Sunday, April 28, 2013

2013 Oak Barrel Half Marathon Recap

Sleep was annoyingly restless in the old Ramada Inn of Murfreesboro, but the aged hotel was all I could find after several weeks of hotel hunting. The faint putrid odor of stale cigarette smoke was barely recognizable in the chemical fog used to hide it, but it had an immediate and negative effect on my sinuses. So, I was anxious to get rolling south on US-231 well before the sun came up.

The near-hour drive proved scenic as the sun rose to reveal the rolling hills that dominate the landscape of Moore county. Moore county, world famous for being the dry county that houses the Jack Daniels Distillery, has its county seat in Lynchburg, TN. That was where I was going for the third year in a row. There I planned absorb both the southern hospitality of the locals and the brutal climb of Whiskey Hill as I took part in the 4th Annual Oak Barrel Half Marathon.

Regarding the race, I knew what I was in for. The challenging course was not a personal record producer. It rolled over several hills, including 1.6-mile parabolic climb up Whiskey Hill. That hill ascended nearly 400 ft (of 800 total ft of climbing) as the course wound through budding forests and pastures onto the higher ground of Moore county. A glance at my mile splits from my beloved Polar RC3 GPS will allow you to easily locate Whiskey Hill. Thankfully, the last four miles of the loop gradually descended back into the valley, allowing fatigued legs to regain the intended pace.

In short, I loved this race. It was well organized, it was carried out by a large crew of smiling volunteers, the course was rustically scenic, and the venue was a national treasure. All of this caused it to fill the available 1200 slots as it has each year.

I went into this year's race feeling slightly more fit than last year when I ran a 1:19:28 and finished in third place a mile behind a pair of studs. In 2011 I finished 6th in 1:20:54. Given the near perfect weather, I hoped to run another 1:19 half on a course that I believe corresponds to a 1:17 on a flat course.

What I did not expect was to move into the lead 1:40 into the race. I checked my heart rate several times the first mile because I could not even hear footsteps behind me. I covered the first mile in 5:48, which was similar to previous years, but my HR was low! So I sped up and covered the second mile in 5:40 despite the fact that I knew the climbing began in the third mile.

Honestly, following the lead vehicle was nerve racking. I'd been in that position before, but not in the OB Half. I was caught and passed by a runner after Whiskey Hill during each of my prior races. That led me to surmise that a well paced young guy was cruising along while smiling at this foolish old carrot.

So, I watched my HR as I climbed the Hill. As expected, my pulse climbed into and then to the top my tempo zone. On the final and steepest pitch of the climb I could hear Highway to Hell blaring through the loudspeakers above while my legs took on enormous quantities of weight and my arms began to tingle and quiver. I think I even got several glances of my oxygen deprived brain as my eyes rolled back in my head. Damned Hill!

Because of a switchback at the top of Whiskey Hill, I could see several hundred meters back down the road. The next runner was George DeWitt from Alabama, who has run marathons in the 2:30's since turning 50. He was about thirty seconds behind as I approached the 5-mile aid station beyond the top of the hill. There was no one within 200 meters of George.

As I sipped on water near the five mile mark it occurred to me that I might actually win the race if I ran smart. Of course, at that moment I was borderline comatose having just climbed the Hill. Still, I picked the pace back up (5:48) in an attempt to further separate myself from George. That, naturally, kept me in a mental fog as I lifted heavy legs. When I hit the base of a steep hill in mile seven I decided to slow down and regroup rather than risk blowing up. Up until that point I was well ahead of my 2012 pace and would likely have gone mid-1:18 had I not blown up. I wanted to win, so I ate a VFuel and slowed to run a 6:22 mile.

After that mile, and after I had turned a corner and realized I had at least a 600 meter lead, I lowered the pace to about six minutes per mile. If someone was going to catch me, they would have to close with 5:30s and fend off my quickly recovering legs.

That meant that most of the final six miles of the race were quite relaxed for me. Along one long straight stretch of road I approached a farmer standing with his hands in his jeans pockets. I asked him if he could see anyone behind me and he laughed and said, "There's no one in the same zip code."

