Sunday, December 3, 2017

Race Report: 2017 Singapore Marathon

This morning, I race-walked the Singapore Marathon.  This was my first trip to Singapore and only my second trip to Asia (excluding the portion of Istanbul that’s on the Asian side of the Strait of Bosporus).

Singapore is an island nation just south of the Malay Peninsula.  It consists of 63 islands, but the island of Pulau Ujong makes up the vast majority of its land mass.  Pulau Ujong is essentially one large city, making Singapore one of the most densely populated nations in the world.

Singapore is located at the cross-roads of several historic trade routes.  This has not only made it a center of commerce, but has also made it a cultural melting pot, with large Chinese, Malaysian, and Indian communities.  Singapore was formerly a British colony, so English is the primary language.  For an English speaker like me, that makes Singapore one of the most accessible countries in Southeast Asia.

I’ve been interested in this race for years, but kept putting it off, either because of scheduling conflicts or because the airfare was too expensive.  This year, I didn’t have any conflicts, and I found an airfare that was comparable to a flight to Europe.

The Abbott World Marathon Majors, which currently consists of the Tokyo, London, Boston, Berlin, Chicago, and New York City Marathons, is looking at expanding to eventually include up to three additional races.  The organizers of the Singapore Marathon have expressed interest in becoming one of the new World Marathon Majors.  I don’t know if that will happen, but if it does, interest in this race will increase significantly.  When the Tokyo Marathon was added to the World Marathon Majors, it got much more difficult to get into that race.  I assume the same thing could happen with the Singapore Marathon.  I decided to beat the rush and do the Singapore Marathon while it’s still easy to get in.

This was the farthest I’ve ever traveled.  To get to Singapore, I had three flight segments, totaling roughly 9,500 miles.  Including airport layovers, it took almost 28 hours.  That wouldn’t have been so bad, but there aren’t any convenient flight times.  I left Minneapolis at 6:50 AM on Tuesday.  To get to the airport on time, I had to get up at 3:30, so I was already tired when I began the trip.  There’s a 14 hour time difference between Minneapolis and Singapore, so by the time I landed, it was already 12:30 AM on Thursday.  That’s an awful time to arrive, because most buses and trains don’t run between midnight and 6:00 AM, and everything is closed.  On my last flight, I spent several hours trying to sleep, but I’m not sure if I ever fell asleep.

Thursday, November 30

I had a reservation at the Singapore Hilton, but I wasn’t scheduled to check in until Thursday afternoon.  I had originally planned to check into a transit hotel inside the airport for six hours to take a nap before leaving the airport.  I didn’t think I needed a reservation.  I was wrong.  All three of the transit hotels were fully booked.

After clearing customs and exchanging some currency, I took an airport shuttle to the Hilton.  They had a room available, so I was able to check in a day early and get into a room immediately.  I had to pay for an extra night, but it was worth it.  I got about four hours of sleep, which is something I desperately needed.  I also loved being able to shower.  I was ready for a full day of sightseeing.

My room rate included breakfast.  The Hilton’s breakfast buffet was as good as anything I’ve seen in Europe, but also included several Asian dishes.  I tried different things each day.  After avoiding caffeine on the days I was flying, I enjoyed starting each day with a pot of tea.

The Singapore Hilton is on Orchard Road, which is a major shopping district.  There are several large malls there.  Even the Hilton is a shopping destination, with several stores and restaurants inside the hotel.  I wasn’t there for the shopping.  I chose this location because it’s close to where the marathon starts.

Singapore is about one degree north of the equator.  That’s about 85 miles.  The climate is tropical, so it’s pretty much always hot and humid.  While I was here, I experienced overnight lows in the upper 70s and afternoon highs around 90.  It was monsoon season, so I had to be prepared for rain showers developing at any time.  I brought an umbrella and always checked the forecast before leaving the hotel.  The only time I saw rain was on the ride from the airport to the hotel.

Before the trip, I bought a Singapore travel guide published by Lonely Planet.  The book included a few suggested routes for self-guided walking tours.  I started with a walking tour of the Colonial District and Marina Bay.  The first stop was about two miles from the hotel.  I could have taken a train, but after two days of air travel, I was eager to get out and do some walking.

The first stop on my self-guided walking tour was the Raffles Hotel.  Built in 1887, this was the first hotel of the British colonial period.  It was completely renovated in 1991, and is currently undergoing further renovations.  The next stop on my route was St. Andrew’s Cathedral.  This 19th century church is an example of English Gothic architecture.

After leaving the cathedral, I passed the National Gallery Singapore and the new Supreme Court building.  My route took me past a few notable museums and art galleries, but I didn’t go into any of them.  I was more interested in seeing architecturally interesting buildings.  I continued past the Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall.

I followed one side of the Singapore River, walking past the Asian Civilizations Museum and getting good views of the downtown office buildings and Boat Quay from across the river.  I crossed the river near the Old Hill Street police station and followed the other side past the restaurants at Boat Quay.

