Monday, September 16, 2019

Race Report: Marathon Bahamas

MLK Weekend is a very popular weekend for January marathons, with many options for runners - between Louisiana (Baton Rouge), Houston, Arizona (Phoenix), Key West, and international races in Bermuda and Bahamas just to name a few.  Having done some of those races already, and my focus for this year shifting toward international races, I decided to head to the Bahamas for my first race of the year.  I convinced my friend Stacey, who I met when running the Petra Desert Marathon, to come out and do the race with me - she had run this race before, five years prior.  With our flights booked and accommodations set at an Airbnb within walking distance of both the start and finish line, we were set to toe the line on the 20th of January, 2019.

My journey down to the Bahamas began on Friday, as I opted to stop into Atlanta for an overnight and arrive into Nassau on Saturday morning, rather than take the direct flight from New York, since the timing of the JFK-NAS flight was not conducive to my work schedule, taking off in the early afternoon.  I arranged to stay at the apartment of my friend Winnie's on Friday night, having used her place as a stopover already on two other occasions only a few months earlier in November 2018: on my 50th state weekend coming back from Tulsa and taking an early morning flight back to New York, and then a few days later passing through Atlanta on my way to Panama.  I was up at 5am the next morning in order to get myself out the door and in an Uber to the airport for my 8:30am flight.

After a slight delay due to some issues with checked luggage not scanning in correctly with all the boarded passengers on the flight, we were off to the southeast to the Bahamas.  We landed nearly an hour late, and being near the front of the plane, I was through immigration and customs pretty quickly before the onslaught of morning arrivals from other flights began to show up. I was out the door, dodging taxi drivers trying to get a fare from me as I was a man on a mission: find my way to the Shell station about 10 minutes outside the airport grounds, as there was a local jitney bus serving the main road just outside the airport taking people to downtown Nassau for a mere $2.50.  Taxis would cost WAY more, and I'm an expert budget traveler.

Mmmm... cracked conch!
Just as I arrive at the gas station, the recognizable bus #12 arrives and picks me up, and I take the 40 minute scenic route around the perimeter of the island, eventually disembarking at the Fish Fry at Arawak Cay.  Now that it was after 12pm, I was hungry for some lunch, and had a bit of time to kill since my Airbnb wouldn't be ready for another few hours. I notified my host Sonia that I had arrived, and if an early check-in was available, I'd take it.  I ended up at a friendly outdoor space called “Sumptin Good,” where I grab a bottle of the local Kalik beer and immediately partake in some traditional Bahamian cuisine, in the form of "cracked conch" for lunch. It was quite delicious - cracked conch is very much like fried calamari, but the conch meat is tougher than squid and has a stronger flavor.

Posing with our bibs at the expo
Around 2PM, I got a message from Sonia that the apartment was ready an hour early, so I found my way over to my accommodations for the weekend only a short 15 minute walk away. I settled in for a little bit, waiting for Stacey to arrive, having taken a taxi from the airport.  Once she dropped her things off, we headed back down to Bay Street to catch a bus in front of the Rubis Gas Station, headed toward the Baha Mar Resort and Cable Beach to where the expo was located at the MeliĆ” Nassau Beach Resort.  The buses heading westward were packed to the gills, and we were having to bring down the fold down seats along the aisle of the 32-seat capacity vehicles. After spending a short bit of time at the expo and running into a friend of a friend, Kevin (who also ran Panama a couple months earlier), we headed back out to get dinner back at the Fish Fry.  Thankfully, we were able to get on buses going in both directions with little trouble.

A humongous conch salad.
Dinner was delicious, with both Stacey and I indulging in the massive tropical conch salad, a flavorful and massive ceviche concoction featuring the tasty meat with various fruits and vegetables, with just enough of a spicy kick to keep your senses alert.  I washed it down with a Bahama Papa, a stronger twist on the signature Bahamian rum and fruit juice cocktail, the Bahama Mama.  We called it an early night because of our 6:00am start time for the race the next morning.

Race morning startline
After a decent night's sleep, Stacey and I were up by 4:30am, and out the door by 5:15 to make our way to the start. The forecast for the morning all week called for scattered thunderstorms and showers, so we were surprised to wake up to a dry street, and what seemed to be a few light clouds in the sky - nothing like what we were expecting. We did a light jog up toward Bay Street before walking the rest of the way to the start line at Junkanoo Beach, altogether just 1.3 miles away from our Airbnb. We got there with about half an hour to spare, as runners began to assemble on the closed off Bay Street just past the Courtyard Marriott.  After the Bahamian national anthem was sung (which, by the way, they had an instrumental track start it off which they faded out, which I didn't think was all that necessary - it would've helped to keep the singing in tune!), we counted down and soon, we were off and running to the race's "theme song," starting the 10th edition of the Marathon Bahamas.

