Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors.
Try to be better than yourself.
– William Faulkner
There are certain five-word combinations most Americans will never hear or say. And yet last Thursday, seated aboard our flight awaiting takeoff while an unapologetically Muzak version of “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons wafted through the cabin, I reflected on that evening’s destination, one I’d chosen of sound mind and which Katie had failed to veto: Jackson, Mississippi.
But why – I’d coaxed her – why stop in the Deep South when we could venture into the even Deeper South? Either she’d misunderstood the question or the sheer idiocy of it had caught her off-guard, because our ultimate (meaning last, not best) weekend destination, after a two-day stopover in Jackson, would be the God-fearing town of Mobile in Alabama, Mississippi’s next-door neighbor to the east.
If you’re thinking “Alabamassippi? Mississippabama?”, you’re not alone. I’d guess most Americans, particularly those who don’t follow college football, treat the two interchangeably and with a level of apathy normally reserved for Kansas and Nebraska. And yes, I was treated to my share of raised eyebrows and “Wait, you’re serious?” double-takes from friends and family upon divulging my travel plans. One non-runner buddy put it best when he texted, “You are checking off two states I plan on never setting foot in.”
But I’m not a stamp collector, I’m a runner, and therein lies the method to my madness. Because overpowering any sense of Mississip-pathy was a new challenge I couldn’t resist to start my 2014 running season: the Mississippi Blues Marathon, held in Jackson on Saturday, and the Servis1st Bank First Light Marathon, held in Mobile the next day, would be my first opportunity to race marathons on consecutive days. Two marathons, two states, two days. Luckily, at this point in my running fetish, even Mom’s protests of “That can’t be good for you” come much fewer and farther between.
And yes, this trip would strategically allow me to “check off” two more states on my list of marathoning destinations. Because as much as I look forward to eventually running in every state, I couldn’t easily rationalize – financially or psychologically – separate trips to Mississippi and Alabama. And the race organizers must sense this sentiment among runners, because both registration forms touted the commemorative “back-to-back” t-shirt and award that awaited runners of both races. So this struck me as the ideal time to kill two birds with one stone… just as long as I didn’t kill one boy with two races.
And so several hours later, as our plane made its moth-like descent into the industrial electric flame of Jackson, Mississippi, I reflected on what little I knew about the two states we’d be visiting. I knew from glancing at a U.S. map that the two states were virtual mirror images of each other, as if born from the same Confederate womb some 200 years ago. I knew we wouldn’t be lacking for vowels during our stay, since Alabama has more a’s and Mississippi more i’s than any other state in the Union. And as a child growing up in Texas, much of what I’d learned about the Deep South had come from watching Yosemite Sam zealously defend the “Masee-Dixee” Line against Bugs Bunny’s Yankee intrusion.
Unfortunately, most of the content in my mental Wiki wasn’t particularly flattering, as both states have a long and sordid history of racial inequality that remains evident to this day. For instance, Mississippi’s flag remains the only state flag to display the Confederate battle flag’s saltire. And Alabama may be best known for its antagonist role in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. So I was eager to experience two states that tend to share not the nebbish reputation of a Kansas or Nebraska, but the less forgiveable reputation earned by actively crusading on the wrong side of history.
Shallow impressions of the Deep South
On Friday, under gray skies and with storm clouds on the horizon, we got out and about in Jackson. My first impression of Mississippi, based on its capital and largest city, was of a state in disrepair. Like concrete chameleons in the gloomy weather, the drab coloration of the downtown architectural landscape – dominated by the 18-story Standard Life Building – suggested an indelible layer (or layers) of age-old soot.
Around downtown Jackson near our hotel, much of what I observed on my morning run and afternoon drive could only be described as urban blight: vacant lots filled with piles of dirt and construction debris, rusted-out dumpsters and freight train cars, collapsed chain link fences, low-slung cinder block walls, and ribbons of yellow “Caution” tape snaking along badly neglected streets lined with accumulated trash. On the front lawn of one rickety wooden house, a disinterested dog lay with brow furrowed alongside a pile of discarded aluminum cans. And on many overgrown lots stood burned-out structures at drunken angles, presumably homes at one time but now gutted wooden skeletons looking poised to collapse at the slightest provocation.
As it turned out, this was the Jackson we wouldn’t be seeing during Saturday’s race.
Luckily beauty is only skin deep, and what Jackson lacks in aesthetics it makes up for in amiability. Readers of Condé Nast Traveler recently voted Jackson the 7th most friendly city in the country, and coming from self-satisfied California it’s easy to see why. When even airport workers greet you with a smile and “Have a nice day!”, you know you’ve hit the friendliness jackpot.