I continued along the other side of the river past Cavenagh Bridge.

There were a number of sculptures along the river walk.  This one depicts river merchants.

As I reached Marina Bay, I took a picture of the Merlion statue.

Across the bay, I got a good view of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel and Convention Center.

As I continued around the bay, I stopped near Theaters on the Bay to get a coconut ice cream treat from a street vendor.  I also had some coconut water.  After so much walking in high humidity, I needed something to drink.

I crossed a bridge called The Helix to get to Marina South.

My last two stops were the Marina Bay Sands Hotel and Gardens by the Bay.  Gardens by the Bay is a 101 hectare botanic garden/theme park built on reclaimed land.  I probably spent as much time exploring the park as I did on my whole walking tour.

The most recognizable features of Gardens by the Bay are these Supertree sculptures.  They’re actually exhaust vents for the steam turbines of an underground biomass power plant.

By now, I was ready for lunch.  On any trip to a new country, I have to sample the local pizza.  There’s a highly rated pizzeria in the Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, so I ate there for lunch.

After lunch, I picked up my race packet at the Singapore Marathon Expo, which was also at the Marina Bay Sands.  Then I took a bus back to the Hilton to drop off my race packet.

By now, it was getting hot, and I needed to take a break, so I spent part of the afternoon exploring the Hilton.  The first two floors were like an upscale shopping mall.  There was a patio on the roof with a pool.  I think that was typical of all the hotels in the Orchard Road area.

As it got closer to evening, I walked back to Marina Bay.  I took a slightly different route, which took me by Fort Canning Park and the National Museum.  My destination was Level 33, which is a brewery on the 33rd floor of the Marina Bay Financial Center.

A guy I met on one of my flights described Singapore as an underground city.  Until I got to the Raffles Place MRT station, I didn’t know what he meant.  Sometimes the only way to get across a busy street on foot is to go into an MRT station to take a tunnel under the street.  I went into the Raffles Place station to cross under Fullerton Road.  I saw more tunnels with signs indicating the direction to different downtown buildings.   I followed the signs for Marina Bay Financial Center.  I walked underground for what seemed like half a mile, sometimes going up or down an escalator.  Along the way, I saw signs for the Marina Bay Link Mall.  I eventually came up into the lobby of Marina Bay Financial Center.  Then I took the express elevator to Level 33.

I got a seat outside and order a beer sampler and a couple of appetizers.  From Level 33, I had great views of Marina Bay.  Beyond the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, I could see all of Gardens by the Bay.

While I was there, it gradually got dark, and I saw what Marina Bay looks like at night.

Just in front of the Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, they do light and music shows twice a night.  I stayed long enough to see the beginning of the 8:00 show.  Level 33 is a great viewing point for the bay, but not for the light show.  It was too far away to hear the music clearly.  Also, the colored fountains of water don’t look as impressive from far away as they would if they were right in front of you.

Spending most of the day outdoors helped me adjust to the local time zone.  I had no trouble getting to sleep that night, and I slept well for most of the night.

Friday, December 1

Friday was the nicest day of the week.  There was no rain in the forecast, and it seemed like there was less humidity.  After breakfast, I walked over to the Botanic Gardens, which were about a mile from the hotel.  There were numerous paths winding through the gardens, and I saw quite few people running there.  The highlight of the gardens was the National Orchid Garden.

By the time I got back to the Hilton, I had already walked 4.8 miles, and I needed to change into dry clothes.  Less humid is a relative term.  Next I visited Chinatown, where I did another of the self-guided walking tour suggested by my Singapore travel book.

My route began near the Raffles Place MRT station.  My first stop was the Wak Hai Cheng Bio Temple.

As I continued south, I saw Ying Fo Fui Kun, the Nagore Durgha Shrine, Thian Hock Keng Temple, and the Al-Abrar Mosque.  I turned near Siang Cho Keong Temple and followed a narrow walkway that led me to Ann Siang Road.  After turning onto South Bridge Street, I saw the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple.

The next stop on my route was in a construction area, but I continued until I got to the colorful Layar Sithi Vinygar Temple.

My route eventually led me to the Chinatown Complex.  Then I took a lunch break. On the second level, there are dozens of food vendors.  There were so many it was hard to choose.  I wanted to try something I never had before, so I opted for glutinous rice and carrot cake with sweet sauce.  Then I went to another food stall and got some fresh coconut juice.  I’m finally getting the hang of eating with chopsticks.

I walked past a few blocks of small shops before turning onto Padoga Street .

The last stop on my route was the People’s Park Complex.  Then I caught a train at the Chinatown MRT station and went back to the hotel to change clothes again.

Next, I went to the Singapore Zoo.  It’s on the other side of the island, so I had to take a train and a bus to get there.  I had seriously considered walking there, even though it’s 13 miles away.  I’m glad I didn’t.  As it is, I walked more than 10 miles that day.

