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Nestled in the rolling hills of middle Tennessee is a tiny town famous for whisky. Every ounce of Jack Daniels is produced in Lynchburg, Tn. This ironically dry county hosts the Oak Barrel Half Marathon every April attracting 1500 runners from 30 states. Over the last few years, I’d began to hear that the Oak Barrel half was a fantastic race, but the endorsement always came with the disclaimer to beware “Whiskey Hill”.

The first challenge was getting a bib. The race is sells out quickly. I’m talking “Disney fast pass for Pandora” quickly. I set my alarm for early on the Sunday morning that the race went on sale and was able to get a bib in about 10 minutes. A friend who signed on an hour later, was not so lucky.

I checked the finish times from last year and realized that if I had a really good race it was possible for me to place in my age group. However, after talking with some people who had run it the year before I realized how crummy the weather was in 2018 (30’s with drizzle) and that was likely reason for slower times.

Abby and I trained diligently for “Whiskey Hill” in the early mornings when it was dark and cold. We added hill sprints to our speedwork and rolling hills to our tempo run.

Abby (my best running friend/ training partner), Russ (my husband) and I drove up the morning of the race. The drive from Franklin is about an hour and 15 minutes of windy back roads and small country towns. We stopped at a gas station in Shelbyville on the way. As I stood stretching in the corner, the cashier asked all the “regulars” that came in if they wanted their “usual breakfast sandwich” or “the special”. I love that sense of community. That’s REAL Tennessee, where you can be a “regular” at the gas station.

Parking was limited, so we got there about an hour and 15 minutes early which allowed us to get a decent parking spot and plenty of time to pick up our bibs. The race swag was top notch: a windbreaker race jacket for signing up and swiftwick socks for finishing. The volunteers were so plentiful, that all the lines moved super fast. There was even someone directing traffic at the porta potties. (How on earth do you get anyone to volunteer for that job?)

The race started at 8 am, right after the Tennessee fog had dissipated from the hill tops. I had studied the topography of the course and broken the race up into 4  segments on my garmin. The Race started with 4 flat-ish miles. My goal was not to go out too fast, so I set my garmin parameters to keep me around an 8:10 pace and this felt comfortable. The scenery was gorgeous, filled with green grass, wild flowers and lots of trees which provided much needed shade later in the race.  The course wound in and out of the forest and farmlands which were stocked with (sometimes malodorous) livestock. The first half mile was a little crowded, but after that the crowds thinned and I was able to dial in my pace. Mentally, it really helped to be able to break up the race into manageable chunks.

Whiskey Hill was no joke.

At mile 4 I reached the famous “Whiskey Hill”. This mile is the toughest mile of the race with an elevation change of 380 feet. We knew this was coming so we had trained with lots of hill workouts, even adding ridiculous hills into our tempo runs. Inflatable arches at the bottom and top of the hill mark this grueling segment’s beginning and end. There is also a special award for the man and woman who runs this section the fastest. They get the title “King (or Queen) of the Hill” and a coveted pok-a-dot t-shirt to wear with pride.

Me running up “Whiskey Hill”

I set no pace parameters on my garmin while running the hill. I told myself that my goal was to go as slow as I needed to to reach the top. The hill was challenging in the lower half, but gets steeper as you reach the top. The last few hundred feet were crazy steep; but I did manage to run the whole thing.

After climbing the hill, the next four miles were mostly flat along the top of the plateau and these were unexpectedly hard for me. Mentally I was planning for it to be “easy” after I finished the hill, but I underestimated the fatigue in my legs. Also the plateau was not as flat as I thought it would be. There were several small hills. Even though they were short segments, some were quite steep. This is where I mentally started to struggle. My legs were tired and I realized I had a long way to go. I was having to push to keep my goal 8:00 pace. I kept telling myself “You are tired, not hurt. You can push through tired; you always do” and “Run the mile you are in”. I always run without music in races, but I think I will try music next time to see if that helps with the mid-race mindgame.

