A Rambler's Guide to the Percy Warner Main Drive

Brought to you by the Harpeth Hills Flying Monkey Marathon

Snaking through the 2,058-acre Percy Warner Park, the 11.2-mile Main Drive has been featured in "Runner's World" and called a runner's Paradise. From the moment you start "the 11.2", as we locals call it, you know you are in for a treat. A challenging one. As you wind your way through the tree-shaded Park, you endure over 1,500 feet of elevation gain and loss, encountering grades of up to 10-12% at times. Mercifully, you will also pass an occasional long, flat stretch around open fields and densely forested glades. The route takes you by scenic overlooks of Nashville, various sports and recreation areas, and quiet picnic pavilions. You also pass the Iroquois Steeplechase, one of the country's oldest horse tracks. But above all that, with its repetitive climbs, descents and rolling terrain, Percy Warner Park demands the runner's attention and respect. The 11.2 should never be taken lightly.

These directions assume that you are running from the Stone Gates entrance to Percy Warner Park, located at the corner of Belle Meade Boulevard and Page Road, set out to run the 11.2 mile loop in the direction of car traffic (i.e., "forward" or "counter-clockwise). For this description, I have added a bit of commentary to give you context in case you have gotten confused during the run (and because I like to blabber on and on). A simple list of intersections and turns would be hard to follow in a park this notoriously confusing for first-timers. A warrior can prepare for the enemy he knows and a combatant can fight the enemy for which she has prepared; the details will get you through the battle ahead.

The 11.2 mile loop starts and finishes AT the stone gates, and is labeled throughout the park variably as the "Main Drive", "Running Routes" and the "Scenic Route". Every mile along the run has been marked with a wooden post with a mileage indicator (courtesy of the Nashville Striders), with a green stripe indicating the 11.2-mile loop (and an orange one for the 5.8 mile loop, and a blue one for the 1.6 mile loop). In general, if you follow the signs pointing to the Main Drive, Running Routes or the Scenic Route, and respect any Do Not Enter signs posted for cars, you will be fine and will stay on course. And if you get lost, eventually you will find your way back, and that is the real fun of Percy Warner. When in doubt, take a friend who has been there before. If you get lost, remember that in the first five miles, every road to your left is a shortcut to another part of the 11.2 heading back, and every road on your right is an exit to the park. After mile five, the same rule holds, but three of the roads that cut off to the left actually can add distance to your run.

Anyhow. Let's get running. From the start of this trek, you will see a flagpole in front of a set of stone steps, and a road headed up into the woods to the right and back from the woods to the left. You will head up the hill to your right. As you begin your run, you will pass the flagpole, then a small parking area, and then you will wind your way through the woods. For the next half mile you will steadily climb, winding your way up the first of many hills. As you round a corner to your left, the path will level out and you should see first a half-mile marker post and then a fork in the road. Go right. Unless the first hill has done you in, in which case you should go left to complete the 1.6-mile loop and then go home to contemplate what is on television.

Immediately upon taking the right, you may doubt your selection, as the road begins to climb anew. Don't fret; the best is yet to come. As you begin this brief ascent, you will pass an entrance to the white trail that crosses the Main Drive, and then coast down a hill. Towards the bottom of this hill, you may see a stone wall up on the ridge to your left; this is the same stone wall you will see as you are about to finish this mad mad run you elected to do. Then up another hill, the oft-unmentioned One Mile Hill. At the crest of One Mile Hill, you will see a milepost to your right, and then you will veer to your right. Just over ten more miles to go. How do you feel?

This next part of the run is fairly gentle, winding from side to side and gradually descending to the Deep Wells Picnic Area, just past the two mile post. There are no intersections for some time, although at one point you will cross the horse trails. About 1.8 total miles into this little venture of yours, the road will fork. Go left, in the direction of the "Running Routes". The road to the right will take you out to Highway 100. At the bottom of the hill, you will encounter a trailhead to the left and a parking area to the right. This is also where you will find one of the rare portapotties, should you need one. Nine more miles to go.