The Singapore Zoo has natural habitat areas for the animals.  Sometimes they’re sleeping or hiding, so you might have trouble seeing some of them.  I missed a few, but still got to see most of them.  The most popular exhibits are the orangutans and the white tigers.

I was also excited to see lions, cheetahs, leopards, zebras, giraffes, elephants, kangaroos, and this white rhino.

By the time I got back to the zoo, it was dinner time, but I was too tired to go out.  It got up to 95 degrees, and I was outside for most of the day.  I made a meal out of appetizers at the hotel lounge and stayed in for the night.

Saturday, December 2

After breakfast, I walked to Little India to begin another self-guided walking tour.  By now, I had established a pattern.  Early in the day, when the sidewalks aren’t too crowded, I would walk anywhere within a few miles of the hotel.  Later, when it was more crowded (and hotter), I would take a train or bus.

My route began outside the Farrer Park MRT station.  The first major landmark was the Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya Temple.

Other landmarks along my route included the Leong San See Temple, Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple, Angula Mosque, a cluster of small shops called Mustafa Centre, Sri Veeramakaliamann Temple, Kampong Kapur Methodist Church, and the Abdul Gafoor Mosque.  In addition to the major landmarks, I enjoyed seeing the various small shops and restaurants, especially along Serangoon Road.  Outside shops on Dunlap Street, I smelled incense burning.  Along Kernau Road, I smelled spices used by the local restaurants.  The last major sight was a colorful residence called the Tan House.

I finished my walking tour at a row of shops called the Tekka Centre.  I originally planned to have lunch in Little India, but I was still full from a large breakfast at the Hilton.

Each of these walking tours started and finished near MRT stations.  I could have taken the train back, but I walked back instead.  On the day before a race, I usually do half of my usual walking mileage.  By the time I got back to the hotel, I had logged 7.4 miles, which was enough to call it a day.  After that, I took the MRT.

None of the walking I did Thursday, Friday, or Saturday was fast enough to be quality training.  That’s OK.  I was getting accustomed to the heat and humidity.  By now, I had a pretty good idea what to expect during the race.

When I was finally hungry enough for lunch, I went to the food court of one of the nearby malls.  What?  Food court food, when there are lots of good restaurants?  In the United States, mall food courts represent the very worst of fast food.  In Singapore, however, you can find some surprisingly good restaurants in food courts.  In a mall a few blocks from my hotel, I found a Japanese restaurant/beer garden, where I had some tasty yakitori and a sampler of Japanese beers.

After that, I mostly relaxed at the hotel.  I needed to get up early for the race, so I didn’t want to be out late for dinner.  One of the restaurants in the Hilton had pizza, so I had dinner there and went to bed early.

Sunday, December 3

Sunday was race day.  The race started at 4:30 AM.  Runners traveling from other parts of the city had to get up much earlier to takes buses to the start area.  My hotel was just down the street, so I was able to walk to the start.  Even still, I set my alarm for 3:00.  I got to bed early and slept well at first, but woke up at least an hour before my alarm went off.

The time limit to finish the race was 7:30.  I expected to be able to finish faster than that, but my only goal was to finish.  I race-walked, but at a slower pace than usual, so I wouldn’t overheat.

It was 80 degrees at the start, with the usual sky-high humidity.  The temperature wasn’t forecast to rise for the first few hours of the race, but it would get up to 91 degrees by noon.

I had to walk a few blocks to get to the entrance for my start corral.  I allowed 40 minutes.  I needed 25.  With thousands of runners trying to get to the same place, the streets and sidewalks got congested.  The biggest bottleneck was the entrance to the corral, where volunteers had to check each runner’s race bib to make sure they were entering their assigned corral.

I stayed near the back of the corral, where I bumped into two friends, Mary and Jackie.  At first it looked like they were wearing capes.  When they raised their arms, they were actually butterfly wings.

I started walking at a pace that was brisk, but not as fast as I usually go.  I immediately felt hot, which I knew would make me tired.  The streets were well lit, and above Orchard Road, the Christmas decorations were also lit up.

At one kilometer, I checked my pace.  I started in 7:20.  My suspicion was that anything faster than 8:00 per kilometer would be too fast in these conditions.

We left Orchard Road and made a few turns to begin an out-and-back through the Little India neighborhood.  I told myself to ease up.  I felt like I was using less effort, and I didn’t feel as hot.  I was surprised to see the second kilometer was also 7:20.

At about 2K, we reached an aid station.  This one just had water, but most of them also had a sports drink called 100 Plus.  I was pleased to see an aid station this soon, since I didn’t have much to drink before the race.  At the first two water tables, volunteers were frantically trying to fill cups fast enough for all the runners who wanted them.  It turns out everyone was going to the first two tables.  Beyond them, there were several other tables with plenty of water.

