ascended, and the Main Hall (Kondo) in which Prince Shotoku is enshrined.

Osaka Castle in all its glory
Hoping to get there early enough before most tourists would show up midday, I then headed up to Osaka Castle Park, to see one of Japan's most famous landmarks. Osaka Castle, which sits on 15 acres of land, played a major role in the unification of Japan during the sixteenth century of the Azuchi-Momoyama period; in addition to a tour of the turrets that surround the castle (some of the oldest structures in the whole complex) and learning about its defenses and surveillance methods, I toured all eight stories of the main castle, which was recently restored in 1997 to it's Edo-era splendor, starting from the top down.  It was a very busy morning, though -- already full of tourists, so there was a little bit of a wait to get in. For the most part, I was able to get the gist of the 521-year history of this important landmark, in addition to admiring the beautiful views from its observation deck on the top floor.

A beautiful view from the castle
Located on the southeastern end of the Osaka Castle Park is the Peace Osaka, also known as the Osaka International Peace Center.  This museum was very informative, focusing on the destruction of Osaka after the air raids in World War II, as well as the broader themes of the tragedy of war and the importance of peace.  I've been told an even more informative museum along the same themes exists in Hiroshima (where one of the atomic bombs during the war was dropped), but I highly recommend this one in Osaka, especially for English speakers, as there is an audio guide, some video presentations, and some exhibits all translated into English.

After a quick ramen to ease my hungriness for lunch at a nondescript ramen shop nearby, I headed down to Tennoji Park, where I seemed to walk into a dog meetup of some sort, since there were dogs all of the Shiba Inu breed wandering all around the park with their owners.  I even witnessed one of the most strange things ever - a group of people seemingly doing line dances with their dogs.  In any case, after walking through this veritable "twilight zone," I headed over to the Tennoji Zoo, Japan’s second largest and third oldest zoo, having opened in 1915. The 11-hectare zoo is a nice escape from the hustle and bustle of the city, but not a particular interesting place - it contained many animals I've seen before, and in better maintained facilities.

Ukiyo-e woodblock printwork
Before dinner back in Dotonbori later that night, I fit in one more site before most of the museums closed for the day - the Kamigata Ukiyo-e Museum. Also included as part of the Osaka Amazing Pass, this museum is a small, but impressive private museum and the only one of its kind, showcasing the traditional Ukiyo-e woodblock prints of the Kamigata region (what the Osaka-Kyoto region was commonly called during the Edo period.)  These prints had much more realistic depictions than in other printmaking styles in Japan, tending to express the true personalities of their subjects. After perusing the beautiful works of art, I met up at a restaurant found by my friend Febry from California, who was running the race as well. Joining her and a few of her friends also coming to visit Japan, we had a delicious carbo-load fest on an Osaka favorite, kushikatsu, skewers of deep-fried assorted meat and vegetables. Probably not the best carb-loading due to all the oil, but it still hit the spot.

Ferry and I, ready for the race!
Afterward, we then got some Kyoto-style coffee at Caffe UCC, a sit down location of a popular coffee company, Ueshima Coffee Company, that manufactures coffee and tea products in nearby Kobe, but owns a coffee farm in Hawaii.  There, I had my eye on trying a unique slow-drip coffee brewed with a siphon, that was made popular in the nearby city of coffee.  Kyoto-style slow drip coffee is made by letting water slowly, drop by drop, drip over coffee grounds. As this process has evolved, Kyoto-style brewers have become more and more elegant. These brewers now resemble tall, gilded hourglasses. After enjoying my cup of coffee as a nightcap,  I headed back to my Airbnb to get my rest because the next morning was race day!

My kit all laid out, with my brand new INKnBURN shirt
The startline of the marathon
Like most international races, Osaka has a later start at 9, so wake up a couple hours earlier around 7am.  Thankfully for me, it was an easy 20 minute walk from my Airbnb to my corral, which I had mapped out the night before.  It's a chilly race morning in the low 40s as runners assemble on the roads northeast of Osaka Castle.  Lots of people are wearing shirts from other marathons in Japan, and it is no surprise to me that there are many of them in this country! Additionally, there are lots of costume-wearing runners - among them, I see a guy dressed in a full body suit as "Bowser" from the Super Mario series.  The race begins, and it is pretty crowded as we make our way down Uemachi-suji, the main road west of the castle.  In the first ten minutes of the race, there were lots of walkers around me, and several bottlenecks just after crossing the start mats - it seemed that there were more than a few Japanese celebrities participating in the race (more likely the much shorter 8.8 kilometer Challenge Run) that had tv crews around them and other runners with their camera phones out taking pictures.

