About two and a half years ago, I was 20-25 pounds overweight, I had just run a half marathon at an all-time embarrassing pace, and I hadn’t even whispered the word “marathon” in nearly half a decade. Nonetheless, when Cheryl came across a website for The Harpeth Hills Flying Monkey Marathon, a marathon pleasantly described as, essentially, something only a mentally disturbed person with a death wish would attempt, she thought it might be just the kind of thing I’d be interested in. (Hey. Wait a minute…)
Anyway, I took a gander at the specifics: 26.2 miles of non-stop hills. 3500 feet of elevation gain/loss. A dandy mile-long climb at mile 19. Serious threat of flying monkey attacks. A moderately insane race director. I laughed out loud—a bitter, derisive laugh of scorn—and stomped around the house barking out all the reasons why marathons were stupid and why this particular one would win the Big Stupid Marathon Award of the Century. I pointed out that training for such an event would be selfish and wasteful and possibly unhealthy. I mocked the course. I questioned the veracity of the flying monkey myth. I sneered at a picture of the RD with his oversized calves.
Then, naturally, I sent off my application.
Heading into my 12-week training plan, I assured myself that this would my last marathon. What better way to hammer that final nail into the coffin of past running than to run an entirely unreasonable and horrific marathon? If I secretly harbored any desire to keep running marathons, this should obliterate it I figured. Then, something totally unexpected happened: I became a runner again. The weight came off, the miles became more effortless. Frighteningly, I actually found myself too excited to fall asleep some nights before long runs. I gazed longingly at pace calculators. I dug out race times from decades earlier and wondered where the spark had gone. I wondered if maybe I could get it back.
Under 5 hours. That was my only goal going into the first Monkey in 2006. The last marathon I had run years earlier had been a 4:05, so I figured around 5 hours was reasonable on such an idiotic course. And I’ll admit it: the course scared me. Living only 2 miles away from where the race is held, I got to practice on it a lot. This is supposed to give one confidence, but it generally just gave me the willies. Still, it was an excited kind of What-In-the-World-is-Going-to-Happen?? fear. I couldn’t wait, and yet I dreaded the day.
The first Monkey was mainly a blur of impressions. Cold. Fear. Mile markers. Suddenly at mile 13 well before I thought I’d be. Up a horrible hill (x16). Check watch and estimate that I could run 13-minute-miles and still finish under 5. Feeling good. Feeling bad. The vile little hill at mile 23 that is one step away from being something one might consider a good spot for rock climbing. Two miles left. Adrenaline and nausea. The last turn before heading out on the grass that will lead to the finish. Voices, cheering. The clock. 4:15.
The moment I crossed that finish line, the spark was totally back. My very next thoughts were What’s next? How much faster can I get? Where’s the next marathon?
And so, of course, now I must run the Monkey every year. Aside from the fact that it is the race that brought me back to racing, it’s also a beautiful (if hellish) course in the Tennessee hills and, as is promised in the race’s description, there are no crowds, no bands, no chip timing, no pace groups, few spectators, the threat of winged monkeys and pumpkin pie made by the RD at the finish (not the threat of pumpkin pie. I mean, unless you’re afraid of it).
Plus, people are afraid of the Monkey. And that’s cool. This year’s Monkey was, in my opinion, the most feared yet. Well in advance, loads of extra-lame excuses from typically competitive people for why they might not run very fast began piling up. The most popular excuse was: “It’s a wacky course that I can’t PR on, so I’m just going to run for fun.” There was also the ever-popular broadcasting of “I hadn’t planned on running fast. This was just a training run,” after the marathon was over and one hadn’t done as well as one had hoped. *sigh* Whatev. Fear, fear, fear. Big, fat, monstrous fear.
Anyway. I’ve enjoyed a completely different kind of fear each year I’ve done the Monkey. The first year was, as I mentioned, the Oh my God. What am I doing? fear. Last year, I had just run a 3:42 six months earlier, so my fear was Cripes. Can I actually race this course? fear. As it turned out, I could (anyone can…it’s actually only about 2-3 minutes slower than a normal course. It can even be a PR course, though it’s blasphemous to say it…). I finished in 3:44, coming in 3rd woman.
And so this year’s fear was the much-dreaded Can I do as well as last year? fear with the added terror of You should be able to do even better, you self-absorbed blowhard murmuring incessantly like so many winged monkeys atop the hickory trees at dusk. I trained on the course, as always, trying to mentally envision running well in the race. Instead, I wondered if I’d have to (shudder) walk up Golf Course Hill this year. I stared warily at Luke Lea Heights. Once, I even got teary on 9-Mile-Hill.
In the end, I psyched myself out well before the morning of Novemeber 23rd.
As much as, I’m sure, everyone is sitting on the edge of their seats now waiting for yet another mile-by-mile description of an average runner’s experience at this marathon, I’ll just say that I essentially wussed out and gave up at mile 15. Or maybe I didn’t. Maybe I just kind of sucked that day. Who knows? I threw around some admirably pathetic excuses at the finish (“I was tired.” Oh, for crissakes, who isn’t tired in a marathon? “My achilles was hurting.” Blah blah blah. Oh, boo hoo.).
At any rate, as I approached the mile-15 water stop where Cheryl was working, I stopped for a gel, sputtered a few excuses, and asked if there were any old hags ahead of me. Hearing that there were not, I re-adjusted my goals to (hopefully) finishing under four hours and (maybe) winning the Master’s. I gave up. It was not entirely unpleasant at the time, but it was lame. I had been running 8:30 miles up to that point. Then I got scared of how hard it might be to maintain that pace. With all my training leading up to this race, I think I’d forgotten just how mental the marathon is. In the end, I squeaked in at 3:57, winning the Master’s, but I was disappointed in my abject wussiness.
Some 2 and 1/2 hours later, as many of us were on our 4th (um, right) Yazoo beer and 3rd mountain of finish line food (I’m telling you, this marathon RULES), along the hilltop that winds down to the finsh appeared a runner that many of us knew. It was her first marathon. She was not what one might call “adequately prepared” for the distance. She had not run many hills, and her long runs were…well, short at best. She struggled with whether or not she was even a “real runner” at all. She had had a serious case of the Oh my God! What am I doing? fear that I remember so well.
But when she crossed the finish line, her expression of amazment, excitement, and euphoria was priceless. For lack of a better way to describe it, it was the look of a dream come true.
And as the post-marathon dust settled in the following week, as many of us bickered, bragged, brooded, celebrated, and snarked over our races (or “training runs” as it may be), this particular runner simply asked, What’s next? How much faster can I get? Where’s the next marathon?
Sparks are cool. This marathon is the best. I’ll never miss it, even if I’m 80 and using a walker. And I’ll always race it, even if my race blows.*
*Hi! It’s June of 2010 and I’ve totally changed my mind about this sentence. No Monkey for me this year. Oh, stop crying. I’ll be there to volunteer. And drink beer.
***(Possibly trivial addendum: JK [totally random name] beat me by 14 minutes with nearly the same time I ran last year. Just prior to the start, I asked him what he was shooting for and he said, “Just trying to break five hours.” Excellent tactic. Hate him. Hate, hate, hate.)