This is where it gets good. For the next 1.3 or so miles, you will first encounter some gentle rolling hills and then climb a fairly steady 200 foot ascent that has some sections where the grade is over 10%. Sound like fun? You are nuts. This is the so-called Three Mile Hill, named for its location along the Main Drive, not for its length or climb. One of the attributes that distinguishes Three Mile is its uncanny ability to hide around every twist and turn more hill; it just keeps going, snaking its way into the clouds. An anonymous author once described this hill with the following sage words:

"The first of the fabled hills falls just as you begin to climb towards the waymark for the third mile, and stretches beyond it. This hill winds in and out, from side to side. Its wickedness comes from the combined effects of its grade and from the fact that you cannot see the efforts ahead of you; they are hidden, each, behind the next curve. Every time you approach what you perceive to be the end of the madness, you round a turn and see more beyond. By time you have reached the top, just past three miles into your trek, your will and energies have been sapped."

Indeed, during all this twisting and turning and climbing without end, you will encounter the Three Mile post. From here, you still have about 1/3 mile more of climbing to do, so keep on pushing. If you have the right fortitude, you just may make it. And if you do, at the top of the hill (finally!), you will come to another fork in the road. Eight miles to go? Sheesh.

Now this was just devious on the part of the park planners. Real evil genius at work. So there you are, having set out to run 11 tough miles. You get to the top of a crest after three increasingly brutal climbs in as many miles, all before even having a chance really to warm up. Your legs are on fire, matched only by the burning in your lungs. And here, an escape, a fork in the road, a short path to your left and back to sanity. The amount of mental energy it took you to climb that hill? That is nothing when compared to what will be required for you to keep going on the Main Drive rather than succumb to the temptation to take, as the sign at this fork in the road indicates, the "2.6 miles to Belle Meade Blvd". Just over two and a half miles to freedom, or nearly eight more miles of torture. Just tell yourself, "I AM a runner, I AM a runner, I AM a runner", take a right and continue your foolish trek.

Okay, two major obstacles out of the way and you are now atop the main ridge that runs through the center of Percy Warner Park. From here you can take in fairly stunning views of the surrounding hills and glimpses of distant Nashville. Do take the time to look at these as you cover the next half-mile. Because before long, down again you will go. That big climb up Three Mile Hill? Well, what goes up must come down, and so down you will go before this mile's end. Remember, as Matt Carpenter says, "the downhills are not free" and this one will beat your quads and knees something fierce. Eccentric leg contractions always take more work than you'd expect. But enjoy the descent if you can. As you come to the bottom, the woods relent and you will see a field, a picnic pavilion and a road off to the left. You should someday take this road, for it holds one of the park's greatest hills. But not today. Today you will go right. Make sure to notice the Four Mile Post and then the gravel service road, both on your right, before taking another small climb. Seven more miles to go.

The next mile is fairly gentle, and may just give you a chance to recover before the next effort. Here, you will get to run through a small wood, and then out into another open field. You will pass a road that cuts off to the left and then run around a large open field. As you circle the field counter-clockwise, you will again run through woods and open areas, then at the bottom of a gentle descent, you will pass another picnic pavilion on your right, and finally a trail marked by a red and white candycane striped sign as it crosses your path. From here, the trees will again close in as you head up a small but steady climb.

This is one of the places that causes trouble for the novice to the park; about halfway up this climb, you will come to an intersection of four roads, each with a choice. You could turn around and return the way you came, hoping to prevent the madness to come. Or, you could go to the right, back down a gentle downhill and shaded road that takes you out of the park to Old Hickory Boulevard. You could jump the chain and go straight up a poorly maintained and moss-covered road through a beautiful and empty part of the park, also headed to Old Hickory Boulevard and Edwin Warner Park. Or, as you will do, you can take the sharp near-U-Turn up and around to your left and keep to the Main Drive. Once you take this turn, you will see the road you just came up down a hill to your left and a wooded hill on your right. Keep going and within a couple minutes you will pass the Five Mile Post and two more roads out of the park, all on your right. Keep going straight and take a left at each of these two intersections. And then up a short steep hill to a clearing ahead. Six miles to go.