I told myself to walk at a somewhat brisk pace, but not race it.  Over the next two kilometers my pace slowed to about 7:40.  That was still faster than I planned to walk, but it felt comfortable.

After 4K, I got into a zone where I was focused on walking and not really noticing my surroundings.  I wasn’t even looking for the kilometer markers.

It was easy to see the road, but harder to see where we were.  It was still dark.  Before I knew it, we were in Chinatown.  Around 7K, we started another out-and-back.  I was able to spot Jackie and Mary on the other side of the street.  They were already several minutes ahead of me.

At 8K, I finally checked my watch again.  I was still going faster than 8:00 per kilometer.  Somewhere around 11K, I started to see the tall office buildings of the central business district.  Then we went through the Marina South area.

I liked the spacing of the aid stations.  They were every 2K.  I didn’t like that they were only on one side of the street.  A few times, I was on the wrong side of the street and had to cross three lanes to get to the water tables.

I quickly noticed that the 100 Plus was always ice cold, but the water was warm.  I drank the 100 Plus whenever I could.  Sometimes I drank two cups.

At 13K, the half marathon split from the marathon.  I wondered if the road would suddenly get less crowded.  It seemed like there were equal numbers of runners going each way.

At 14K, I was roughly one third done, so I asked myself how I felt.  Despite the heat and humidity, I felt pretty good.

Next, we crossed the Barrage Bridge, which took us from Marina South to Marina East.  The beginning of the bridge was slightly uphill.  It wasn’t a big deal.  We probably only climbed 10 feet.  It made me realize that there hadn’t been any elevation change before now.  So far, the course had been amazingly flat.  As I crossed the bridge, I saw the first few elite women running the other way.

We continued into East Singapore.  Now there was enough light to see, which was nice, since I had yet to visit this part of the island.  We followed the coast on a long out-and-back through East Coast Park.  Between the trees, I could see the sunrise over the ocean.

I reached the halfway point in 2:39:13.  I was on pace to break 5:20, but now that the sun was above the horizon the temperature was going to start climbing.  Also, in the second half, direct sunlight would make it feel hotter.

Usually, getting past the halfway mark is a major psychological milestone.  I still wasn’t to the end of the out-and-back though.  For me, it didn’t get easier psychologically until I was on my way back.

On my way back, I met another walker.  He kept up with me as long as he could.  I mentioned how flat the course was.  He said there was a bridge at 36K, and that was the only major hill.

At 28K, I was two thirds done.  I was getting hotter, but I still felt OK.  Somewhere between 29K and 30K, we went through a tunnel with a fine mist of water spraying on us.  Immediately after the tunnel, there were two large fans.  That felt great … for about five seconds.  Then I felt just as hot as before.  That’s when I realized there wasn’t any wind.  No matter which direction we were going, I didn’t feel any breeze at all.  On a hot humid day, you want some wind.  Making matters worse, I could now feel the sun on my back.

We started a big loop around a golf course.  When I got to 32K, I noticed my time was exactly twice what it had been at 16K.  That gave me a goal.  I wanted to see if I could do negative splits again.  It was an audacious goal when you consider how much hotter the last 10K would be. I was still going the same pace, but it no longer felt easy.  Now I was really working.

At 33K, I saw we were about to cross the Barrage Bridge again.  From this side, we had to climb a short ramp just to get to the bridge.  All together, we would climb about 20 feet before the bridge leveled out.  Could this be the bridge the other walker was talking about?  I thought he said 36K, but I could have remember wrong.  It still wasn’t a big deal, but it was the biggest hill so far.

Crossing the bridge, there was no shade.  I was hot, and it seemed like it had been a while since the last aid station.  After the bridge, we went underneath a building called Marina Barrage.  When we got to the back side, I turned and saw the aid station.  I really needed it now.

We went by the harbor side of Gardens by the Bay.  Ahead of me, I could see runners on a bridge.  They were well above us.  OK, I didn’t remember wrong.  A big bridge was still ahead of us.  First, we turned again to go between Gardens by the Bay and the Marina Bay Sands Hotel.  I reached 35K.  So far, I was still maintaining my pace, but it was getting harder and harder.

After a few turns, we merged back into the half marathon field.  We were approaching 36K.  They were approaching 15K.  This was the back of the pack of the half marathon field, and there were walkers all over the road.  Why is it that the slowest half marathoners are always in large groups walking abreast?  I had to weave around them.  Then a fast runner went by.  We had also merged with the 10K course.  That race started later.  I felt bad for the 10K runners.  Encountering a road congested with walkers must have been really frustrating for them.

At 36K, I could see the bridge ahead of me.  I reached an aid station, but so many runners were converging on the tables that it was tough to get through.  The volunteers couldn’t fill cups fast enough, so I lost time waiting to get some water.  I felt dehydrated.  Ideally, I should have taken two cups, but this aid station only had water.  I didn’t think I could stomach two cups of warm water.