Russ finished strong in his second half marathon at Oak Barrel.

I ate my GU at mile 8 and then zoomed down the hill at mile 9. Once I hit the down hill section of the race I set my garmin to keep me under 7:55 pace, with no max pace. I felt so strong and energized after flying down the hill that I almost went “all out” but thankfully I decided to hold back until the end.  A painful “side stitch” hit me that last mile and left me feeling short of breath, so I’m glad I didn’t push it too early. As I rounded the final stretch, I cruised past the distillery and made a left into downtown Lynchburg.  When I crossed the finish line, I had nothing left. I had given that course my all.

Ugly finish line picture

I inhaled some water and headed back out to cheer on my running partner Abby, who came in shortly after me.  As I walked back to the finish line to find her, I stopped by the leader board and saw my name at the top of my age group. I won my age group. I couldn’t believe it. I was sure that the weather would make for a faster course and I wouldn’t have a chance, but I was overwhelmed with emotion when I saw my name. All those early morning freezing hill sprints in the dark had paid off.

So thankful for to have such an awesome runner friend who lives a block away. I have lost track of how many races we have trained for together.

As I wandered across the square looking for Abby, the band began to play the Billy Currington song, “People are Crazy” and I just sat down and cried. This was my dad’s favorite song and I hadn’t heard it since he passed away 4 years ago. I always think of my dad when I race, but the scenery, paint horses and farms along the course had already left me a little misty eyed with memories. That song, just put me over the edge. It wasn’t grief per say; I was simply overwhelmed with the sweetness of my memories of my father at such a special moment for me.

Abby eventually came to rescue me and we rewarded ourselves with some of the free food in the quaint town square. There were tents with hoe cakes (cornmeal pancakes), grilled cheese sandwiches, delicious beef stew and pimento cheese sandwiches. They were all delicious and free. We then collected our free socks and went to meet up with Russ (my husband). We missed him finishing; as his time was faster than I thought it would be for his second half marathon (Go Russ!).

We hydrated and hung out for another hour until the awards ceremony. As they began to announce the winners, I was shocked to hear my name called for third overall in the female masters category. I jumped up and down and squealed like a teenage girl meeting her favorite boy band. I have placed in my age group a couple of times in smaller races, but have never placed in an overall category.

The “trophies” were made of the tops on the Jack Daniels whiskey barrels.

The Oak Barrel Half was challenging; but that it also what makes it so awesome and rewarding. The scenery and swag were great; but it was all the volunteers who came out to help that really made it a special race. I will definitely set my alarm next year to get up early to sign up and come back to defend my title as “The Third Fastest Old Lady”.

Stay tuned for my next challenge: The Wine Glass Marathon in October where I hope to qualify for Boston.

Race Swag: Windbreaker, socks and  a “medal” made from whiskey barrels.

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200 hilly gorgeous Kentucky miles. 6 runners. 1 van. This was the challenge that was pitched to me this spring. My immediate reply was an emphatic “no”. I had completed the Tennessee Ragnar Relay 3 times in the past with a full team of 12 runners. Those races had been challenging enough. However my BRF (best running friend) was team captain and with some slight nudging I found myself 4 months later on a brisk October morning standing at the Bourbon Chase starting line, with only 5 other runners with me. I zipped up my sweatshirt to ward off the chill and watched the fog drift over the Jim Bean Distillery as our runner 1 took off with the distinct smell of sweet mash filling the air. I still couldn’t really believe I was about to run 33 miles in the next 24 hours.

Team “I Thought You Said Michelob Ultra” at the start of the Bourbon Chase 2018. Mike, me, Abby, Jim, Ben (driver), Eric and Jeff

Abby and I had trained hard. We knew the steep terrain, sleep deprivation and long miles were going to be a new level of challenge for us. She came up with a training plan that was a morphing of Hanson Marathon method with Ragnar training. It incorporated lots of hill work and then in the last month added in a day each week that included multiple runs a day.  Every other week she had us doing hill sprints BEFORE our tempo run. This was one of the most evil running workouts I’ve ever tried, but I think it was super helpful to build the level of fitness we needed for this race.

