Monday, November 23, 2015

Race Report: 2015 Harpeth Hills Flying Monkey Marathon

On November 22, I ran my 300th lifetime marathon or ultra at the Harpeth Hills Flying Monkey Marathon.  This race is held in Percy Warner Park, on the west side of Nashville, TN.

When I did my 100th marathon, I went back to the Vermont City Marathon, where I finished 50 states the year before.  For my 200th marathon, I didn’t target a specific race.  It happened to be the Rehoboth Beach Marathon in Delaware, but that was largely by chance.  I wanted my 300th marathon to be a memorable race.  I wanted it to be at a race that a lot of my friends were running, but I also wanted it to be a small enough race that I would get to see everyone.

I had never run Flying Monkey before, but I noticed several of my friends had done this one, and they kept coming back year after year.  It didn’t seem to matter if they were fast or slow – they all loved this race.  I had to find out why.

Here’s an excerpt from the website that explains the race director’s philosophy:

“Ours has become an age of flat and fast marathons on city streets and in urban jungles, with more focus on times, course certification, gadgets, charities and putting on a big show than on running. Many modern marathons have become spectacles rather than athletic events. But it was not always this way. Marathons used to be about running for the sake of running. They were about pushing oneself beyond the physiologic limits of the human body. While running.

The Harpeth Hills Flying Monkey Marathon is meant to be an antidote. Featured in Marathon & Beyond and in Runners' World magazines, it is a marathon that is about running. Running hard. Running over big and memorable and painful rolling hills through dense woods. Running with other like-minded athletes. The Harpeth Hills Flying Monkey Marathon is about the joy and pain of running a unique, and uniquely challenging--some would say beastly--26.2 mile course in the beautiful and historic Percy Warner Park, nestled among the Middle Tennessee Harpeth Hills.

We will time and measure the distance, but the course will not be certified and it will not be a Boston qualifying event. If you get to the end and you (or your gadget) believe the route to be long, we won't charge you extra; if you believe it to be short, just keep running. There will be no bands, cheerleaders, wave starts or crowds. We promise no marathon Personal Records, but we guarantee every runner a PR - a Permanent Remembrance of a well-earned marathon finish. We promise to give you approximately 26.2 tough and memorable miles, with a total of over 3600 feet each of elevation gain and loss, or over 7200 feet of overall elevation change.”

The name of the race is inspired by a local legend about flying monkeys.  Here’s what the website says about the monkeys:

“Nashville's Percy Warner Park is home to a legendary breed of flying monkeys, named the Harpeth Hills Flying Monkeys after the geologic region where they reside. The Harpeth Hills Flying Monkeys, classified as an endangered species, are only rarely seen by humans. The monkeys are most active during low light, before dawn and around dusk. Sightings of flying monkeys are uncommon, and most witnesses confuse them with large owls, hawks or flying piglets. While flying monkeys are reputed to carry away small dogs and lost runners, they are generally harmless. Nobody has ever successfully photographed a flying monkey, and flying monkeys are in no way related to or affiliated with the ivory-billed woodpecker.

Percy Warner Park is one of the last known natural flying monkey habitats. Before 1939, such monkeys were seen throughout the Southeast, with concentrations in middle Tennessee and Appalachia, with smaller communities outside Chattanooga and Natchez. Flying Monkeys were rarely seen as far west as Kansas. The monkeys have always been very shy and have kept to themselves, although they have been reported to live in creepy dank castles with green-skinned human outcasts. As a result of their isolationism, the flying monkeys have evoked fear and revulsion among people. Some hunt them for sport. Others have blamed the monkeys for society's ills. Yet others simply refuse to believe that they exist.

As a result of years of over-hunting, destruction of their natural habitats, and simple human ignorance, flying monkeys no longer fill the skies. Only a few tribes remain, mostly relegated to dark hollows and dense woods. From the years of neglect and conflict, the monkeys now generally hide from humans whenever possible. However, when attacked, a flying monkey can defend itself. Its greatest weapon is its wings, which it can use to blind or to carry away any predators.

Runners in Percy Warner Park should keep ever vigilant for the native wildlife. Herds of deer, woodpeckers, skunks, true owls and eagles constantly roam the hills and woods. They will usually stand and watch runners go by. Occasionally, a flying monkey can be spotted perched high up among tree branches in the predawn light. A very fortunate few will witness the monkeys take flight, wings spread beneath the setting full moon, enjoying a few moments of a lost freedom.”

This is a popular race, and the field is limited to 350 runners.  In August, I put my name in the lottery.  Two weeks later, I got an email from Trent with the bad news:

“Hi David,

Today is not your lucky day. Today is, in fact, a bad bad day for you. I am sorry.

We have conducted the reaping, and you were selected to represent your district in the Tenth Annual Monkey Games. Yep. You are in. Words cannot express how sorry I am for you. Or how sorry you will be. Anyhow, looks like you are in. Good luck with that. You will most certainly regret it. I'll be in touch.”

