Marathon Name: Mississippi Blues Marathon
Location: Jackson, Mississippi
Time of Year: Saturday in January
Logistics/Travel/Lodging: Logistics were pretty easy for this one. We flew into Jackson from DC on Friday afternoon. It wasn’t a direct flight, but going through Atlanta, the whole process only took about 5 hours and we landed around 6 pm CT. We grabbed an Uber at the Jackson airport (surprisingly nice airport, btw) and rode 20 minutes to the Jackson Convention Complex, where the expo was being held. Packet pickup was open until 8 pm, so we had plenty of time. Expo was small, with just a few vendors, but pickup was easy and that was my main concern. We walked the three blocks from the Convention Complex to the Marriott, which was the official race hotel. The hotel location was perfect for the race — just a couple of blocks from the start and the finish line. OK, so I’ve never been to a race where literally everyone staying at the hotel is involved in the marathon, but that’s what the situation was at the Jackson Marriott. It felt like being at a convention. When I think of conventions, my mind immediately jumps to MTV’s True Life: I’m a Furry. But this wasn’t like that. Just lots of runners. If I had wanted to be social, I might have been able to make some running friends. And my sense was that a LOT of people there were on their 50 state journey, especially because First Light Marathon in Mobile, Alabama, partners with Mississippi Blues to encourage folks to knock out two states in one weekend. There is even a shuttle that will take folks from Jackson to Mobile.
Swag and Perks: This race has AWESOME swag. The bag is a reusable grocery bag and it came stocked with some great goodies: a BB King CD (!) and a harmonica (!!!). The race shirt is a cool half-zip pullover made from tech material. And there’s a big ole finisher medal if you are into that sort of thing (like, the-size-of-my-hand big). After the race, the food tent was stocked with pizza, rice and beans (vegetarian, I was told!), cookies, and oranges. Plus (there’s more!), on Saturday night, there was a shuttle to take people around between the local hotels and blues venues. We ended up not using it, but we appreciated knowing which spots to check out based on the shuttle stops.
What I Ate The Day Before: I did a better-than-normal job at carb-loading in the two days before the race. Probably because I had just written my glycogen post. I baked a couple of loaves of plain bread to incorporate into/replace a few meals, and I adjusted my typical smoothie by adding more banana and subtracting some of the protein powder. I also replaced some of my usual water with Nuun. The morning before the race, I had an Eggo waffle, some of the bread bread, Nuun, and banana. At the airport, I bought some pita and a sugar-laden mango smoothie for lunch. And once at the hotel, I had rigatoni for dinner.
What I Ate the Morning Of: The night before the race, I realized I was totally ill-prepared and hadn’t brought anything to eat for breakfast. The hotel was serving breakfast starting at 5 am, but I really didn’t want to eat — or pay for — a big hotel breakfast. When I woke up in the morning, I tried to stay in bed but my husband insisted that we go check it out. So so so luckily, the hotel had set up FREE coffee, juice, granola, bananas, etc. in the lobby. I grabbed a banana, some coffee with sugar, and a little of the very very sweet granola. I nibbled as I got ready for the race.
Weather: 50s-60s. It was drizzling at the start but then was just overcast for most of the race. I got pretty warm around mile 18 and considered pouring water on myself but then around mile 20, a quick but intense rain came through. About 10 minutes after I finished there was a quick thunderstorm — with a few bolts of lightening. Luckily, nothing major during the race and the rest of the day was lovely.
What I Wore: Nike spandex running shorts, a Lululemon racerback tank top, my red running hat, Adidas Ultra Boost shoes, a long sleeve tech tee (around my waist after about 4 miles), and a very lightweight rain jacket (around my waist after about 2 miles… as soon as it stopped raining).
Terrain: Pavement. But wooboy. This one was hilly. Over 1000 ft of elevation gain, which was about 1/3 more than the “hilly” Freedom’s Run. It was just completely relentless with the hills for the entire course. Which, by the way, is impossible to complete in only 26.2 miles. That’s because there are potholes, cracks, patched spots, and puddles GALORE that you’ll need to dodge. Apparently Jackson is known locally to have terrible roads. Yup. Confirmed. My watch had me at 26.7 at the end, a full half mile longer than the measured distance for the race. (Others on Strava had 26.3-26.5. Maybe they didn’t run off to the side to grab donuts like I did. No one had 26.2.)