As you come to the peak of this nefarious little climb, you will be greeted by a view of the Iroquois Steeplechase track, framed by lush knobby hills in the distance. If you start your run predawn, this is a fine place to be when the sun rises. Keep on going, past the road that leads up the grassy hill you your left. You will run between more wooded hills to your left and some small fields to your right, and then back into the woods after winding side to side a bit. Following a sharp turn to your right and then, after a couple of minutes, a sharp near-U-Turn to your left, you will have the pleasure of another good climb, this one short and steep. At the top of this hill there is a fork. Straight ahead is a sign that says Do Not Enter, and to your right is the Main Drive. One day, you will ignore the road sign and enter, then explore another memorable stretch of hilly road. But today you go right. Shortly after you turn and are rewarded by a gentle downward road, you will pass the Six Mile Post. Five miles to go.

The next three quarters of a mile drop downwards, with one of the steepest hills in the park waiting for you as you pass the Harpeth Hills Golf Club. Fortunately, the hill goes downward for you today. Feel free to run into the golf club house on your right if you need to grab a drink, use the facilities, enjoy the air conditioning, or look for a phone to call for a ride home. Then back to the run. And down the hill, remembering that what goes down must eventually come back up. Indeed, after a short stretch on one of the few two-lane roads in the park, you get to go back up on the often-forgotten Seven Mile Hill. This hill is forgotten given its proximity to Three Mile Hill and one yet ahead, but it is a tough climb nonetheless. The good news about this hill is that the entire ascent is in front of you; there are no devilish climbs around the next corner. When you get to the top, you are truly at the top. Catch your breath as you go back into the woods and note the Seven Mile Post on your left. Just four miles to go.

Just ahead, you will encounter a second four-way intersection. This marks one of the major entrances to the park, with the Chickering Road entrance and parking lot off to your right, and the road to the Indian Springs picnic area to your left. To your left is also a shortcut, but you are a runner out running, so you have no use for such things. Go straight through this intersection, and up a gentle incline. What follows is a slow steady 2% grade climb for the next three quarter miles, taking you amongst several knob-like hills and through dense woods, occasionally interrupted by lush meadows and distant odd-looking mansions. You will pass the horse trails, the flying monkey habitat and, after a sharp left turn, the red trail. And just past the peak of this climb, you will see the Eight Mile Post. Three miles to go? Wow, anybody can do that.

Keep going, now down a slow 2% descent into a picnic area. Off to your right, you will see a picnic pavilion and another of the rare portapotties. And then your route takes a sharp right, passes an intersection on your left (which is the shortcut to the four way intersection you just passed) and then crosses a little bridge. Past the bridge, the fun really begins. This my friend is what you have been waiting for. This is why you came out here today. That slight upward motion you sense is the start of one of the greatest hills in this Park: Nine Mile Hill. Yes indeed, it sets out to tease you with this cute little ascent, but this serves the hidden purpose of drawing off some of the remnant energy from your engines before the hillŐs full force hits you. Our unnamed sage once wrote of this hill in comparing it to Three Mile Hill:

"It is more subtle, and in that subtleness lurks the distress of all those who attempt it. Unlike the hill we have just considered, the hill that bridges the ninth waymark is fully apparent. Its endpoints are nearly all visible from where it begins. But this hill, like that at Areopagus (strangely, both are to the west of a Parthenon), will judge you and your skills with complete unbridled objectivity. Before you approach this hill, you have to overcome other tests of strength and will, including eight miles afoot at uncomfortable paces and several opportunities to stop and turn-tail or escape to pursue more civil aspirations. But in the final mile as you approach the local Areopagus, there is an imperceptible yet persistent upward climb that slowly wears away your reserves until they are inadequate for the task at hand. And at that moment, you face the great hill. As you mount its asphalt, the entirety of the effort ahead visible to you (but somehow unknown) there is no pace that is correct. Run too fast and you will not have the necessary fuel in your depleted legs to make it. Run to slowly and the mount will outlast your will. Best just to put your head down and go on blindly. When you reach the connector road, you are only halfway up. By time you reach the top, weakened and poor, you do not have the focus to look around you at the grand vistas on display."

