The Hopeful Blues: Memphis and the St. Jude Half Marathon

Memphis, TN: December, 2018

Tennessee is said to have three Grand Divisions, physiocultural regions represented by the three stars on the state flag and on the Titans logo:

The northeast tip of Tennessee is closer to New York than to Memphis, and Memphis is as close to Houston as it is from the far end. I’ve written about each Grand Division of this diverse state – First the east, now following up with the west.

Our Airbnb smelled like ground coffee and natural gas. Of the two scents, it was the latter, less pleasant of the two that I could accurately source as the massive stone fireplace that took up an entire wall. Derek twisted the knob below the fake logs as I read the apartment’s instruction manual, quickly arriving at the bolded DO NOT ADJUST FIREPLACE subsection. I mentioned this a few seconds tardy to Derek, who upon switching to counterclockwise turning, was greeted with a hiss and subsequent roar of an enormous flame, hot enough that I took a step back before reading the next page and texting the host to figure out how to turn it off. Our trip to Memphis was off to an inauspicious start.

In fact, Derek’s mere presence was due to a hitch in plans, as Lauren was supposed to join me in Memphis but was pulled into a weekend work conference, so I mentioned it to my friend, who was for some reason interested in cheating on veganism and watching me run the St. Jude Half Marathon in a city he would never visit otherwise. An early adopter when it comes to tech, Derek was not so with atypical divergence from his comfort zone. He had been hesitant about Airbnb so I didn’t inform him of the arrangement until we were past Nashville, but I didn’t feel bad about withholding this detail, as he went months thinking rideshare drivers were all various types of murderers and now is the first to call a Lyft. After the fireplace incident, he did so and we were soon in the backseat of a Hyundai Pilot heading for downtown Memphis. A light drizzle forced the driver to flip on her windshield wipers and she mentioned that overnight tornado warnings were threatening the occurrence of the half marathon the following morning

Pining for barbeque, we walked in the direction of Beale Street through the main downtown area, at roughly the same pace as a cacophonous streetcar. Gliding upon tracks in the middle of a well-lit historic area in the drizzly twilight, it certainly had the potential to be quaint and attractive, but instead would stop every couple of blocks and wait for us to arrive, blast its whistle at a higher volume than necessary and scoot off, ready to ring our ears again several hundred feet down the road. Our pace soon quickened due to the steadying rain, and we left the trolley in our wake.

Memphis barbeque tastes a bit like jerk sauce, thinner in texture than most, and is a spicy relief from some of the more cloying regional styles. The food in Memphis is generally inexpensive and generous of portion, its business district behind its peers in terms of culinary revitalization, a benefit to the traveler who is more interested in getting served promptly than in a photogenic meal. Derek and I dined at one of the more renowned restaurants downtown, in a large labyrinthine basement with bow tied servers and plenty of open seating, a place that would be bustling in other similarly sized cities across the south and Midwest. I ordered a simple pulled pork sandwich, essentially a means of sauce transport. Derek got a sampler on an oval plate the size of a cafeteria tray, its circumference piled evenly with different pig parts like numbers on a clock, and I promised not to tell Carly, as his sister and vegetarian enforcer would excommunicate him from the family.

Somehow Derek had eaten his mountain of food and cleared his tray of cornbread crumbs before I finished my comparatively minuscule meal, waiting as I savored the last of the sauce that had broken the bread dam and slithered its way toward the greens. We then walked up to Beale Street, the sun having set mid-meal, and tried to find a blues bar with no cover charge, succeeding in the form of one named for B.B. King.

After one drink and heading immediately to the restroom, I finished the task and walked in the direction of a bearded older gentleman in a bow tie who offered me the convenience of spritzing too much powdered soap in my palms and then turning on the water with a handkerchief.  I lathered and rinsed as the guy was making all sorts of small talk but the surplus of soap wouldn’t dissolve.  It instead transferred a now goopy, semi-viscous substance from hand to hand, coalescing in the lines of my palms and between fingers, with an additional colony beginning to form underneath my wedding ring.  A line was forming behind me but I needed to solve this situation before returning lest my beer glass slip from my grasp and slide off the table like an air hockey puck, so I rinsed and writhed and the attendant chatted and smiled and when I finally reached a passable level of swabbed I dropped my only dollar bill into his tip jar and made my way out.  It was a good thing I was too full of barbeque to have a second drink because that was not a process I wished to repeat.

A soul band took the stage performing a Motown rendition of some Mariah Carey song, and they were outstanding. The instrumentalists had stage presence only outdone by the lead singer, herself with a voice like a subdued Diana Ross.  They were relative unknowns and would have been showstoppers at any music bar at home, but here they were relegated to being the opener for the opener for the opener for Blind Mississippi Morris.  The bar loved it when they moved on to Sweet Caroline, and Derek and I did as well, our corner table on the mezzanine close enough to see the band, far enough away to avoid audience participation.

We left early in the evening and the forewarned storm seemed to have manifested itself directly over Beale Street.  Thick raindrops fell at an acute angle, collecting in mobile puddles on the road and reflecting the neon that illuminated the block. A tornado had touched down just a few miles away in Arkansas and roars of thunder replaced bluesy guitar clangs, the flashes of lightning paling the bright blue Live Music signs hovering over each entryway. Through the rain, Beale Street looked like a shorter version of Nashville’s Broadway, though blues themed and more diverse, and the architecture and dim interiors of many of the bars seemed as if somebody accidentally spilled a few drops of New Orleans into a cup of Tennessee. The deluge enticed potential customers into bars with even greater success than the tunes spilling out of club windows, and it was certainly the emptiest I would see the streetscape, so I tried to take a few pictures before Derek ushered me into the Lyft.