Everything combined to reach a psychological tipping point.  I almost gave up.  I knew by now that I would have positive splits.  This was going to be the toughest kilometer of the race, since it was mostly uphill.  I could see the 37K sign near the top of the bridge.  I set a goal of keeping every kilometer under 8:00.  This one would be the test.

I worked hard climbing the bridge.  It wasn’t steep, but it was long.  My time for that kilometer was 7:50, but I still wasn’t to the crest of the hill.  When I finally reached the top, I looked forward to the downhill side.  At first it was easy, but then it got uncomfortably steep.  I was suddenly aware of painful blisters on both feet.

Now there were even more half marathon walkers.  They were all in groups, taking up most of the road.  They seemed completely oblivious that others might want to get through.  I saw a group of six that were walking abreast with hands clasped.  I was wasting a lot of energy going around them.  I was sorely tempted to lecture them on race etiquette, but I held my tongue.

I remember seeing the 38K sign, but I forgot to check my watch.  I was distracted by my efforts to get around all the large groups of walkers.  I was really struggling now, and I would have to wait another kilometer before I knew if I was still keeping them under eight minutes.  I dug deep and pressed on to 39K.  My pace for those two kilometers averaged 7:41.

We passed another mist station, followed by fans.  There were two tunnels side by side.  One was for the marathon, and the other was for the half marathon and 10K.  From that point on, we were separated by dividers.  I can’t express how relieved I was.

I reached 40K.  I was still keeping them under 8:00.  Next, we passed under a bridge that towered way above us.  Was that the bridge we crossed?  It was.  Yeah, that’s a big hill.

The heat was really bothering me now.  The only thing that kept me from phoning it in the rest of the way was my new goal to keep every kilometer under 8:00.  I reached 41K.  That one took 7:58.

We turned and crossed the Singapore River on Esplanade Bridge.  This bridge is flat, but it made me wonder how we finished.  I knew the finish line was one the north side of the river, but we were on a long bridge that took us over to the south side.  There was less than one kilometer to go.

Right after Esplanade Bridge, we turned right and crossed a short bridge.  Then we ran alongside the park where we would finish. Ahead of me, I saw the 21K sign for the half marathon, but I didn’t see the 42K sign for the marathon.  Then I saw it.  They were directly across the street from each other.  I cried foul.  They couldn’t both be in the right place.  They should be 100 meters apart.  I fought for time, but that kilometer took 8:06.  Maybe the 42K sign was in the wrong place.  Maybe the 21K sign was in the wrong place.  I’ll never know for sure.

We turned and entered the park.  They had large foam pads covering up the grass.  I had nothing left in the tank, but kept moving at the best pace I could manage.  I finished in 5:22:04.  I had positive splits by about three and a half minutes, but that still seems like a pretty good time for such hot conditions.

The finisher medal was in the shape of the island.  The artwork featured the Merlion statue.  You might notice instead of “Marathon,” it says “42.”  Wherever the marathon and half marathon routes diverged, the signs said “42” or “21.”  I think they did that for the benefit of international runners who don’t speak English.

I took a water bottle and a banana and headed for the T-shirt tent.  In addition to the T-shirt we received with our race packet, we also got a finisher shirt.  We also got a towel soaked in cold water that we could put around our necks.  That felt good.

As I ate my banana, I found the effort it took to chew it made me short of breath.  That’s never a good sign.  I’ve done enough hot weather races that I know exactly how hard I can push myself without crossing the line.  This time, I went right up to the line.

It took time to find my way through the finish area to where the bathrooms were.  After a bathroom stop, I asked someone where the nearest MRT station was.  He pointed across the street to the City Hall station.  That made sense.  That’s why about 100 runners were all crossing the street there.  I was relieved that it was a station on the same line as the one near my hotel.  I could barely walk, and having to switch lines would have been too much.

Inside the station, it was air conditioned.  My clothes were so wet that the temperature change was unsettling.  The next train to arrive had lots of seating.  That was a relief.  I don’t know if my legs could have handled stranding on the train.  When I reached my stop, I did my best to wipe the seat with my towel, so nobody would have to sit in my sweat.  As I left the station, sweat was still dripping from my shorts.

The first thing I did when I got to the Hilton was to arrange for a taxi to take me to the airport tomorrow morning.  I have to leave the hotel at 4:00 AM.  When I got to my room, I had to wring out all my clothes.  I don’t know if they’ll be dry by morning.  Ideally, I’d like to pack my bags tonight.  Did I mention I have to leave the hotel at 4:00 AM?

I got a bit dehydrated today.  The first clue was when I couldn’t get into the bathtub without me feet cramping up.  The second clue was when I almost screamed as I put on deodorant.  It stings!