Running through downtown Nassau
Under cover of the morning darkness, we headed east along Bay Street, curving our way down to Marlborough Street as we ran past the sprawling British Colonial Hilton Nassau, site of the original old fort of Nassau from 1697 until its demolition in 1897.  The grand colonial building that the hotel occupies, considered the "Grand Dame of all Nassau hotels," was originally opened in 1924 and was used as a filing location for the James Bond film Never Say Never Again in 1983. We curved back up to a completely desolate Bay Street, lit only by street lamps and the odd Christmas street decor still up nearly a month after the holiday - in fact, we even ran past a massive Christmas tree and bleachers still set up from the Junkanoo Parade on Boxing Day (the day after Christmas.)

Crossing the Poitier Bridge
Eventually, we began to run outside of the main downtown district heading directly toward the Sir Sidney Poitier Bridge, one of two bridges that connects the main island of New Providence to Paradise Island, over Nassau Harbour. Only named after the renowned Oscar-winning Bahamian actor in 2012, the bridge to the west was constructed in 1998, opening to three lanes of vehicular traffic in a northerly direction. This bridge is 1,930 feet long, rising to 70 feet at its highest point above sea level, to allow for ships to pass underneath.  By the time we got to the foot of the bridge, we were already 1.5 miles into the race, and the climb was quite strenuous.  Of course, I took advantage of the downhill, as we made our way past the toll booths as we officially stepped foot onto Paradise Island, also clocking in our second mile of the race.

About to cross the other bridge
But our time on the resort island was short lived, as we found ourselves taking a quick turn around along Paradise Beach Drive (where conveniently, an aid station was located) before making our way back over the other bridge, simply referred to as the East Paradise Island Bridge, back to New Providence Island.  Shorter than the Poitier Bridge, the eastern bridge spans only 1,560 feet long and has only two lanes, with vehicular traffic heading southward, and also has a crest of 70 feet over the water below. It is the older of the two bridges, having been opened to traffic in 1967 - its construction was funded by Resorts International, the forerunner to today's Atlantis resorts, though both bridges are owned by the Bahamian government.

What a gorgeous sunrise
After heading back downhill at the end of the bridge's span, we continued eastward, watching the sun begin the paint the sky a pink and orange hue, as we passed the original marina for Nassau Harbour (and home to many of the massive yachts that cruise around the island) then reached Montagu Beach, home to a historic fort that guarded the eastern entrance to Nassau Harbour.  Now 3.5 miles into the race, we reached our easternmost point of the race, before taking Village Road to curve westward along Shirley Street as we made our way back toward the downtown.

Along the way, we passed a few aid stations manned by volunteers playing the Marathon Bahamas theme song on repeat - after awhile, it got to be ingrained into our heads! We also passed the early morning church crew, cheering runners on as we passed their congregations before Sunday morning sermons were to begin. As we continued westward, we got to parts of Nassau most tourists don't get to see - in fact, the area south of the street we were on was considered one of the poorest neighborhoods in Nassau, known as "Over the Hill." We stayed right on the boundary, and could see some of the neglect in the surrounding buildings; however, it was still pretty early in the morning - local police was out at the major intersections, ensuring runners' safety as a few cars needed to cross the route during gaps of runners.
 Running by some volunteers playing the marathon theme song!

Pastels of Downtown Nassau
We got back to downtown Nassau, passing by many colonial buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries, decked out in beachy pastel colors, such as the Nassau Public Library, a former 18th century jail (in a pretty shade of pink) converted to the city's public library; St. Andrew's Presbyterian Kirk, a grand church built in 1810 and is the second oldest church building on the island; and as we curved up onto Duke Street for a few blocks, Government House, the stately 1801 residence of the British Governor General with a 1930's neoclassical facade painted pink & white.

Curving toward St. Andrew's Kirk
The course veered downhill along Cumberland Street for a couple blocks, as we returned to Marlborough Street, where we had passed the British Colonial Hilton.  We were now 10K into the race, and I clocked a respectable 1:03 - especially considering the amount of walking I did traversing the two bridges over Nassau Harbour.  This boded well for me as we began our westward journey along Bay Street, with a good ten miles of running to go before the turn around that would take us back along the shore to the finish.

Passing the lovely pink Government House
Running westward on Bay Street
It was now a little past 7am, so the city was definitely beginning to wake up. We made our way past our startline, already disassembled, now passing Junkanoo Beach and the Fish Fry at Arawak Cay, which was devoid of people because of the early hour. I ran past the street our Airbnb was on and the Rubi's, continuing on as I took note of notable sights I'd seen while riding in the buses along this route on already three separate occasions the previous day. The top finishers of the half marathon came barreling down the other lane of the street, as I enviously watched them get closer to being done with their race, while I still had just under twenty miles to go. We ran past Saunders Beach, reaching the first of several roundabouts that dot Bay Street west of downtown Nassau, then hugged the coastline as the massive Baha Mar Resort came into view.  We made our way around the semicircular part of the route with five roundabouts that surrounds the resort (noting that the design of Bay Street around Baha Mar adds roughly an extra half mile to what would be normally 3/4 of a mile.)  The half marathoners had their turnaround back to the finish line at the 10 mile mark, and we still had a good six miles until ours.
Seeing Baha Mar from afar
Runners coming back our way!
At around mile 11, we reached the roads closest to Cable Beach, one of the most popular beaches on the island. To our left was mostly commercial developments, to our right (and toward the beach) were some multimillion dollar resorts, villas, and residences. I played a bit of leapfrog at this point with two guys wearing the Swedish blue and gold crown symbol on their matching shirt and shorts outfits (who I witnessed getting interviewed by local TV at the beginning of the race) and a runner from DC, having recognized the flag of the district on his back-turned hat. A mile later, we ran past Sandyport Marina Village, Sandyport Beach and the Sandyport Beach Resort. The whole area is a masterplanned "community" built in a single distinctive architectural style on a pedestrian scale. We ran over the Sandyport Bridge and its Venice-like lagoon and canal.

