“Didn’t we already go down to Jackson?” This was Kaela’s response when I told her about the first race I was planning for 2020. If you remember from my Nashville race report, the Mississippi Blues marathon was supposed to be completed in 2017. The only problem was that upwards of a ¼ inch of ice was covering roads throughout Jackson. So after driving all the way down and staying the night, we turned back around and headed home. This year I was hoping for a little bit different weather situation as they moved the race back to February 29 (yay leap year race!) and it was also going to be the first leg of another back to back weekend. So yes, we were heading back south to tackle a few more states along the Mississippi River.
Race: Mississippi Blues Marathon
Location: Jackson, MS
Date: February 29, 2020
Training to start 2020 was going really good. Once we got back from our vacation in Australia I hit the road hard with goals to have some great races this year. Speed and tempo workouts kept my pace down and I was running faster and more comfortably than I had in the past few years. With the back to back races I knew that I wasn’t going to go as hard as I was training and needed to make sure I reigned myself in for those races. The week of the race I started feeling some weird pain in my foot (phantom taper pains) and instead of just powering through it I decided to take a few days of rest then have my shake out run on Friday and race on Saturday.
I decided to work from home the Thursday before the race weekend in order to get a quicker start to the journey once Kaela got off work. As usual though, time got away from me and Kaela was home and I wasn’t even close to being ready. We got on the road around 2:45pm and as Kaela put it “we were going old school.” My new (to me) car did not have GPS nor did it have SiriusXM radio so we were definitely going back in time. Or in other words, how most people drive on trips (we were so spoiled with company cars).
The drive was pretty smooth other than hitting just a little bit of traffic in Cincinnati. As we approached Florence, KY it was getting to be dinner time and Kaela was doing some searching for food options. We had been a fan of Q’doba on our last few road trips so she worked to find the closest one to our location. After a little bit of searching she located it but then I was quickly disappointed to find that it was in the mall. I’m already a driver that doesn’t like stopping so when we do need to stop I try to make it the most efficient stop possible. Kaela noticed a Piada outside the mall area so she placed an online pick up order (efficient) for us to grab. As we were pulling into Piada, I noticed a Q’doba, outside of the mall, literally in the parking lot next to Piada. We had a pretty good laugh about Kaela’s Google searching abilities pulling in but then sat in the parking lot and had a solid meal from Piada.
Back on the road, our next “first world problem” was tackling the issue of radio stations. As soon as we would find one that we liked it would get to static and we would be on the search for another. It was fun though playing sing along with songs we hadn’t heard in years from all different genres, especially when Kaela heard the first few notes and then turned the stereo volume up as she sung her heart out to N’Sync’s “Tearin Up My Heart.”
A real problem we had to discuss though was when to get a hotel. We try to drive as far as we can but in this area of the country dog friendly hotels are limited so we have to do a little bit of logistical planning to make sure we aren’t stranded. The idea was to either push to almost Memphis or stop just on the other side of Nashville. We stopped for gas and a quick Chick-fil-a pick me up while working out that decision. Oh yeah, another one of Kaela’s google fails on the trip down. This one may have been less her fault and more of the Chick-fil-a app. She processed an online order for an upcoming Chick-fil-a that was a few miles off the highway. However there was also a location directly off the highway that “didn’t show up” when she was placing the order. I told her that she may be banned from locating food places for the rest of the trip.
We came to the conclusion that it was a safer bet to stop the drive short and get a good night’s sleep before finishing the trip. We ended up staying in Dickson, TN which meant for a 5.5 hour drive the next day to get to Jackson. Settled into our two queen bed room, we both grabbed our own beds and called it a night.
“You going to get up?”
This is what I woke up to, thinking it was around 5am when Bella is ready for breakfast and to go outside. Nope! It was 7am and I was delaying us in finishing our trip. I took a look outside and noticed that wet snow was falling and that it looked miserable outside. So not only did I not run the last few days worrying about my foot, but I decided that I wasn’t going to get a shake out run in. “Unprecedented,” I told Kaela. I got myself together and headed down to get a quick breakfast before we hit the road. I was hoping to grab my typical hotel waffle but the Holiday Inn Express in Dickson threw me for a loop. They had a “pancake maker” machine that I’m sure was dreamed up on the Jetsons. You press a button that you want pancakes and it puts the mix on a belt that moves down the line to cook before dropping to a plate you have set up at the end of the line. I must have had this interested look on my face because one of the employees walked by and said “pretty cool, isn’t it?”