That banana was the only solid food I ate since waking up.  I was starving, but before leaving the hotel, I needed to rehydrate.  I had some water in my room and kept drinking until it made me pee.  Then I found a restaurant in one of the nearby malls.  There’s only about 100 of them.

I probably won’t leave the hotel again until tomorrow morning.  I don’t need a big dinner.  I can have appetizers in the hotel lounge.

I wondered how I would handle racing in Singapore’s heat and humidity.  I held up well for 42.2K.  I’m glad it wasn’t 43K.

Tomorrow will be another long travel day.  I have the same three flights I took to get here.  This time, the time change works the other way, so it’ll still be the same day when I get home.

Race Statistics
Distance:  42.2 kilometers
Time:  5:22:04
Average Pace:  7:38 per kilometer (12:17 per mile)
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras:  346
Countries:  28

Monday, November 20, 2017

Race Report: 2017 Flying Monkey Marathon

On November 19, I race-walked the Harpeth Hills Flying Monkey Marathon.  This was my third straight Monkey.  I ran it the first two times, but this year I decided to walk it.  This is an extremely hilly course, and I knew running down those hills would be too hard on my back.  Walking it was challenging, but easier on my body.

This race is run on a notoriously hilly road loop through Percy Warner Park in Nashville, TN.  The course forces you to run every hill in both directions.  Trent, the race director, is fond of saying, “Running is stupid.”  The runners are fond of saying, “I hate Trent.”  All kidding aside, this is race with a sadistic sense of humor.  It’s for runners who want to challenge themselves, while having fun and enjoying the scenery.

Every year there’s a different them.  The theme of this year’s race was 12 Monkeys.

I’ve done eight other marathons since my back surgery in June, but they were all races that I signed up for before my back injury.  Registration for this race was in August.  I only had one week to enter the lottery.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to run something this hilly.  It would be way too hard on my back.  I put my fate in the hands of the Monkey Gods, knowing I would have to walk the race.  Later that month, I got the bad news from Trent:

“Today is not your lucky day.  Today is, in fact, a bad bad day for you. I am sorry.  We have conducted the lottery, and you were selected to run. 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 flew to Nashville on Friday.  The first two times I did this race, I stayed at a Hampton Inn in the Bellevue neighborhood, which is west of the park.  This year, I decided to switch things up and stay at a hotel in Brentwood, which is east of the park.  It was a shorter drive from the airport, but a longer drive to get to the race.

After checking into my hotel, I drove to the Gordon JCC for packet pickup.  The first time I did this race, it was my 300th marathon or ultra, so Trent gave me bib number 300.  He gives returning runners the save bib number each year, so I’ve had number 300 ever since.  By chance, this year’s race was my 300th marathon, excluding ultras.  I didn’t plan that.  It’s something I didn’t realize until September.

I’ve always been impressed with the race T-shirts.  Everyone gets a short sleeved shirt with the race theme and a long sleeve shirt that’s customized with their monkey nickname and their previous monkey kills. My monkey nickname this year was “Walking Monkey,” and I had two monkey kills.

Staying in Brentwood gave me some new restaurant options.  I found some good brick oven pizza just a few blocks away from my hotel.

The race started at 8:00, but they had an early start at 7:00 for people needing more time.  I had mixed feelings.  If I took the early start, I’d have a better chance of seeing friends after the race.  On the other hand, I would have to get up earlier, and it would be colder.  I woke up at 2 AM and couldn’t get back to sleep.  That made the decision easier.  I arrived early and took the early start.

It was 41 degrees when I arrived at Percy Warner Park, but the temperature was still dropping. There was also enough wind to make it feel colder.  I wore my signature cheetah tights, hat, and arm warmers.  It’s the first time I’ve race-walked wearing tights, so I didn’t know how that would feel.  I just knew I would be too cold without them.  It was supposed to eventually warm up, but only into the mid-40s. Meanwhile, the wind was supposed to pick up.  I made a last minute decision to start the race wearing a Tyvek jacket.  As usual, I expected to take it off after I warmed up.

Before we started, Trent made some pre-race announcements.  He reminded us that the aid stations wouldn’t be up and running until 8:00.  I was prepared for that.  He also told us there wouldn’t be any course marshals for the first hour.  That meant we had to know where to turn.  I wasn’t prepared for that.

The first time I did this race, I was injured, and it took me 5:40 to run the course.  My goal this year was to see if I could beat that time walking.  I expected to finish somewhere between 5:15 and 5:30.  That’s slower than most people taking the regular start, but faster than most people taking the early start.  I needed to make sure I wasn’t in the lead in the early miles.  I wanted to follow people who knew the course.

We start on grass before getting to the road.  After making the first turn, there were only two runners ahead of me.  I work hard to keep them in sight.  I followed them onto the road and started climbing the first hill.  The road seemed more narrow than I remembered.  There was a good reason for that.

The two guys in the lead were already pretty far up the hill when I saw them look back at me.  They might have been unsure if they were going the right way and wanted to know if others were following.