And do note, about halfway up this hill you will pass the Nine Mile Post, and immediately thereafter a road off to the left; the very road that tempted you from this run at the top of Three Mile Hill. But keep going up and to the right as you finish this day's effort. Just two miles to go.

When you finally get to the summit, breathe deeply in the thinned air. If you need, there is a bench overlooking endless hills and woods for you to rest your weary legs. But resist. And power forward. You are now halfway through the first and worst of three hiarpins atop this ridge. Each hairpin is marked by a path outwards to the east followed by a sharp turn to the left headed westward. Each one is associated with a small rolling hill. Well, small by comparison to what you've done already, but not truly small. So as you pass the bench atop Nine Mile Hill, you are going west to complete the first of these hairpins. As you reenter the woods atop this crest, you will pass a Four Mile Post. Pay it no attention, it has nothing to do with you; it is for those weak naves who succumbed to temptation atop Three Mile Hill.

Down a hill, then back up to one of the highest points on your route. Over the top, and then back down again to the next hairpin. This second hairpin hits you in the middle of this rolling descent. And then a third gentle climb to the final hairpin. As you come around the third, you will get another view through the clearing to the hills out towards the northeast on your right, then the Ten Mile Post on your left. Almost there.

And then comes your final true dilemma. Luke Lea or not? Just past ten miles, there is a lollipop-like loop off to the left, taking you to another of the highest points in the park from which you will have a spectacular view of Belle Meade and Nashville. But this jewel must be earned. The loop taking you to the Luke Lea overlook includes two spectacular steep climbs and another 0.6 miles in total. And you are tired. And beat up. And in pain. But you have come far. You are tough. You have worked for this. Why stop short of the spectacular? That's right. Take this left and follow the loop around. Enjoy yourself. Enjoy the view. And enjoy the burn.

And then the work is done. Coming off of the Luke Lea Overlook Loop, take a left on the Main Drive and then immediately down the ski-slope that awaits you. Shooting down the hill, ahead you will notice a stone wall and a sharp hairpin-like turn to the right. You should also observe the stones missing from the wall, likely from errant bikers taking the descent too hard. And finally, through the trees to your left, you may see the first section of your route where you were so many miles ago. But keep on going. Down the hill, whip around to the right, and then to the left. You may notice a Five Mile Post on your left, again this is not for you. Keep on going down, then around another hairpin to the left. You are almost there. Ahead you will encounter one last intersection with a choice to go to the left up a hill or to the right down a hill. Of course at this point, you can only go down, and so to the right you go. And down and down. As you enter the clearing, you will see the Eleven Mile Post to your left (for you, indicating 11.6 miles run since you were bold enough to take Luke Lea), then the flagpole, then the stone steps and then your car. You made it. You are there. Just don't stop running until you get to the stone gates. You are done. You silly silly fool.

Percy Warner Park offers tremendous nuance to the brave runner, unafraid of exploring. In addition to the tremendous changes that the evolving seasons offer (this past week provided honeysuckle, may apple blossoms and fields of purple wildflowers), the paths themselves can be run in different combinations and directions. Each of the left turns you passed during your adventure will take your to new and memorable hills. The intersection just before the Four Mile Post, for example, will carry you over Shell Hill and the lets out at the ridge just before the Six Mile Post, and will cut about one third mile off of your run. Likewise, the shortcut by Indian Springs takes you along a pretty and airy wood will cutting off about a mile from the route. Run the 11.2 in the reverse direction, starting up the nasty hairpin hill that marked the end of your day's journey today, and you will find incredible hills where previously you thought there were none. Go out. Have fun. Enjoy the pain. And take a friend.