2011 marathon winner, Peter Kemboi of Kenya / Bill Wilson
John Noblin, director of the Mississippi Blues Marathon / Bill Wilson
Deemed by one runner as “the friendliest race I’ve ever run,” the Mississippi Blues Marathon continues to mix good old southern hospitality with a relentless attention to detail, making it one of Jackson’s best-received events.
Since 2008, the Blues Marathon and Half-Marathon has attracted runners from 49 states and 10 countries, many of them first-time visitors to the magnolia state. Last January’s race sold out with 2,500 participants, and registration is already brisk for the 2013 marathon, on tap for January 5th.
Julie Skipper of Jackson has seen the race evolve, having run the full marathon its first year, the half-marathon in 2009 and anchoring a relay team this past January. “I think it’s been exciting to see the race grow into such a great event in a short period of existence.
“It’s a cool way to show off Jackson to visitors – people come from all over the country, and not only do they get to see the city and a number of neighborhoods while running the course, but they get to enjoy our music and hospitality.”
Race director John Noblin credits sponsor Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Mississippi with making the Blues Marathon such a successful event, “They’ve been the ideal partner. Their involvement has allowed us to go straight to the look and feel of a really big event. We didn’t have to grow into a top-shelf event – they took us straight there.”
John Sewell, director, corporate communications at Blue Cross & Blue Shield says, “This event ties in so well with our mission as a company, and we've seen so many Mississippians get excited about training and participating in the race. It's a great way to inspire people to make positive changes in their lifestyles and their overall health."
The 26.2 mile course is considered by many runners to be fairly challenging because of the hills. In designing the course, Noblin, a life-long Jackson resident, started with the question: If you could get somebody to come to Jackson for one day in their life, what would you show them?
As a result, runners pass the Old Capitol, within sight of the New Capitol, by Millsaps and UMC, and through Fondren, Eastover, and Belhaven. They see Jackson State, several Blues Trail markers, the Welty House and the Governor’s Mansion. It’s a tour of Jackson in a few hours.
Says Sewell, "You can't watch the finish of a marathon without getting excited and cheering for the people coming across the finish line. Whether it's a close friend or a perfect stranger crossing the line, spectators really support the tremendous accomplishment of these competitors."
What about the blues?
Planning for the initial race began in 2007 at a meeting of marathon enthusiasts. The success of music-themed events such as the Rock and Roll Marathon in San Diego and the Country Music Marathon in Nashville had always appealed to Noblin, so he proposed the logical name for this one – and the Mississippi Blues Marathon was born.
The organizers knew that the marriage between the marathon and Mississippi’s signature music was ideal. Blues music has a national and international appeal, and there is an indelible association with Mississippi. It has become a central part of what makes this marathon unique. Celebrating the blues is the overarching theme of the event. And in fact, a part of the proceeds is donated to the Mississippi Blues Commission to support the Musicians’ Benevolence Fund.
Live music plays a big part as well. Stages are set up along the marathon route and musicians entertain spectators and passing runners alike. Everyone is encouraged to come out, enjoy the music, and cheer the competitors. There’s a big stage at the finish line in front of the War Memorial for more music and all the post-race festivities.
After the race, the music continues Saturday night with the Blues Crawl between the live music venues downtown. There are blues acts performing, and a trolley runs continuously between each venue and the hotels. All the runners receive a wristband for free admission to each location, and non-runners can pay a single cover charge. Julie Skipper sees this as something that all of Jackson can enjoy and get excited about. “It’s been well-received and a lot of fun, and I think there’s room for more ancillary events as the race continues to mature.”
In fact, Noblin envisions one day expanding to something bigger. “I’d love to see the music part grow to Friday and Saturday night shows, kind of a South by Southwest event, with more acts in downtown locations all within walking or shuttle bus distance from each other.” He feels that moving towards a full weekend event with a festival atmosphere will attract even more runners and non-runners alike.
What they're saying
John Sewell says, "What's been amazing is to see the growth of the race not just from around the country, but from the number of runners from around the world. We've had runners from Taiwan, Iceland, Switzerland, Poland, Australia, Italy, England, Kenya, Ethiopia. They're coming because the blues are a world-wide art form, and they're coming because they've heard that we've got the friendliest race around."
Runners from all over the country and in disparate corners of the globe have been overwhelmingly complimentary about the Blues Marathon, noting that race organizers do a tremendous job. Also receiving high marks are the hundreds of volunteers who, as one runner put it, “always say ‘Thank you!’ to the runners, when in reality, we should be thanking them.”
And then there’s the swag. That’s the goody bag that every competitor receives, and the swag for the Mississippi Blues Marathon gets rave reviews. Each bag comes with a race shirt, a blues CD and a commemorative harmonica.
Noblin points to the website www.marathonguide.com to illustrate how this race measures up compared to other marathons. The race reviews from hundreds of runners are exactly what he’d hoped. Many talk about this being the friendliest event they’ve ever run, or that they had never been to Mississippi and adore this race.
He’s quick to give credit where it’s due, citing not only support from Blue Cross & Blue Shield but also help from local government. “The city of Jackson could not be more helpful. JPD and traffic engineering are just fantastic to work with, and the mayor’s office couldn’t be better. The county and the sheriff’s department help us get the course ready before the race.”
Putting in the miles
While the race attracts people from far and wide, there is no shortage of local runners, many attempting their first marathon or half-marathon. Leslie McLin of Fleet Feet Sports encourages anyone interested in training for next January’s event to sign up for the Blues Training Program. She expects the Fleet Feet program to train over 200 people for the marathon and half-marathon this year.
Jeff Seabold coaches in the training program and is enthusiastic about the value of training with a group. He says many people start out never believing they can run a full marathon, but with the support of group training end up doing just that. According to Seabold, “you may not be a marathoner today, but you can be in 20 weeks – you just have to take the first step.”
Fleet Feet’s Blues Training Program includes two classes a week and covers nutrition, race prep, injury prevention, stretching, strength training, and time management.
Something for everyone
With five months to go, organizers of the Mississippi Blues Marathon are predicting another record turnout. Noblin directs runners to the website www.msbluesmarathon.com to register for the marathon, half-marathon, or the five-person relay.
Not a runner? Hundreds of volunteers provide crucial race-day support and are the welcoming faces for all those out-of-towners pounding the pavement. Online sign-up will be available for the first time this year, beginning later in the fall.
Runner, volunteer, spectator, or music lover – don’t miss this first-class event. To quote one of the last year’s competitors, “These are the nicest people I've ever done a marathon with.
Congratulations to Jackson, Miss. YOU ARE THE WINNERS! “