Wednesday, December 6, 2017

2017 St. Jude Memphis Marathon Review

2017 St. Jude Memphis Marathon Review
Saturday, December 2, 2017
Memphis, TN
37th Marathon, 33rd State

Runners: 2,346 (1,283 men, 1,063 women)
Start Time: 8 a.m. CST
Course: Fairly flat with rolling hills, only 663 ft elevation gain
Weather:  45F start/55F finish, 71% humidity, light wind
SWAG: Long sleeve dry-fit tee, singlet with donations
Race Organization: PERFECT
Crowd Support: Incredible ... almost comparable to Boston or Chicago, great from start to finish
Volunteer Support: PERFECT
Water Stops: Maybe the best of any race I've ran
Food: Typical post race food, with fruit, candy, chips, donuts, gels and plenty of alcohol along the course
Age: 48
Finish Time: 4:08:46 (injured ankle during training, so the only goal was to finish, walked a bit toward the end)
Average Pace: 9:30/mile
Place: 606th/2,346 Overall, 46th/155th in 45-49 AG

Total Experience ... 1  2  3  4  5

I'm not sure I can accurately describe just how much I loved the St. Jude Memphis Marathon.  It's a heart-breaking & heart-warming beautiful event that left a huge impression on me.  It was simply the perfect marathon weekend!  The impeccable organization and support was phenomenal, and that alone made it an elite event.  But when you take a step back from the running, and really think about why you're even there ... it might have been my favorite marathon to date.

The St. Jude Memphis Marathon Weekend is the single biggest fundraiser for the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.  Over $10.3 million was raised through donations by 25,000 runners this year in the 5K, 10K, half & full marathon events.  And these donations ensure that families with children at St. Jude never receive a bill for treatment, travel, housing or food.  I was honored to be part of the fundraising and gathered a few donations of support, and again I want to thank everyone who gave on my behalf!

I had always heard great things about the St. Jude Marathon, so I was expecting a well ran event.  But I was surprised to find this event on par with the organization and excitement of the Boston and Chicago Marathons.  Obviously it wasn't quite as large, but it had a very similar feel from start to finish.

Memphis is about an 8 hour drive from Kansas City, which, since I drive a lot for my job, is a fairly easy commute.  As always, I stayed at the Hampton Inn.  This one was located downtown, only a half block from Beale & BB King Streets, the heart of the blues district ... and also only a couple blocks from the start/finish lines.  A prime location!  It gave me an opportunity to check out some of the live music on Beale Street before the race, and provided a short path for my limp back to my room after the run.

My first glimpse at this being a first class event was at the Race Expo.  The second I walked into the Cook Convention Center, there were smiling, happy, helpful volunteers EVERYWHERE!  It was one of those events where you pick up your number at one location, and then proceed to the t-shirt pickup, and then through the vendor exhibits.  And even though there were runners and runner families everywhere, there was no confusion about where to go next.  It was incredibly well organized and managed.  I'm always appreciative of volunteers at races, but let's face it, we all encounter some of those folks who give you the impression they're doing it because they lost a bet or something ... but at Memphis, every single volunteer I encountered was smiling and happy to be there.  It was just a really positive environment.

After the Expo I took the opportunity while in Memphis to visit the Lorraine Motel, and National Civil Rights Museum.  It is, of course, the location where on April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King was gunned down by James Earl Ray while standing outside on the second floor balcony.  The motel still stands in it's original condition and seems to be frozen in time with a wreath outside Room 306, the historic location that we've all seen in black & white photos.  The motel no longer operates as a motel, but has been renovated into The National Civil Rights Museum and costs $12 to tour.

All of the exhibits were very moving and I spent a lot of time watching the short films and exploring the history. The museum tour actually takes visitors to the second floor where the two adjoining rooms that Dr. King and his friends stayed in that last night are divided by a glass wall.  Through the glass, you can see the rooms are still in their original condition.  Near the outside wall, also glassed off, you can stand only a few feet from where Dr. King took his last breaths. It was incredibly humbling and moving to be right there where it all happened, and I'm glad I had the opportunity to visit.

