Monday, April 4, 2011

Jack Daniels Oak Barrel Half Marathon

I will start this post by stating that this race provided a unique and thoroughly enjoyable experience. Not only do I intend to run it again, I highly recommend this race to anyone interested in running half marathons.

The Oak Barrel Half Marathon starts and finishes in Lynchburg, TN where the world famous Jack Daniels whiskey is made.  Lynchburg is located about an hour due south of Nashville and an hour due west of Chattanooga, not far from the Alabama state line.  Lynchburg is located, really, nowhere near anything other than the distillery.  And that is a wonderful thing!  As the townsfolk will be quick to tell you, the town of less than 6000 inhabitants is located in a hollow.  A hollow that is surrounded by big hills that are currently blanketed with budding forests and active farms.  The area is quintessential rural America.

I traveled to this race with my good friend and all-around great guy, a country boy himself, Jeremy Aydt.  We've known each other since the late 90's.  Jeremy is a teacher (5th grade), coach, and long-time runner who has been busy getting back into the sport after a layoff.  After school on Friday we met for a quick dinner at Fazoli's before making the three-hour drive to the Marriott hotel Franklin, TN. (Free night from points earned on a Marriott Rewards Visa - no monthly balance :)

We were more than pleased to find that the hotel sat mere feet away from a Bosco's Restaurant and BREWERY where we each topped off our glycogen storage with a stout.

On the morning of the race we drove a little more than an hour to Lynchburg.  Though we had originally planned to check out the notorious Whiskey Hill that would challenge us for the duration of the fifth mile, our arrival in Lynchburg caused us to stay put.  Cars carrying 1000 runners, many of whom traveled with their families, were flooding into the town from all directions for the sold out race.  I'll bet that the tourists venturing into town that morning were more than a little surprised by the closed roads, lane restrictions, and jittery skinny people.  Jeremy and I decided that entering town one time would be enough.

Four porta john visits later (metabolism still not normal) I was jogging to the line, as is my custom, with minutes to spare.  As promised, the race started at 8 sharp.  Jeremy and I wished each other well with a fist butt a few seconds into the race.  We were each now alone with our thoughts as we wound our way toward an insanely steep stretch of country road.

It was an absolutely perfect morning for a race.  Jeremy had pointed out a flag that was pointing at the ground while we paused for the start under a cloudless sky.  That still air would be pushed aside by a headwind during our last three miles and that headwind became a menacing force of nature before the awards were all handed out. The temperature was climbing through the 40's, but would only be in the low 60's when we finished.

I had studied the course profile and predicted my splits before I left. (Sick that way!)  My predicted splits varied from 5:45 to 7:25.  No, the Oak Barrel course is not a flat PR course.  I passed through the first two mostly flat miles in 11:40 in the lead group of four.  Then the climbing began with a short steep climb early in the third mile that was followed immediately by a short downhill.  The four of us separated at that point and I was the trailing runner. Then the climbing began.  See the course map and profile here.  I knew we would continue climbing from about 2.6 miles until 5.4, with the five mile mark residing just beyond the steepest part of Whiskey Hill.

Glancing at my heart rate monitor from time to time, I knew I was working hard as the three runners in front of me spread out from each other and pulled away from me.  I passed the four mile mark in 24:02.  I did not see the leader again after the sharp turns of Whiskey Hill.  The runner in second place pulled about 45 seconds ahead of me while the third place guy achieved a seven second lead on me at the top of Whiskey Hill.  I ran the fifth mile in 7:15, which was ten seconds faster than I thought I would.  I later learned that the winner, George Heeschen (1:17:22), climbed that mile in 6:50.

Whiskey Hill embodied all of the challenge we had read and heard about it.  The 300 feet of climbing was nothing when compared to the climbs I had recently completed in the NC mountains, but it was the most formidable challenge I have faced in thirty-two years of road racing.  The switchback near the summit was so steep that I found it necessary to ask a photographer perched there why he had not installed a ladder.  Two loudspeakers sitting on the ridge above the switchback belted out "Eye of the Tiger" as I climbed.  That helped.  Jeremy reported that his encouraging song was "Highway to Hell."