Here is the elevation from Strava:
Course: The course starts and ends near the Convention Complex/Museum area. I thought the course might be exclusively big, boring roads through commercial sprawl, but it wasn’t! After a few miles past Jackson State University, the half marathoners split off and we entered a LOVELY residential area in the Fondren neighborhood — probably my favorite section of the course. (Seriously, these houses were beautiful.) There were times when we came back out onto larger roads or access roads next to the highway, and we did see some commercial sprawl, but I’d say at least half of the course was along residential side streets. It was nice. Also, there were plenty of aid stations, most of which had clearly marked Gatorade and water options. Plenty of bathrooms on course too. There were lots of volunteers and a surprising number of spectators from the neighborhoods, out in front of their homes cheering and giving out beer or donuts or high-fives. This isn’t like going to Nashville or Marine Corps where you’re surrounded by cheering for a huge portion of the race, but I was still impressed. My only real complaint was that there weren’t enough BLUES! I’m not sure if this was because of the weather or what, but I’d imagined that there would be many stops along the way with folks playing blues music. I remember the guitarist playing the Star Spangled Banner at the start and then maybe three other bands along the way? I just wish there’d been more.
What I Ate During: I started taking in little bits of Jet Blackberry Gu around mile 11 but when I got to the water station, I saw that they had pieces of donuts. I threw the Gu to the side and nearly choked on my donut piece. Later in the race, I had a full Salted Caramel Gu (my first time having one of those — not bad!), half a biscuit from a spectator, another small piece of donut from a spectator, several sips of Gatorade (I was getting hot!), and lots of water. I didn’t eat the pretzel sticks I had packed with me.
What I Listened To: My phone has been wonky lately so I was nervous about relying on it for my music. Instead, I packed by phone but used a very old iPod shuffle for my music. I charged it but didn’t change any of the songs that I had loaded on it probably three years ago. So the playlist was a little dated but also fresh because it’s not what I usually listen to. It included Born to Run, Katy Perry’s Fight Song, Florence + the Machine, Jay-Z, and the Black Eyed Peas, among others. The battery did die around mile 23, but running the last few miles without music wasn’t the worst thing in the world.
How I Ran: I had no specific goal for this race, although I was secretly hoping to finish under 4 hrs. I wasn’t sure if that could happen because I had heard about the hills, and I’ve gained a few pounds since my 3:54 finish at Freedom’s Run in October. I started out near the 3:50 pacer and felt good for the first few miles, but I inevitably had to pee. I stopped at the first bathroom stop and had to wait several seconds for one of the bathrooms to come available. I’d say I probably lost at least a minute in the process. I was hoping to be able to catch the 3:50 group and run with them for a while, until I couldn’t anymore and had to drop back. This probably isn’t the suggested method for getting a PR, but I wasn’t out to get a PR so I thought it was a good strategy to challenge myself a little. After 8 (?) or so miles I finally closed in on the 3:50 pacer but I was pretty sure based on my watch that he was running way ahead of goal pace. Even better, I figured. I caught the group and ran with/near the pacer for most of the race. It wasn’t a concrete group — a few people came in an out and fell back or sped ahead. But it was nice to chat a little bit about races people had done, what their goals were, etc. At some point — I’m not clear on the mile but I’m pretty sure it was past the half — the pacer decided he really needed to slow town, so I went ahead and he stayed back. I could feel my legs getting more tired as the hills rolled on and on without any meaningful flat stretch. I was a little worried that I’d bonk, maybe even as early as mile 16. But I kept running, took in Gatorade when I started to feel really hot, and had the aforementioned Gu. I grabbed water at most of the stops, sometimes two cups. Around mile 20 or so the pacer caught me again, although I still think he was running ahead of plan at that point. I ran with him a little more but then we had a brutally huge hill around mile 21 and I just couldn’t keep up. I kept running but felt like I was shuffling along. All the half marathon walkers around me really didn’t help. I knew the end was near so I just kept pushing, but it was a struggle. I knew that my watch had the distance wrong because I’d had to do some inefficient movements as described above, but I didn’t realize how off it was. I was trying to keep my speed up through mile 24 and 25, thinking that I might still be able to finish under 3:50. But mile 25 felt like 1.3 miles because my estimate was so off. I yelled in my head Where is the finish? Where is the 26 mile marker at least??? Finally, it came, and I was done. 3:51:13! (8:49 min./mile) I was really pleased with that time, especially given that the course was so tough and I didn’t run particularly efficiently. I ended up fourth in my age group. I feel good about tackling one of my goals for 2016: to get back under 3:45!