As I was packing the car in the crappy weather I realized I was glad that Kaela was driving this section, as people driving in this weather in TN frustrates me to no end. However, the crappy weather only lasted about an hour before the skies cleared up and it was a beautiful spring day. We spent the drive talking about a little bit of everything (as usual) while I was eating some bagels and cheerios and drinking cranberry juice. Kaela had made an observation of how well my training runs went without going crazy on the pre-run diet and thought I should try to take a step back from the 700+ grams of carbs, and I decided to listen (surprisingly I know).
We stopped for lunch around 1:30pm at Soulshine Pizza Factory, a cool pizza spot just outside of Jackson. Since we had a little bit of time before we would be able to check into our hotel, we decided to just sit in the parking lot and enjoy lunch. The sun was shining and it felt good to soak in the rays. Kaela recommended that since we had the time that we should find a local running store to get the gels I needed and the nip guards that I forgot at home. Fleet Feet Ridgeland was just on the other side of the highway so we made the trip. I talked with the sales guy for a bit as he told me about some of the elevation for the course. I then realized that I hadn’t even looked at the elevation chart or really the course map for that matter. I was definitely not planning well for this first race of the year.
We made our way into downtown Jackson to check in at the Westin. We chose it due to its location (a block from the start/finish) and the fact that they didn’t have a pet fee. As we were rolling our bags from the valet into the lobby, another couple was getting out of their car and the wife, noticing my Hartford Marathon shirt that I was wearing, asked me if I was running the full or half tomorrow. I told her the full and asked her back. Her response was “I am running the half and it will be state #25.” Now I’m not one to try and one up anyone but the way she came out with it I just had to. “This will be #35 for me,” I said as I walked past her and into the lobby.
After we got checked in and our stuff in the room, we headed across the street to the Mississippi Museum of Art for the expo and packet pickup. Well, it was advertised as an expo, but really it was just 3 vendors set up in the lobby, two of which were stores selling items, and a long table set up with about 6 or 7 people checking in folks. I got my bib and was then directed to a table 15 ft away to pick up my shirt. As I walked out, I had to take a double take on what just happened. I’m not a swag junky but there wasn’t even a plastic bag to carry the items in. I walked out carrying in my hands my bib, safety pins and my race shirt. This made me a little bit leery about the overall production that I was about to be a part of.
There was a local distillery that I had read about that was supposed to be close by so I grabbed Kaela’s phone to try and pull it up to see how long the walk would be. We made it to a corner of a street and no sooner than I pulled up the address I looked up and saw the side of the building with “Cathead Distillery” written on the side. I guess I didn’t need to find walking directions after all. It was a really cool spot and after grabbing a beer and learning that due to Mississippi liquor laws, they are unable to serve where they make it, we paid for a tour so we could sample their vodkas, gin and bourbon. Other than gin, which seems to be disgusting no matter where it is, their products were delicious. The tour was informative and Zack, our tour guide, was a cool cat. I grabbed a trucker hat, a glass and a bottle of bourbon from the gift shop before we made our way back to the hotel. On the walk I could kind of feel the 4 “shots” that I had during the tour, because you know it’s always a smart idea to drink hard liquor the day before a race, right?
Dinner was an adventure in itself. Kaela had asked about a pre race meal being offered for the runners at the hotel and was told that they did it last year and almost no one came out for it so they weren’t doing it this year. In addition to that, they didn’t have a single pasta dish available of any sort. There were no Italian places downtown which I guess makes sense in the deep south. I was looking up options on GrubHub or DoorDash because I didn’t want to have to get the car from valet and drive anywhere but between fees and tips it would have made dinner cost a small fortune. Fed up with searching, I found an Italian place just north of downtown that had pretty good reviews. They had a kids meal that was just spaghetti and marinara (something they didn’t have on the full menu when ordering online) so I ordered two of those and Kaela ordered a ziti alfredo kids meal. A 25 minute round trip and we were eating dinner shortly after 7pm.