I heard some shouting behind me.  Then my friend Diane shouted my name loudly. I looked back.  The runners behind me were turning around and going back.  We took the wrong turn.  I shouted to the runners ahead of me, but they had already disappeared around a bend.  I don’t know if they heard me.

I hurried back down the hill and followed everyone onto the correct road.  I was already pretty far up that hill before I turned around.  I probably lost about two minutes.  If I was aiming for a PR in this race, I would have been distressed about it, but you can’t PR at Monkey.  I put it out of my mind and kept walking.  I gradually moved up through the group of early starters, but there were now plenty of people to follow when we reached the next turn.

Soon we began the first long hill.  It’s one of the biggest hills on the course.  By the top, I was getting warm, but I kept my jacket on.

I was curious to know how the first downhill would feel.  I’ve run this course twice, but I’ve never walked it before.  It’s non-stop hills, but I couldn’t remember how steep the grades are.  On a gentle grade, I can walk faster.  On a steep downgrade, it’s tough to go fast and maintain a walking gait.  I sometimes have to slow down to keep from “lifting.”  I was relieved to discover that the first downhill section was nice and gentle.

Midway through the third mile, we reached a short but steep downhill.  I remembered this as the steepest hill on the course.  Here, I had to slow down going down the hill.  Fortunately, it’s also the shortest hill on the course.

Trent has mile markers, but they should be viewed as approximate.  When I reached the three mile sign, my watch read 33:56.  That seemed impossibly fast.  It would have been plausible without the wrong turn.  Knowing I had lost some time, I didn’t trust it too much.  Over the next few miles, I paid attention to my splits. You can’t tell much from one, but the trend was clear.  I was averaging slightly better than 12 minutes per mile.  That’s not as fast as my best races, but it’s a pretty good pace for this course.

Soon, I reached another long uphill section.  This one made me work up a sweat, so I took off my jacket.

Trent usually has a number of amusing signs placed by the side of the road.  Last year, people were stealing the signs, so this year he tied all the mile markers to trees.  There were a few other signs, but not as many as usual.

 I had a camera with me to take pictures of the signs.  I also planned to take a few pictures of the course.  After a few miles, I got into a comfortable rhythm and realized I could walk this course faster than I previously thought.  After that, I didn’t want to stop.

On one of the downhill sections, I felt one of my insoles slipping sideways under my foot.  I considered stopping at the next aid station to take off my shoe and fix it.  I’m glad I didn’t.  After that aid station, there was a longer downhill section.  I expected my insole to get worse, but instead it seemed to slide back into place.

We were getting spread out, so I couldn’t always see someone in front of me.  Between six and seven miles, I reached another road and wasn’t sure which way to turn.  I stopped and looked back.  I couldn’t see any runners behind me either.  I started to panic.  Did I make another wrong turn?  I didn’t want to backtrack all the way to the previous turn.

After a few more seconds, I saw a group of runners behind me.  I was still on course.  A volunteer who was just arriving was able to tell me which way to go.

On another downhill section, I felt my insole slipping again.  This time it slipped forward in my shoe.  This was a long hill. By the time I reached the bottom, my insole had slipped about two inches.  It folded under my foot.  This wasn’t going to slip back into place. I did my best to tune out the discomfort.

I expected it to get warmer eventually, but it still felt cold.  I was noticing more wind, and my hands and arms were getting cold.  The rest of me felt fine.  In fact, I could feel sweat on my back, legs, and under my hat.  My fingers, however, felt painfully cold.  My only option was to put on my jacket, but then I’d be sweating like crazy.  I had to live with cold hands and arms until it warmed up.

One of the major junctions on the course was next to the Percy Warner Golf Course.  This area was exposed and I really felt the wind.  As we passed the aid station, we made a sharp turn and started climbing a long hill.  I hoped climbing the hill would warm me up.  It helped a little, but my hands were still cold.

After about 11 miles, I started to notice the sun emerging from behind the clouds.  I expected the temperature to finally start climbing.  Also, direct sunlight makes it feel warmer.  I started to get more comfortable, but I wondered if I would go from being cold to being hot.

I was also about 11 miles into the race when the leader passed me.  Runners taking the regular start had to make up an hour to catch us on the road.  Our finish times would take that into account.  As more runners caught up, I no longer had to worry about having other runners to follow.  By now that really wasn’t an issue.  All the turns had course marshals now.  Still, I hate being alone on the road.

I reached the halfway mark in 2:34:46.  That was faster than I expected.  I was on pace to break 5:10, but I expected to slow down in the second half.  It seemed like I started too fast.  I was afraid the hills would eventually wear me down.  Also, I expected to get too hot.

At 15 miles, I realized my pace for the previous five miles had been faster than my pace over the first 10 miles.  That surprised me, since I thought I took the first 10 miles too fast.  I wondered if it was actually possible to walk the second half faster than the first half.  I had never walked negative splits in a race.  When I run a marathon, I usually start too fast.  I’m even worse at pacing when I walk.

