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
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!

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