We drove up the night before the race so that we could be well rested for the start. However, between traffic, stopping for dinner and the time change we didn’t get to bed until after 11.  We were up early for breakfast, coffee and the starting line. As we headed to the van, we could see our breath and immediately realized that the weatherman was liar. It was much colder than anticipated (i.e. packed for), so we dug out our sweat pants and ear warmers and drove to the Jim Bean Distillery where runner 1 took off at 8:30 a.m.

With a 12 person Ragnar team each person runs 3 “legs” of the race.  The course is broken up into 36 segments. Where the runners hand off the baton (which is actually a slap bracelet with a chip in it) is called an exchange. With a 6 person “ultra” team, you can divide the legs however you want, we decided for logistic purposes to each run two legs at a time, so still running 3 times, but with longer segments.

Challenge 1: Eating

During Bourbon Chase we were all eating and running around the clock, so I had to eat strategically. We needed our normal amount of calories, plus calories to refuel from our runs (which varied from 8-16 miles) while making sure we had time to “digest” before our next leg. We were all running at different times, so we couldn’t really stop at restaurants. All food had to be taken with us in the van. We all had different plans. Abby had analyzed her caloric needs with the precision of a NASA scientist and planned accordingly.  Mike brought no food and gambled on gas station cuisine. Myself I ate a combination of peanut butter sandwiches, bananas and protein bars.

Run 1 ( legs  7/8)

Pulling into Maker’s Mark Distillery was like arriving at a giant party. White Vans were lined up as far as you could as you could see and hip hop music floated across the shamrock green fields. This was a major exchange. If we had been a sane normal team on 12, this exchange is where the two vans would hand off; so there are twice as many people/ vans/ craziness at the major exchanges.

One of my favorite vans had a “working” still on the top.

I took in the sites and enjoyed ‘real’ bathrooms at Maker’s Mark as I waited for Eric to finish his leg. I was filled with nervous energy after a week of tapering and carb loading and 6 hours of watching my teammates run. Eric was all smiles when he rounded the corner. He finished with strong strides as he slapped me with the bracelet. I bolted off through through the property at Maker’s Mark and then out the country roads that surrounded it.  Despite my best effort I did start out faster than planned, but the hills kept me humble. The course took me past farmland and country churches; up steep hills and winding roads. This leg was only 9 miles, so I didn’t bring water, but instead instructed my van to bring it me at the next exchange. Even though we didn’t change runners at every exchange, the van would meet up and check on the runner to make sure they were ok… at least this was the plan. As I neared exchange 8, I was feeling the heat and looking forward to my Gatorade; however, my van had taken a wrong turn and was MIA. I sent them a “gentle reminder text” that I would be needing fuel and headed on to exchange 9.

One of my favorite parts of running an ultra was the “in between” exchanges. When you are running 2 legs in a row, you simply pass through the first chute and say ” Ultra team” so the person working the booth doesn’t try to find your team mate. As I passed through the chute the other runners would whisper in awe “look it’s an Ultra runner”, while cheering you on and shaking their heads in disbelief at your craziness (and/or they were checking their phones). It was completely beast mode*.

My team caught up with me around mile 8 and I was able to get some much needed nutrition.  The route was challenging, but the views gorgeous and reminded me of the back roads of Oregon County, Missouri where I am originally from.

View from my first leg

While not all the routes where overly scenic (Jeff had to run 16 miles along a major 4 lane road), everyone’s first legs went well. A couple of wrong turns (we also missed Jim at his exchange) and some forgotten glide, but overall everyone’s first legs were successful.

Eric coming into the exchange.