Lots of people dress up for the races... even as Bowser! I wanna throw a blue shell at him!

J is for Jim... or my corral for the race :D
Minions on the run!
We continued down the road, turning left along Hommachi-Don, eventually running underneath the elevated highway.  We hit the first mile mark as we made a right turn past the bustling Morinomiya station at the southeast corner of Osaka Castle Park.  We would run a little over a mile down Tamatsukuri-suji, and along the way, I saw four runners dressed in full-on Minion costumes just ahead of me.  I picked up my speed a bit to get in front of them so I could capture them running past me with my cameraphone.  Before long, we were turning right along Sennichimae-dori, reaching our first real hill of the race.  It wasn't very big or long, so soon, we were making our way downhill, with an impressive view of the thousands of runners ahead of us, passing underneath the Hanshin Expressway and Nippombashi Station.

Running under the highway
Beautiful ginkgo trees along Mido-suji
Passing Namba Station, we turned left onto Mido-suji Boulevard, one of the most beautiful parts of the route, and the first part of the route we'd be repeating on an out-and-back section later in the race. Considered the primary main street of Central Osaka, Mido-suji is lined with ginkgo trees on both sides, and during the fall, the leaves turn into a most brilliant yellow color.  The line of yellow trees seems endless.  Here, we would be running for about 1.75 miles, passing some of the more high-end shopping areas of the city as well as running over the famous Dotonbori Bridge, which I had seen two nights before on my night walk tour.  The Challenge Runners would also be running this segment of the route with the marathoners right up to their finish line ahead. Because of the turn off for the marathoners, we were being regularly asked to move to the right to the much narrower frontage road, while the Challenge Runners would be to the left in the wide main street.  This was slightly frustrating, as there were many more marathon runners than challenge runners, so it felt as if we were being herded like cattle into this small area of road.

Before long, we split off to the right as the Challenge Runners made their way to their finish line in front of Osaka City Hall.  Marathoners went along a 1.5 mile route on Tosabori-dori Street, just one street away from the Kyu-Yodo River. It was an out-and-back route, as many runners were going in both directions on either side of the wide street.  We'd eventually make a turnaround near the Osaka Business Park, returning right back along Tosabori-dori, turning right onto Naniwa Bridge (best known for its pair of stone lion statues) and onto Nakanoshima Island.

Osaka Central Public Hall
Nakanoshima Island is actually a narrow sandbank that divides the Kyu-Yodo River into the Tosabori and Dojima Rivers. Many governmental and commercial offices (including the city hall of Osaka), museums and other cultural facilities are located on Nakanoshima.  The island also contains Osaka's first public park, Nakanoshima Park, which was opened in 1891 shortly after the city was founded. As we continued along the route through the island, we ran past an attractive red-bricked building, which I later found out was the Osaka Central Public Hall, a beautiful Neo-Renaissance building completed in 1918.  It was great hearing "Ganbatte" (Japanese for "good luck") or "Fighto!" yelled out by the many spectators that lined the streets here. I did my best, to utter out a breathless "Arigato!" or "Thank You!" whenever I could.  We were even entertained by a kids' cheerleading team, cutely dressed in obviously American-inspired cheerleading outfits!  We rounded the corner past Osaka City Hall, seeing the tail end of Challenge Run participants crossing their finsh line, as we continued on the return 1.75 section of the Mido-suji Boulevard, with a bit more space to be able to run on. By the time we got back down past the Dotonbori district, we were over 10.5 miles into the race.
Soy Sauce on the run...
Impressive... a full samurai costume!
We turned right onto Sennichimae Dori, now making our way further west, as we ran underneath an elevated highway once again. Soon, the elevated highway veered left, and we were left exposed, with the slightest increase in elevation up ahead, but that was because we were crossing the Taisho Bridge over the Kizu River. From the bridge, we could see the unmistakable dome of the Kyocera Dome Osaka, a 51,000 seat baseball stadium that's home to Orix Buffaloes, a Nippon Professional Baseball team. We made a slight right turn over another bridge, and then headed out to yet another turnaround point.  Along the way, I got to see a few other notable costumes - like a runner dressed as a Kikkoman Soy Sauce bottle, and a another runner in a full samurai warrior outfit!  As we made our way back, we finally reached the halfway point of the course, as we traced our way back to the node that we had turned already a few times on at Mido-suji Boulevard.