Sandyport Bridge
By then, the heat was starting to get to me, and I had slowed down enough that I was needing to walk quite a bit.  I reached the halfway point as we passed Sandyport in 2:19:25 - a bit slower than I expected, but considering the rising temps, not surprising.  We got to run alongside a nice stretch of unobstructed beach, passing by Caves Village at mile 14, a commercial district named after the nearby limestone caves near the shore that were the original home of the Lucayans, the inhabitants of the Bahamas from the 10th century up until the arrival of the colonialists.

Compass Point
Somewhere before mile 15, I saw Stacey running up on the other side of the road toward me, roughly a half hour in front of me.  I yelled out to her that I expected a 5:20 finish, as I continued on, making my way past the Compass Point Beach Resort and its colorful mosaic signage out front.  An aid station with local Bahamian women sporting pink tutus and dancing to some R&B tunes was to my left, and I told them I'd come and have a little dance party with them on my way back.  The final stretch before the turn around was a slight downhill after the mile 16 mark, but unfortunately, we had to compete with some slow moving cars who were in our running lane - in fact, from here til the end o the race it began to be very apparent that us slower runners would have to deal with impatient drivers who just wanted to get Bay Street back to normal, and we would have to alternate between the left and right sides of the street as we ran toward the finish.
Finally made the turnaround!
Passing through Baha Mar Resort
I kept my word and joined in on a little dance party with the pink tutu aid station, then continued on in my slow slog to the finish line.  For a while I kept a few runners who I was leapfrogging with in my sights - including a pair of ladies also in pink tutus, and a gentleman wearing tights - in my opinion, a bit too warm for this tropical weather!  Only a few other runners passed me on the return trip back along Bay Street, and for the most part, I think they were relay runners, so they had fresher legs.  It got particularly tough for me as the sun beat down passing Cable Beach and the Baha Mar Resort on the return, the always tough miles 20-23 of the race.  With the clock passing the 5 hour mark as I approached the mile 25 mark near Saunders Beach, I knew the 5:20 finish might actually turn into a reality.
The Office of the Bahamian Prime Minster
Baha Mar behind me
Heading right back into downtown Nassau
Customary 25 mile mark shot!
I made my way past St. Alban's Drive, and pushed myself with a mile left in the race to try to run as much possible to the finish.  The Fish Fry, already showing signs of life, and the beach came into view, and the sounds of Caribbean music coming from the finish line were being carried and amplified in the clear air.  I passed another runner nearing the finish who began to cramp up terribly and ended up needing some assistance in massaging his cramps out, as I made the final turn into the Junkanoo Beach parking lot.  I approached the finish line, seeing Stacey and Kevin cheer me in across the finish mat in 5:19:30, just as I had predicted.  I sluggishly accepted my race medal, while haphazardly trying to get past the Junkanoo style parade that was blocking access to my much deserved beer, which I beelined toward.  I then found some shade and sat in a lawn chair for awhile while Stacey and Kevin eventually found me.
Finish line parade!

Cooling off on Junkanoo Beach
I needed the cool down and removed my shoes and socks, enjoying the feeling of the sand beneath my feet. I eventually moved down toward the water, enjoying the company of my friends, and watching other runners continue to come into the finish line. The wind had picked up near the water considerably, and some of the tents and metal barricades even got blown over - thankfully no one was hurt! Sadly, I did get sand in my beer :( The announcers began to give out awards for marathoners and both Stacey and Kevin ended up receiving age group awards! However, the timing systems seemed to have some issues, which was a bit disappointing, especially later finding out that Stacey's time was actually enough for a better placement in the race; even finding out my finish time was a bit delayed.
Victory Headstand!
Amazing seafood at the Fish Fry!
Eventually, Stacey and I walked back to our Airbnb, making a quick stop at the Fish Fry to indulge in some tasty daquiris.  While we were freshening up after the race, the clouds rolled in and a thunderstorm drenched the island.  Looking outside, the winds were so strong, the palm trees were being whipped around as if we were in a hurricane! It would be another couple hours before we would be able to leave the apartment, so we took a nap - but when we got outside, super hungry with the Fish Fry being our ultimate destination, we were greeted with gigantic puddles that were obviously the result of Nassau's drainage system not being able to keep up with the deluge. We eventually made it to the Fish Fry, enjoying delicious grilled and fried fish dishes as we watched some American football (AFC and NFC championships), then retired back to the Airbnb to sleep our satiated bellies off.

