On November 20, I ran the Harpeth Hills Flying Monkey Marathon in Nashville. Last year, I chose this race for my 300th marathon or ultra. This has been a rebuilding year for me, so I haven’t done as many races. I’ve had to make some choices. There was never any doubt in my mind that I would return for this one, although I had doubts about whether I could be ready.
Flying Monkey is one of the toughest road marathons in the country. Most of the course is on an 11.2 mile road loop through Percy Warner Park. The park is full of beautiful forests and hills – lots and lots of tough hills. It’s also said to be the home of flying monkeys.
The “11.2” is a tough loop. When I was there last year, I saw a local runner with an “11.2” sticker on her car. The marathon course is set up so you run every hill from both directions, plus a few extra miles on another road that cuts across the park. This isn’t a place where you come to run a fast time. It’s a place where you come to do a challenging run. The marathon has 3,600 feet of total ascent, with an equal amount of descent. To put that in perspective, the Pike’s Peak Marathon has roughly 7,800 feet of ascent.
Aside from being a challenging race, this is also a fun race, and it’s a popular race. Registration is through a “weighted lottery,” which takes place in early August. You can also bypass the lottery by making a donation to Friends of Warner Parks, an organization dedicated to the preservation, protection, and stewardship of Percy Warner Park and Edwin Warner Park.
As part of the registration form, each applicant is asked why they want to do the race. This might help your chances in the “weighted lottery.” Alternatively, it might just give the race director a good laugh. I wrote, “Last year I found out how much it hurts to do this race with an injury. This year I want to find out how much it can hurt to run it healthy.”
By the end of August, everyone who registered is informed whether they had the misfortune of being selected to run the marathon. (Trent, the race director, has a cruel sense of humor.) I opted to bypass the lottery by making a donation, so there was no suspense. I already knew I was doomed.
Every year has a theme. Last year’s race had a Hunger Games theme. This year’s theme was based on Chinese astrology. Each year is associated with an animal and an element. This year is the year of the monkey, and it’s associated with the “element” of fire. The theme of this year’s race was “year of the monkey,” and it’s a “fire monkey.”
I flew to Nashville on Saturday. I stayed at a Hampton Inn that was about four miles west of the parks, near I-40. This was also where I stayed last year, so I knew my way around the neighborhood. After checking in, I drove to the Gordon JCC, to pick up my race packet. Everybody gets a log sleeve shirt, customized with their monkey nickname. This year, I requested the nickname, “Most Improved Monkey.” After running last year’s race in 5:40, I was pretty sure I could improve on that time by a significant margin. My shirt also had one monkey on the sleeve, signifying one previous “monkey kill.”
I also got a short sleeve T-shirt.
Last year I wore bib number 300 for my 300th marathon. Returning runners get the same number each year, so I had number 300 again.
For my pre-race pizza, I went to Jonathon’s Grille. I discovered this restaurant last year. They have good pizza; they’re within walking distance of Hampton Inn; and if you show your room card, you get a 10% discount.
I was able to get to sleep early, but I only slept for two hours before walking up. After that, I was awake for most of the night. I got a few 10 minute micro-naps, but I was never able to sleep longer than that.
I gave up on sleeping and got up at 5:00. Hampton Inn starts their breakfast service at 6:00, so I had enough time to get ready when breakfast started. I saw about eight other runners in the breakfast area.
It only takes about 10 minutes to drive to Percy Warner Park, and I got there around 20 minutes to seven. The race didn’t start until 8:00, but there was an early start at 7:00. I didn’t take the early start, but I had a chance to visit with some of the runners who did.
After the early starters took off, I made a quick trip to the bathroom and then waited in my car. An advantage of getting there early was having a parking space that wasn’t too far from the starting line. Other than one final trip to the bathroom, I spent the next hour in my car.
When I arrived at the park, it was 29 degrees. By the time the race started, it warmed up a couple degrees, but it was still freezing. I wore my signature cheetah tights and hat, which are both warmer than they look. I also wore a long sleeve polypro shirt, with a T-shirt over it. Finally, I started the race with two pairs of gloves. I needed all that to keep warm in the early miles, but I knew I was in danger of overheating toward the end of the race. It was a sunny day. Most of the course is shaded, but the morning sun made it warm up quickly. By noon, it would be about 45 degrees.
Some runners wear costumes for this race. My favorite costume last year was “Dorothy.” She wore the same outfit this year. It was her 11th year of evading flying monkeys.
The best costume this year belonged to my friend Seth. He came dressed as a flying monkey.
After making a few pre-race announcements, Trent sent us off by shouting, “On your mark … get set … Monkey!” We had to run around the edge of a meadow before getting onto the roads that loop through the park. After that, everything was paved until we returned to the meadow at the end of the race.
We didn’t have to wait long before starting the first long climb. I tried to pace myself conservatively. Running uphill, I told myself to stay relaxed and not fight the hill. I wanted to run the whole way, but I didn’t want to wear myself out by taking the hills too fast. Running downhill, I also told myself to relax, but for a different reason. I didn’t want to beat up my legs by racing the downhills. Instead, I used them as opportunities to recover.