Lots of runners ahead...
There, we turned right, and began our southward jaunt right into the heart of Osaka's Naniwa Ward.  While we ran down a largely commercial street which makes up part of Japan's National Route 25, much of the rest of the area is pretty residential.  Past Daikokucho station, we turned right, and ran yet another out-and-back section (though a short one), lined with monotonous high rises aplenty - though high rises a little smaller than those in the downtown.  In the distance however, we could see Tsutenkaku Tower, before turning back.  After the 25km mark, we reached another turn onto Naniwa-suji, heading south once more into the Nishinari Ward. While a bit quieter than what we had run earlier, this section of the race was a bit repetitive and a little boring, to be honest; it was mostly all the same views.  I did notice though, that where there were spectators lined, they knew how far into the race we were and provided random runners with much needed Salonpas type pain relief-spray, as we soldiered on in this second half of the race.

So many TV towers, everywhere we went!
Enjoying the Maido Aid station!
Eventually, we were continuing south along Japan's National Route 26, a highway with its lanes divided by a metal barrier. We passed the 30k mark then turned right onto Nanko-dori, a road with a manicured topiary along the median, as we approached Osaka's Suminoe ward. Another turn took us onto another road, where long roads of tables lie in front of us. The "kuidaore" was out in full force as we passed the 32.5 kilometer mark, approximately 20 miles into the race.  The "Maido Aid" station, passes out amazing local food to runners, homemade bites of food made with care by people from local food vendors!  Among the treats were takoyaki (again!??) rice balls, bean jam buns, and cucumber rolls!  If anything, I realized the Japanese had perfected the way to get past the infamous "wall" during a marathon... feed all the runners!

Lots of dress-up on the course!
We turned right as we approached a lime green pedestrian bridge over the street, beginning our westward course on Suminoe-dori toward Sakishima Island, where the finish line was located, at the INTEX Osaka Building, site of the race expo.  The street was lined shoulder to shoulder by so many spectators at this point, as they cheered us in with less than 10K left in the race. Among those spectators were many dressed in elaborate costumes, that I made sure to get selfies with! Overhead, the tramway for the Nankō Port Town Line (known to locals as the "New Tram") rumbled, with trains heading in and out of Sakishima Island.  We passed a few large boat docks as we continued on toward the finish, passing the 35K mark.  We turned right as the road ahead merged with the elevated highway, eventually taking a ramp upward to the highway, which we ran along shortly as we crossed over onto the island, then followed the course as it made its way around to INTEX Osaka. The rain began to lightly fall as we approached the 38k mark, as we rounded the corner to the convention center.  I crossed the finish line in 4:56:07, thrilled to be back under 5 hours for a marathon!  After grabbing my photo in front of an okonomiyaki spatula (known as "kotekote" in Japanese) statue, I slowly walked back over to the Cosmosquare Metro station, and began the long trip back to my Airbnb near the startline.

Victory Headstand #1... with the okonomiyaki spatula!

