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by Chuck Young

As marathon season in Nashville looms into view, many of the local runners make their way to Nashville’s running Mecca, Percy Warner Park. For those who have never ran the daunting 11.2-mile course, its long, steep inclines and pounding downhills snake their way through some of Nashville’s most breathtaking vistas.

To some runners it may sound like a place to be shunned by the wise, but it is certainly a course to be revered by anyone who has driven it, and at least given thought to running it. At the “Y” recently, I overheard a couple of runners talking about their first jaunt through Percy Warner. The discussion sounded more like the build-up to a marathon than a long weekend run. Indeed, there is something very special about the hills, twists and turns which are appropriately framed by triumphal arches at the end of West Nashville’s Belle Meade Boulevard. It was on this sacred running ground that I was blessed with what I consider to be a peak running experience as I was preparing to run the Country Music Marathon.

On a warm weekend afternoon in March, I left the 11.2 course to more dedicated runners, and I opted for the shorter, less brutal 5.8-mile loop. There are a number of memorable landmarks and interesting sites along the way to Percy Warner’s welcome finish line. One of my favorites is the tall white church steeple that you always see from an overlook at a hairpin turn a couple of miles from the end of the run.

Maybe it’s just me, but it is nice to think that the Almighty might have orchestrated the placement of that steeple in order to inspire weary runners with a sign to “have faith, the end is just around the corner!” I can say this: I don’t think I’m the only one that has uttered a prayer at that particular bend in the road. It went something like this: “Just get me back to my car…please!” Another landmark that I always try not to miss is a site that I affectionately named “Duckhead Limb.” You pass by Duckhead Limb about two and a half miles into the run. The limb, which looks exactly like a duck’s head jutting from the side of a large old tree, is at the crest of a long steep hill, right after a ninety degree turn to the right. “The Duck” has been there for years, and has become like an old friend I see every time I run at the park. There are so many wonderful things to capture the eyes in this great runner’s haven: deer, squirrels, chipmunks, groundhogs, and redtail hawks galore. During my training run that morning, my appreciation of the park’s rich bounties was taken to a whole new level.

I was loping along a couple of miles into the run when I came up on another runner who was also enjoying the awesome weather that day. She and I exchanged friendly hellos as I went by her. Runners who happen upon each other at Percy Warner seem to share the unspoken camaraderie of knowing each other’s pain! I proceeded up the hill and smiled as I passed my ol’ buddy, Duckhead Limb. For some reason, I suddenly glanced up to my left and was surprised at what I saw.

Sitting on a limb about 10 feet off the ground, a huge owl was staring right at me. It was beautiful to behold, and unusual, because most owl sightings are later in the day. I had seen a number of owls at Radnor Lake over the years when I was out taking Sabbath hikes. I had only seen one owl at Percy Warner that I can remember, and it was in flight. That is also a whole other story. Of course, I had to stop and admire the rare siting and wished I had my camera with me. Finally, after I milked the experience for all it was worth, I launched forward to resume my run.

Then I froze solid as I glanced down. Right in front of me, two feet away, was a huge black snake. It was about four feet long, maybe longer. It probably wasn’t poisonous, but the surprise of it was enough to lock me in place for a second that seemed like an eternity. About that time, the woman I passed earlier ran up behind me and came to an abrupt stop when she saw the snake. I silently pointed out the owl in the tree who was now watching us all with great intensity. The woman seemed to appreciate the rare combination of incidents which had unfolded, as much as I did.

So we both just stood there, two strangers sharing a truly bizarre experience on an afternoon run. That it happened at all was special. That it happened so I could share it with someone else, even someone I didn’t know, made it more special. Then, before we took off on our run again, an interesting thought came to mind:

The universal symbol for wisdom is the owl. The universal symbol for evil is the snake. Suddenly, an applicable scripture came to mind that turned the experience into an object lesson I’ll never forget. I shared the thought and scripture with my momentary friend before we went our separate ways:
Job 28:28: Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.

TR contributor CHUCK YOUNG is a Nashville-based runner. He would like it be noted that no reptiles, birds of prey, or runners, were harmed in the production of this article.

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