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.|