Showing off my newest bling!
About to take my first bite of fugu
After showering and a long afternoon nap, I got back together with Febry and her friends for dinner that night, where we headed into the Namba area to get sushi.  We all decided to be daring and try fugu, or puffer fish, a delicacy in Japan. Fugu can be lethally poisonous due to toxins in its skin; therefore, it must be carefully prepared to remove toxic parts and to avoid contaminating the meat.  The restaurant preparation of fugu is strictly controlled by law in Japan, and only chefs who have qualified after three or more years of rigorous training are allowed to prepare the fish. We ordered fugu prepared three ways: sashimi, karaage, and shabu shabu. Additionally, we enjoyed some assorted sushi- both seafood and beef (tataki and niku), fried eggplant with miso (nasu nisyokudengaku), seasoned mackerel with sesame (goma saba), roast beef (rosuto beefu steiki), and five kinds of assorted sashimi (tsukuri mori Gosyumori).  The whole meal was quite filling... and good thing - I didn't die from the fugu!  In fact, it was very tasty!  We all walked over Dotonbori after our meal for Febry and I to get photos with our finisher medals in front of the Glico sign, and then I headed home to pack and get some much needed sleep.  The next morning, I was leaving Japan to fly off to Korea for two days!

Osaka was such a fun trip - and it's only a small part of Japanese culture.  I was so glad to be able to experience so much in the few days I was there, and also enjoy the incredible cuisine in Japan's food capital.

Victory Headstand #2!

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Race Report: Harpeth Hills Flying Monkey Marathon

The Harpeth Hills Flying Monkey Marathon, known to many simply as The Monkey, has developed a cult following since the first one only twelve years ago, and why you may ask? Well it's hilly. Hilly AF. Easily the hilliest marathon I’ve ever run, with 3,150 feet EACH of elevation gain and loss. Aside from the first and last 0.2 miles of the course, which are on grass and trail, the entire course is on asphalt roads that wind throughout Percy Warner Park west of Nashville. Of 56 marathons completed, the Monkey is now one of my top five most scenic races I’ve ever run, due to the incredibly beautiful scenery and fall foliage.

Lots of twists and turns on the course!
Registration for the race occurs for only one week at the beginning of August. After this weeklong period closes, the race director uses a weighted lottery to select those who will have the misfortune of running the Monkey in November.  There is also an option to make a donation to the Friends of Warner Parks, which dedicates itself to the preservation, protection, and stewardship of Percy and Edwin Warner Parks, where the marathon is held. This will allow some runners to bypass the lottery and get right in. The park itself is a hefty 2,664 acres, one of the largest park areas contained within city limits of any municipality in the U.S.  It also has a storied history, first opening as a park in 1927, and containing historic landmarks that date back to its earliest establishment.

I got in on Friday night and upon landing, took an uber into downtown Nashville to grab food at a recommended restaurant, Puckett's on 5th and Church.  It was absolutely delicious - I had the half smoked chicken, which is only available for dinner from 5pm until they run out - and I had the LAST one of the night! We also were entertained by the vocal stylings of Emily Minor, an American Idol Season 6 semifinalist, who sang some of her own compositions and a few covers - all great country music.

Downtown Nashville at night
After dinner, I had a bit of time to kill, as Seth wouldn't be landing until close to 11pm, so I walked up and down Broadway, Nashville's main strip.  It was ELECTRIC, reminding me of Times Square, but with so much more nightlife concentrated along this one corridor, since live music was playing at honky tonk bars right next to each other.  It was actually a bit overwhelming, and I missed out on going inside, but really couldn't with my backpack and laptop with me.  I eventually ended up at The Diner, a 24/7 establishment, where I grabbed a drink at their second floor bar overlooking downtown Nashville, while I waited for Seth to come into town to pick me up. Eventually, he did and we headed to the hotel for the night.

Oof... a controversial statue.
The weather forecast for Saturday included rain, so we decided to plan out our morning with the goal of ending up in west Nashville at the Gordon JCC where packet pickup would be held by 1:30, as Seth had volunteered to work for a couple hours.  We gathered our stuff together and headed out mid morning into town but not before stopping alongside the highway on I-65 to check out a statue we had read about on Roadside America.  Near the mile 77 marker is a controversial Confederate statue that accurately reflects the ugliness of its subject. It is a bizarre, deranged-looking depiction of General Nathan Bedford Forrest, a confederate general who advocated for slavery, and who became the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. The statue is on private land, so it cannot just be taken down by local authorities like other such statues. There have been calls for landscaping that would block the view of it from the nearby highway - however, vegetation would end up always being cleared specifically so it would be visible. Notably, people have also shot at it, thrown paint on it, and tried to tear it down.