Discovering Fort Charlotte
We slept in a bit in the morning as we had received word the prior day that our reservations with Powerboat Adventures to see the famous swimming pigs of Exuma was cancelled due to mechanical issues with the boat.  Instead, we decided to head into town and take in other sights of Nassau - first, we headed to Fort Charlotte, a British-colonial era fort built on a hill over-looking Nassau Harbour.  It was constructed in the late 18th century by British colonial governor Lord Dunmore after the end of the American Revolutionary war, and has never been used in battle.  Parts of the fort constitute the highest point on the entire island, and on a clear day one can see a 360 degree view of the entirety of New Providence Island.

About to enjoy some local rum!
With the smell of the delicious food from the Fish Fry wafting up the hill, we decided to walk into town for lunch, and found ourselves at a local 24 hour take-away place called Imperial's, directly across the street from the British Colonial Hilton Nassau. The extensive menu has lots of fried food, but we wanted to try something a little different we wouldn't find at the Fish Fry; we both enjoyed Bahamian style lobster rolls (I didn't even know the Bahamas had a lobster industry!), both with a bottle of local beer, before taking a short walk to the nearby John Watling's Distillery, where we took a quick complimentary tour of the Buena Vista Estate, and sampled several of its namesake rum.  We were nicely sloshed before finding our way over to Bahama Barrels, a new winery located amongst the buildings that make up the historic Graycliff Hotel.  Though not a wine producing country, Bahama Barrels bottles wines blended from grapes from both Italy and Argentina, and unsurprisingly Stacey and I partook in a tasting, poured by the lively Samantha.
Rum tasting!
More drunkenness ensues...

Memento purchased!
Properly sloshed, we made our way back down to Bay Street, passing by all the high end and boutique shops, instead making a beeline to the world famous Straw Market, home to handmade Bahamian crafts, gifts, souvenirs, and items such as hand-woven straw hats, bags, mats, dolls, conch shell jewelry, and wood carvings—and all available at very reasonable prices, especially if able to barter the price down!  Here, I was able to purchase my race memento, a hand carved wooden sealife sculpture - I probably could've haggled the price down even more, but I was happy with it!
 
Queens at the Queens Staircase
We also headed to the Queen's Staircase, a set of 65 steps carved out of solid limestone rock by 600 slaves between 1793 and 1794, in order to provide a direct route from Fort Fincastle, a battery protecting the entrance to Nassau Harbor to the central part of Nassau. It was named in honor of Queen Victoria, who had signed a declaration abolishing slavery on her ascension to the throne. Though the staircase is a major landmark in Nassau, the centerpiece of a beautiful grotto with palm trees and tropical flowers next to a water feature, it apparently wasn't the safest area for us, clearly tourists, to be walking around. Despite that, we made it through unscathed.
65 steps down.  And we've had a bit to drink. Good idea?
Before making our way back to the Fish Fry for dinner (as we were starving), we stopped one more time for a couple more drinks at the divey Crew Pub, a bar just off of Bay Street frequented by locals and cruise ship clientele alike.  We made a final walk through the Straw Market as shops were closing up, then made our way back to Fish Fry for our last meal of the trip.  It took an hour, and we were starving, but the food was delicious - me with chicken, Stacey with lobster.

Our imbibements throughout Sunday put us down quickly that night, which was fine since early the next morning, Stacey headed out at 8am for the airport using a car service we arranged with our Airbnb host.  I lazed around for a little while before getting my stuff together and heading out the door back to Bay Street in order to catch the local bus back to the airport.  Budget traveler and adventurer, through and through!

The airport was a bit of a madhouse, but I made it through security fairly quickly and had enough time to sit in the Graycliff Lounge, using my Priority Pass access.  Though not one of the ritziest lounges, I at least had access to getting some food before getting on my flight.  My complimentary upgrade into First Class cleared just before boarding my flight, and we were back direct to JFK that afternoon. I arrived back in the cold January weather of the northeast, kind of sad to be away from the 60+ degree warmth we experienced in the Caribbean, but glad to have checked another country off the list!

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Race Report: St. Jude Memphis Marathon

The St. Jude Memphis Marathon is a race that’s been on my bucket list for the last few years, not just because I’d get to have a chance to visit Memphis, but also for the great cause that the race entries and fundraising go towards - the St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, a hospital with a large campus in Memphis, devoted to curing childhood cancers, and with funds going toward treatments for patients so that families will never see a hospital bill for their children.  The race weekend was open for me back in July when I finally decided to add the race to my calendar, and ultimately, it would become my last marathon of 2018, closing out an epic year of distance running with 32 marathons and 8 half marathons.  This year's course was redesigned, with more run time along the Mississippi River, and a large chunk of the race done as an extended out-and-back along North Parkway, likely done to relieve the traffic in the neighborhoods of Central Gardens and Cooper-Young that got trapped inside the old route. It used to be one big loop with a several turns - still starting and ending in downtown Memphis.