In the weeks leading up to the race, I'd experienced a pretty severe case of ankle tendinitis.  At times I thought it was a stress fracture, but I think the ball of my inside left ankle was just really inflamed from overuse.  I'd limped everywhere and only ran about 10 miles per week for about a month.  Not really the final touches of training I usually put on a marathon.  I thought there was a legitimate chance that I'd be saddled with my first ever DNF, so I had the mindset of take it SLOW and walk as much as necessary to make it across the finish line.

The starting line was literally about two blocks from my hotel room, so I was able to wait until the last minute to make my way to my corral.  I usually line up near the front, but knowing I would go out a little slower, I joined the good folks of Corral 6.  The race started at 8 a.m. with the runners in Corral 1 taking off.  And then each subsequent corral was unleashed in 10 minute intervals. This was a huge race with everyone gathered on the street between the large buildings of downtown Memphis.  There was music pumping like a club down the corridor of runners, and it was echoing off of the windows and faces of the adjacent structures.  I love music of all kinds, and especially hard rock.  When the DJ played "Thunderstruck" by AC/DC you could actually hear the echos of the runners singing along "Thunder! .... Thunder! ... Thunder!" It was awesome, and really got my blood pumping.  And then we were off!

Most of the race was ran through the streets of downtown Memphis, along the Mississippi River, and through a few residential neighborhoods.  The marathoners ran along side the half-marathoners until mile eleven, where we parted ways.  Overall, there were no significant hills that I remember other than when we exited the River Landing area.  That was a little steep, but only lasted about a quarter mile.

For the first few miles, all I could focus on was ONE ... my foot was already killing me, and TWO ... man, it was really really really crowded.  At Mile 2, we passed by the neon signs that lined Beale Street and I remember looking over the sea of people and thinking to myself I'd be glad when the pack thinned out.  For this race, I'd started basically smack dab in the middle of the 25,000 runners.  And it was shoulder to shoulder to shoulder.  You basically were forced to run at the pace of the crowd.  When they slowed down to a walk to round a corner, so did you.  And I don't mean to sound arrogant or elite in anyway, because my race finishing times are only a little above average and I'm by no means a "great" runner ... but typically you just don't have these issues near the front of the race.  It's way more spread out.  Heck, sometimes you lose sight of the runner in front of you.  The thing I noticed the most was runners in this portion of the race seemed to enjoy themselves a lot more than the group I was usually clustered with.  And also ... they had no regard for one another at water stops, ha.  It was literally a free-for-all at the hydration stations.  It seemed none of the runners realized that there were actually other runners in the race with them, and that they didn't have to slam on the brakes and come to a complete stop to take the first cup of fluid that was waived in front of their face.  But it was all good.  Through it all, I didn't see anyone get frustrated, and the volunteers were unbelievably helpful.

Speaking of the volunteers, I simply cannot say enough about how great they were.  The same helpful spirit shown by the crew at the Expo was on display at every corner and water stop.  Along with the off-duty Memphis police officers who were also very helpful, they held signs, stopped traffic, and made sure we went the right way at intersections. All the water stops were organized unbelievably well and many had fruit, gels, and other snacks for fuel.  They cheered when runners approached and were very encouraging.   I really appreciate all of the great work the volunteers put in, and it didn't go unnoticed.

The crowds along the route were also something I noted.  At Boston and Chicago, spectators line the streets literally almost every inch of every mile.  And at intersections, the folks there are 25 or 30 rows deeps.  The St. Jude Memphis Marathon had a very similar feel for the first 11 miles when we were with the half-marathoners.  There were people everywhere cheering, high-fiving, waiving, and holding every sign imaginable.  It provided some a huge energy boost and it was much needed and appreciated since my ankle was in full throbbing mode at about Mile 8.

There were also live bands almost every mile.  That was amazing.  I think it was the most live music I've ever heard in a marathon.  Everything and everyone was festive.  Firemen were camped outside on the pumper waiving as we ran by, and folks from a biker bar also cheered as we passed.  There were several Elvis, Super Hero, and military runners.  And most importantly, there were the kids.