After our quick "visit," we headed into town and hit up The Gulch, a trendy and hip neighborhood, housing our next two stops - Colt's Chocolates, a chocolate factory and gourmet store by former Hee-Haw honey Mackenzie Colt; and the Yazoo Brewing Company Tap Room, literally across the street from Colt's, an award-winning Nashville craft brewery. We definitely got our fill of some of Nashville's sinful concoctions.

Country Music Hall of Fame time!
We got to the JCC on time, and took care of our own bibs, as well as retrieve our t-shirts - the race gives out a short sleeve race theme shirt and also a long sleeved custom "monkey" shirt that includes our "monkey name" we provided at registration and the number of monkey kills (completed monkey marathons) illustrated on the sleeve. With a few hours to kill, as Seth was volunteering at bib pickup, he gave me the keys to the rental car, and I drove back into town to spend some time touring the Country Music Hall of Fame museum.  I was able to spend a little over an hour touring through the museum's two floors, which feature galleries regaling the evolution of country music from its early years to today.  Many of the exhibits included stage wear of various artists - some outlandish styles of their particular eras, others more classic and iconic.  Even on display were Shania Twain’s leopard print ensembles from the “That Don’t Impress Me Much" music video and stage tour!  There were also a few iconic vehicles owned by country music stars, such as Elvis Presley's 1960 "Solid Gold" Cadillac limousine, Webb Pierce's gun-encrusted 1962 Pontiac Bonneville convertible, and Jerry Reed's 1980 Pontiac Trans Am from Smokey and the Bandit II.
Some of Shania Twain's famous outfits
I headed back to the JCC around 3:30, and not long after arriving at 4pm, the downpour began.  Seth and I ended up driving through this storm as we headed east to our hotel - it was a fast-moving storm that whipped through Middle Tennessee on Saturday afternoon, knocking down trees and power lines and damaging some buildings. The storm actually included a confirmed tornado that touched down in parts of Davidson, Wilson and Rutherford counties.  After it passed, we headed for dinner nearby, a Middle Eastern/Mediterranean restaurant just up the road, serving some pretty authentic dishes - who knew something like this existed in the middle of Tennessee!

Runners assembling at the start
Race Director Trent Rosenbloom
The weather on Sunday morning was calm with light winds under 9 mph, with clouds clearing; temperatures though were going to drop a good 5-10 degrees from the weather on Saturday, staying near the 40 degree mark for much of the morning.  So it was rather chilly when we arrived at the park.  I wore long tights and my Ragnar jacket over my t-shirt to keep warm.  Gloves were necessary in the chilly morning, but I knew I might stuff them away when they weren't needed.

Singing the anthem!
The race, as expected, was going to be a hilly one.  Already, upon arrival in the morning, the park showed its scenic beauty as the sun rose over the horizon... as well as its infamous hills.  The parks themselves were opened in 1927, and are on land donated by Percie Warner Lea and her husband, Luke. The parks were named for her father, Percy, a member of the old Nashville Board of Park Commissioners and former head of the city's streetcar lines and electric utility, and her uncle Edwin, who was also a park commissioner. The commission developed the parks into their present layout through 1930.

After a few announcements, and race director Trent Rosenbloom showing up in a straitjacket, he handed me the megaphone, and I knocked state #39 off my list of national anthem states, and only the second time I've had to sing at a race using a megaphone.

