It’s the first weekend of April and for the third year straight that meant a trek to Lynchburg, TN for The Oak Barrel Half Marathon. In 2014 it was my first half marathon, ran with a good friend and at the finish you might have thought we had won it from the celebration. Last year we went back with a large contingent of friends and once again triumphed over the course and the infamous Whiskey Hill. Now for this year’s edition which was full of inspiration.
While the group that showed up was smaller than last year, we still made a splash on Middle Tennessee. The six runners plus family I’m pretty sure left a lasting impression at the Jack Daniels Distillery from bottle problems to the weird JD statue incident to improper use of an electronic devise. From there it was on to the Hampton Inn in Fayetteville, Tennessee which I would highly recommend. For the price, it is one of the nicest places I have stayed. I will not use this blog to post negative things so lets just say the national chain eating establishment next to the hotel should be avoided at all cost.
Onto the race… It was honestly a picture perfect day for a race, 45 degrees and sunny at start time. Who could ask for any better at the start of spring in Tennessee? Being on the mend from the devastating Man Cold, I was unsure of what the day would hold but today was also dear Lilyan’s birthday so I had to try hard. The other’s that had traveled to run with me also each had there own things they were there to do… James II wanted to run a sub 2 hour half, Kelly wanted to complete her first ever half, Joie hadn’t gotten to train like she had hoped but was going to give it a go, Jackie was out to have fun, be with friends, take pictures and find interesting people and Leah Anne, well she was about to prove how tough she really was.
At the start we didn’t even hear the gun, just suddenly the crowd we were in shifted and started walking towards the line. Jackie was talking to a lady next to us as we broke into a run. The first mile was full of fussing with myself to slow down as the adrenaline of the day surged through everyone. The effects of the Man Cold were still with me though and I periodically had to stop for coughing fits. Still, the first mainly flat part of the course fell behind and the gradual climb towards Whiskey Hill started. Finally I was going to be smart on this hill! I kept running until my pace slowed by 2 minutes a mile and then joined almost everyone else and walked to the top. The trick was to pick up running again as soon as the top was reached, not give in to walking further.
It was also during this first part of the run that I saw the first examples of inspiration. There were two American Flags bouncing along in front of me and as I came to the men carrying them I was able to read one of their shirts. I recognized the elderly man from yesterday when he was wearing one of the most coveted shirts in road racing, the Dopey. The Dopey is a Disney challenge where you run a 5 K, a 10 K, a Half Marathon and a Marathon at Disney in four consecutive days. Anyone that does that has instant running cred. Today he was wearing a shirt in honor of a fallen military hero and was carrying his flag high and proud. If this man who was probably 20 years or more my senior could carry a flag for 13.1 miles then I could at least do my best for Lilyan.
After Whiskey Hill I started to pick up the pace a little and enjoy the day. I started to notice those around me now and had an in depth conversation with one of them about my Hoka shoes. One last steep climb and it was on to the rolling hills section. Suddenly there was a familiar voice as Jackie appeared out of nowhere. She had stopped to video something which allowed me to pass her. We ran together for a while and while I should have known better I stayed with her for the next couple of miles. Running mile 9 at faster than one’s 5 K pace probably is not the smartest thing to do in a half but that’s what happened.
During the rolling hill section was when I encountered another source of inspiration. I noticed a man with a very unusual gait ahead. His left arm was hanging low while his right swung wildly from low to his side to out past his left shoulder and his left leg dragged with each step. As I caught up to him I could hear him talking to another man using slurred, hard to understand burst of short sentences. Stroke 9 months ago. Loved to run. Was going to keep doing it. Great therapy. Wow! How impressive was that? If he can do this then anything is possible if you put you mind to it!
The late miles, no more long down hills, no more rolling ones. Long stretches of very gradual but consistent incline with short sections of downhill. I was paying for the speed earlier, cramps in the top of the thighs. Still, switching my Garmin to elapsed time mode I realized I was slightly ahead of my projected pace, it would be close to a new personal record if I could only keep moving. A somewhat familiar face appeared on my shoulder, someone Jackie had befriended in the early part of the race. She was moving fast as she went by and I tucked behind her, telling her I was going to hang there as long as I could. She laughed and pulled me along at a good pace. J II was there, standing on the side of the road, running beside me, telling me to push. I joked if he ran with me I would hit him and my new friend said I should. Okay, I’m sorry James, I didn’t intend that punch to be THAT hard… my new friend laughed at us saying “*$**, that sounded like it hurt!”
13 miles. Almost there. I had lost my pacer as she accelerated but one more turn and it would be over. Someone was pushing from behind, going by me. No! I dug deep and found a little more as I passed them back, not going to happen today. I sprinted down the road, across the line, done. There was the finisher medal, a bottle of water then my beautiful wife and daughter. Almost 4 whole minutes off of my previous best time. YES!!! Now, how were my friends? How were they doing?
James II had missed his goal but still smoked the course, bettering his best time ever for a half marathon by several minutes. Jackie had fun, made lots of friends, took pictures and videos and had cruised through the run. She left soon after, on her way to another race tomorrow morning 9 hours away. Kelly came in next, finishing her first ever half 10 minutes faster than her goal! Next was Joie, attempting to live feed her finish before someone called her phone and caused the video to stop. ( I am very sorry for that my friend, did not know you were doing that.) Oh, and then there was Leigh.
Two weeks ago Leigh injured her ankles doing a trail race and since has been wearing a walking boot or soft cast on her one foot and a brace on the other. She showed up and said she was going to give it a try anyway. Before the race she was wearing shoes but had the boot with her just in case. She even checked to make sure that she would be picked up if she was unable to finish. At some point very early on she did have to put the boot back on and after I finished I saw she had posted on Facebook she was dropping out. That was what sparked the ill timed call to Joie, to see if Leigh was okay and what had happened as I thought Joie had already finished. But no, She had dug deeper, pushed herself beyond the pain and kept going. It is one thing to go 13.1 miles on two good legs but on two bad ones? Her time didn’t matter, only that she did not give up. 13.1 miles of grit later she crossed the line. What determination, what toughness, what an inspiration!
Three years ago Joie and I ran this race for each other and to prove something to ourselves. Last year we recaptured magic with many friends. This year, for me at least, was about answering questions and being inspired. I entered the race not really knowing how I would do, what to expect. How would the heart hold up? Would the training changes work out? Was I ready for this race? Before the race was hopeful anticipation, after was happiness and resolve as the spring and summer races come into focus with the goal, the Air Force Marathon, coming in September.
The moments during the race, the courage and heroism that are always there, they surprise and inspire me. These are the things that make running such an awesome sport. I don’t know how you can witness these things and not be touched, not be honored to be in the presence of these great people. For the third year straight we journeyed to the Oak Barrel in search of something and for the third year straight it delivered far more than expected.