Once on top of Whiskey Hill we were treated to several rolling hills along the meandering country road.  It was on the short and steep downhills that two things happened to me.  First, I caught and passed the guy in third while I also slowly reeled in the guy (who I thought was an over-40 like me) running in second place.  Second, I felt a twinge in my right hamstring.  I had been nursing a sciatic pinch for a few days.  The pain and tightness had been mostly confined to my arse, but the long drive made the pain and tightness extend into the hamstring.  All had seemed fine for the first eight miles, but one super steep downhill at 8.4 miles caused me to lengthen my stride beyond the working range of that hamstring.

The ham became progressively tighter as I ran the mostly downhill roads into the finish.  Bummer, I did run miles 9 and 10 in 11:40, but I did not achieve the downhill 5:45's that I had hoped to.  I was, however, slowly reeling in Eric Charette, the runner in second place.  Eric had begun to check his watch - a lot.  And he had looked back several times.  He was slowing, but was he just biding his time.  I wondered if I could catch him.  At mile 11.6 I received the answer to the question as I ran through the last aid station.  John Thorpe (36) caught me from behind.  I was surprised because I rarely look back while racing and because I had only slowed to six minute pace.

I went with him as he passed me and I kept the pace until the pain in the hamstring reached my threshold.  This wasn't worth a pulled hamstring that would haunt me for a month.  It was with a touch of envy that I watched him pull away and then pass Charette during the thirteenth mile. My time of 1:20:54 was a bit slower than I had hoped for, but it only put a tiny dent in the euphoria of the morning.  The sun was shining and Jeremy finished in 1:28:47, well under his goal of 1:30.  He is progressing at a rate that should have him beating me by the end of the year.

We quickly took in some calories and fluid before walking over to get our one-hour free tour of the Jack Daniels distillery.  That tour, a history lesson and comedy tour rolled into one, was a treat!  When asked how a person can become a JD taster,  our gregarious tour guide responded, "Well, it takes years to acquire the skills of a taster.  But, of course, as a taster you have to spit the whiskey out.  It is after you have swallowed two times that you become a tour guide."

This race was put on by a running club called Mach Tenn.  They carried out a fantastic race.  Entrants had all of the information about the race available on the race website.  We received emails leading up to the race.  They had a Facebook page.  There were six aid stations along the course.  We received a long-sleeved tech shirt, a race cap, and a unique wood finisher's "medal."  The awards were made from actual Jack Daniels whiskey barrels. I must admit that I had heard of the previous year's awards and was expecting a full barrel lid for beating all of the other old men (masters).  The planck cut from a stave (side board of a barrel) is more than sufficiently unique to be kept by this trophy rejector.   The  commemorative American Forests and Mr. Jack's 160th Birthday bottles of whiskey picked up at the distillery topped off the booty list!

So, I recommend that next year at this time you round up a good friend and drive into the southern hills of Tennessee until you come to a hollow where the cows are smiling and the sweet aroma of spent grains fills the air.  Look up high on the hills until you find a few that are spotted with large rectangular gray buildings.  That is where the Jack is made.  And it is also near the end of a looping run that will take you to hell and back.
Check out the prize between the hardware.

NC Training Camp Wrap-up

I've received a few messages asking about the totals on my short spring break training trip in the NC mountains.  By my normal training standards, it was huge.  In three days I ran 40 miles with 11,200 ft of climbing and I rode 84 miles with 12,400 ft of climbing.  Combined with the training I completed at home that week, the totals were 53 miles of running and 116 miles of cycling.

I also visited some interesting tourist destinations, including the Folk Art Center on the BRP, the Biltmore Estate, Maggie Valley, NC, several art galleries, and 4 microbreweries.  The Folk Art Center is a component of the original vision of the BRP, which included "points of interest" spaced approximately every thirty miles along the parkway.  It is worth the visit.  The Biltmore is costly ($29+ dollars per head), but most worthy because of the quantity and nature of the continuing history of the estate.  I found it most fascinating that a small fraction of the Vanderbilt fortune was used to create and preserve this 8000+ acre estate and the Pigsah National Forest, which was the first nationally protected forest.