And off we go!
Shortly thereafter, we were off, making our way along Vaughn Creek cross country field toward the trees, where we'd have a few hundred feet of "trail" with some tree roots to hurdle.  It was roughly 0.2 miles before we turned left and began to run counterclockwise along Percy Warner Park's 11.2 mile Main Drive.  Per Rosenbloom's description of the drive on the marathon's website:
Snaking through the 2,058-acre Percy Warner Park, the 11.2-mile Main Drive has been featured in "Runner's World" and called a runner's Paradise. From the moment you start "the 11.2", as we locals call it, you know you are in for a treat. A challenging one. As you wind your way through the tree-shaded Park, you endure over 1,500 feet of elevation gain and loss, encountering grades of up to 10-12% at times. Mercifully, you will also pass an occasional long, flat stretch around open fields and densely forested glades. The route takes you by scenic overlooks of Nashville, various sports and recreation areas, and quiet picnic pavilions. You also pass the Iroquois Steeplechase, one of the country's oldest horse tracks. But above all that, with its repetitive climbs, descents and rolling terrain, Percy Warner Park demands the runner's attention and respect. 
The open field where we start and end.
And we runners would immediately realize the truth to his words.  Within the first 5K, we knew we were in for a long day - I had already slowed down to a labored walk a few times, clocking in a time north of 35 minutes for the first 3.1. A majority of the runners brave enough to take on this race were clearly well-trained for hills, most of them being local to the "mountains" of middle Tennessee. Gradually, the number of runners began to thin out and the narrow paths made roomy as the speedier runners made their way up the hills with little struggle. As the sun began to rise to its apex over the course of the morning, the leaves on the trees shone their beautiful changing colors, especially the brilliant yellows abundant across the autumn canopy.

It's definitely autumn...
Moving uphill...
I continued running at an easy pace knowing that the hills would be prevalent through the entire race, and I didn't want to stress my calf muscles out so much with still a few more races under my belt before the end of the year.  Of course, I let gravity and forward momentum take advantage when we had some nice downhills, of which there were many.  Along the way, we were greeted by nicely staffed aid stations, with friendly volunteers eager to feed us or give us a swig of water, Sword, or whatever liquid suited our fancy.

Lots of fallen leaves...
True to my character, I made friends throughout the race, including former Michigander turned Mississippian Stacey, and two locals Laurel and Abby - Abby had just run the NYC Marathon only a few weeks before like me, and decided to take on crazy by running this ridiculously hilly marathon in short succession.  At 6 miles in, we'd pass the Nashville Running Company aid station, which I'd later find out was well stocked with some delicious craft beer and other niceties (especially since we would loop right back around to it a second time some 13 miles later, but coming from the other direction); along a nice steady downhill from there, I'd see a couple Marathon Maniac friends in front of me cut out along the right side of the course; as I pass by where they walked off, I realize there's a random guy dressed up as Santa Claus just hanging out in the middle of a clearing within the brush! Of course, I veer off myself and take the opportunity to take a selfie with him too!

Santa lives in Nashville!
Near the northeast entrance
At the bottom of the hill was a sharp turn at the foot of a grand set of stairs known as the Allée or Belle Meade Steps, marking the northeastern entrance to Percy Warner Park, and the furthest northeast section of the course.  Also located here is a World War I Memorial, a granite monument constructed in 1936 to the brave soldiers who fought in The War to End All Wars. As we passed mile 8 (or rather, mile ∞, another sick and cruel joke from Trent, the race director, as he explains, "when you are lying on the side of the road, an 8 looks like infinity. And it might as well be...") I ended up befriending a local guy named Sam, from Lebanon, Tennessee, a suburb of Nashville.  Originally from Mississippi, having spent many years in Texas, and now living in Tennessee, this year's Monkey would be his fourth.  We would end up having a grand old time along the course, and I would run alongside him, taking breaks as we needed all the way to mile 23.