After turning onto Lynchburg Highway I could see the 12-mile marker ahead. From there I knew I had about 1.25 miles to go based on last year's gps measurements. A quick calculation revealed that I had to be well under six minute pace to break 1:20. Hmmm. When I reached 12.50 miles I knew I had to run the last uphill 1200 meters in 4:12 to break 1:20.

And that is precisely what I did, finishing in 1:19:59. Winning this exceptional race was a big thrill for me. I was proud to be wearing the Polar gear (LOVE the RC3 GPS with the all important HR!) and kit. And I was happy to be in great health and in the company of such wonderful people on a sunny spring day. Never mind my embarrassment over the fact that my time was the slowest winning time in the event's history. It was a win! And that meant that I received the whole barrel lid this year! After the ceremony I picked up another little something from the nearby distillery. . .

Now THAT is a trophy!
. . . before driving to downtown Nashville for a celebratory feast at the Old Spaghetti Factory and a pint at Fat Bottom Brewing Co.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Spring Break - Asheville, NC

Within an hour of welcoming a new member to the family I was on my way to North Carolina to play in the mountains along the Blue Ridge and to explore Asheville. A snowstorm had buried the higher reaches of the Blue Ridge just before my arrival, so a wintry element was added to this year's spring trip.

I was able to spend significant time running and hiking along the Mountains to Sea Trail. The MST follows the Blue Ridge Parkway for many miles, undulating next to, below, and sometimes high above or far away from the famous roadway. I began by running up from the Folk Art Center to a knob a few miles away, ascending  about 1400 feet. Near the apex of the run I cleared a knob covered with several inches of snow that would melt almost entirely before my trip was over. The almost always blue and clear sky combined with a lack of foliage to yield stunning views along the trail and across the valleys.

Polar RC3 GPS map of the first run
The MST is accessible at many points along the parkway, most notably where roads intersect the BRP. Due to the snowfall, which reached almost a foot at higher elevations (5K+ ft), many segments of the BRP were closed to traffic. That made my jaunts along the MST a little more relaxing and a lot quieter.
RC3GPS altitude and heart rate data from the lower run
I also spent some time enjoying the great food and music of Asheville while making several new friends. As has become the norm for me, I found a seat close to the stage for live Old Time and Bluegrass music at Jack of the Wood. That music is always a treat for the ears and heart! Having given up beer for lent (???), I settled for well crafted hard apple cider. I also gorged on a super healthy and mighty tasty Grateful Dead Black Bean Burger and sweet potato fries while seated in front of the chef at the famous Tupelo Honey Cafe.  I highly recommend a seat along the bar in front of the busy cook staff as it is both educational and fun.

I also toured the Biltmore Estate again. What a treasure! The history and forethought of the Biltmore family is worthy of getting familiar with. For instance, unbeknownst to guests, an unfinished and long empty room in the mansion was used to "hide" a huge government art collection during WWII. Visitors to the Biltmore Winery should note that they make many great wines, so a well conceived trip would schedule wine tasting with time left over to walk near the river or along a forest trail.

A mini tour of some of the Asheville breweries closed out my trip. Included in this tour were the Green Man Brewing Co, the Asheville Brewing Co, the Lexington Avenue Brewery, and the Wicked Weed. All of these breweries make great beer. Of note, I visited the Wicked Weed for the first time and left with a couple of growlers (lent!!!) because the beer was uniquely superb! I only wish I would have been more creative when asking to take some of their uncannily great tasting small batch beers with me. Those boys can brew beer!!!

There are so many things to do in and around Asheville that it is well worth multiple visits - or even a permanent address. Outdoor nuts, music lovers, and beer enthusiasts might think they getting a sneak peak at heaven.

As usual, here are some of the photos I took along the way. Click and enjoy them. Then make plans for your own visit!

Sunshine and snow!
Melting snow kept the feet wet.
Diverging MST and BRP
Shadows of giants.
Wooden stairway! 
Snow covered stone stairway.

Lovely rugged trail.
Hi! Please shoot me when I come back.
MST trail marker
Well, it just seemed inviting.
So tempted to throw snowballs . . .
Take Care, Shane