So one thing I haven’t mentioned with this back to back was the company I would have with me. If you remember during my Texas recap (lots of call backs in this post) I met Parker who was a listener of my old podcast. We had kept in touch throughout the year and he had heard on my current podcast that I was going to be heading to Jackson and Little Rock for races. He sent me a message on Facebook saying that he was running Little Rock and with some convincing (really it was just me asking) he signed up for Jackson as well. We had similar race goals so we decided that we would tackle this together as it was his first attempt at back to back races. Throughout the day of travel we had kept in touch to line up start times and get each other pumped for the race.
I sat with my laptop and looked over some course information to help Kaela get her bearings and plan her points to see me along the course, before then getting my clothes and gear laid out for the race. We would be able to get back in the room after the race so I just made sure I was as organized as possible so it would be an easy transition between races. Race clothes chosen, shoes chosen, nutrition laid out, alarm clock set, I got a quick stretch in before laying down in the “heavenly” Westin bed (they are so nice) to get some sleep.
Happy Leap Day! Almost forgot that it was the 29th of February until I was sitting on my iPad while eating breakfast. I went through the motions of having my bagel with jelly and my Honey Stinger waffle as I listened to my pre-race playlist. Race start was at 7am and being able to see the start area from our hotel room allowed me to relax and take my time in the morning. We didn’t leave our room until 6:45am to make our way down. The lobby area of our hotel was full of runners stretching and staying warm. Kaela took Bella outside to walk and I followed and was hit with the cool breeze. I started to rethink the tank and shorty shorts but I knew it would warm up as the sun continued to present itself. I did some dynamic stretches and warmups since I had not run in a few days and wanted to shake out all the funk.
We made our way over to the start and it was just a mad house with people everywhere and no real organization that I could see. Kaela took my pre-race photo and then made her way on the course to her first spot. I walked toward the corral area to try and find Parker in the crowd. I spotted him near the 4:10 pacer and we made eye contact and nodded to confirm the acknowledgement of seeing each other. The issue is that I was on the side at least 6 rows deep of people from approaching the road. I decided to just hang out on the edge and once the race started I would catch up to him. I took my pre-race gel as it was a few minutes until the start.
At 7:01am they made an announcement that we would be starting in just a few minutes. Shortly after there was a unique rendition of the National Anthem by a local blues guitar player. I closed my eyes and said a prayer of thanks to get me to this starting line healthy and to guide my steps. I prayed that I wouldn’t take it too seriously but enjoy every step along the way. After the anthem, we were told it would be another few minutes. With this additional time, I decided to try and find a way into the corral. I noticed that just on the other side of the “entry point” that was blocked with people was a large open spot that if people filed in could have fit 20-30 more. I took a risk and “climbed” the barrier fence to get into the corral. After a little shaking and help from other participants (rolling their eyes of course) I was officially on the road just about 50ft or so ahead of where Parker was. They announced one minute until the start and I got in the zone.
Once the race started I stood to the side waiting for Parker to get closer and then made my way over to him. I went to start my watch as I crossed the start line and realized that it had already gotten off run mode as it timed itself out. I caught up to Parker as I worked frantically getting my watch to get a GPS signal and start. I gave Parker a fist bump and a “howdy” and we were on our way.
The start of the race was just hectic. Every distance that was running that day started at the same time in a mixed crowd. 5k, 10k, Half Marathon, Relay and the Marathon. So the first mile was hectic trying to get around people that were walking the 5k that lined up almost at the front of the corrals. Madness I tell ya!
Parker had set up with the 4:10 pacer at the start and since our goal was 4:15 for the race I wasn’t too upset with trying to stick with that pace. Parker and I caught up on how the trip was for him as we came upon the first turn of the course. All of a sudden we saw a guy take a tumble and almost roll it out before popping back up and moving along. We stopped for a moment to see if he needed any help but he just shook off the embarrassment and got back into his stride. Kaela was set up at around ½ mile marker but on the left hand side of the road as we were on the right. She had said she was in a good location but as the swarm of runners came by it kept pushing her to the edge. However, like a pro, she captured some really cool pictures as we ran on by.