One of Trent's infamous signs...
Another cruel trick from Trent... mile infinity. LOL
Sam and I at our beer stop!
While he was uncertain of being able to finish, as he hadn't trained much distance in the last few months, we ended up having a blast talking about our lives, and gave recommendations to each other about races.  He also was able to give me the local's knowledge of parts of this course (a part of the park houses a challenging cross country course and hosts the Tennessee state high school championships), even pointing out some of the wildlife we'd encounter (including a "Lord God" or pileated woodpecker, a striking looking bird flying overhead as it made its unique warbling call.)   But of course, besides making friends along the way, the shenanigans throughout this race made the pain both of us were going through on the ups and downs of the endless hills worth it.  There were no real mile markers all along the course - only where Trent felt like the signs were necessary - so the ones that we did see along the course made us roll our eyes a few times, as he was trying to make "light" of the 26.2 mile predicament we put ourselves in. Sam and I had fun getting through some of the tougher miles of this race, making beer stops (twice at a place we'd run by at both mile 9 and mile 16, where the course marshal had set out four 8 oz bottles of Bud Light, along with a bottle opener -- guess who drank all four bottles - two in and two out?!), an aid station that had a taxidermied owl (another perfect selfie opportunity!), and two stops for shots (Fireball and Woodford Reserve, only the best.)
A taxidermied owl?  Ok...  Fun. But random.
More beautiful views... one of the few open fields in the park
Look at that yellow!
Mile 11 was a stop on the course very close to the finish line, but we would end up looping back on this section some three miles later. Along the way, Sam and I ran into my friend Carol from Arkansas, who was walking the race alongside two other racers - all three of them had taken the early start at 7am.  After passing by them, and reaching the halfway point, and ultimately the spot where Sam had an opportunity to drop out (he had been thinking about it since he wasn't trained), I coaxed him into continuing, saying, "you see how easy my pace is... how often I'll walk between the runs.  It's easy enough that it won't trash your legs, and we'll definitely take the uphills easy." The miles ended up passing by much faster, and he continued on alongside me, as we began to run the Main Road again, but now in a clockwise direction.
The sun shining between the trees
Continuing on amongst the late fall foliage... winter is coming soon!
The Iroquois Steeplechase
We would pick trees, stumps, and signs in the visible distance to run to, before walking again, and would end up befriending more folks along the way.  The late morning sun gave way to a mid afternoon sun took the colors into a new dimension; the route took us past the aforementioned Iroquois Steeplechase Course, site of the annual Iroquois Steeplechase, one of Nashville’s most storied events held the second Saturday in May, around the 14 mile mark, tracing our route back along the road we had run on earlier.  This is the only federally built steeplechase course in the country, constructed by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s. At mile 19, we re-encountered the Nashville Running Company aid station, stopping for a beer break; the course would take a slight 1/2 mile lollipop-like loop detour to a clearing of yellow trees where on the the northeast side overlook, we were provided a most magnificent view of Belle Meade and the downtown Nashville skyline from the highest point in the race, an area known as Luke Lea Heights at an elevation of 922 feet.

"Not a Hill."  Bullshit. (Photo by Greg Burress)
New friends, bond over miles and brews!
Near the highest section of the course, at Luke Lea Heights
Such a beautiful view of downtown Nashville!
Are you sure we're only 1.2 miles away?
We soldiered on, watching the miles tick by, traversing the hills as best as we could. By mile 23, Sam told me to go on, and that he'd promise to cross that finish line not long after me.  So I did continue, and would end up running into Seth, who himself had befriended another runner, Rick, who was struggling through his first marathon since the previous year, and was staying alongside him to keep him company.  I had within my sights a sub-6 hour marathon (not a surprising result for this tough course), so I hammered on, making my way back to Vaughn's Creek field to the cheers of those who had finished in the beer area next to the finish line.

I wore the cape the entire time!
I crossed the finish line of easily the hilliest marathon - a mind-numbing amount - that I've run in my life, in 5:57:00 flat, good enough for 267th place out of 334 runners, of which 324 finished. I proceeded right into the beer tent to grab my celebratory Yazoo Sly Rye Porter, as I watched more friends come in, including Abby, Laurel, and Sam, who all crossed less than ten minutes after me.  Sam reunited with his sister Kathryn at the finish, who blazed through with a 4:41 on her second running of this tough course.  We stuck around to watch more people come in, while we continued to snack on the food that runners brought for the post-race potluck. Seth came in with his new friend, and later on Carol and her troupe.  We stuck around to watch Cathy, the last finisher, come in, completing her 4th Monkey Marathon and her impressive lifetime 400th marathon.
A Victory Headstand as the sun sets...
Seth and I, still hungry, decided to go into town to try out a local specialty - the infamous "Nashville Hot Chicken." While several spots in town call themselves the "best," we were recommended by locals to head to Bolton's, a nondescript spot that served this: in its typical preparation, it's a portion of chicken breast, thigh, or wing that has been marinated in a water-based blend of seasoning, floured, fried, and finally sauced using a paste that has been spiced with cayenne pepper, then served atop slices of white bread with pickle chips. Other variations include fried whiting and catfish.  It truly was hot, and I didn't even apply much of the rub.