Been Talkin’ Bout Jackson

Nothing about Jackson, Mississippi was the same from last year except maybe the city. You see, this was my return trip to the city that always makes me think of the wonderful Johnny Cash song (as it well should).

We’ve been talkin’ ’bout Jackson, ever since the fire went out.
I’m goin’ to Jackson, I’m gonna mess around,
Yeah, I’m goin’ to Jackson,
Look out Jackson town.

I was putting Jackson on look out after a poor performance last year! I was ready to run it in much better shape this year. Last year I drove down to Jackson with my aunt and ran a 3:35 with what felt like a broken leg and a constant limp. I remember putting some drug on my leg to stop the pain and it held for about 23 miles. Those last three were awful and who threw in the uphill ending? Then to put insult to injury the third place in my age group was a 3:21 or so. If I put in an average race? I would have age group placed and got an excellent trophy to boot!

The day did not start well with travel problems and me arriving in town four hours later than I should. Since my goals have changed I was aiming for a sub 3:30 in Mississippi. If I achieved that I would be down to nine states where I had to achieve that similar goal. I liked that idea a lot. However I was also going with two good friends, Jennifer and Ethan, and was looking to very good times with them! We have run more than a few good races together and they are always fun. So I was upset to have my travel delayed as it meant less time with them and less time at the expo. Ethan had his goal of trying to run a 4:30 and prepare for a 50 miler. I think Jennifer always goes into every marathon with the goal of just having a good time and she never fails at that.

I arrived into town and went straight to the expo where I ran into Steve Walters. Steve and I are very evenly matched runners and I am always thrilled to see him in a competitive way. Courses change but runners rarely do. If I can finish within five minutes of Steve I know I put in a good effort. I am sure he feels the same way too. Also Steve is an awesome ambassador of running and it is great to get a chance to see and talk to him. We did have much time to talk however as Ethan was picking me up in a few minutes so I was in a hurry. I went upstairs. Like any good marathon, Mississippi Blues had expanded their expo this year and moved it into a much larger area. It was much more convenient and though I got very little time there, it was great to see lots of race swag, free bananas and the Louisiana Marathon representing!

I was not able to stay long as Ethan was picking me up and then Jennifer to go over to Hal’s and Mal’s to eat local before our big run the next day. I was able to run into Sherry Ricker just before I left and talk to the Louisiana Marathon girl (who did not try to talk me into the 5K… foreshadowing for another blog). And the second I walked out the door Ethan was waiting for me. Perfect timing! We picked up Jennifer who was not her usual bubbly self due to drinking too much on the flight and it was a bit of a somber drive. When we go to the restaurant which was highly recommended by the race, we were afraid there was going to be a long wait but we were seated immediately.

Unfortunately the food did not live up to what we wished for as it was rather mediocre but we had went the safe route going with burgers so it was nothing too stomach upsetting in any case. Ethan ate healthier than Jennifer and I opting for a salad. Sometimes I think if you take Ethan’s fantastic training habits, Jennifer’s health and ability to get over an injury quickly and my sheer determination you may have a perfect runner! Instead you have three very fine runners. After that, Ethan dropped us off at the hotel and I was able to finally see my room. We were at a Hampton Inn so it was bound to be a nice stay. Jennifer made the reservations and she did a great job.

At this time I was able to finally open up my swag bag and find out what the Blues had to offer. There is not a doubt in my mind that the Blues year in and year out offers the greatest swag of any marathon. Last year they had one of my favorite cinch bags and this year they switched it up and gave us a nice heavy duty reusable grocery bag. The harmonica returned this year in a very fitting blue color and a free CD as well. And the shirt was switched to a light jacket with minimal extra advertising. It was like they threw away the entire design for the shirt last year and redid it! Though with some marathons I would love this, with the Blues there was just no need to. But they did it and the result was fantastic! I have a feeling this jacket will get a lot of play around April. Jennifer ended up having a zipper problem but they switched out her jacket the next day no questions asked.

And then Angie Whitworth Pace posted on the Marathon Maniacs page, “Just wait until you see the medal!” Jennifer and I were thrilled. The medal last year is still one of my top head turners when people go to see the collection. I was officially excited.

Jennifer went to bed early but I stayed up a little later to meet Cathlin who had travel issues as well and arrived much later than the rest of us. I had never met her before and even though we were only just in a conversation on Facebook about this marathon, I had to get my new friend out of the way. She walked in the door around ten and like a true marathoning traveler unpacked, brushed her teeth and was in bed in less than ten minutes. Marathon Maniacs is such a small and great community she asked what bed she was sleeping in. I told her with Jennifer of course and she said that she would have been fine either way. We had never even met before and the trust was implicit due to mutual friends.

Cathlin is an emerging member of our group and really good friends with Ethan. She is an accountant at his gym, which trust me, sounds and looks like the greatest gym in the United States! Not only that but she is a good marathoner and a future member of 50 sub 4! Ethan is already a member and Jennifer will be a member if she ever puts her mind to it and decides to run quickly. Cathlin is a runner I am looking forward to seeing in the future.

The next morning we woke up and immediately went down to breakfast. It was easily one of the nicer spreads I have seen before a marathon and though I do not eat, there were over 30 marathoners down there getting their fill. Cathlin had met a new friend the night before on the plane ride and we had to squeeze five people in on the ride over but it was not even uncomfortable. Other new friend showed up in jeans. He would say he had a friend that had jogging pants for him but I think we were all concerned he would end up running in those jeans. His story seemed a little off. Later reports stated he did find some jogging pants. Too bad. It was perfect shorts weather!