In short, I saw a variety of regional art, listened to talented musicians playing alternative and Old Time music, drank great bear, and trained long and hard.  It was a memorable trip.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Green Knob to Mt. Mitchell

The steep switch-back climb up Green Knob from the BRP passes easily as I try to keep the pace honest.  I am a little surprised to find that the trail to the fire tower has been worked on.  There are support rocks and steps all along the way and the switch backs themselves have been bolstered with rocks and timbers.  Perhaps that is why I climb this short, near-vertical section much faster than the previous two times.

This climb allows me to conclude that my legs are fresh and peppy.  They are, in fact, much stronger than I thought they would be after the big day on Monday and the relaxed day of morning training - 8 gentle trail miles and 30 bike miles on the "flattest" section of BRP around.

Wood planks, a generator, and a few other construction materials strewn about he clearing around the fire tower indicate that it is under renovation.  I snap a couple of pictures of the scene before beginning the 2.5-mile, 2200-ft descent of Green Know to Black Mountain Campground.

The sky is perfectly clear and the temperature at a mile of altitude is in the mid-40's as I negotiate the rocky outcroppings of the super steep upper segment of Green Knob.  The Knob is actually such a technical descent that I am forced to scramble over rocks and use trees for "guidance" as I basically fall down from the top.  I love it!

Not open for business
I hear chainsaws as I move into the less steep lower reaches of the descent just above the campground.  I later learn that a crew is removing downed trees on the other side of the campground.  The campground is closed for the season.  The gates are locked and all of the signs are covered with black plastic.  I am pleased to see that I have descended seven minutes faster than I did last year.  It is noticeably warmer at 3000 ft, so I remove my shirt when I stop to retrieve a pack of Gu Chomps.

The lack of foliage on the trees leaves me baking in the sun as I begin the six-mile climb up Mt. Mitchell.  I am glad I took the shirt off, since I do not intend to get dehydrated on the run.  I encourage myself to run every runnable step, which I expect to include almost all of my strides.  It is not long before I rise and cross over a ridge where the sounds generated by high winds replace the whining of the chainsaws.  The sun is still warm, but the wind leaves me chilled.  Perfect!
Barely Runnable

Last of the snow.
As I reach the higher elevations of Mt. Mitchell the winds increase and the temperature decreases.  Sweat  from my hat drips onto the goosebumps on my arms.   Finally reaching the dense spruce and fir forest  where the trail becomes much more level, I open up my stride and begin to run as if I were on the roads.  This section of trail has been etched into my memory as one of the most beautiful and enjoyable places I have ever run.  The thought occurs to me that this section of trail makes all of the work of this long run worthwhile.  I feel blessed to have the ability to run through such sensory-effecting place.

Several areas of deep snow and ice hide the trail as it meanders around the north side of the summit.  Just before I pop out on the asphalt summit trail I encounter the first people I've seen all day.  A family of five passes gingerly over an ice-covered rock outcrop as I bound through.  The mother informs her children that I am being careless and dangerous.  And she doesn't even know of my tripping skills!

The previous evening, just before a big black bear ran in front of me as I drove to my campsite, I had placed three bottles of water near a signpost below the summit.  They are gone!  This is NOT good.  All of the services at the summit are closed for the season.  The restroom is locked and the water fountains are turned off.

The Garmin indicates that it has taken me just over two hours to reach the summit of Mt. Mitchell from the BRP.  This is significantly less time than the same journey last June.  I have mixed emotions as I continue running up the spiral walkway above the summit.  The air is quite cool, maybe 55 degrees, and the wind is blowing 25-35 mph at the summit, so I quickly put the shirt back on.

It is while munching on another package of Gu Chomps that a joins me on the tower.  We greet each other and I learn that his name is Sid.  Sid is limping and wearing sandals that reveal several strips of white tape on each foot.  He tells me that he acquired "many, many blisters" the previous day when he climbed this mountain.

