“Was walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale.”

~From “Walking in Memphis” by Marc Cohn

At some point Friday night, after a twelve-hour drive, it started to don on me just how many songs have been written about Memphis, how many incredible artists got a start at Sun Records, how much history still lives there. It was dark and misty as we rolled up to the race expo for the Saint Jude Marathon. I was feeling heavy in more ways than one. My friend Brian let me work in the car a bit on the drive, which helped somewhat in alleviating the weight of my impending deadline with my publisher. I’m excited about my new book, but memories of being a graduate student are flooding back to me as I consider how much has to occur between now and when the manuscript is due. 

I was also heavy in a more literal sense. I think I’ve run around twenty-two hundred miles this year, something like that—so many that I stopped adding them up and will have to go back over my running logs to do the math. I’ve more than doubled the mileage of any previous year. I’m proud of it, but it has come at a cost. My hips are sore, an issue I’ve never had before, and while my feet have given me at least a short break from the trouble they like to cause, my knees have taken their place and now complain during most runs that exceed five miles. Worst of all, I just felt leaden. I recall those races, those runs, when I could bound around with energy, light as a feather. But here, in early December, even walking can be something of a chore. I need rest. I know I need rest. But pulling into Memphis, I knew I wasn’t about to get any.

Friday night after the expo we laid out our gear and set our alarms. Brian had informed me in no uncertain terms that this marathon, his second, would be his last. I understand, though we’ve been running together for years and I harbor hopes he may one day reconsider. We’ve known one another for decades now, and I enjoy his company. We grabbed some pasta at the hotel bar, skipped the wine, and went to bed early. Saturday morning we awoke to the revelation that the hotel was out of coffee and, yes, I plan to write a scathing review. How dare they?! Uncafffeinated, we headed to the start line.

I feel inclined to bore you with details, here, dear reader, as they are myriad and most of them seared into my memory. However, keeping this brief makes more sense to me right now. Some highlights from the race, however, are important.

Early in the race, we ran through the St. Jude Village, where children who were patients came out and waved at us. There were runners around me openly weeping. I came to tears. No wonder 26,000 people run this race each year, and I thought back to the race director telling us that this year they raised around fifteen million dollars. Amazing. I’m thankful my family has no need to St. Jude, but that realization only makes me want to support their mission more.

The course itself was flat, running through beautiful neighborhoods, parks, and historic parts of Memphis, and the weather was good. Both of us being experienced pacers, Brian and I opted not to join the pace group but instead to try to hold out own at around a ten-minute pace. We chatted as we went, and while Brian was perky an energetic I was heavy from the beginning. Still, at that relatively slow pace, I was able to keep up. We walked aid stations for about fifteen seconds each—there were so many of them—and we banked around four minutes in the first half.

Around mile eighteen, inexplicably, I began to loosen up. Maybe it’s because I started singing Paul Simon’s “Graceland” aloud as I ran, but suddenly, after all that running, I felt better than I did at the start. My friend, however, was having the opposite experience, and by mile twenty I could tell he was hurting. At mile twenty-two we had a brief conversation and he told me he planned to do some walking and that I should go ahead. I realized if I didn’t, I’d end up dragging him along at an uncomfortable pace for both of us, and that injury was a risk. He needed to do his own thing, so I told him I’d see him at the finish line.

With nothing on my mind but running, I sped up. I went from a ten-minute pace down to an eight almost immediately. I made a game out of passing people, and started to count the marathoners I passed. By mile twenty-three, the number was thirty-nine and I felt amazing. At mile twenty-four, the road was lines with banners bearing the images of young people who had been cured of cancer at Saint Jude, a series of before-and-after pictures that were designed to bring you to tears and were extremely effective. I sped up. I uttered a quick “good job” or “you got it” to each person I passed, silently tallying their numbers. As I got to the top of the hill that descends toward the finish line, there were but two more runners in front of me and I had passed a hundred and thirty marathoners on my way, hacking huge chunks of time off my race in the process. I intended to let the two in front of me keep their lead, until the one in front threw his hands up in celebration with fifty yards to go. Something in my forced me to kick at that moment, and I finished having passed a hundred and thirty-two runners in an unofficial time of 4:08:17, which turned out to be my fastest time ever. My chip time was slower, but still good enough for the second fastest marathon in my life. I felt amazing, and almost immediately began scheming to return to Memphis next year, this time perhaps raising money for St. Jude.

The rest of the day was spent at the post-race party drinking local beer and on Beale Street at B.B. Kings eating ribs and listening to some amazing local artists. It was, frankly, perfect, and might go down as the best race I’ve ever run. Ironically, Sonja leaves for Memphis tomorrow for work.

And so, dear reader, thus concludes the story of my racing in 2022, though the Kandahar Marathon will continue until the end of the year. Here, I have a small favor to ask of you: presently I pay a significant amount of money to be able to send my blog out to my large mailing list, and I intend to stop paying very soon. On that note, if you’re interested in keeping up with me in 2023, would you please “follow” this blog on my web page, markgudgel.com, so that we can keep in touch? I’ll write The Kandahar Marathon through the end of 2022, but the new year is fast approaching. Thank you for reading. Have a great week, everyone!

~Mark

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