With a slogan like that, it is pretty clear that the Tupelo Running Club means business, and cowards need not apply. Everything about this race – from the skull and crossbones surrounded by red roses on the tee shirt and medal to the candid responses from the race director to the dedicated cadre of volunteers – is meticulously thought out and well-done. So, how could I resist putting this marathon on my bucket list? Well, the truth is, I couldn’t. So, on Friday morning, September 3, I boarded the first of three planes on my way to Tupelo, MS, to experience this iconic race for myself. It definitely lived up to its reputation.
I arrived at the small regional airport in Tupelo around 3:30 pm. Phil Min, fellow Darksider and Marathon Maniac, had offered to pick me up at the airport and take me to packet pickup at the Trails and Treads running store on the way to our hotels. He was a gem, not only driving me to the race start on Saturday morning but also patiently waiting for me to finish the race so he could give me a lift back. Thank you, Phil, for going above and beyond – I do appreciate it. There was also a Maniac dinner on Saturday evening at Vanelli’s, a local restaurant, but I was beat and just wanted to wind down and go to sleep. Since I bring my own bread and peanut butter for my pre-race dinner and breakfast, I don’t usually eat out the night before a race, I hope to attend a Maniac meal some day, but this was not the time. Fatigue won out and I was asleep by 7. My alarm was set for 3 am; I awoke just before it went off and ate, dressed, and met Phil outside my Hampton Inn hotel at 4:15. It was a short drive to the starting point, the Mississippi Complex of the Tupelo Furniture Market. This was also the finish line, making it a convenient place to park.
The race began at 5 am on the dot. It was dark, of course, but a number of people brought flashlights (I had a small one) and there were some street and house lights to help illuminate the roads. The course is a circular out-and-back along country roads and residential neighborhoods. For those who chose to do the 14.2 mile race, the course continued straight on to the Furniture Mart, while those of us doing the entire marathon went as far as the turn-around point at the 13 mile marker and then reversed our steps back to the Mart. Highlights of the course for me – listening to roosters crowing and dogs barking, watching horses rolling around in the pastures near the road, jumping over intriguing roadkill (armadillos, possum, snake, frog), and chatting with the friendly people, most of whom passed me, but not without a kind word or two. Because of the out and back nature of the course, those of us at the rear were able to see and cheer on the front runners coming back towards the finish line. Altitude is not a problem but the course does have some rolling hills (which I like, because the change is good for my legs and feet); there were not many hills and they were not very steep, but they can certainly be felt, especially on the way back. The roads are not closed to traffic and the shoulder is narrow, but I found that most vehicles were extremely respectful of racers and gave us a wide berth. Traffic was not very heavy, mostly people heading to or leaving church, and not really a problem. Tupelo police were a visible presence, with several police cars watching over the racers and keeping an eye on things.
Weather turned out to be a challenge for me. Usually I am proud of the fact that I tend to bring sunny warm weather with me to races, but not this time. Tropical Storm Lee was hitting the Gulf Coast pretty hard this weekend and Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama were faced with flash flood and tornado watches and warnings. Tupelo was just north of the most severe weather problems but was still besieged with rain – just a drizzle at first but a real deluge for a good part of the time I was on the course. I got soaked. My clothes and shoes and socks and cap got soaked. There was a half hour when the rain let up and I began to dry out – and then it began to rain again. I kept reminding myself that I only had to complete the race within the 6 hour time limit; it didn’t matter if I didn’t get a PR and it didn’t matter if I didn’t finish in my usual 5:45 or so, as long as I got that medal! So, I ran the downhills when I could, slogged through the puddles not caring if my shoes got soaked (heck, they were already wet), and just kept moving forward. Exchanged words of encouragement with Bonnie and Bethany and Diane. Kept moving forward to that finish line. By the time I reached mile 25, I was confident I would make the time limit. The race director had assured me that the finish line would stay open as long as people on the course were moving with alacrity and not struggling, but it was a matter of pride for me to aim for that 6 hour limit. I finished in 5:44:45, right where I usually finish; rain didn’t seem to make a difference, I guess, although I probably would have enjoyed the experience more if I had been wearing dry clothes! I placed third in my age group and was awarded an attractive handcrafted plaque as a prize.
There was plenty of food at the finish line, even for us back-of-the-packers: pulled pork, buns, cole slaw, potato salad, baked beans, soda, and water. I think at some point there was beer as well, but I was probably too late to get some. Extra shirts for only $10 were also available at the finish line (I bought another because I like the gray-blue tie-dyed long-sleeve cotton with the great skull and crossbones design).
If you need lots of spectators or a big expo or lots of bands, this is most definitely NOT the race for you. But if you enjoy beautiful scenery, a rural atmosphere, friendly volunteers, good organization, and a somewhat challenging course, you will find this race a pleasure, enjoyable even in the rain.
Even though I know better than to try new things on race day, I admit to not following that dictum in this race. Instead of wearing my cotton/poly crops, I opted for a new pair of crops that were supposed to be quick-dry. I brought both with me but decided to wear the new ones because of the threat (which turned out to be reality) of rain. That was a good decision. The new pants were not really quick-dry (they stayed pretty wet while it was raining) but when the rain ceased for awhile, they did dry out a bit faster than my others would have. The other new thing I tried was a product called Blistop. This is a spray that is supposed to prevent blisters. I had bought a small can at Walgreen’s and thought this would be a good chance to see if it really works. I have a 24 hour race coming up soon and I wanted to forestall a bad blister experience like I had at FANS. So, on race morning I sprayed Blistop on my feet, let the spray dry, used Body Glide on the rest of the problem areas on my feet, put on my Injinji socks, and then my Saucony running shoes. I had no idea what to expect. Maybe this was just an anomaly but I felt no troublesome blisters cropping up at all during the race and, when I took off my socks afterwards, not one blister anywhere. Amazing, especially since rain tends to make my feet blister more than usual. I will try this product again in a few weeks and see if it is really the answer for me.
In the ‘better to let it go but this is my blog so I’ll mention it anyhow ’ department : Despite the ominous weather looming on Monday, my return flights were uneventful. However, the flight attendant on Pinnacle Airlines on the trip from Tupelo to Memphis (her name was Joyce) insisted that my small rollerboard would not fit in the overhead compartment of a CRJ-200. Since I travel on these small planes WITH this small rollerboard ALL the time, I knew that my bag would fit and suggested she at least let me try. She would have none of it – and demanded that I gate-check it (which I did – this woman was much bigger than me). But it was annoying, especially since she was wrong. There, I feel better venting.