Running in Memphis: St. Jude Marathon

Here we go, I’ve finally gotten around to writing the recap of the St. Jude Marathon that we ran on Dec. 1st. This’ll be my last running entry on this blog… well, for awhile anyway (given my proclivity for running, I can’t make any long-term promises).

This is the area’s biggest race; we had it on our radar to participate in the event for the last several months and even coordinated with Jeff’s sister Tara (who lives in Michigan) to all run the half-marathon distance together. Tara wisely registered for the race and purchased her airfare to visit during that time. Jeff and I mentally signed up, but then by the time we went to actually register… it was sold out. In the words of my favorite yellow, donut-eating cartoon character- doh! In order to not leave Tara out on a limb, we decided to register for the full-marathon which started at the same time and place as the half and shared most of the course in common (well, until the half broke off to finish and the full went on infinitely longer…). 

 

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I know I’m jumping the gun… but here’s the lone photo of Tara, me, and Jeff race morning before the start of the St. Jude marathon.

Turns out, there is a significant difference between training for and running a half-marathon and a full. I knew this, and I knew there was no way I would be trained enough to run a decent full-marathon (compared to my previous times) but, I wanted to participate in the area’s largest event and decided to try to put aside my pride and not think about my race time. Technically there was nothing stopping us from still running the half (we could have just taken the split at the 11-mile point instead of continuing) but having signed up for the full it just wouldn’t have felt right. I also wasn’t sure what my timing chip would do and if it would register as a DNF (did not finish). I’ve never DNF’d an event and I didn’t plan to start now.

I tried to adjust my running plan and at least get a couple long runs in prior to the marathon itself. I saw online that Breakaway Running, a local running store, organized free group runs in preparation for the St. Jude Marathon. I stopped in one day after work to pick up some running supplies, but also to inquire about the group run. I was particularly curious about the number of participants. If there was a meager turnout and no one ran at my pace, then I might as well skip the 25-minute drive out to the running store to start the group run at 6-am, and run solo around my neighborhood at a more sane hour. I was stunned when the store clerk told me that usually around 200-300 people show up for their Saturday morning runs and that they place water stations and signs along the route. Wait, and how much do I have to pay for this? They do this every Saturday morning? I just have to show up, sign a waiver, and promise to not run with headphones? I was impressed. 

I’ve found Memphis to have a particularly strong and cohesive running community. There are plenty of runners in Seattle but I find the groups to be smaller and more numerous. Perhaps because Seattle is a larger, and harder to navigate city, people opt to join a smaller group closer to their home. Maybe because Seattle doesn’t have as big of a keystone race event and people are all on different training plans at different times. Or maybe because people in Memphis are more social and are better at building community. I don’t know. But I enjoyed the group run, as well as the Road Race Series where I felt a similar camaraderie amongst runners. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a real social runner (or person in general). I like running solo most of the time. But it’s nice to be able to partake in this community from time to time. 

So, I’ve debated in my head how to present the race in this post. My default is to simply summarize from start to finish, give a mile-by-mile recap with course descriptions and updates on how I was feeling at each point. But I think I’ll try a different, more casual, approach and point out some unique features of the race. I’ve lost count of the exact number of half and full-marathons I’ve participated in but I’d say, between the two distances, it’s somewhere between 30-40 events. That being said, here are some racing firsts that I experienced in the St. Jude Marathon:

  • The start time was delayed by an hour due to inclement weather. Well, it was more just the threat of bad weather. We received a text the night before that the start was postponed by 30-minutes due to possible thunderstorms. And then race morning, for non-apparent reasons, they delayed it another 30-minutes. I did not get the memo on the second delay. There were a suspiciously low amount of other runners present in the corral when I arrived. But instead of taking any number of reasonable actions (inquiring further, exiting my corral, sitting and resting prior to the start) I stood there for about an hour before actually crossing the start line.
  • This race raised the largest amount of money for a single charity, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital (which btw is based in Memphis), than any other race I’ve participated in. Other big city marathons, especially the Boston Marathon, raise large amounts of money for charities, but there are generally lots of options. This racing event raised over $11 million for St. Jude’s alone! I was impressed with the effort of fundraising done by local runners and businesses.
  • The race also ran through the St. Jude campus. I’ve run through or around college campuses but cannot recall running through a medical center. It was inspirational to see families and children out on this part of the course cheering us on. Many of these spectators were directly affiliated with the hospital and had undergone or were helping with cancer treatment. 
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St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital Campus in Memphis
  • This was the first race that I’d run along part of the Mississippi river. I always enjoy running along bodies of water, and the Mississippi is such an iconic one. Another reason I had to participate in this event!
  • The race also went down the famous Beale street. At one point I heard Elvis music and figured it was a recording. But then I saw an actual Elvis impersonator with a microphone singing alongside the course. Since I ran the Las Vegas Rock ’n Roll Marathon several years ago, this was certainly not my first race with an Elvis impersonator, but it may have been the first with a live, singing one.

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  • Like most big city marathons, there were an abundance of clever, and not-so-clever, posters to inspire runners. But this was my first race with numerous signs that simply said “Run Y’all!” 
  • Somewhere along the route there was a young boy handing out Mardi Gras beaded necklaces. It was in the last quarter of the race and I thought, that’s fun and festive, as I grabbed one and placed it around my neck. Well, quite predictably, it flung annoyingly around my neck as I continued running and I discarded it a few minutes later. It wasn’t fun and festive enough to tolerate for the rest of the race. Someone should suggest to the boy that next year he hand them out in the chute just before the finish line.
  • Perhaps in the spirit of Mardi Gras and Beale Street, there were a crazy number of unsponsored stations along the course giving out cups of alcoholic beverages. I mean, I’ve participated in several races that have a station, usually near the end of the event, that you can grab a cup of beer. But this race had tables just a few miles in… beer, Fireball, whiskey, seemingly different options every few miles. I mean, I have nothing against sampling alcoholic drinks, but it seems like a terrible idea when combined with a physically taxing event on a particularly warm day. Also, how is this even legal? Oh well.
  • Back to the weather… This was the first race I’ve ever run in December where I was warm in shorts and a tank-top and got a pretty significant sun tan. Jeff had to apply a couple rounds of sunscreen to avoid getting burned. 
  • Also, sadly, this was the first race where a couple of my toenails underwent significant duress. Given the amount of running and racing I’ve done, it’s almost more surprising that this hasn’t happened before. I didn’t have any major changes in footwear but perhaps the lack of long runs in training and the significant increase in time on my feet during the race itself created a perfect storm of vulnerable toes and friction.
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Taken a couple weeks post marathon. Can you tell which ones rubbed against my shoes?

As you can see, the race provided a number of unique experiences. The course itself was also quite scenic. In addition to the run through Beale Street, the St. Jude campus, and along the Mississippi, the full-marathon ran out to and around Overton Park (where the Memphis Zoo is located) and past some older, stately neighborhoods. It ended downtown just outside AutoZone park, providing ample restrooms and accommodations for race finishers and their supporters.

As far as my performance during the race… it was not great. I wasn’t expecting it to be, but it was even tougher than I had hoped. Perhaps because I unnecessarily stood on my feet for at least an hour prior to starting, my low back and backside of my legs felt tight and heavy from early on. It was also warmer, and more humid, than expected. I started out conservatively, knowing that I’d average a much slower pace than any of the races in the recent race series, but none-the-less, around mile-8 or so I was ready to be done running. Not a good sign for a 26-mile event…

I recall looking longingly at the split for the half-marathon, thinking, why did I wait so long to register? At some point when I was feeling decidedly un-fresh and still had over half the race left, I remember thinking about Desi Linden’s performance at the Boston Marathon last spring. She ended up winning the race but said afterwards that she had felt so bad early on that she had considered dropping out. I figured, just like her, I was just hitting a rough patch and would surely recover in the latter half of the race.

