I have to admit that I felt a little out of place the first time I went to Jackson, Mississippi. It was back in 2003 and my wife and I were visiting Memphis and decided to take a road trip down I-55 to see another city after we noticed that Jackson was only a couple hours away. I’m not really sure what I was expecting but I hadn’t done very much traveling at that point and Jackson was different from a lot of the cities in northern states that I had been used to visiting. I don’t mean that in a bad way – it’s just that confederate flags, antebellum structures, statues of civil war generals and markers signifying historical moments in the civil rights movement aren’t really common sights around Chicago. After that trip, I wasn’t sure if I would ever go back to Jackson again or not, but when I heard about the Mississippi Blues Marathon almost 10 years later, I knew I was going to have to go run it just based on my love of blues music alone. I ended up being really happy that I did.
Good or bad, Jackson has a pretty lush history. A lot of what the city is known for is related to the civil war and ensuing civil rights movements (Jackson was home to a number of issues and struggles related to segregation), but what a lot of people might not be aware of, and what the Mississippi Blues Council has been working to shed more light on over the last several years, is that an extremely large number of blues musicians were either born in, died in, or can somehow trace various career highlights back to Jackson and other areas of Mississippi. In fact, more blues singers in the Blues Hall of Fame have come from Mississippi than from any other state (a few examples: B.B. King, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson, Elmore James, and Ike Turner).
The purpose of the Mississippi Blues Marathon is to highlight some of the rich blues history in and around Jackson and the course is specifically laid out to bring runners past a number of historical markers along the Mississippi Blues Trail. While this is not a huge race as far as the number of participants go, because of its uniqueness and reputation for being well organized and interesting, it’s continuing to increase in popularity and seems to be getting bigger every year. In 2013, there were about 2000 runners total and there was a full or a half marathon course available to choose from. Since then a quarter marathon course has been added as well and there’s also a relay and a kids race available.
As far as travel goes, Jackson has an international airport, so flying there is fairly easy. The one piece of advice I would give though is that if you’re planning on flying, make sure you also rent a car. I didn’t think I was going to need to when I went because Jackson is not a very big city (the population is around 175,000, which not only makes it a fraction of the size of a city like Chicago, but there are even a few Chicago suburbs (Aurora, Naperville, Joliet) that are close to the same size as downtown Jackson)…. and while it’s true that as long as you stay at one of the downtown hotels, you’ll probably be able to walk to the expo, start line, finish line, and most of the other places you’ll need to get to around the city, the airport is not very close to downtown. It was about a 40 minute ride from the airport to my hotel and I spent more money in cab fare getting to and from the airport than I would have spent on a rental car.
The race expo is in the Jackson Convention center and while it isn’t very big, I would say that the size is appropriate for the number of runners (aside from the t-shirt and bib pickup tables, there were maybe 5 or 6 other tables with running gear, information about the Mississippi Blues Trail and a few more historical attractions around Jackson along with some other assorted types of merchandise).
There are two things that make the Mississippi Blues expo unique compared to any of the others I’ve been to though:
- Just outside of the expo was an indoor stage where local bands were playing blues songs (both originals and covers of older ones) all day and once runners finished picking up their bibs and t-shirts, there were spots to sit and watch. There were some really talented musicians there so make sure you give yourself some extra time after the expo to check them out.
- This race has the best goody bag I’ve ever received. In addition to the standard technical running shirt (which by itself was really cool looking), samples and brochures about other races and local attractions, the bag also contained a harmonica, guitar picks, and a compilation CD with songs from a bunch of local up and coming blues bands.
If you’re looking for a good place to have a pre-race meal, there are a number of restaurants around downtown Jackson that offer discounts for runners the day before the race. Since I didn’t have a car, my options were a little more limited, but after a quick stroll down some of the streets near the convention center, I was able to find a couple different options that looked pretty good. The only piece of advice I would give here is to make sure that you plan to go out for dinner early. A lot of the best restaurants in Jackson are smaller family owned places that don’t have a lot of seating and will fill up pretty quickly. The wait at these places is definitely worth it, but if you’re planning on going to bed early to get up for the race the next morning, you’re going to want to make sure to give yourself enough time.
Getting around on race morning is pretty easy. The start and finish lines are both in downtown Jackson near the Mississippi Museum of Art, and it’s fairly easy to find parking nearby (or like I said, if you stay at any of the downtown hotels, it’s just a short walk). Another note – while the national anthem is played at the beginning of most races, you’ll definitely want to make sure you get to your corral in time to hear this one – a local blues musician plays it on a guitar Jimi Hendrix style and the only word I can use to describe it is ‘amazing’.
The course is a bit hilly – there’s not much of an elevation gain between the start and finish lines but there are a lot of small rolling hills throughout pretty much the entire course. The course goes through Downtown Jackson, past some historical markers and buildings (like the Mississippi Capitol Building), and through the Jackson State University campus, and just like a lot of other races, the full and half marathon courses start and finish together and split apart and merge back together at various points. Like I mentioned earlier, the most interesting points along the course are all of the various historical markers and sites tied to blues music and musicians. There are also a number of blues bands at various points along the course as well. Some of them are selling CDs and if I had known that earlier I would have brought some cash with me on race day because most of the bands were really good.
The finisher’s medal is also easily the coolest medal in my collection (and I suspect that anyone else that’s done this race would say the same thing). The full and half marathon medals are slightly different and the design changes a little bit each year but basically the medals are all some form of a big blue guitar. Between the medal and the stuff in the goody bags, you’ll be hard pressed to find a race with better swag.
The post race party features more blues music on an outdoor stage along with a big tent that runners can walk through with plates and fill them up with excellent southern cooking (mostly soul food). And then after the post race party, there’s a Blues Crawl that runners and their friends and families can do later in the evening – this is basically a tour of about a half dozen or so blues bars around Jackson with free shuttle service to and from the hotels until midnight. Runners get wristbands that will get them into all of the bars for free and spectators can purchase extras for themselves.
If you like blues, this is definitely a race that you will not want to miss. Even if you’re not a huge blues fan though, it’s still a great course and I would also challenge anyone to not develop a deeper appreciation for blues music after running it. Besides that though, going back also gave me a deeper appreciation of the city of Jackson and its history. I would definitely be happy to go back and run this one again.