At the top of the first long hill, we were greeted by this sign. It’s meant as a taunt, but I told myself I only needed to do about 10 more hills of similar size. In fact, some hills are bigger, some are smaller, and when you’re not on a big hill, the terrain is still rolling. It’s never flat.
This race is best known for the hills and Trent’s monkeyshines, but it’s also a chance to run through a heavily forested park while the leaves are in color.
On the next big hill, I started to get warm. I took off one pair of gloves and stuffed them into my fanny pack.
Near the southeast corner of the park, there’s a golf course. As we ran by the club house, we ran down a hill that was short, but steep. We were only a few miles into the race, but I found running down this hill to be uncomfortable. I had to shorten my stride and take rapid steps. I remembered we would have to run up this same hill much later in the race.
The course has been described as a figure eight. That’s how it looks on a map, but it feels different when you’re running it. I would compare it to a Mobius strip. You run each hill from both sides, and the hills seem to go on forever.
About five miles into the race, while climbing a long hill, I started to get hot. I took off my other pair of gloves. When I reached the next downhill section, my hands got cold. I didn’t generate nearly as much heat when I was running downhill. At first, I told myself that was OK. There would be lots of other hills. I also reminded myself that the temperature was going to climb. After a mile or two of cold hands, I finally had to put on my gloves again.
By the time I reached the nine mile mark, I had seen at least three signs saying, “Last Hill.” Trent lies.
Throughout the first half of the race, I was running by feel. I wasn’t looking at my watch. I was afraid knowing my pace would tempt me to run too fast. At the halfway mark, I finally checked my watch. I ran the first half in 2:05:08, putting me roughly on pace for 4:10. Last year, I finished in 5:40. I would have loved to beat last year’s time by an hour and a half. I wanted to earn my “Most Improved Monkey” nickname. It was too soon to worry about that. I went back to running by feel and not worrying about my time.
You get to see all the other runners in this race. I gradually caught and passed each of the runners who took the early start. By now, there were also sections where I saw the leaders running in the opposite direction.
I kept expecting to overheat in the second half of the race, but there was just enough wind to keep me cool. I sometimes got hot running uphill, but I also sometimes got cold hands running downhill.
At 19 miles, I started a particularly tough hill. On this hill, I finally had to take off my gloves again. This time they stayed off for the rest of the race. This hill could easily have broken my spirit, but I remembered something. The last five miles have a noticeable downhill trend. There’s still one tough hill in that stretch, but if I could just get to 21, the worst would be over.
I chugged up the hill. After another long downhill, there was another tough hill. Then I reached the crest. By now, I was lifting my effort as much as I could. I wanted to run negative splits. If I could do that, I would also beat last year’s time by an hour and a half. I still wasn’t looking at my watch. I didn’t know if running negative splits was a realistic goal, but I was going to finish strong and hope for the best.
Now there was lots of downhill running. For the first time, I was racing the downhills. My legs were getting a little stiff, but I didn’t have any soreness in my quads. I could only pick up the pace a little, but I did what I could.
I realized we were at the southeast corner of the park when I saw the golf course again. I knew there was one more steep hill, and it was the one by the club house. This was the last hill of any significance. Earlier in the race, each big hill had a “Last Hill” sign. Now that it really was the last hill, Trent had a different sign for us.
The steepest section of this hill slowed me down. I ran the whole thing, but at times I wondered if I could walk just as fast. When it was over, I did my best to pick up the pace. There was a lot of downhill running left.
At 25 miles, I was tempted to look at my watch, but I resisted. If I was on pace for negative splits, it would give me extra motivation to pour it on in the last mile. If I wasn’t, I might lose all motivation and coast through the last mile. I decided I was better off not knowing.
Soon, I saw parked cars below us through the trees. As the crow flies, we were close to the finish line. As the monkey flies, we weren’t so close.
We followed the road for several more minutes before finally turning off the road to run around the meadow again. About halfway across the meadow, I saw the 26 miles sign. I looked at my watch. It was already too late to run negative splits. I ran as hard as I could, and I finished in 4:15:31.
While I didn’t break 4:10 or run negative splits, I was still happy with that time. It’s similar to the times from my last two races, but this was a much tougher course. I beat last year’s time by about 1:25. Finally, I didn’t have a late race collapse. My pacing might not have been optimal, but it was reasonable. I haven’t been able to say that much lately.
Finisher medals had a slightly different design this year, in keeping with the “year of the monkey” theme.
I also won a monkey hat as a door prize.
After the race, there was a potluck lunch. There was also a beer garden with at least four different Yazoo beers. Before eating, I took a few minutes to walk to my car and get my warm-up clothes. I might have been hot at times while running, but now that I was finished, I could easily get cold in my sweaty running clothes. I was glad I arrived early and parked close.
Later, I met Trent and other friends for dinner at Mafiaoza’s.