Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The monkeys were kind: Flying Monkey Marathon recap

I've been hearing about the Flying Monkey Marathon for many years--mostly that it was really hard (3,600 feet of climbing according to the website), with a small, devoted following and surrounded by a playfully irreverent mythology of testing your luck against the elusive flying monkeys, who may carry you away if you stray from the course...or who may be kind to you and let you finish. The folks who put this race on clearly love running and it is important to them; they believe it that it should be fun, challenging, and not full of elitist, self-important jerks. The signs posted along the course give away the flavor of the humor: "Last hill" (at the beginning), "The beer is gone," "Oprah just finished," "IDIOT," and, near the top of a particularly brutal hill, "Why?"

Photo credit: Harpeth Hills Flying Monkey Facebook
The race is sort of an anti-marathon, at least compared to the big megaraces like Chicago, New York, and the Rock 'n' Roll series. It is intentionally small with as many hills as possible, no certifications, no bands, no cheerleaders, no online tracking, no start corrals, and no half marathon, 10K, 5K, marathon relay, etc. It's just about running in a beautiful place. (Truly, beautiful. I recommend following them on Facebook for year-round pictures of this place.) Whether the running is fast, slow, or somewhere inbetween is not unimportant (they do use chip timing to provide results and the winners get prizes), but the individual experience is the real draw here. That said, finish times this year ranged from 2:42 to 8:42, so there's room for long as you can get in.

It's capped at 300 people, so it's very difficult to get into. They run a lottery, which I had entered before with no luck. With running going so well this year, and my one big goal race in early October, I thought this would be the perfect year to try again, so I tossed my name in. Lo and behold, I was selected as tribute (this year's theme was the Hunger Games)!

This race was the perfect antidote for my mildly disappointing experience at the Indy Monumental half. The informational emails leading up to the race included, instead of anxiety-inducing instructions about a myriad of race-day logistics, advice like, "Running is stupid. You cannot train for the Monkey. You might as well give up now." This refusal to take things too seriously perfectly mirrors things I say to myself before (and during) my best experiences in races..."I am questioning my life choices right now" and "What was I thinking when I decided to do this. Wow, I am stupid!" ... and was exactly what I needed. Sometimes I need a reminder to step back and realize that this endeavor is a little bit crazy and all of us need to be able to laugh at ourselves.

And now for the race. My plan had always been to just have fun. Now, you can define fun in many ways, but for me, it's fun to run a well-executed race and not stress about specific goals or going balls to the wall. I also like hitting goals and taking risks, but I'll save that for the HUFF 50K next month. Of course, I still had some things in mind that it would be cool to do, like keep my streak of sub-4 road marathons alive, achieve a negative split, place in the top 10, etc. Last year, a 3:54 finish was good for 2nd place female, but in checking over several years' results, last year was a particularly slow year (it was rainy and cold), so I figured if I could be a few minutes under 4 hours, I could also maybe hit top 10 women. Some Athlinks stalking told me that most folks run about 10-15 minutes slower here than at a "normal" road marathon.

I had some minor reservations about my fitness for the day. My last race, the Monumental Half Marathon, while a really good time for me, was well off my goal time, with the problem being that I was simply unable to hit my goal pace from the beginning. And I'd just been feeling tired lately while running. Possibly not completely recovered from Cloudsplitter and all the higher mileage weeks I had put in before it? In response, I had cut back. Most weeks between Cloudsplitter and now have been in the 40-50 range...those are still certainly solid amounts, but in practice it felt like two-month-long taper. One week was 70 and that felt like too much. I also only had one run longer than 13 miles between Cloudsplitter and this--a 15-miler on October 24. Not exactly ideal training for a marathon, but I knew I should be able to enjoy myself as long as I was conservative at the beginning. I just wasn't sure how the last 10K would go.

On the drive down to Nashville, I developed some pretty severe lower back pain. I'm not sure what happened, but sitting in the car was miserable and I had to be careful how I moved or it got all spasmy. I honestly don't think this was a factor during the race--if anything, it encouraged me to keep a better posture on the climbs because if I hunched over too much it hurt like hell. Other than some minor soreness in my quads, it was the only thing hurting the next day!

I had a UGo bar and some coffee for breakfast on race morning and changed into my race outfit--bright-colored capri tights with a scale pattern (I like them because they look like dragon scales), blue tank top, and arm warmers. My plan was to distract the monkeys with my bright outfit. I packed three gels into my pocket. The weather for the day was near perfect: clear, sunny, and about 30 degrees. We arrived at the start in plenty of time for me to visit the portojohn and then stood around at the start for a few minutes until it was time to strip off my layers and go. I had a moment of panic when I realized the buttons on my watch had become locked, but luckily I figured out how to unlock it and get a signal just as we crossed the start.

Miles 1-5: 9:16, 8:54, 8:33, 9:08, 9:15 (45:06)
I settled into a pace averaging around 9:00/mile, which felt right. I didn't look at splits at all, just the average, and concentrated on keeping even effort on the uphills, and short gliding steps on the downhills. At mile three, I saw a friend, Dana, who I knew from an online forum, but had never met in person. It was so cool to finally meet her in person that I gave her a hug. I drank some water and SWORD energy drink and was on my way. I've never tried SWORD before but this was clearly the time to do so. Less than a mile later I also tried Huma gels for the first time. Luckily for me they agreed with my stomach! The monkeys laugh at the rules!

Photo credit: Elly Foster Photography
For the first few miles, lots of people passed me, but I was really determined to be conservative, so I just stayed in my comfort zone. This soon shifted to me passing people on uphills and being passed on downhills. I traded with people a few times in this way. In fact, one lady actually "buzzed" me, that is, she passed by me really closely on a downhill and cut in front of me, eyeing me sidelong. Seriously? I passed her for good a couple miles later. Mostly I just concentrated on running comfortably and enjoying the scenery, which was beautiful. The aid stations were plentiful and the volunteers were warm and friendly, despite the crisp temperature.

