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 AllĂ©e 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.

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