Case in point Rob, our healthily bearded and tattooed waiter at the High Noon Café, an excellent vegetarian lunch spot in the local (and only) organic grocery store. Rob welcomed us, shared a bit of the city’s history – did you know Jackson is the only capital city in the world built on a volcano? – and told us very matter-of-factly that Jackson is “one of those places you get stuck”. He also admitted he likes to “Robsess” (“Cuz my name’s Rob”) about life path numbers and sacred numerology. Very warm and genuine guy, and in that sense Rob fits in well in Jackson.
After lunch we visited the home of former NAACP Field Officer and Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers, who in June 1963 was assassinated in his driveway by a member of the White Citizens’ Council (in true Mississippi tradition, his assassin lived as a free man before being convicted of the murder 31 years later, in 1994). We then stopped by the Medgar Evers Statue to pay our respects, before heading over to the marathon expo.
Held in the Jackson Convention Center, the expo was small and easily navigated, though I think running icon Bill Rodgers may be stalking me because there he was again, sitting at a table signing autographs just like in Portland. The highlight of my expo-rience was that for once, when a helpful volunteer urged me to “Have a great race tomorrow!”, I managed to catch myself before blurting out a reflexive “You too!” Then it was time for the pre-race pasta gorge at a local Italian restaurant, before our West Coast circadian rhythms settled in for an extended nap ahead of a 5:30am (3:30am PDT) wakeup call.
Action, Jackson! (start – mile 13.1)
Saturday morning greeted us unexpectedly with crunchy yogurt and frozen smoothies, courtesy of an overzealous hotel room fridge. Fortunately that would be the only frosty surprise of this rain-washed morning, as stepping outside we were treated to sparsely cloudy skies and temperatures in the low 60s. Strolling the four blocks from our hotel to the start line, we arrived with five whole minutes to spare.
Although a first for me, by hardcore running standards my “double” would be nothing newsworthy. Ultramarathons routinely require their victims participants to cover 50 or 100 miles or more, often over brutally hilly terrain and with minimal support. Nor would my own back-to-back effort elevate me much above couch-potato status compared to running automaton Dean Karnazes, whose 2008 national tour saw him run 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days, with his final marathon in New York City being his fastest. And more recently, I’d met up with Chicago running hetero-lifemates Dan and Otter in Portland, where they successfully completed their own back-to-back marathons after running in Washington state the day before. So although a cut above standard weekend warrior fare, doubling up on marathons wouldn’t exactly get me on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
But my objective here in the Deep South wouldn’t just be to finish two marathons, but to do so in less than 3 hours, 45 minutes each. This ambition – which seemed reasonable given my PR of 3:28:45 – I deliberately kept to myself, while assuring Katie that I’d only push myself hard enough to break four hours. And so, excusing and pardoning my way in among the start line crowd, I settled in next to the 3:45:00 pacer in time to hear a bluesy rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner performed with much vibrato on a surf-green Fender Stratocaster. Then, as the last well-held note dispersed on the warm morning breeze, the 7th annual Mississippi Blues Marathon was underway.
For many of the nearly 2,500 runners (1/3 marathoners, 2/3 half marathoners) thundering down Pascagoula St., a rusted old freight train on a nearby overpass provided a stark first impression of Jackson. Glancing to my left I saw Bill Rodgers cruising along the sidewalk by himself, and with measured acceleration I sped up to pass him as though the 1978 Boston Marathon were on the line.
I’m a sucker for a good college campus, and this course featured several, including Jackson State University (JSU), Mississippi College and Belhaven University. The JSU band and pep squad greeted us loudly as we passed through their campus and circled back toward downtown in the direction we’d come. And just as my legs were warming up, I was pleasantly surprised by my first Katie sighting of the day at mile 3. Three more would follow at miles 10, 15 and 20.
Around mile 7, past the University of Mississippi Medical Center, we entered our first residential neighborhood featuring nicely kept ranch-style homes, a clear step up the socioeconomic ladder from what we’d seen on our self-guided tour the day before. Tree-lined streets offered plenty of shade, a welcome motif that would repeat itself throughout the day as direct sunlight rarely became an issue. The remainder of the course would alternate among residential neighborhoods, small strip malls and highway frontage roads.
Though I seldom ran with the chatty pack of five to ten 3:45 runners, I stayed within striking distance throughout. Wary of another Portland-style pacing fiasco, I kept a close eye on my Garmin and was pleased when our group hit the halfway point at 8:20/mile, which I quickly estimated as a projected finish time of under 3:40. Sure this was faster than I’d planned to run, but I also knew that “banking” time in the first half would leave us more wiggle room (which we’d undoubtedly use) in the second half. So it was all good.
This IS my race pace (mile 13.1 – finish)
On occasion I’d run close enough to the 3:45 pack to hear Pacer Bob entertaining and encouraging his charges with his running commentary, e.g. “This isn’t a hill, it’s a side incline,” or on one extended uphill, “These reverse downhills are tiring.” At other times I’d zone out and lose myself in my own thoughts, as I enjoyed the simple pleasure of running a relatively leisurely marathon at a comfortable pace. Thanks to the rolling course profile (it’s a slightly hillier course than Portland), my legs were always engaged and never bored.