I booked accommodations with an Airbnb less than a mile from the startline, but three days before leaving, I got an email from the Airbnb host that they were unfortunately going to have to cancel my reservation due to a family emergency.  While it put me in a predicament, I wasn’t too concerned, as I had a few friends who were in town to do the race as well, and one of them might be able to put me up. I got in touch with my friend Patricia from California, and we agreed to room together, though she was trying to figure out a hotel closer to the start area.  Just two days before marathon weekend, I lucked out in getting us what looked to be the FINAL room available in the block reserved by the St. Jude Marathon at the Guest House at Graceland, a popular Memphis hotel situated next to the famous mansion home of Memphis’ famous son, Elvis Presley.  While not in downtown, the hotel offered free shuttles between the airport and the hotel, as well as a shuttle to the startline on race morning.

I flew into Memphis after work on Friday direct from LaGuardia, a flight that was (no surprise) delayed in departing, as most flights are leaving that overly bogged-down airport. We landed about half an hour late, and being able to sit in First, I was one of the first people off the plane.  I hightailed it down to the arrivals level and was able to get the shuttle from the airport to take me directly to the Guest House at Graceland, where I was staying for the weekend.

At the expo...
The weather reports all week had looked pretty bleak for Saturday morning, as a strong thunderstorm cell was to sweep through the area overnight.  By Friday, race directors had made the decision to delay the race start by half an hour for both the 5k and 10k (at 7am) to 7:30am, and the half and full marathons (at 8am) to 8:30am. After heading to the Guest House to drop my bags off and meet up with Patricia, we grabbed an Uber to take us to the Memphis Cook Convention Center for bib pickup. It had already started to drizzle a little as we left, and we arrived to a pretty crowded expo, where many of the 25,000 registered racers were coming to pickup bibs. We circled the expo and got to see many friends, some of whom were at Route 66 two weeks prior; when we finally left the expo, it was pouring outside, with lightning flashing all around.  We had initially decided to get dinner back at the hotel - we hailed an Uber, but the driver was a bit wary about driving along the freeway in such harsh conditions, so she took us free of charge to the Peabody Hotel, where we decided to grab dinner at the steakhouse at the hotel.  After dinner, the weather had subsided a bit, then got an Uber with “Ms. Sandy” back to the Guest House at Graceland, and would promptly pass out for the evening.  Ms. Sandy was nice enough to provide us her contact information, as she promised she’d be available to take us to the race start the following morning.

Pre-race with Patricia at Autozone Park
After a good night’s sleep, we woke at 6am, with the aim of getting Ms. Sandy to pick us up at 6:45 for the 20 minute ride into town, giving us more than enough time for Patricia’s race start (she was running the 5K.)  But by the time we arrived at AutoZone Park for our respective starts, the race directors had decided to delay the starts of both races another half hour, to allow one last storm cell to pass through.  We bided our time inside the crowded lobby of the DoubleTree Hotel, before Patricia had to leave; I ended up befriending a large group of runners who were doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals, who all worked a the same hospital in Alexandria, Louisiana. About half an hour before our race start, I came outside, only to take cover for five minutes as the aforementioned rain clouds came through the area; but like clockwork, the skies cleared just as the start for the half and full was to begin. I positioned myself in Corral F, and prepared for the run, which looked like it was going to be pleasantly dry, a little humid, and unseasonably warm (probably one of the warmest temperatures for this race in years!)
The startline
Running by the Gibson Guitar Factory
A beautiful rendition of the national anthem was sung by Addy, a former St. Jude’s patient who has now been in remission for a number of years, before we were sent off by my friend Ann Wessling, announcing at the startline. From beside the FedEx Forum, home arena of the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies and the University of Memphis Tigers basketball teams, we crossed the start making our way down B.B. King Boulevard, and passing by such Memphis landmarks as the Memphis Rock ’n’ Soul Museum and the Gibson Guitar Factory, where Gibson guitars are made. The course turned right onto Butler, then headed back north along 2nd Street for several blocks before turning left onto famed Beale Street, where we passed by an Elvis statue on MLGW Plaza.  As we made another left turn south onto Front Street, we hit the first mile mark, running southward into the nicely preserved South Main District, a downtown district seemingly frozen in time on the outside, but containing civil rights and music museums, galleries and shops, as well as beloved dive bars and bistros.  I was mightily impressed by the sheer amount of folks cheering us on through this first mile - something I’d see continue all throughout the race, and especially as we ran through Memphis’ downtown.
The Elvis Statue at MLGW Plaza
Running on Beale Street, "Home of the Blues"
Running up Georgia Avenue
Just before mile 2, we’d turn right once again onto W. Georgia Avenue, running through the more modern residential neighborhood of South Bluffs, passing by several apartment buildings with many spectators cheering us on. We then got onto our first downhill - the road curved as we made our way down Riverside Drive, with views of the Mississippi Riverfront alongside Tom Lee Park.  In the distance we could see the curved arches of the Hernando de Soto Bridge crossing the river from Tennessee into the state of Arkansas, as well as the Memphis Pyramid in the distance.

Coming down Riverside Drive
On the other side of Riverside Drive, walkers participating in the 10K were now more than halfway through their race (with their route heading south along Riverside Drive; we were heading north, but coming back south a few miles later) and not far behind them were the lead vehicle and lead runners of our race and the half marathon, already pushing past the 7 mile mark!  As I hit the 3 mile mark and passed Beale Street Landing, we veered right to hit our first big uphill, as we made our way up the two blocks of Beale Street and onto Front Street headed northward.  My watch read 29:51 as it passed 3 miles, and was around 31 minutes when I passed the 5K sign.