Here are my splits from Strava:
About the City/What I Did: I had no preconceptions about Jackson. I had done a little research about what to do while there, with no great success. I figured we’d play it by ear. When we arrived Friday night, we were hungry but wanted something casual. First observation: downtown is a ghost town, at least on the weekend. The terms “desolate” and “post-apocalyptic” were used, multiple times. Especially because I just wanted some pasta or a veggie burger, our options were limited for a quick, close-by bite. We chose an Italian restaurant but then found out it had permanently closed in the fall. We gave up the search and headed downstairs to the hotel bar, where lots of other runners were chatting and eating away. The options were not cheap and our food took a while to come out, but my vegetarianized rigatoni did the trick well enough. (I later found out that the restaurant had some specials, including a veggie burger, that I would have wanted, but we weren’t told when we were ordering.) After the race, we decided to venture out to the surrounding neighborhoods because Jackson is spread out over several neighborhoods. We first headed in an Uber to Renaissance in Ridgeland, which is about 25 minutes north of downtown Jackson. We had an errand to run at the Apple Store, and by some miracle, they have one in Ridgeland. There were a bunch of other stores there, but mostly chains that we have at home. We were hungry for lunch at this point so we stopped in to a place called Another Broken Egg. Our food (a veggie burger for me and a salad for him) was just OK, but very reasonably priced. The only other dining options were a PF Chang’s, Panera, Give Guys, and a few other chain places. Next, we decided to head to Fondren, which I had run through earlier in the day. We had heard that Fondren was the “Hippest Neighborhood in Jackson” and housed the arts district. We had our Uber drop us off at a randomly-chosen boutique in Fondren, called Blithe & Vine. It was in a little unassuming shopping center along Highway 51 but was stocked with very chic (and upscale) items. We asked the very sweet and hip-looking employees there how best to explore/enjoy Fondren and they suggested we just walk around the big block their building was on. It was a great suggestion. We poked through an art gallery, a cool skater store with fun Jackson-themed shirts and mugs (Swell-O-Phonic), Treehouse boutique, and a home-goods store. We really wished we had waited to eat, because Fondren apparently has some great food options including Brent’s Drugs (used in the filming of The Help; I wanted so badly to get a milkshake but I was just too full!), Babalu, and Saltine. Next time! I was feeling a little tired after walking around Fondren, so we headed back to the hotel. For dinner, we walked a few blocks to Parlor Market. (In case you were wondering downtown was STILL deserted.) Parlor kept coming up in our research as the best place to eat. It had a nice homey but upscale vibe (I wore jeans, for those wondering) and was pretty crowded with well-to-do Jacksonians and what appeared to be a few other marathoners. After dinner, we wanted to take in some of the famous Mississippi Blues, so we walked on EMPTY streets a few blocks in the other direction, ending up at Hal and Mal’s, a Jackson institution. We were pretty early and were able to grab seats at the bar to listen to the trio playing and sip on local potables. I had a Freemason Golden Ale from Chandeleur Brewing Company in Gulfport, Mississippi. I haven’t had a beer in over two years, but I really wanted to try something local. It was good! My husband had a gin and tonic made with Cathead Distillery‘s Bristowe gin.
Overall Impressions: This is not an easy course, but I really enjoyed the swag, perks, logistical ease, and community feel of this race. It was very well organized. Jackson has some fun things to offer if you do some research and are willing to venture outside of downtown. I’d highly recommend this race if you live in or near Mississippi or if you are on a 50-state journey and need to cross Mississippi off your list. I wanted have a chance to explore Jackson, and I wasn’t particularly excited about First Light for my Alabama race, so I didn’t do the weekend double (well, and I didn’t want to run two marathons in a weekend…) but if that’s your thing, this is an especially good opportunity. Like it.