Near the top of a big-ass hill at mile 5, I saw Mark and the fuzzies. Yay!

Miles 6-10: 9:19, 8:39, 9:38, 8:53, 9:06 (45:35)
The hills really got going. They were long and relentless, but at least they came with nice long gradual downhills. I felt nicely settled into my pace, holding steady just a few ticks over 9:00 average. It wasn't easy, but it was comfortable and I wasn't breathing very hard. But it was still too early to know how the whole day would go, so I stayed conservative. I was really hoping I could pull off a negative split and I didn't want to go for it too early. I figured anything beneath 4 hours on this course would be awesome!

I ate two more gels: one of my own and another Huma. I'm sold on Humas--yummy! And I got to see Mark again around mile 10.

Miles 11-15: 9:09, 8:50, 9:37, 8:38, 9:21 (45:35)
Around mile 11 I saw Christy and Aaron waving and cheering so I grinned and waved hello. I was still feeling really good and actually anticipating the halfway point so I could start picking it up. Already I was starting to pass lots of people.

I went through the half in 1:59:13 by my watch. I did want to speed up, but I didn't want to just start running all out. I worked on gradually increasing my effort level, opening up my stride more on downhills, and working on catching people on uphills. I saw Mark again at some point but I don't remember exactly where.

Miles 16-20: 8:13, 8:44, 8:11, 9:12, 9:02 (43:22)
Here's where I started to work. This stretch of a marathon is always the most difficult for me. My body is starting to feel it and my mind is starting to look for excuses. I broke things down in my mind and concentrated only on getting to mile 20. The hills were starting to burn, but I refused to start walking, just kept grinding up them in low gear. On the downs I tried to rest and cruise.

I was passing so many people. I offered encouragement when I had the breath for it. Everyone was so friendly! And I got a lot of compliments on my pants. :D I also ate two more gels in the course of this section, both Huma.

Photo credit: Elly Foster Photography
Miles 21-25: 8:12, 8:44, 7:55, 8:57, 8:05 (41:53)
At mile 20, I started doing math: here's what will happen if I run 10-minute miles, 9-minute miles, etc. Unless something pretty major happened, I knew I could be under 4 hours. If I could hold on to my current pace, 3:55ish was doable. In the back of my mind, I thought of speeding up more and hitting 3:50. That would be pretty wild. I think I ate my last gel, a lemon Huma, around mile 20 or 21. I drank several gulps of water at about 22 and then after that I just ran.

Although my legs were burning, I was still feeling overall really good, so I started to really go for it. I broke it into single miles and redid the math at each one. Mile 24 had a relatively short but very steep hill that kinda sucked out my soul, but when I got to the top, a volunteer told me I'd climbed it like it was nothing. I had kept running, but felt like I was running in place, so that was really good to hear!

At the turnoff with less than half a mile to go, I saw Christy and Aaron again, and Mark just after them. Almost there!! I summoned a bit of a kick. The last full mile was 8:10. When I finished, after getting my swag, I found Mark and stopped my watch. Realizing I had 26.1 miles, I definitely jogged around until I got to 26.2. Yes, I'm ruled by my device, but I couldn't leave it at 26.1!

My official finish time was 3:50:29, which was good for 9th place female and 2nd AG. It also gave me about an 8-minute negative split. I know that a negative split that big isn't the most efficient way to run a marathon, but it was sure as hell fun! Along with a beautiful wooden medal, I received a unbreakable "Silipint" pint glass (well, cup; it's made out of rubber) and a Merrell buff. Seriously, the swag for this race was absolutely top notch: TWO shirts, one of which was personalized (!?!!), car magnet, sticker, temp tattoos, finish line goodies, free beer, food, and free race pictures to top it off.

There was beer from Yazoo Brewing and several folding tables groaning under the weight of the many dishes that runners had brought, potluck style. I'm telling you, everything about this run was awesome; it reminded me in so many ways of a trail/ultra race. I went for a beer first, which I sipped while sitting in the sun and checking social media, then I loaded up a plate with food. We didn't stay very long afterward because it was still pretty cold and we realized the afternoon was already getting on and we needed to get home. The only problem with Sunday races! I would love to do this one again; the volunteers and organizers deserve nothing but kudos for this amazing gem of a race.

I went down the race stat comparison rabbit hole a little bit and looked up some numbers from previous races. What I saw made me feel REALLY good about this run. First, it is, believe it or not, my fifth-fastest marathon EVER, only 22 seconds slower than Boston. The negative split made me compare the last halves of each of my top five marathons:
  • Flying Monkey 2015: 1:51:16 (finish time 3:50:29)
  • Bayshore 2015: 1:50:51 (finish time 3:36:05)
  • Boston 2010: 2:03:41 (finish time 3:50:07; ow)
  • Philadelphia 2009: 1:50:54 (finish time 3:36:11)
  • Illinois 2009: 1:49:55 (finish time 3:40:07; still my best executed race ever, and only negative split marathon until FM)
Yep, that's right, I ran the second half of Flying Monkey, hills and all, only 20-25 seconds slower than either of my (flat to pretty flat) 3:36 PR races. That is mind boggling. I don't know if it says more about how terrible I usually am at closing the deal in marathons, or how much my fitness has improved this year. Probably both. After sixteen road marathons, I still learn something new each time.

It's a nice confidence booster about my fitness for the ultras I have upcoming this winter and spring. Next up is the HUFF 50K in December!

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