Coming into mile 1 we chatted with the pacer who I recognized from the Morgantown marathon last year. He was doing this race and then Little Rock the next day as well so we chatted a little bit before separating. Parker and I got ahead of the pacer and maintained a comfortable pace and distance in front of him as we completed our first loop around the state capitol. There were some rollers in this section but the cool breeze kept us comfortable. One thing that wasn’t so great was the unfriendliness of the police officers. I like to thank them and any other volunteers for being out on the course and in this first section I don’t think a single one even acknowledged us and seemed bothered with having to be there. I was starting to get the gist that maybe this wasn’t a running town. We finished up the loop around mile 2 where Kaela was set up again cheering us on by and capturing a few photos.
We doubled back for a block before taking a right heading towards Jackson State University. On our turn we had a little surprise as Kaela had cut down a block to head to her next spot and just happened to cross paths with us again. This section started with a nice little climb for about a mile heading around a few roundabouts. There was no protection on this wide open section and the skies were starting to clear up a bit. The weather was chilly at the start but I knew that the temperatures were going to increase so I opted for a tank, hat and gloves. Parker and I kept up a conversation talking about just really a little bit of everything. It was nice to have someone to chat with during a race and just calm my nerves and over focus that sometimes creeps into my mind.
As we hit the top of the climb, we noticed an aid station near the bottom of our descent. I had made a comment about needing to pee but wasn’t going to wait so we would see what the porta-potty situation was like. When we approached the aid station, the volunteers had cups filled up on the table but were just standing around requiring us to grab our own. Now not to be a diva but what is the point of having 5-6 people at a stop if they are just going to be standing there. No cheering. No helping. Again, I’m thinking this isn’t a running town. Oh, also the porta-potty was full so I decided to keep pressing on.
After circling a round-a-bout we reached the campus of Jackson State University. We made our way on the brick laid path through the middle of the campus. Their marching band was providing some groove as we ran on by. Just a quarter mile on the campus and we were back on the road doubling back towards downtown Jackson. It was nice having the long downhill to “rest” our legs and Parker and I took full advantage of it. Just before mile 6 Kaela was set up on the side of the road taking pictures as we came under an overpass. I tossed her my gloves; since the sun was blazing in the sky they were no longer needed.
At mile 6 we approached an aid station right outside of Cathead Distillery. At this point I was really needing to pee and there was actually more than one port-a-potty available. Parker and I both used the opportunity to relieve any pressure before getting back on the road. I felt like a new man coming out of the port-a-potty, free of some extra liquid that had been applying pressure (TMI?). I was out before Parker and went to grab a drink and realized they only had red gatorade. I think I talked about this before but for some reason the red dye in drinks does not act kindly with my body when running. So I passed on it and was a little frustrated as races, in my opinion, should not have different flavors of electrolyte drinks as that just adds to stomach issues. Regardless I grabbed some water and Parker and I continued on.
After passing by the Westin we turned left on State Street to start the northern portion of the course. We spent the better part of the next two miles slowly climbing. We went by some businesses and houses, just passing people left and right that had gone out too fast or were not prepared for the hills. Parker and I were both surprised by the climb but had trained well enough to adjust and attack. And good thing we were well trained, because the next 4 miles would actually be rollers as well.
Around mile 8 we got off the long climb and worked our way in and out of neighborhood streets on rolling hills. It reminded me a little bit of the Flying Pig middle section and it was nice to see people along the streets out in front of their places cheering us on. Shortly before mile 9 there was a group out front one house just partying it up. They had a table with snacks, water, gatorade and their chant of Fireball shots. Fireball never seems like a good idea, especially during a race. I thanked them for being out there but Parker and I kept on moving.