I chose this for my 300th marathon several months ago.  To stay on schedule, I had to run marathons almost every weekend, even though I’ve been coping with injuries since May.  Twice, I had to cancel plans to do a race.  Both times, I had to find another race I could add to my schedule, so I could stay on track.  Then the Rock ‘n’ Roll Savannah Marathon was halted because of heat and humidity.  The only way to stay on schedule was to do another race the next day.  It wasn’t easy, but I was determined.  Besides, marathons aren’t supposed to be easy.

I flew to Nashville on Saturday, arriving in the early afternoon.  I stayed at a hotel that was about four miles west of Percy Warner Park.  After checking in, I stopped at a grocery store to pick up some food for the post-race pot luck lunch.  Then I picked up my race packet.  All the difficulties I’ve overcome to stay on schedule seemed worth it when I saw my race bib.  It was getting real.  I was running my 300th marathon, and it was going to be epic.

We received two shirts.  One was a long sleeved tech shirt with the race logo.  The other was a short sleeved shirt with a design reflecting this year’s theme.

Every year, there’s a different theme.  This year’s race had a Hunger Games theme.  To get into the spirit of the event, I went to see “Mockingjay, Part 2” later in the afternoon.  Then I had my pre-monkey pizza at Jonathan’s Grille.

There’s a notoriously difficult 11.2 mile road loop through Percy Warner Park known affectionately as “The 11.2.”  By itself, it’s a difficult run.  In fact, I saw this on the car of a local runner.

The 11.2 is combined with another winding hilly road to create a figure eight.  The marathon route runs every part of these roads in both directions.  This lets everyone experience each hill going up and down.  It also increases opportunities to see other runners during the race.

I arrived at the start about an hour early.  I just missed seeing the runners who took the early start.  Being there early gave me a chance to see other runners I knew.  As luck would have it, several of the early starters were runners I saw at packet pickup.

Since early September, I’ve found that my legs get stiff if I don’t run fast enough to stimulate good blood flow.  I need to maintain roughly 10 minute miles, but I no longer have the fitness to run at that pace for more than half a marathon.

In some races, I’ve started at a pace I knew I couldn’t sustain.  It allows me to feel comfortable for the first half of the race.  When I inevitably slow down, I face the double whammy of running out of gas and also having my legs get stiff.  Often my running pace deteriorates to the point where I’m better off switching to power walking.

The alternative is to start the race at a more sustainable pace.  When I do this, my legs never get warmed up, and they’re stiff for the entire race.  I don’t slow down as much, but I never really feel comfortable.

For this race, I chose the latter strategy.  I had to respect the difficulty of the course.  Knowing I wouldn’t be able to sustain a good pace, I approached this like an ultra.  I went slow from the beginning and walked the most difficult sections.

The overnight low was 25 degrees, but it warmed up to about 30 by the time we started.  I’ve run other races with temperatures in the 30s, but that’s when I was healthy and could run faster.  I knew I wouldn’t be moving very fast, and I knew I’d spend several hours on the course.  I started the race wearing multiple layers.

We started with a short section across grass before getting onto the roads.  I started at a pace that felt conservative, but it still felt tired the first time I reached a small hill.  After getting on the road, I noticed my feet felt funny.  They felt like they were partially numb.  My feet don’t generally get cold while I run, but all the time I spent talking to other runners before the start gave my feet time to get cold.

My first mile was a surprisingly fast 9:56.  Then we started a long gradual hill, and I slowed down.  I tried to find a pace that wouldn’t feel tiring, even going uphill.

There were a number of signs along the course.  Some were on trees.  Some were on the back side of mile markers that we would pass in the other direction.  Some were informative.  Others were misleading.  Mostly, they were there to taunt us.

My second mile was much slower at 11:27.  That pace seemed more reasonable, but I continued to slow down.  I used long downhill stretches to relax and recover.  I didn’t try to run them fast.

In the third mile, we reached the first hill that was steep enough to persuade me to walk.  I power walked the steeper parts and ran slowly everywhere else.  Running uphill helped me to warm up.  I started the race with gloves and shell mittens on my hands.  After a few miles, I was able to take off the mittens.  Then I could take a few pictures of the course.

We were running through a heavily forested area.  Occasionally, we passed a clearing or an overlook and had views of the surrounding hills.

My feet gradually thawed out.  After four miles, my right foot felt normal.  Eventually, my left foot felt normal too.

After about five miles, I was averaging 12 minute per mile.  I started catching up to some of the runners who took the early start.  The first runner I saw was Ted “Dead Last Monkey.”

I think I saw three signs saying it was the last hill.  These were all in the first half of the race, so it was pretty obvious there were more hills.

I missed the mile markers for six and seven miles.  I eventually realized it had been a long time since I saw a mile marker.  I wanted to know how far I had run.  Eventually, I came to this mile marker.  Apparently, I had already run a really long distance.