We headed north along Front Street for a few blocks, passing a gorgeous apartment building, resplendent in its red and white striped brick facade.  Now the Gayoso House at Peabody Place, the site was formerly the Gayoso Hotel, the first luxury hotel in Memphis originally built in 1842 and was burned down in 1899. The new building, which opened in 1902, has experienced some paranormal activity for most of its history, and is the stop on many a Memphis Ghost Tour.  Locals consider this area to be the core of the downtown.  At Monroe Avenue, we turned right to run a few blocks in the direction of AutoZone Park (we could see the , before turning reaching the end of the road where we turned left onto South B.B. King Boulevard to head north.

FedEx plane alongside the course!
Running along this street named after the famous Blues musician synonymous with the city, we passed the Sterick Building, a yellow and tan colored gothic-style tower which stood as the tallest building in Tennessee and the Southern US from 1930 to 1957. Colorful murals adorn the walls of its ground floor, but unfortunately the large building has sat vacant since the 1980s due to the work required to bring it up to current standards. We continued north for approximately 3/4 of a mile, passing some office towers and government buildings (including the Shelby County Courthouse, featured in the movie The Silence of the Lambs), and a number of church buildings. Eventually, we passed underneath the roadways of Highway 40, before turning left onto Jackson Avenue. Along the next block, a Cessna propeller plane for FedEx was parked alongside a cheer section for the Memphis based courier delivery company.  It was great to see them in full force, having a significant presence at their big hometown marathon.

Entering the St. Jude Campus
At this point, we were also only a few blocks away from the Memphis Pyramid, but we would actually pass right next to it a little later. We turned right onto 2nd Street, going north a couple blocks before turning right onto Shadyac Avenue.  At 3rd Street, we passed through the gated entrance of the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.  We ran along the short .35 mile section of the course directly through the hospital campus along Danny Thomas Place, passing by current and former patients and their families, cheering with all their might for the runners.  It was the most touching thing I've ever been a part of, and I started to tear up when I ran down this part of the course; even writing now, I'm getting choked up -- St. Jude has worked to dramatically increase the survival rate of childhood cancer, and patients and their families never pay for treatment or related travel, housing, or food. Fundraising events like the marathon make that possible. We passed the fifth mile of the race through here, turning left onto St. Jude Place to exit the campus.

Heading toward the Memphis Pyramid
We turned left onto Willis Avenue, making our way westward back toward the Mississippi River.  We turned left onto Front Street, this time running on the road right next to the Memphis Pyramid, originally an arena built for the University of Memphis Tigers and Memphis Grizzlies basketball teams when opened in 1991, until they moved to the FedEx Forum in 2004. While it has had various uses and events over the years, since 2015, it has been a Bass Pro Shops megastore, which includes shopping, a hotel, restaurants, a bowling alley, and an archery and shooting range, with an outdoor observation deck adjacent to its apex.  We continued on southward down Front Street, passing underneath the raised exhibition space of the convention center that spans over where we ran (under where we took refuge the night before from the storm) with views of both the Hernando DeSoto and Harahan Bridges to our right. Somewhere near the backside of Memphis City Hall, we crossed the 10K split mat, registering a time of 1:02:22.

Mississippi River views
At Court Avenue, next to the University of Memphis' Law School building, we turned left, heading west one more block on a sharp downhill back to Riverside Drive, where we would continue running south over the next 1.5 miles.  It was a wonderful atmosphere, being cheered on by all the spectators lining the drive, as well as the back-of-the-packers just getting to their third mile, running on the other side of the street. I hit mile number 7 as we passed Beale Street Landing, and continued south alongside Tom Lee Park.  I got a good vantage point of the massive St. Jude logo on a tarp that was spread out alongside the hill that I managed to miss the first time around when we were heading up Riverside Drive. We curved around to what felt like an offramp from Riverside Drive near some condominium buildings, as we met up with more runners continuing back in the other direction on the strangely named Channel 3 Drive.
St. Jude logo on the hill next to Riverside Drive
RUN Y'ALL!
We basically ran a short loop taking us out near the namesake TV station, the local CBS affiliate WREG. Soon, we were back going in the other direction on Channel 3 Drive, which emptied us onto W. Carolina Avenue, where we turned right. A few newer construction townhomes framed both sides of the street as we continued east, eventually reaching 3rd Street where we turned left. We were heading back north toward the downtown area, running a few blocks through a blighted industrial area, reaching the 15K mat, which I crossed in 1:33:54. Along the way, we passed Memphis massive main post office building, turning right onto GE Patterson Avenue.  We continued our eastward sojourn, past a few more new apartment buildings, as well as the massive Temple of Deliverance Church, one of the largest in the city, whose original pastor was the namesake of the road we were running on.