We made our way out of the neighborhood and took a right on Riverside drive, which was a quick out and back to add some miles. The course had to be changed from previous years due to construction so they were getting miles in where they could. The out was downhill and comfortable but we could see how grueling the return was by the faces of those ahead of us. The sun was now out in full force and with little shade to cover it was starting to get to the runners. We kept our focus and used the downhill to make up for time we would be losing on the uphill.
At the end of the climb there was an aid station, a good reward for the strenuous climb. The reward was short lived as it was just the beginning of some steeper rolling hills. Parker and I increased our turnover and shortened our stride to run as efficiently as we could. We knew that it was too early to walk even if it was just up a short, but steep, hill. After cresting the highest point on the course we started to glide our way back towards downtown.
“Flores, why are you running so slow?”
Parker’s friend Jonathan was set up at mile 11 with some nutrition. I laughed it off and told him that Parker was going to break me. Parker grabbed some gatorade and extra gels and we kept on moving. We turned left on West Street and it was a smooth downhill with a single bump climb in the middle. We were completely exposed away from any sort of trees or large building and I started to realize that I haven’t been sweating. I had been drinking at every aid station but between the red gatorade and the distance between I knew I wasn’t getting enough. Parker and I talked about Kaela filling up my handheld with powerade and getting me some salt tabs to be covered for the second lap.
Passing by the capitol building around mile 12 we hit an aid station and I doubled up on fluids to try and play catch up (*Note: this never works*). We continued the downhill taking a right on State Street and heading back towards the start for lap 2. About a half of a mile down State Street we saw folks heading back up to the rollers on their second lap about an hour ahead of us and also folks walking the half marathon that were powering through the second half of their adventure. There were a lot of side streets on this part and between police not paying attention or no police at all, Parker and I almost got side-swiped a few times.
We turned right on Court Street and Kaela was set up outside of the Westin on the curb. She had some salt tabs ready for me but I asked if she happened to have my powerade and handheld. Then she reminded me of earlier that morning, when I had told her that I probably would not need it so we could leave it in the room. I asked her if she could go to the room and get it and meet me back on the course in the first little loop we have at the start. I thanked her for being out and quickly caught back up to Parker.
The crowd was lively as we approached the start/finish but we knew that we were only half-way there. We went through the finishers chute and continued on for our second lap. The announcer said as we passed, “The exciting thing is you get to do it one more time!” I wasn’t all that excited. I was dehydrated, hot and starting to get a little annoyed with the race itself. I was holding on to the salt tablets Kaela gave me hoping there would be an aid station at the start/finish for me to get some water, but I should have known better seeing how the race had been going.
On the positive side, Parker and I did have a great first half, running an official 2:03:06.
Parker and I continued on with our pace, trying to keep the stride going for as long as we could. I wasn’t sure where Kaela was going to end up meeting us as I didn’t give her clear directions and this was an audible from the plan. We made it back to the first aid station at mile 14 and I walked for a moment to take a gel and a salt tab now that I had the opportunity to have water. We made our way around the downtown area again and this time most of the police officers seemed a little more awake and willing to acknowledge the appreciation Parker and I were providing while others seemed annoyed for having to work the race.
At mile 15.5 we started to make our turn towards Jackson State University and Kaela was still nowhere to be spotted. I knew she was probably trying to follow and find us but since she could not know if we slowed down or what was going on, she wouldn’t have been able to easily find us. I counted it up as a loss and decided to not worry and to focus on the run and just getting to the next aid station. We baked in the sun through the rolling hills as we headed to and through Jackson State University. The aid station before campus was still just standing around and the band had long packed up and left. There was a solo guy with a drum keeping some bit of excitement but it was mostly a ghost town.
We were excited to get to the downhill as life was just getting sucked out of us. At mile 19, I spotted Kaela on the corner near where she was for the first lap around mile 6. I was glad that she was okay and she had brought my entire nutrition bag down to make sure I had everything I needed. Later, Kaela told me the story of trying to find us. After I asked her for the Powerade, she ran up to the room with Bella, grabbed it and made her way back to the course. She tried cutting off some of the course and ended up setting up around the 13.5 mile mark. The issue was that since we kept out pace we were there less than 5 minutes after I had asked her for it. She said she waited for a little bit until she saw a few folks in costumes and realized that there was no way we slowed down that much. As she was walking back towards the start/finish she saw us make the turn at 15.5 heading out of downtown.