Usually I do my darnedest to avoid aid stations, but though I never grabbed more than a couple of sips of water at any one station, I must have slowed at no fewer than eight aid stations in Jackson. It was a novel experience, and I kept expecting someone to call me out or a sour-faced volunteer to pull back a cup of water and ask, “Haven’t you had enough?”
Not that there was a single sour-faced volunteer on the entire course, because the Mississippi Blues Marathon featured some of the nicest volunteers and spectators you’ll ever encounter. Although sparse (which I never mind, I’m always flattered when people show up to cheer on runners), spectators along the course were unfailingly supportive. Both the spectators and the familiar orange-clad volunteers cheered us along the course with cries of “Thanks for coming!” Wait a minute, I thought, shouldn’t that be my line? The only stolid faces I saw along the entire course belonged to two police officers directing traffic early in the race. And here I’d like to apologize profusely to the poor volunteer fellow picking up discarded cups, to whom I tossed my half-full water cup. I’m such an idiot, I thought as the cup hit his open palm and splashed everywhere.
Passing the mile 17 marker we entered Jackson’s land of milk and honey. Here home and lot size increased dramatically, with opulent multi-level homes showcasing ornately sculpted columns, fenced-in porches and painstakingly manicured lawns that resembled golf course fairways. Whereas “home security” around downtown Jackson had meant a sleepy-looking dog tethered to a tree and a fear of tetanus, several homes in this neighborhood were set back from the street behind wrought-iron security gates. “All the kids here go to Hogwarts,” joked Pacer Bob.
Like many American urban centers, Jackson poses a striking dichotomy in terms of socioeconomic and racial stratification. As a white guy coming from California, I can’t claim to fathom – after 36 hours in Jackson – the depth of racial tension that outsiders identify with Mississippi. Hopefully, though, as Rob from the High Noon Café had told us the day before, the city continues to push forward in an earnest attempt to rise above its segregationist history.
Although we’d been told there’d be various musical acts along the course, music didn’t figure prominently in my race experience. I noticed only one performer before mile 10, and then every five miles or so after that, though none were particularly loud. The most memorable performer was the fellow at mile 20 (Scott Albert Johnson, according to the race guide) – I passed his riser just in time to catch a lyric about how we’d all be “partying until the Second Comin’ ”. Katie’s own recollection of the Scott Albert Johnson experience was the partial lyric “and all it got him was nailed to the cross.” SAJ was well placed at mile 20, where runners typically begin to hit The Wall, and where any pick-me-up that distracts from the mounting fatigue is much appreciated.
To supplement my frequent water intake and because I had them unwrapped in my pocket, I started popping Clif Shot Bloks at mile 19. With roughly the caloric equivalent of one gel, three Bloks are less messy and much easier to deal with during a race. Plus again, they’re a great way to distract the mind during those final few miles.
Sometime after mile 20 and my fourth (!) Katie sighting of the day, Pacer Bob made his second brief porta-potty stop and took his handheld pace sign with him. Amazingly, without their leader his close-knit group of five to ten runners – who had been clustered around him for most of the race – quickly dispersed, like ducklings who had lost their mama. Once he returned to reestablish his position, and with the other 3:45ers fighting to push through The Wall, he and I alone made up the 3:45 pace group. “Does this happen much at the end when you’re pacing?” I asked. “It’s happened a few times,” was his reply.
Mile 25 saw us pass the small-scale Belhaven University spirit zone, as well as the house where Pulitzer Prize-winning author Eudora Welty lived and wrote for 76 years, until her death in 2001. It’s too bad the marathon course didn’t also pass by Medgar Evers’ home, though admittedly that would require significant re-routing of the course.
One final right turn brought the finish line into view. With a thumbs-up to Katie, I ended my morning run along a stretch of Lamar St. lined with the flags of all 50 states, an appropriate and well conceived touch on this day when all 50 states were represented at a Mississippi sporting event for the first time ever. Very cool to count myself as part of an historic sports moment.
Race, recover, repeat
I heard my name and hometown announced over the PA as I crossed the finish line, thereby dotting all the i’s in Mississippi in a time of 3:43:36. After accepting my medal I shook hands with Pacer Bob and congratulated a tired-but-beaming runner who’d bested her PR after sticking right with the 3:45 pace group until the last couple of miles. Pacer Bob did a terrific job throughout the race, and hopefully he and all the pacers realize how much their efforts are appreciated. Thanks, Bob!