People cheering for us from above
Danny Thomas Boulevard
Eventually, we turned right onto Butler Avenue, but only for a short period of time, as we were then directed to make a sharp left turn onto Danny Thomas Boulevard, a wide roadway taking us north, up the eastern edge of Downtown Memphis.  This road was built in the 1960s to partially reroute US Highway 51 around downtown, so it wasn't so straight up and down, and featured a few barely noticeable curves as we made our way toward Uptown Memphis.  At one point there was a nice half-mile long stretch from Beale Street to Adams Avenue where the roadway was sunken below overhead east-west road crossings, and many spectators were on the bridges overlooking us runners cheering us on. At Washington Avenue, just before the 11 mile mark, the half marathoners turned right to finish their last 2+ miles, while we continued north along Danny Thomas Boulevard for another 3/4 mile.  There was a slight rollingness to the road, eventually crossing over the busy I-40 corridor and passing by the eastern side of the St. Jude Campus.  We were leaving downtown behind, not coming back to it til the end of the race.  At North Parkway, we turned right, beginning our eastward run toward Overton Park, only about 5 kilometers, or 3.1 miles away; but we'd fit in a few twists and turns through other neighborhoods to do a whole 13 miles roundtrip back to this same intersection.  My watch only read 1:56:30 when we made the turn, and it wasn't long before we saw the fastest marathoners making their way back on North Parkway for the last couple miles of the race.

Beautiful treelined North Parkway
North Parkway was absolutely gorgeous.  With it being the first day of December, and temperatures hovering slightly above average, not all the trees had shed their leaves, but there was enough both still on the trees and on the roadway to provide beautiful scenery for us. An interesting fact was that this treelined parkway, with a wide grassy median down the middle, was originally designed in the early part of the 20th century with long straight portions so that car and carriage owners could race against each other.  Though the city ended this practice in 1910, the road's racing past can still be seen in the name of the historical district we'd pass by - Speedway Terrace.  A section of the road dipped down to some underpasses, which was also where we hit the halfway mark of the race, which I accomplished in about 2:12.  Pretty good -- still with a decent buffer to make under five hours!

Making our way through Overton Park
At Stonewall Street, we turned left to begin a roughly 3/4 mile out and back in the middle of the Evergreen Historic District.  This area, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Memphis, was a really electric part of the race and very memorable - so many spectators and residents living along the street, out in full force cheering us on on this gorgeous day. I was so glad the weather changed for the better that morning! I reached the turnaround point, just short of 14 miles in 2:20:21.  We eventually got back to North Parkway to continue heading east with runners aiming for a sub 3 hour finish speeding down the other way.


East Parkway past Overton Park
After mile 15, we were next to the Memphis Zoo, but it was well hidden behind some thick trees and a wrought-iron fence.  Still we continued on eastward, making a turn near the edge of the zoo along its service entrance; we were actually now running through the paved pathways that went through Overton Park.  We'd eventually make our way through the Old Forest Arboretum of the park, a forest tract that is one of the few remaining old growth forests in the state.  Along the way through this area, I ran into Calix, a young man who I've gotten to know over the years along with his father Ken.  Now 17, he was on track to run his 100th marathon on New Years' Day, potentially the youngest person ever to have completed 100 marathons.  We ran together for a short period of time before I continued on, pushing through as we made our way off of the running trail and onto Veterans Plaza Drive, where we passed by the Brooks Museum of Art as well as the Memphis College of Art.  We looped our way out of Overton Park by way of Morrie Moss Lane, and onto Poplar Avenue, where we began to run along the park's perimeter with a single lane of roadway reserved for us runners.  We reached its easternmost point at East Parkway, where we turned north through the Lea's Woods neighborhood all the way back up to North Parkway and the furthest east we would run in the race. By that point, we were 19 miles in.  My pace had dipped somewhat since running through the park, hovering near the 12 minute mark. But we were only 3:20 in by the time I got back to North Parkway, with just over seven miles left to go.  The sub 5 was entirely possible.

Almost immediately after our turn back onto North Parkway, we turned right into the Hein Park Historic District, an area of beautiful 20th century revival style homes built in the 1920s and 1930s on fairly decent sized tracts of land.  While it was largely flat, the streets were designed to follow the curves of the land, so that the houses were built at different levels. After circling around the neighborhood, we found ourselves next to Rhodes College running past its softball field and soccer field and 20 mile mark of the race, now just 10K from the finish line. We continued south onto West Drive where we were back at North Parkway, turning right to run past Rhodes College's "front doorstep."