I tell Sid about my missing water.  He points to the ranger station/visitors' center about a mile down the asphalt road and suggests that I run over there to get water.  He said he stopped there on this drive to the summit parking lot.  I tell him that I came from the BRP and that I did not want to make that round trip before descending on the trail.  Sid breaks the seal on the water bottle in his hand and shrugs, "They would probably give you water."

A distant source of water?
Slightly miffed, I walk away.  Sid follows.  At the bottom of the viewing tower I ask him to take my summit photo.   He snaps a few pics while I smile and fantasize about going Chuck Norris on his ass with a spinning round kick to his head.  I see my right foot contacting his left cheek before I continue the spin and catch both my camera and his water bottle.  I am certain that I can get away, given the condition of his feet.

I sip from the tube of the Nathan just before he hands me the camera.  It makes an "I'm empty" gargling sound.
"You do need some water, don't you?"
"Yep. "
"Good luck." Then he screws the cap off of his water bottle and takes another drink.
"Thanks.  Take care of those feet."
Chuck Norris spinning through my mind!
I begin the run back down the mountain very thankful that it is such a cool day.  I know I will be thirsty when I get back to the RAV.

The descent of Mt. Mitchell goes much better than I expect.  My feet move swiftly and deftly as they find the best landing spots.  I find myself both surprised and pleased with my trail running agility.

Only when I see the white government vehicles of the trail crew do I realize how fast I have descended this rugged trail.  What a day!  This has gone much better than last summer!  And I haven't even stubbed my toe once!! 

The toe grabbers!
It is at the moment of that thought that I look at my watch - and catch my right toe on a root.  Several floundering strides over a myriad of roots later I catch the left toe on another root.  I crash hard on all fours before I bounce and skid to a stop.  Inspection of the damage reveals that I have contusions on my left knee and right palm.  There are several abrasions on my forearms and shins.  Dang!  I was so close!

My stride returns to normal before I finish crossing the campground.  I am sore, but my parts seem to be working.  And that is a good thing since the brutal climb up Green Knob awaits me.  As with the Mt. Mitchell ascent, I intend to run as much of this climb as possible.

The Green Knob trail post.
I manage to run the vast majority of steep trail up the Knob.  It is on this climb last summer that I completely came apart and struggled to the summit.  Not on this day.  The climb comes surprisingly easy to me.  Perhaps this is because I keep thinking about the water, orange juice, and organic fruit and protein Bolthouse smoothies stored in the RAV.  I really want to get there as fast as possible.

The sounds of hammers and saws serve as a welcome greeting me as I approach the top.  The work crew is busy repairing the fire tower.  I glance at my watch and find that I have, once again, crushed last year's time for another section of this run.

The culprits after much scrubbing.
The family enjoying a picnic lunch at the Green Knob overlook freeze when they see me.  Jaws dropp and eyes express concern.  I glance down and notice that the cut on my has bled A LOT.  That blood is all over my forearm, my once tan shirt, and my right thigh.  Furthermore, the knee had bled even more.  That blood, still running, has reached my shoe.  I smile and wave at them as I proclaim, "This is a wonderful day, isn't it!?"

While I turn the key in the door of the RAV I see my reflection in the glass.  I had, apparently, used that bloody right hand to wipe sweat from my brow during the climb.  It appears as if I had suffered a nasty head wound.  That poor family.  I hope all of them keep their lunches down.  They did leave rather abruptly.

I spend thirty minutes shoving food and fluids into my mouth while I rest on a cooler and look out over the mountains of the Blue Ridge.  Then I decide that I want to enjoy a lot more of that view with Faith. I change clothes and climb on her for an exhausting 40-mile ride that includes 6200 vertical feet of climbing.

That ride satiates my thirst for outdoor activities.  I clean up and drive back to Asheville for another afternoon and evening of big eating.  I declare the trip a peak experience when I plop down at the bar of the Jack of the Wood to enjoy an evening of live Old Time music.  And get this, the night and the great music are prolonged by a nasty storm that keeps almost everyone locked in their seats.

What a day! What a night! What an peak experience!

The first of three shifts of players at Jack of the Wood's Old Time Round up.  Great music!