A few words about the medal (see photo below): with roughly 60 race medals in my collection now, the Mississippi Blues Marathon medal is easily a top-fiver. Not only does it exemplify race bling in its size, heft and glittery blueness, but it’s forged in the shape of a guitar – a classic B.B. King Lucille-style model with a metal body and headstock and a ribbon fretboard. And the coup de grâce is the dangling guitar pick inscribed with race logo and year that was included only with the marathon medal (sorry, halfers!). Testifying to the medal’s imposing size, the TSA agent at the airport had to remove the medal from my backpack for separate security screening after it attracted attention as a large, indistinct blob on the X-ray scanner. It took me a minute to realize what it was he was searching for.
The post-race spread consisted primarily of bananas, pizza, cookies, chocolate milk and soft drinks. Immediately upon exiting the finishers chute I began my post-race recovery and pre-race Alabama prep, following in part the recent suggestions of Marathon Running magazine. These included:
1) drinking water, chocolate milk (for the protein) and Dr. Pepper (for the sugar), before munching on some trail mix we’d brought and grabbing lunch a short time later;
2) getting off my feet, which I did by settling into a chair in the Mississippi Museum of Art’s Art Garden. There I monitored the post-race festivities and watched enviously as the male and female marathon winners each accepted their prize of a Cort guitar;
3) soaking my legs and feet for 12 minutes in our do-it-yourself hotel ice bath – start with the coldest water possible, then after acclimating to the temperature add a bucket of ice;
4) taking two Advil… normally a bad idea since inflammation is key to repairing post-race muscle damage; unfortunately, it’s also key to increasing post-race soreness. I’d have plenty of time after noon on Sunday for my frazzled muscles to repair themselves;
5) treated an angry blister and, with the help of Katie and my sadistic Orb, massaged hamstrings, IT bands and quads before hitting the road for Alabama.
Then, to quote another Southern gentleman, we were on the road again, headed 200 scenery-free highway miles southeast to Mobile, with a brief stop to stretch in Hattiesburg. After my first marathon of the weekend, the scorecard stood at one blister, zero cramps and zero heaves. I’d accomplished my low-stress goal of a sub-3:45 finish, and in the process had discovered a laid-back marathon with all the fixins, in a place most people would never bother to look.
But as much as I’d enjoyed day one of my Southern Fried running experiment, day two – and the real challenge of the weekend – lay ahead. And if I knew then what awaited me in Alabama, you can bet I would’ve been singin’ the blues.
BOTTOM LINE: If you’re a 50 States runner or are simply looking for a low-key, well organized road marathon that appreciates its runners, then you’ve gotta get to the Magnolia State for the Mississippi Blues Marathon. With its frequent turns and rolling profile the course isn’t necessarily PR-friendly, but it does offer an unrivaled opportunity to see Mississippi’s capital city up close and personal. Climate-wise, the state is tough to beat as a winter running destination. And if you’re a musician, the medal alone is almost worth the trip.
PRODUCTION: Aside from eating crunchy yogurt for breakfast on Saturday (through no fault of the organizers), my race weekend in Jackson went off without a hitch. Communication leading up to race weekend was minimal but sufficient, and the pre-race expo was small with just a handful of vendors. The post-race party in the Art Garden was similarly low-key; food choices could have been more diverse, but I was perfectly happy snacking on bananas and chocolate milk to supplement the trail mix we’d brought with us.
Race volunteers are typically among the most patient and friendly people you’ll meet anywhere. But the volunteers in Mississippi were a cut above in terms of friendliness, seemingly always smiling and taking every chance to thank the runners for coming to Jackson.
Other than the people, thoughtful race swag set this race apart. In addition to the eye-catching, core-strengthening finishers medal, each race goodie bag contained a Hohner harmonica and a “Made in Mississippi” CD featuring music of the Mississippi Blues Marathon (including the appropriately titled track, “Done Got Tired of Tryin’ ”). And rather than a race t-shirt, all runners received a long-sleeve black microfleece with the race logo emblazoned on the left lapel, and with a zipper that quickly broke. [UPDATE (Jan. 31): A huge thumbs-up for Race Director John Noblin – all Mississippi Blues runners today received an email saying he’d heard our feedback and would be replacing “all of the shirts that have bad zippers”. As a runner, you can’t ask for a more committed and responsive RD than that… thanks, John!]
One suggestion for next year’s race would be to have MUCH larger labels for each handheld pace group sign. Pacer Bob did a great job, but whenever he got more than about fifteen feet ahead of me, I needed binoculars to read the time on his pace group sign.
January 11, 2014
26.34 miles in Jackson, MS (state 6 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 3:43:36 (first time running the Mississippi Blues Marathon), 8:30/mile
Finish place: 107/830 overall, 17/82 in M(40-44) age group
Number of finishers: 830 marathon, 1606 half marathon
Race weather: sunny and warm (starting temp 61°F), with an intermittent breeze
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 832ft ascent, 840ft descent