We ran a little over a mile heading west on North Parkway, before turning right to do a slight detour of about 1.3 miles through the residential area of Vollintine-Evergreen, an area that was largely where the housing boom was concentrated after the Memphis Parkway System along North Parkway was constructed.  It was around the 35K mark here that I crossed a timing mat, registering a 3:53:52 split. Only 7.2K left to go! Eventually, we found ourselves running back south onto Stonewall Street, then turned right onto North Parkway.  We passed through an aid station with huge posterboards from St. Jude, showing stories of former patients and how they are doing today, in remission from the cancer that the hospital had treated them.  It was touching to reconnect back to the cause of why I was doing this race - and what the money that had been raised for this race in particular was going to.   Eventually, we had passed mile 24, and had made it all the way back to where we had initially turned a few hours ago, at Danny Thomas Boulevard.
Danny Thomas Boulevard nearing the end of the race
Mile 25... only 1.2 to go!
This time, we turned left, and made our way back down the boulevard, a bit quieter as many of the racers who had participated across all the distances today had already gone through the finish line.  I had been out there for just under 4 1/2 hours by then, the clock striking 1:30 in the afternoon.  One last timing mat was at the 25 mile mark, where I also took my customary photo with the milepost sign; I crossed with a split of 4:34:54.  The sub 5 was in sight!  Though I was tired, I got through my last couple miles, making my way down the rollings hills of Danny Thomas Boulevard all the way to Beale Street.  There, we turned right, running toward 4th Street. We turned right just before seeing the iconic "Beale Street" sign where I vowed to get my headstand photo, and could see the familiar barricades and gates up signaling the finish line.  At Union Avenue, we turned left, and there was the finish; I crossed in 4:48:22, culminating a very consistent tail end of the season, my ninth marathon within ten minutes of 4 hours and 45 minutes.
I had to take a picture with an Elvis impersonator... when in Memphis!
Victory Headstand on Beale Street!
After finishing, we were led into Autozone Park, where we could get some much needed refuel back in our system.  I found a few friends to reconnect with and celebrate our finishes, as well as a few Elvis impersonators; after all, we were in Memphis! I headed back out onto the street to find someone to help me with my headstand photo.  It was so appropriate - right there on famous Beale Street in Memphis, the epicenter of all things blues!

The room where MLK was shot
The afternoon was starting to fade into the evening, and I wanted to maximize my time in Memphis by checking out another important site in town, so I made my way over to the National Civil Rights Museum, a complex of museums and historic buildings built around the former Lorraine Motel, where prominent civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Room 306, the room where Dr. King was staying when he died figures a prominent part of the museum, as well. The museum was a couple hours from closing for the day, so I did as much as I could to maximize my time through the very thorough exhibits that trace the history of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States from the 17th century to the present. Also part of the ticket, was admission to the rooming house across the street where James Earl Ray is believed to have fired the fatal shot that killed King. I would end up meeting with Patricia for dinner later that night, and we'd return back to the hotel, tired from a long day!
Exhibits inside the National Civil Rights Museum
The Lorraine Motel
In front of Graceland Mansion
The next morning, Patricia had a morning flight and I wasn't scheduled to leave until later that evening.  I was aiming to make an earlier flight that would have me leave Memphis at 1 in the afternoon, but still had the morning to explore; being next door to Graceland, I decided to check it out. Being that it's one of the most visited tourist sites in the city, admission to Elvis' home and museum comes at a premium, and ticket prices start at $41.  I decided to purchase this ticket in addition to a $5 surcharge in order to view Elvis' two airplanes.  I met a fellow runner named Michael from the New York area heading to the visitors center across the street to purchase tickets in the morning.

The Jungle Room
Our tour was self guided, but came with an iPad that had actor John Stamos narrating, as we made our way through the 17,552 square foot mansion on the 13.8-acre estate. After a short video, a bus took us across the street into the grounds, where we got to tour the first floor's living room (appropriately decorated for the holiday season), music room (with its black baby grand piano and a 1950s style TV), first floor bedroom (where Elvis' parents stayed), dining room and kitchen; the enlarged section of the house that included the famous "jungle room," with its green shagged carpets, Polynesian feel and exotically carved wood, which was later converted into a recording studio; and basement rooms including the TV room and billiards room.  The second floor, where the bedrooms and Elvis' private personal office are located, are not open to visitors out of respect for the Presley family.

Elvis Presley's gravesite
We also got to view other buildings on the grounds, such as Vernon Presley's business office, the Trophy Building, and the Racquetball Building. The last stop was the meditation garden, where Elvis and members of his family have been laid to rest. The bus took us back to the visitors center, where I got to check out Lisa Marie (a Convair 880) and Hound Dog II (a Lockheed JetStar), the two airplanes Elvis owned.  There were many other sites to see that included access to Elvis Presley’s Memphis Entertainment Complex, with even more artifacts and exhibits from Elvis' life as an entertainer and as an automobile and motorcycle enthusiast, as well as additional exhibits showcasing the actual film sets used in Elvis films, the life of Elvis' daughter Lisa Marie, and an exhibit celebrating Elvis' status as a music pioneer paving the way for many of today's artists and celebrities, but admission to those came at an additional price and more time needed.  I had a flight to catch, so I made my way back to the Guest House to get my things and get a shuttle back to the airport.

I got back to New York in time for some dinner plans I had made with friends visiting New York, but looked back at my accomplishments for the weekend; the St. Jude Memphis Marathon marked my final marathon of 2018, concluding an epic year where I managed to run 32 full marathons and 8 half marathons, bringing my numbers up to 91 lifetime fulls and 93 lifetime halves.  Not only did I finish a huge goal of completing my 50 states, but I got to add twelve new countries to my arsenal, bringing me to 22 countries completed.  2018 was a fantastic year, with so much to look forward to in 2019.
2018, an epic year of running for me!  Check out my year end wrap up video!