And after we left the car it was time to get to the pre party! Cathlin had to pick up her packet in the morning so we arrived an hour early. And honestly there was not much time wasted in that hour. The first thing I remember is walking into the packet pickup area and running into a girl. Somehow the conversation turned to her being from Vermont. I told her she had to run Louisiana next week! They had yet to find a Vermont runner and were nearly begging for one. By the end of a ten minute conversation I had her very interested (and not so shockingly enough she ended up being their Vermont runner so they could claim all 50 states were represented). I am a bit proud of that moment.

After that I was able to talk with many runners including Glen Anderson, Eddie Vega, Larry Macon, Lauren Farkash, Abby Auger and so many others I cannot remember them all (sorry to those forgotten). There were pictures, a quick bathroom trip and lots of people asking who was all going to day two of the double. Glen was telling me the Louisiana Marathon girl had talked him into running the 5K the day before the marathon and I was suddenly interested in this.

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I lined up to run and we took off after my favorite version of the Star Spangled Banner yet. It was a solo guitar version reminiscent of Hendrix. Thank you Mississippi Blues! The race started seconds after. The course had changed from the year before to be a bit easier with less hills rumor had it. That is fine and all, but then again I think too many marathons change their course to be Boston qualifiers. I was a bit happy that this course still had a bit of a fight in it. And I was a bit interested to see how it would play out.

It showed up immediately at first as we made our way to Jackson State University and running through the campus. As I watched the students cheer us on I knew it did not matter what else they changed – the changes were definitely for the better. And the course stayed flat as we turned around, ran through downtown again and made our way to Mile 5 with relatively no elevation changes. The past year I remembered going straight into hills at Mile 1. The hills did start in at Mile 5 and impeded my moving forward past other runners. Suddenly the runners in front of me were not getting closer but pulling away. I knew it would happen and actually it did not bother me. I just had that one number in my mind – 3:30. I had to run my own race.

When we made it to Mile 10 a group of three runners passed me looking great and then I heard a bicycle creep up behind me. He caught me by Mile 11 and I knew it meant only one thing – the lead female was right behind me. She would catch me and we ran together for a little bit and as we hit a decline I pulled a little bit ahead of her. Then as we turned around to go back up it, she and the bicycle disappeared. I felt good and hit that hill with gusto! That and the knowledge of the course kicked in too. I knew it was coming and was able to handle the long incline. And actually took off after that passing three more runners up to Mile 17. I was noticing the course from the year before and the familiarity was working for me.

Unfortunately I eventually did start to slow down but even by Mile 20 I was still passing runners. And then finally at Mile 21, the 3:15 pacer passed me. Oddly enough, this was the part of the course I did not remember. And eventually the first female caught me too. I totally fell apart at that mile and the hills were really taxing my leg. I really remember the last five miles as flat from the year before. It did not come to pass this year. And after Mile 22 the next three miles of hills really hurt my left leg so I took it easy knowing what I had to do the next day (another marathon). The hills quit about Mile 25 and I put in a great run in the end and crossed the finish line which was not uphill this year! I got back to a last fast mile and crossed the line in a very respectable 34th overall. Don’t worry about the age group placing though – think I finished just outside of the Top 10 in my age group even at 3:23. There were no worries of not hitting that 3:30 goal on this day.

The finish line festival was as fantastic as last year offering lots of great bottles of Pepsi, Gatorade and chocolate milk. The new ending location was in an art park and it was a beautiful setting. A band was playing already. There was Michelob Ultra flowing freely like wine and people all over the place. There was pizza, cookies and some soup. It was so much it was almost ridiculous. And the medal? Well it did beat the last year by a mile. Fantastic! I was able to see Steve come in seconds after me and then greet some other runners as well including Glen and Cathlin as they crossed the line.

We had a great time but had to take off quick after the race because well, we had a marathon the next day. Cathlin, Ethan, Jennifer and I took a great picture by one of the guitars and took off after that. We annoyed the cameraman as we kept looking at Jennifer’s camera and not his. Sorry, I can’t even remember the last time I bought a race picture.

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But in retrospect, one thing about Jackson, Mississippi always sticks out whenever I visit and after talking with everyone after the race this year it was as prevalent as ever. Jackson has really fallen on hard times. The people there did not seem happy to see you so much as THRILLED to see you. More than a couple people heard shout outs of “spend money here!” Several potholes had been filled in with the words “citizen repaired” spray painted on them. The downtown is a ghost town even during the week. The streets seem and are dangerous if you wander too far out.

As you run through the neighborhoods there are fantastic houses but there are a lot of downtrodden areas as well. I see very few local businesses in the downtown area and was told a Nissan plant 40 miles up the road was the major employer. I am not sure how these hotels even fill on any given weekend or even during the week – because hotels seem to be mostly what is in downtown. Well that and art museums. There is a reason why the swag is so fantastic and creative – they know a reason must be created to visit this marathon. And they do a fantastic job putting on a quality event.

However whenever I visit, oddly enough I just want to return. I want to return greatness to Jackson. I want to make it that town that Johnny Cash once sang fondly of. I do believe there is greatness in Jackson and thank you Mississippi Blues for proving that every year. I hope they can carry that spirit to bring greatness to this city again.

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