By Joey Lee
Every great city in this nation has a great marathon – Boston, New York, New Orleans, Houston and yes, Jackson. Each January since 2008, thousands of runners have descended on the capital city to challenge themselves in the Mississippi Blues Marathon, presented by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Mississippi.
“It’s kind of hard to remember how this all got started,” said John Noblin, Blues Marathon Race Director. “I got invited to a meeting by a couple of guys who had just run a Team in Training marathon and decided that Jackson needed an event-type marathon.” John was targeted by this group because of his instrumental role in the success of the Tour Le Fleur which eventually became the Olympic Trials for Cycling in 2000. “Then somehow that meeting ended with me in charge.”
What started as a dream of a small group of locals, has turned into Mississippi’s premier marathon, one sought out by people from around the globe, and an event that brings millions of dollars into our state.
Marathons are a great way for a city to showcase its best attributes, taking runners on a course that highlights the best it has to offer. They’re great for any number of reasons, but who can argue with the economics? “The direct and indirect economic impact of the 2013 Blues Marathon was in excess of $1 million,” John said. “To date, the marathon has generated more than $5 million of economic impact for the city.”
“I was born and raised in Jackson but have lived out of state for the last couple of decades. I was very proud of my hometown and how they presented themselves.” – BH, Texas
One of the biggest challenges in creating a great event is funding. John attributes much of the success of the Blues Marathon to the involvement of Blue Cross Blue Shield. “Blue Cross Blue Shield’s sponsorship from the very beginning is what has made this event work so well. They wanted everything about the race to be top-shelf and they made that happen.”
“The volunteers were the friendliest I’ve ever experienced. I typically thank the volunteers for their hard work, however this was the first marathon where the volunteers repeatedly answered, “Thank you, we’re glad you came.”” – JS, Atlanta, GA
The first year, the race sold out at 1,500 runners. “Selling out caught a lot of us by surprise,” John said. “We had a lot of people stopping by the expo to register and we had to turn them down. I don’t think anyone around here had ever thought about a local race selling out.”
You can judge how well a race is run the first year by participation the next few years, and judging by that, Blues Marathon organizers nailed it. In 2013, the race sold out with 3,000 runners and this year they will stop accepting entries at 3,500, more than doubling the number from the inaugural event.
Noblin attributes the growth of the race to “word-of-mouth” marketing. He said that after the first year, word really spread about this great race in Mississippi. Just a quick glance at marathonguide.com and you see the rave reviews. The course rates four out of five stars, the fans rate four and the organization receives a five star rating.
But without a great race and great amenities, that word of mouth would not have been so positive. Runners love a marathon experience and that’s what John and his team provide.
The Blues Marathon offers a killer race packet; this is the loot participants get just for signing up, and has included items like a race shirt, bluesman sunglasses, a blues harmonica and a blues CD, all stuffed inside a Blues Marathon backpack.
A nice finisher’s medal is another way to gain a following and attract more runners. The Blues Marathon is known for its medals. As a matter of fact, this is the third consecutive year the medal was named as one of the top 25 in the country by Marathon & Beyond Magazine.
Music also helps elevate the marathon. Even before the race, there are musicians playing at the expo while runners pick up their packets and find bargains from various vendors. Along the marathon course runners enjoy blues musicians beltin’ out the classics and at the finish line, there’s a party atmosphere with more music, pizza, red beans & rice, tomato bisque and, most important to many of the runners, plenty of beer.
At most marathons, once the post-race party is over, it’s over. But not at the Blues Marathon, race organizers host a Blues Crawl that night, open to racers and the general public alike. “Again, this offers more live music and it’s open to the public,” John said. “It gives our visitors a chance to experience some local color.”
“The friendliness of this race is really one of its distinguishing features. I can’t tell you how many times a volunteer thanked me for running in Jackson. I’m supposed to be thanking them!” – ER, Philadelphia, PA
“I have run 108 marathons and this is one of the top five. The city is very friendly and spectators were very supportive. Post-race party food and drinks were some of the best and the music was awesome! This is THE marathon to run in Mississippi.” – RR, Aurora, CO
When I asked John how big he thought this event could get, he responded, “I wish I knew. Five thousand used to seem like a lot and though we’re not there quite yet, I think I’d like to see it go past that number but I really don’t have a figure in mind. There are races that are much older than ours and still smaller and some that are even younger and already bigger. We will always draw a lot of 50-staters (a growing faction of runners trying to complete a marathon in all 50 states), but I’d like to see our Mississippi participation numbers grow. That would mean the running population here is growing.”
He also commends the City of Jackson for their part in the marathon’s success, “The City of Jackson has been great to work with. They handle everything from street repairs to traffic control and they do a great job. I think they realize there’s not another event that’s going to bring in people from all 50 states and several countries and give them a tour of the city, so they do what they can to help our visitors have a great experience.”
So, if you’re a runner, you should sign up. If you don’t want to run, you should volunteer. If you don’t want to volunteer, come out to the finish or cheer the runners on along the course somewhere. Where else do you have the opportunity to be a part of one of the state’s greatest athletic events, and play a role in promoting the success of Mississippi at the same time!
The Mississippi Blues Marathon & Half Marathon is set for January 11, 2014 For more information and to register, visit www.msbluesmarathon.com.