I walked for a stretch with Kaela as I gulped up some gatorade and had a Honey Stinger waffle. I was feeling pretty rough but knew that I still had work to do. Jonathan was just a little further up and Parker had made his way to him to get his additional nutrition. We ran the rest of Court Street and then once we hit the start of the steady climb I brought us down to a walk. We walked for about a half of a mile, enough for me to get my pity party over with and suck it up. I knew it was going to be a tough last 10k and there was no need to make it tougher by feeling sorry for myself.
Through the upcoming rollers we got back on pace, walking just at the aid stations or steeper parts of the hills. We were able to power walk the hills at a good pace and that allowed us to conserve a little bit of energy. Just before mile 22 we approached the Fireball house again. This time, though, there was a house a few doors down that had PBR and donuts. Parker and I stopped for a moment and had a cup of PBR and a few donut holes. Then as we approached the Fireball house, they apparently had gotten creative and had a sign that said “Shots & Tots.” They had cooked up some tater tots and offered an array of items for the runners. I said no again to the Fireball but I definitely got a handful of tots to go. They were definitely a joy in the second lap as there wasn’t much crowd support other than this block.
Heading to the out and back on Riverside, we ran the downhill before taking a short walk break on the uphill. Parker and I both wanted to keep our legs moving so we didn’t want any walk break to be extended. They needed to be just enough to rest for a moment and then get back to it. It’s so easy to make walk breaks longer and longer at this point in the race and next thing you know you have just wasted 10-15 minutes you could have been running.
West Street was less fun this time around as the downhill seemed to feel like we were climbing because our legs were heavy and tired. There was an old gentleman walking down the street carrying a case of water and handing it out as runners went by. It was nice to see that some folks were still out cheering for us. At mile 25 we hit a community aid station that was stocked much better than the official race stops. I grabbed some gatorade and pickle juice as I thanked them for being out there. Leaving the aid station, Parker and I started to break down the time and I had realized that 4:15 was going to be out of the question as we were already a quarter mile up on the distance from watch to signage. Doing some quick math I said we needed to run the rest in order to get in under 4:20.
We hit the last aid station in front of the capitol building and picked up the pace as we turned down State Street for the last time. When we joined back up with the first loop we noticed folks still heading out with more than a 10k left to go. Parker and I were grateful that we weren’t going to have to be in this heat for much longer. After dodging some cars in intersections we made it safely to our turn on Court Street. As we made the turn we picked up the pace and ended up running the last half mile at 8:55 pace. Parker was stronger than me in this final push but we pushed each other to the final turn heading into the finish. Kaela was on the side taking pictures as we pushed in the final stretch. I gave him a fist bump and we took those final few steps to the finish.
After the race, I made my way quickly to shade as the sun was just brutal. Parker was still wearing his long sleeve shirt and I had no idea how he made it through with it. The finishers area fit in with the rest of the race with just bottles of water, granola bars and bananas. I was sure glad my race registration fee paid out into a runners experience *sarcasm*. Kaela and Jonathan met Parker and I outside the area and gave some congratulations. We kept moving around not to get too stiff heading to get a picture with the race sign and medal.
Overall the thing that saved my experience of this race was being able to run it with Parker. Having met him last year in Texas and then being able to run most of that race and then all of this race we had some great conversations about anything and everything. The race itself was lacking in so many ways. From the crowded, unorganized start to the aid stations that just seemed to be a second thought, it was not a top tier experience. Most of the volunteers were top notch and for the first lap the spectators were on point, but I think most of these “small town” marathons that try to over-do it end up falling short. That being said, the experience was still great being able to knock off another state and do so with a strong performance on a tough day due to weather and the hills.
This celebration was short lived as it was time to get ready for another race. I told Parker this is where the fun begins, starting the prep for the race we had the next day. We both went back to our hotels, showered, packed up and made our way to Little Rock.