After about nine miles, I started seeing the fastest runners coming back.  I was near the back of the pack of runners who took the regular start, but I still got to see most of my friends.  One by one, I saw them coming back.

In our pre-race briefing, Trent warned us there would be traps.  I think this was one of them.

I never saw any flying monkeys, but I sometimes heard rustling in the trees.  I think they may have been watching us from above.  I think they were looking for her.

Dorothy wasn’t the only runner with a good outfit.

For the second straight race, I was wearing an elastic bandage on my right thigh.  I did my best to wrap it without any tension, but muscles have a way of swelling during a race.  I sometimes felt soreness in my right quad or hip flexor while running up a hill.  After about 11 miles, I realized I was also feeling soreness in my groin.  Running hills really aggravates this injury.  The pain became constant.  I felt it both uphill and downhill.

At the start of a long gradual climb, I switched to power walking.  I was relieved to discover I had no pain when I walked.  I wondered if I would need to walk the rest of the race.

This race doesn’t have any time limit, but I wanted to finish within six hours.  I reached the halfway mark in 2:43:36.  I was on pace to break 5:30, but I expected to do much more walking in the second half.  I didn’t know if I could break six if I walked the whole way.  Just past halfway, the road turned downhill again.  I decided to give running another try.  I was pleasantly surprised to discover I could once again run without pain.  After a long enough walking break, the soreness was gone.

In the second half of the race I walked anything uphill, but ran where it was downhill.  Some of the downhill stretches were long, and my leg started to hurt.  I did my best to tough it out until the hill bottomed out.  It was hard on my leg, but I was making good time.  In miles that were mostly downhill, I averaged 12 minutes.  In miles that were uphill, I averaged 14 minutes.  I only needed to average 15 minutes per mile in the second half, so I was building a cushion.

I was working up a sweat power walking up the hills.  I was finally able to remove my Tyvek jacket and tie it around my waist.  I still had two layers.  Walking uphill I had to work hard to keep up a good pace.  Running downhill, I went slow and let gravity do the work.  Paradoxically, I found myself getting cold when I was running and warming up again when I was walking.

Late in the race, we came by an overlook, where we could see downtown Nashville in the distance.

By the time I finished 22 miles, I realized I could walk the rest of the way and easily break six hours.  After that I had more of a bias toward walking.  I still ran the downhills, but in addition to walking uphill, I also walked anything that was remotely level.  Earlier in the race, nothing was level.  Now I had a more liberal definition of “level.”  Suddenly, I was redefining about 80 percent of the course to be either uphill or “level.”

Early in the race, there was a downgrade steep enough to be uncomfortable, even running downhill.  I commented at the time to another runner, “This one’s going to be a bitch when we have to climb it later in the race.”  As I reached a hill that was tough, even walking, I realized this was the same hill.

In the last few miles, I was hurting.  I wanted to walk everything, but I also wanted to get to the finish as quickly as I could.  When I reached a section that was unambiguously downhill, I forced myself to run it.

In the last mile, I started to hear cheering coming from the finish area.  I eventually left the road to run across the grass.  I knew I was now visible to people in the finish area, so I felt obligated to run.  I crossed the finish line in 5:40:51.  I survived the Tenth Annual Monkey Games.  All tributes who survived received Monkeyjay pins.  Alas, not everyone survived.  Eight runners succumbed to monkey attacks.

Prior to the race, I ordered this 300 marathons recognition medallion from the 100 Marathons Club, North America.  I wanted to wear it after the race, so I had to order it ahead of time.  That put extra pressure on me to stay on schedule.

After getting some warmer clothes from my car, I stayed to visit in the finish area, where we had a pot luck dinner.  I didn’t eat much food, but I had a slice of Trent’s homemade monkey pumpkin pie.  Trent makes good pies.

By the time I left, I could barely walk to the car.  The muscles in my right thigh were so sore, I could barely bring my right leg forward.  I had to take small steps.  Thankfully, this wasn’t a worsening of my groin injury.  It was other muscles that were sore from all the hills.  It was worse in my right leg because of the bandage.  When I got back to the hotel, I removed the bandage and took a hot bath.  After that, I could walk again.  I was still sore, but no more than you would expect after running 26 miles of nonstop hills.

Later, I joined several of the regulars for dinner at Mafiaoza’s, which conveniently has good pizza.

For my 300th marathon, I wanted to do a race that would be memorable. This was a good choice.  I wanted to do a race where I would see a number of my friends.  Again, this was a good choice.  Running such a hilly race when I’m injured probably wasn’t smart, but as Trent says, “Running is stupid.”


  1. Congrats David!! Always love reading your reports and glad I took the early start so I could see you finish!!

  2. Nice posting. Congrats, and glad you made it out!

  3. Thanks, Trent. I regret that I forgot to mention how great all the volunteers were.