Periodically, we would run by a giant sign of one of the St. Jude patients, who are mostly children who are battling cancer.  The image was always a smiling sweet-faced bald-headed child.  And the caption on the sign would always say "Thank you for running", or something to that effect.  But at Mile 8, there was a large video screen right in the middle of the course that was projecting these same images, except this time the message was "Don't give up ... I know you can do it!".  When I saw that, I literally teared up.  Here were these little babies who were fighting for their lives imploring us to keep going.  And I gotta tell ya ... when I saw that, my foot hurt a lot less as my heart was overjoyed at their courage and fighting spirit.  About a mile later, there were a couple of these sweet little angels, sitting there on the side of the road in wheel chairs, cheering us on.  Everyone stopped and gave them sweaty hugs and spoke words of encouragement to them.  But of course, it was them who were encouraging us.

At Mile 11, the marathon party died off a little as it always does, as the half-marathoners headed to the finish line, and the marathoners headed to the second half of their race.  The difference was immediately noticeable.  Everyone was wearing the same color race bib.  There was more space.  It was much quieter.  And the pace instantly required more focus on actual running and not so much sight seeing.  There were still plenty of volunteers and a band here or there, but nothing like the first half of the race.

At a couple of the fully stocked water stops, volunteers were waiting with boxes of donuts, of which I indulged at Mile 15.  At Miles 16 and 21 some of the home owners, and some other folks (maybe on the front lawn of a Catholic Church if I remember correctly) offered Dixie Cups of beer and shots of Fireball.  I politely accepted one of the beers, but Fireball in a race was a bridge too far for me, ha.

For the entire second half of the marathon I couldn't get my mind off of the patients we'd seen here and there along the course.  If you raised money prior to the race, you were called a St. Jude Hero, and you received a singlet with the St. Jude Logo with the word "HERO" printed below it.  Many folks wore theirs, but even though I'd raised some donations, I didn't wear the one that was sent to me.  As we passed the hairless children who were sitting there, some with oxygen tubes running from their nostrils, their parents would shout, "THANK YOU HEROES!!!"  All  you could do was smile and waive.  I mean, these families were facing unthinkable circumstances and they were out there shouting words of encouragement.  It was so incredibly humbling, and I'll never forget it.

I'm not gonna lie, my foot was killing me, but their encouragement kept me running until Mile 23 where I had to stop and walk ... errrr LIMP, a bit.  I tried to start again at Mile 24, but most of the last two miles were spent walking and counting the steps until I was finished.  The finish line was actually inside AutoZone Park, the home of the Memphis Redbirds, the Triple-A affiliate for the St. Louis Cardinals.  I crossed the finish line with a 4:08, but I couldn't have cared less about the time.  I was just glad to be done so I could get off my foot for a while, but more than anything I was overjoyed that I'd got to experience the race.

After the race, I limped back to my hotel room, which was only a block away.  Showered.  And then took one more stroll down Beale Street, which was starting to liven up at a 2 p.m. on Saturday afternoon.  After that I hopped in the car and drove back to KC.  My ankle was throbbing, my legs were sore, my body was tired ... but more than anything my heart was full.  It was a heart-breaking & heart-warming beautiful morning, and I was so glad I had the opportunity to experience it.  I would highly recommend it to everyone and cannot wait to run it again!


  1. Jim, this has to be my all time favorite race recap!! Thank you for being a hero and I loved every bit of this recap. You know I'm a sucker for AC/DC , and TN so I just may add this race (half) to my bucket list. My sister lived on the navel base not far from beal street btw...
    Anyways. Great job on finishing the distance. I know it's not the time you were aiming for but it seems you benefited from slowing things down a bit and soaking it all in

  2. A friend of mine also ran this race and said it was her favorite race ever, too. It's such a worthy cause, and I imagine a very touching experience to be there. Hope your ankle improves quickly.


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