I had 11.2 miles to go.  That made me realize I wasn’t out of the woods yet.  The backbone of this course is an 11.2 mile loop through the park.  By itself, it’s considered to be a difficult run.  I still had the equivalent of one full loop to go.

In the second half of the race, I started to recognize more and more of the aid stations. 
I was approaching them from the opposite direction now.  Everything that was uphill in the first half was downhill now.  Everything that was downhill in the first half was uphill now.  You might say this race is all about Karma.  When you go up a hill, you’re later rewarded with an equal downhill.  When you go down a hill, you’re later punished with an equal uphill.

At one point, the road made a junction with another road, and I saw a big group of runners coming down a hill.  It was obvious that they took the regular start.  I wasn’t sure if I should turn right or left, so I asked a volunteer.  She said, “You go up the hill.”  I replied, “Of course.”

When I went by the golf course again, I once again regretted how exposed it was.  This time instead of getting cold from exposure to the wind, I got hot from exposure to the sun.  It didn’t help that this was the start of a long climb.

Every mile I checked my pace.  I was consistently logging miles that were 12 minutes or faster.  As long as I kept doing that, I had a decent shot at negative splits.  That was my goal now.  I tried to power up the hills without slowing down.  I tried to gain time on the downhills.

At 20 miles, I noticed my pace over the previous five miles was once again faster than it was for the first 10 miles.  A negative splits race was within my grasp.  Now I was on a mission.

The last major obstacle came with just under three miles to go.  It was that same short but steep hill that was uncomfortable going down.  Now I had to climb it.  It was tiring, and it made me hot.  More importantly, it slowed me down more than any other hill.  Fortunately, it wasn’t long.

Whenever I was about to crest a hill, I felt myself shift into a faster gait.  I usually did it without thinking.  This time, I had to make a conscious effort.  It took time, but I eventually got back to my previous pace.  I was hot now, but with less than three miles to go, I could tough it out.

I was climbing another hill when I saw a yellow sign in the distance.  It had to be the 24 miles sign.  Often in a race, I’ll compare the remaining distance to a course that I train on.  One of my favorite routes for walking is a 1.1 mile loop through my neighborhood.  I just had to do it twice.  At the sign, I checked my watch.  I clocked another 12 minute mile.  Just past the hill there was an aid station.  I knew where I was.  I was about to make a left turn and begin a long gradual downhill section.  The last 2.2 miles were mostly downhill.  I had it.

I’ve done this race twice before.  Both times I found this downhill section to be painful.  My quads were sore and I actually slowed down going down this hill.  Not this time.  I had no soreness at all.  That’s a big difference between walking and running.  I still left good going downhill.

I sped up noticeably in the next mile.  Then I reached another aid station.  They asked if I wanted water or Sword.  I jokingly asked if they had beer.  I got an unexpected answer.  “We got Fireball.”  Best aid station ever.  That gave me the fire in my belly I needed to race through that last mile.

I left the road and crossed the grass again to get to the finish line.  For the last five miles I was targeting a 5:07 finish.  I finished in 5:05:55.  I walked negative splits by almost four minutes.  It’s worth noting that my wrong turn added about two minutes to my time for the first mile.  Even if you subtract two minutes from my first half, I still had negative splits!

The finisher medal was the usual Flying Monkey logo, but also incorporated the 12 Monkeys design.  With it, we also received a beer cup from Yazoo Brewing.  In addition to the Yazoo logo, the cup also had the 12 Monkeys artwork, so they were obviously custom-ordered for this race.

There was a huge spread of post-race food.  Trent always makes several pumpkin pies.  In addition, each runner brought some food.  There were also hot entries that must have been made by the volunteers.  I didn’t go through the entire buffet line.  I just had pizza, pumpkin pie, and some cookies.  There was also chocolate milk and a beer garden with Yazoo beer.

I always thought Trent said “Running is stupid” just to taunt us.  Now I realize he’s right.  Two years ago I ran this course in 5:40.  This year I walked it in 5:05.  When I’ve run this course, the downhill miles at the end were painful.  This year they weren’t.  Clearly, on this course at least, walking is much smarter than running.

When I finally took off my shoes, I saw the insole in my right shoe slid forward and folded under my foot.  Hopefully it’s not permanently creased.  The insole in my left shoe shifted sideways.  I expected to have horrible blisters.  I have a new blister on my right heal, but it’s not as bad as I expected.  My left foot feels fine.

I’m sure most of the runners have sore quads this morning from running up and down all those hills.  My quads aren’t sore at all, although I’ve got some soreness in my glutes.

Race Statistics
Distance:  26.2 miles
Time:  5:05:55
Average Pace:   11:41
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras:  345
Monkey Kills:  3