Run 2 (legs 19/20)

Run 2 was my night run. This is where the whole Ragnar thing gets a little tricky . It’s all fun and exciting when you are running at 2 in the afternoon through beautiful farmlands, but 10 miles at 2 am…. that is its own challenge. In Ragnar’s past I have found myself on rural country roads, where it was simply me, my head lamp and the moon.  When the shadows start playing tricks on you and the car coming toward you starts to swerve a bit; it becomes a complete mental game not to lose your cool. This year’s night run was not remote, but its challenge (in addition to the exhaustion and dark) was cold pouring rain, even though the weather man had not mentioned precipitation in the 2 million times I had checked the weather the week before. As I waited for my teammate in the chute, shivering in the rain, I began doubting my running choices for the first time this race. When I finally took off, the pelting rain and wind were completely miserable, but after a few miles I warmed up. The feeling slowly returned to my frozen hands and I fell into the familiar cadence of my run. The route was beside a major highway, so another challenge was dodging roadkill (I’ve never seen so many dead raccoons in my life). This leg was physically and mentally exhausting, but I stuck with the mantra of “only run the mile you are in”, so after 10 “individual miles” I gladly passed the bracelet to Jeff, changed into warm clothes and curled up in the van.

Challenge 2: Exhaustion

After my night run I drifted in and out of sleep. After my legs, the rest of the night exchanges were a blur. Each time the my body finally relaxed enough to drift to sleep, we would stop and the slamming of doors and rush of cold air would would once again startle me awake.

At the Four Roses Distillery exchange, I awoke to the beautiful smell of my teammates eating hot fresh donuts. Jeff and I had slept through their initial exit of the van, but they kept remarking on the magnificence of their pastry creations, so Jeff and I decided we had to have some as well. The (free!) donuts were being made in a food truck that was a 10 minute walk up a hill, which feels like quite the trek at 4 am and on tired legs. But alas, we made it and grabbed some soul warming hot chocolate as we waited in line and debated which donut delicacy we would order (bourbon bacon perhaps?). As we approached the window to order, the line stalled out. We soon discovered much to our rumbling tummy’s dismay, they had run out of donuts and would have to make some more. There is no level of disappointment akin to that of an exhausted runner denied a donut at 4 am after already running 19 miles. But alas, somehow I dug deep and was able to overcome this adversity, because that’s just the sort of strong woman that I am.

Night run complete

I have run the Tennessee Ragnar 3 times and it was always an awesome experience, but the towns of Kentucky embraced the Bourbon Chase and its runner with a level of hospitality that was truly amazing. The people of Stanford, Kentucky opened up a couple town down shops at midnight to let the frozen, exhausted runners use their bathrooms. After 16 hours of using porta potties, there are few things as beautiful as sparking clean, flushing, real porcelain toilets. They also gave out FREE homemade baked goods, coffee and cocoa. Thank you to the volunteers who stayed up all night feeding tired stinky runners. Your kindness was appreciated.

Eric brought a camp stove so we could have (hot!) coffee at 3 a.m. It was the most delicious instant coffee I’ve ever tasted.

I think everyone struggled a bit on the night runs, but no one complained. We all fought the demons of exhaustion, tired legs and fear to come out victorious. Sure we may have lost one runner (so sorry Jeff about exchange 23!) but we ran all the miles and survived the night.

Challenge 3: the STANK

One big difference between running with women and men is the smell. When women finish their run, they quickly clean up (I used epic wipes) and change into fresh clean clothes immediately. Then they carefully secure their sweaty clothes in a large ziplock bag complete with a fabric softener for further odor control. Men sometimes change out of their sweaty shirts in a couple hours and then toss them on the floor (only slight exaggeration involved).  Luckily, I do not have a very keen sense of smell, because our van had had quite the STANK.

Another difference between running with men and women… glide is a MUST.

Run 3 (legs 31/32)

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