I woke to another round of thunder and an email from the race director about an additional half hour delay.  I got ready and ate breakfast and waited until the last possible moment to leave, when the storm had downgraded to a steady rain.  It was a two mile run from the Airbnb to the start line in downtown Memphis which would serve as a suitable warm up.  This area on foot was advised against by our driver the previous night since I would be passing through generally disreputable parts of town, but the hazard to my well-being from navigating by car through road closures and trying to park in a city suddenly infilled by fifty thousand extra people seemed far greater.

My warm up was mostly downhill as I was heading for the river, and the rain gradually lessened by the time I reached Main Street.  I slowed to a walk and followed the same path that Derek and I did the night prior along the streetcar tracks to Beale Street.  In the daylight, I was able to see the ginger colored leaves that still hung over Court Square, giving this early December day a look of late autumn and shading the park from an emerging sun.  As nice as it was to see in the calendar’s dark final month, the sun was going to cause problems for someone like me who was used to training through a crisp northern autumn.  Humidity chased the storm and it was beginning to feel like a summer morning, and I had a feeling I would soon miss the dark clouds that were quickly retreating south towards Mississippi, leaving with us a heat index near eighty. I was not planning on running this race for a specific time, so the weather bothered me less than if it were a goal race, but this would prove to be one of my most challenging half marathons to date. 

The course of the St. Jude Half is a constantly-turning zigzag through the riverside area of Memphis, the map a jumbled row of scratches like a kindergartener trying to draw a house. Twice, we ran along a broad parkway between the Mississippi River and a bluff peopled by partying spectators, the tiny hills of the delta zapping my energy more than I expected, and during the second jaunt along this road I had to let the pace group go. Even my backup goal was trotting away around a bend as I slowed to a plod and stared at Arkansas. I knew this would be a slower race as I had taken a half-year off from serious training but hitting the wall after eight miles was an advanced seminar in humility. 

About halfway through the race, the course weaved through the campus of St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital and all prior ill-effects vanished upon entering the front gates. The crowd of kids and their parents was so deafening that I have yet to experience anything like it during a race, start, middle, or finish. Nearly all had smiles and arms raised for high fives (reciprocated as many as I could) or signs that read You’re All Heroes (I should have been holding these, not them), and the atmosphere was as positive and reassuring as I have seen. This mile alone was worth the trip, and I regret feeding off of the positive vibes to also make it my fastest, choking up a bit as I left the hospital campus and turning back onto the streets of Memphis.

The people of St. Jude thrust me along with my last energy reserve, and by mile ten I was walking intermittently. My right calf had begun cramping and my head throbbed with each step, punishing me for overreaching through the first two thirds of the race. Just months after placing in a half marathon, I was sipping a mimosa in the middle of one, telling the woman who had a card table full of alcohol that I might as well enjoy the next few miles anyway I can.

I don’t recall much about the finish, but it was a minute per mile slower than my previous half, and I walked through the runners area inside a minor league baseball park looking for the fastest way out. Derek was sitting in the lower deck, enjoying the warm December air while dawdling on his phone and waiting for me to finish. I handed him one of the two beers I brought from the finishers area and we watched people wander around the perimeter of the ballfield, jelly-legged and sunsoaked, groping around for sustenance. From the looks of it, I was hardly the only runner to have a bad race, and outside of the mile through St. Jude’s campus, relaxing in row ‘H’ of the Memphis Redbird’s stadium was my favorite part of the day.

Eventually, Derek and I began the two mile walk back, uphill this time, to the Airbnb. The street was completely empty, of people literally, of buildings figuratively. I hadn’t noticed the surroundings during our evening rides or my early morning warm up, but the street between downtown and the apartment that we were so warned about was bereft of anything, sinister or otherwise. I never once felt threatened, but my gait, caught in the aftershocks of dueling calf cramps, would have disallowed me to do anything about it if I did. Derek offered to pay for a Lyft back (he had jogged down to the race the same way I did) but I declined, seeking a proper cool down and also stubbornly out of principle, the latter reason becoming more hardened as the walk progressed. We stopped once to duck into a liquor store and Derek huffed the final third of the trek carrying a six pack of something local. The afternoon was then spent with the following items in descending order of importance: Chair, leftover barbeque, beer, college football. I realized this was the inverse of nearly every Tennessean on the day of the SEC Championship.

With one night left in Memphis, we took a final Lyft to Beale Street to see it in more pleasant weather. The driver, a young man in a newsboy hat, looked at us through the rear view and said “You don’t look like drunken Santas.”

Considering we were neither, and not at all sure what he was talking about, I thinned my gaze and asked him to repeat himself. Five Star Isaac reassured us by explaining that there was an event on Beale that night where bars were exchanging free beer tickets with donation of a toy for a holiday charity. Most people dress in some form like Santa Claus, and for us plain-garbed outsiders he had a box in the passenger seat of toys he wanted to donate and was doling them out to those he drops off, as drinking and Lyfting is a quick way to lose a livelihood. I fished out a set of plastic binoculars and held them up to my face backwards, looking at a now distant Derek, who had chosen a Frisbee.

Isaac drove us as far as he could, as there was a set of festival tents in the middle of Beale Street and the entirety was blocked to traffic. The line to exchange toys for beer tickets was evening-ending long, so we dropped the binoculars and Frisbee into the box and paid for drinks at from an outdoor stand. Away from the tents, the street was calm, and we found a table within subtle earshot of the Blues City Band Box, where steel guitar and harmonica tunes wafted out of an open window like a beckoning scent. In front of us, the green lit sign of an upstairs Absinthe bar flickered, and all down Beale Street, drunken Santas spilled beer beneath autumn leaves on a springlike night.

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