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Oak Barrel Half Marathon

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My thoughts on the 3rd annual Oak Barrel Half Marathon in Lynchburg, TN

Oak Barrel Half Marathon

April 7, 2012

My Run: Overall, the Oak Barrel Half Marathon in Lynchburg was my 11th half marathon. This race was capped at 1050 entries, and this was my second consecutive year to participate in the event.

Even though I had a specific goal going in, I really didn’t treat this like a goal race. I did drop my total mileage by about 10-miles for the week of the race, but otherwise just trained right through the event. My goal was to “officially” break 1:30 for the first time. At the Murfreesboro “Middle” Half Marathon last October the course ended up being long by 4/10 of a mile due to a mis-routing in the early miles. My “unofficial” re-calculated time for that event was 1:29:49, but it never felt like I had truly broken 1:30, since this result was from a recalculation.

Anyway, the Oak Barrel course is much tougher than the Middle Half, but I also felt like I was in better shape than I was last October. This is especially true considering that the Middle Half was six days after the Bank of America Chicago Marathon and my recent PR performance at the Rock n’ Roll New Orleans Marathon (3:12:28) a few weeks ago.

The Oak Barrel course is famous for a very difficult climb during part of mile four and all of mile five called “Whiskey Hill.” This hill is significant enough that you almost have to base your entire race strategy around it. To break 1:30, I would need to finish with an average pace of 6:52 per mile. With that in mind, my plan was to run the first three miles around goal pace, and then hope to complete Whiskey Hill with an overall average around 7:00 min pace. After Whiskey Hill, there are three miles of rolling hills, followed by four miles of mostly downhill (or flat) and a rolling finish. Provided that I didn’t spend all of my energy on the climb, I was confident that I could make up eight seconds in the final eight miles.

Weather conditions were almost perfect, with temps in the low 50s at the start and mid 60s at the finish. I started off the race a bit too fast with miles of 6:44 and 6:46, but everything felt fantastic. There is a small climb during mile three which slowed me down a bit, but when I finished the fourth mile, just after the start of Whiskey Hill, my average pace was right at 6:50 per mile, which was just below goal pace. It then took me 8:01 to finish the fifth mile and my average pace dropped to 7:04. Whiskey Hill kicked my tail. Even though I picked off several other runners during the climb, I was gassed when I got to the top. In addition to being gassed, my average pace was also four seconds behind where I had hoped to be at the top of the hill. I had a lot of time to make up.

It took almost three more miles before I finally got control of my breathing. Looking back at my splits, I have no idea how I ran mile six in 6:43, because I was still hurting. Even though this was a good split, I lost some additional time toward my goal during mile seven which took me 7:15 to complete. There is another short, steep climb during this mile which contributed to my slower time.

About halfway during mile eight I finally started feeling my normal rhythm again. My breathing slowed and my stride felt more relaxed and efficient. I finished mile eight in 6:47, and then the course started to track downhill during miles 9 through 12. I was able to really make up some time during these miles and pick off a bunch of other runners. My splits for 9 through 12 were 6:39, 6:42, 6:36, and 6:36. This was by far the fastest stretch I have ever run in a half marathon, but I knew after mile 12 that I would need another great mile to break 1:30 at the end.

The final mile has a little bit of roll to it, and is mostly located on the main highway leading back into Lynchburg. I tried to set my sights on a couple of runners ahead of me and drop the hammer. I ran with everything I had left in my body and caught the two runners with about a half a mile to go. My body was screaming, but I knew that my chance to officially break 1:30 was going to come down to a precious few seconds and I couldn’t let my foot off the gas.

As I rounded the final corner toward the town square I could see the digital clock at the finish line that read 1:29:45 and continued to count. I heard the PA announce my name, but I kept charging toward the finish. I crossed the finish line just as the clock ticked over to 1:29:57 (Gun Time) which translated to a chip time of 1:29:52 (my final mile was 6:23). Finally, I had officially broken 1:30 (barely) on a difficult course. This finish time was good enough for 17th place overall out of 952 finishers, and was fourth in my age group (35 to 39). It was also five minutes faster than my finish time at the Oak Barrel in 2011.

Overall, I’m very pleased with this result and with the race in general. I’m encouraged by the fact that running at sub-6:50 pace on the flat and downhill sections felt like something I could maintain over a long distance, and this gives me additional confidence as I look toward the fall with the goal of qualifying for Boston.

Friends: I travelled down to Lynchburg with my friends John, Nathan, Paxton, and Josh. We also met up with Edward, Andy, and Judy in Lynchburg. This made for an extremely enjoyable trip and race to be able to share the day with good friends. I run a lot with Nathan and Paxton (the other two members of the “Bellevue Trio”), and this was their first time to run the Oak Barrel. Both had great finishing times on a very difficult course, and It was interesting to hear their thoughts on Whiskey Hill.

For John, this was his third time in the event after finishing 2nd overall last year. This year, John placed 5th overall and 1st in his age group. This was still an awesome effort, especially considering that the field was much more competitive this year than last.

For Josh Brown, this was his first half marathon….ever! I really got a kick out of being with Josh for his first half marathon. Josh is a natural athlete who placed in his age group in the only two races he had entered prior to the Oak Barrel (a 5k and a 15k trail race). I was excited to see what he could do on a tough course at a longer distance. Well, he finished in 1:42 which is 16 minutes better than my first half marathon finish! It was also good enough for second in his age group. So proud of Josh!

And last, but not least, Judy Hahn also had a great race and finished 2nd in her age group.

Fun day to spend in Lynchburg with dear friends. I love race road trips!

The Race: Being that this is a smaller, locally organized race, you know that some of the “big race” features and amenities will not be present (e.g. pace teams, elevated mile markers, visible split times, big expo, etc.). With that in mind, it is hard to come up with many criticisms of this event. The organization and execution is impeccable.

There were 6 aid stations on the course. All of these had both water and Gatorade. The volunteers at the aid stations were fantastic about calling out exactly what they were holding (though some were trying to hold 4+ cups at a time).

At the finish, there is plenty of room to keep moving. After receiving your medal, all finishers had access to a post-race food including beef stew, pizza, bananas, oranges, cookies, bottled water, chocolate milk and Gatorade.

Another couple of nice features include disposable timing system that is built-in to the bib. Also, all of the bibs include the runner’s first name, which ultimately leads to the crowd cheering for you by calling out your name at the finish.

All participants received a Nike technical, long-sleeved T-Shirt (really nice and gender specific), a running hat, and a nice shoe bag. The finisher’s “medal” is extremely unique as it is made out of the wood from an oak barrel. There is ample, free parking close to the start line and lots of port-a-potties.

The Course: The course starts just off the square, and heads in a loop through the country, over a ridge, and then back into Lynchburg. It is a beautiful course that is a lot of fun to run, however it is also very challenging. The first 3 miles contain rolling hills with very few flat areas. Miles 4 and 5 are the home of “Whiskey Hill,” which starts off as a fairly gradual incline, and then becomes extremely steep at the end. After mile 5, the course again begins to roll.

Beginning at mile 9, there are several sharp downhills, some of which put quite a strain on the quads. The final mile turns back onto the main highway toward Lynchburg. The finish is on the square which is pretty cool.

I plan to make this an annual event, as long as I don’t have a marathon conflict. This is a great race!