Turns out, my race did not go the Desi Linden route. For someone who only ran over 13-miles twice in preparation for the race, mine went the more predictable and progressively painful route. You may have heard about “hitting the wall” in a marathon, supposedly the point where your body runs out of readily-accessible fuel and your muscles can no longer sustain a certain pace. I, personally, have never experienced a dramatic point in any race like hitting a wall. For me, I relate more to the analogy of walking on fire. I believe it was Matt Fitzgerald (sports writer and author of Iron War and How Bad Do You Want It) that used this metaphor for endurance sports. 

For me, running long-distances feels more like a barefoot fire-walk. At first your feet might be calloused enough, or you might be trained enough, that things feel relatively okay. But there comes a point that you start feeling the heat, and it only gets worse the farther you go. I like this analogy because it implies a hopping off point as indicative of pain-tolerance rather than mere physiology. Training can get you so far, but then it’s a matter of how long are you willing to endure the burning? 

I made it just past the 20-mile marker before I decided to hop off the coals and walk. Could I have kept running? Probably. That’s somewhat the beauty and intrigue of long-distance running. How do you know if you actually gave 100% effort? I’d argue that it’s impossible to truly know. If you’re honest with yourself, it’s much easier to admit when a performance is less that 100%, as it was for me in this race, than to confidently say that you gave your all.

Oh, I still gave a decent effort. Although tempting, I did not allow myself to just dial it in and walk the rest of the race. I’d walk past a water station, or to a landmark, then jog a bit until my lower back and legs felt cramped and horrible again, then I’d walk again for a bit, and repeat. Fun times. I found odd amusement from the fact that several people around me looked about at miserable as I felt. Several of us ended up playing an unintentional game of sadistic leap frog the last few miles. Someone would jog past me as I was walking, then I would pass them a few moments later when I resumed jogging and they were now walking. 

There is somewhat of an unspoken camaraderie and respect that is felt amongst the suffering participants of these long distance events. It’s hard to fully explain. We know nothing about each other outside of the race but somehow it’s like the last few miles of a marathon, sharing in misery and perseverance, somehow unites us. It’s quite common for total strangers to exchange encouragements or pleasantries near the end or after a race. A brief spoken acknowledgment of a shared vulnerability, humanity, and strength.

Ok, perhaps I’m getting a bit too deep and spiritual. I eventually and unceremoniously finished the race. I took my time in the finisher’s chute making sure I received my finisher’s medal and foil blanket. I then sat down on the curb to rest my cramping back, set my foil blanket besides me, went to get up a few minutes later, and it had blown away and was nowhere in sight. Did I mention it was quite blustery in the latter half of the race? I didn’t notice until I started walking around the corner and into the stadium that a couple of my toenails were hanging on for dear life.

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Photo I took of the finish line after the race. The near side is closed off for the half, while the far side still had finishers for the full.

I then hung out with Tara, who had completed the half-marathon, for awhile until Jeff finished. Then we all hobbled back to our car, which was parked over a mile away from the finish, came back home, cleaned up, and ate disgusting amounts of food. Or maybe, it was just me that ate a disgusting amount. The mediocre Chinese takeout and large Sonic milkshake were glorious! Oh, how I do love filling the caloric hole that running a marathon creates. 

All-in-all, I am thankful to have been able to have participated in the St. Jude Marathon. I had a great, if at times quite painful, experience and am thankful to the city of Memphis for organizing the event as well as raising awareness and money to St. Jude’s cancer research and hospital. I am also grateful to Jeff’s parents who made the road trip up from Florida to support us. And lastly, a much deserved congratulations to Tara, who finished her second half-marathon, and Jeff, who completed the full-marathon despite even less marathon-specific training than me.

Well, this is my last entry of 2018. I hope everyone has a Merry Christmas! I’m not sure what my next entry will be about but I’ll try to return more to the theme of a Seattleite living in the South. No more running entries, for awhile anyways… Happy New Year and I’ll talk to you again in 2019!

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