I’ve spent a lot of time in Nashville over the years. I have several friends who live there and with it only being about a 45 minute flight from Chicago (or a 6 hour drive which isn’t bad either), a trip to Nashville always makes for a fun weekend. So when I decided to do my first half marathon, Nashville seemed like the most obvious choice for a city to run it in. The Country Music Half Marathon was a great race and I had such a good time that I ended up going back the following year and doing the full Country Music Marathon as well.
My First “Big” Race
Back in 2005, I had no plans to run as many marathons and half marathons as I have or to travel all over the world to do races like I do now (although when I look back, I think that it was kinda fitting that the first race I did that was longer than a 5K was one that I had to travel to). The original reason I decided to run the Country Music Half Marathon was actually just because I had some friends in the music industry who had worked at the post race concert the year before and when they told me about it, it sounded like it might be a fun thing to do. The thought of going to Nashville, running a race in the morning and then going to a concert a few hours later sounded pretty epic and to be completely honest, at the time I was more excited about going to the concert and hanging out with my friends than I was about the race.
A lot of things changed for me over the next year though. I didn’t end up doing the race in 2005 like I originally planned because in August of 2004 my daughter Sara was born and then a few months later my mom passed away right after Christmas. So I spent the first several months of 2005 dealing with a crazy mix of emotions and trying to divide my time between taking care of a new baby, figuring out what to do with all of my mom’s things and getting her house fixed up so that it could be sold. By the end of each day I was completely exhausted and training for a race in April just wasn’t one of my top priorities.
Interestingly enough though, dealing with all of those emotions was what made me want to push myself harder to make sure that I would be able to do the race in 2006 no matter what else happened in the meantime. I knew that my mom would have wanted me to and I also wanted Sara to be proud of me. So I spent the next year focusing a lot more on running and I think that if I had done the race in 2005 when I originally planned to, I probably wouldn’t have done as well or been interested in doing any more races in the years that followed. It’s funny how things work out sometimes.
So like I said, I did the half in 2006 and then went back again to do the marathon in 2007, which means that I’ve been running for a long time now. I’ve seen a lot of changes in running and races over the last several years (most of which have been really good).
Even training for a race is a lot different now than it used to be. If you want to train for a race of any distance today, the only thing you have to do to find a training plan is simply go online and Google the race distance. There are also apps you can download, daily emails you can subscribe to, meetups for group training and a plethora of other options. Your most difficult task will probably be picking a specific plan that you like better than the others. Training information wasn’t so readily available in 2005. You could buy books about training, join a running group, or maybe even find a few tidbits online if you looked hard enough, but researching training programs and picking the right one was a lot more difficult. So since I had no idea what I was doing, I trained for the race without following any specific training program. I pretty much just improvised and did a long run each week where I started at 5 miles and eventually worked my way up to 13, a medium run where I worked my way up to about 8 over the same period and then added in a few shorter runs in between. This actually wasn’t that bad of a plan, but it was definitely missing a few key elements like speed work, strength training and cross training. Either way though, I ended up being happy with my finishing time and I also learned a lot about running and training along the way.
The Country Music Marathon (or Rock n Roll Nashville as it’s now called) has changed a bit over the years too. The course has changed and the number of participants has steadily increased. Competitor Group, which is the company that runs the Country Music Marathon has also grown exponentially over the past decade. When I did the Country Music Half in 2006, there were two other Rock n Roll races: one in San Diego, and another in Phoenix. I remember thinking that it would be cool to do all three of them in the same year. Today though, Competitor Group has over 30 events in seven countries, Washington, DC, and 19 US states and it’s literally impossible to do all of the races in the same year since some of them are on the same day.
The series has also developed a devoted following of runners who travel all over the country to participate in as many Rock n Roll events as they can. I’ve heard a few complaints from other runners who don’t care for the Rock n Roll Marathon Series races over the years, but the truth is that these races have helped to bring a number of people into the running scene (including me), which has ultimately boosted attendance at a lot of other races as well (especially since Competitor Group lets other races advertise at their expos), so love ’em or hate ’em, the people who were responsible for putting this series together deserve to be recognized for everything that they’ve accomplished.
Race Expo / Organization
Despite all of the changes over the years, there are a surprising number of things that have stayed the same. Race Expos are a lot more common and bigger than they used to be, but for the most part the mechanics behind them haven’t changed: go to the expo the day before the race, sign a waiver, pick up your race number, get a t-shirt and a goodie bag and then exit through the merchandise area before going out to wander up and down several rows of vendors advertising other races, or selling running gear, sports drinks, and energy bars.
The finish line in Nashville is LP field, which is behind the Nashville Coliseum. The start line is near the corner of 4th and Broadway downtown, which is a little under a mile away. This gives runners have a few options for parking – park at the Coliseum and either walk or take a shuttle bus to the start line, park in any of the garages around downtown Nashville (although if you do this, be prepared to take a long walk after back to your car after the race), or anyone staying at one of the official race hotels can take a shuttle directly from their hotel.
The course has changed slightly over the years. It used to start in front of Vanderbilt University but now the start line is at the corner of Fourth and Broadway, which is right in the middle of downtown Nashville. I really like this change because I always thought that one of the things that was missing from the original course was that it didn’t go down Broadway at all. So now runners get to line up in corrals with a view of some of the legendary Nashville Honky Tonks like Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, Legend’s Corner, The Stage on Broadway and The Second Fiddle.
Once the race starts, the course heads northeast down Broadway towards the Cumberland River, takes a couple turns and heads southwest past the Country Music Hall of Fame and then heads back down Broadway past Union Station and towards Music Row.
In addition to going past the honky tonks and offices of all the record labels that Nashville is famous for, the course also goes through the Belmont and Vanderbilt University campuses, past a number of parks, historic churches, civil war battle sites, and also the Tennessee State Capitol building.
Around mile 11, the courses split and the marathon course does a slightly longer loop that heads along the Cumberland river for several miles before turning and doing a loop around Sevier lake in Shelby Park and then heading back towards the finish line. Both races finish at LP Field behind the Nashville Coliseum.
The course is a bit hilly (well, more than “a bit” – there are a number of steep hills throughout the course and from about mile 17 through 20 in the marathon the entire course is uphill). The views of the river and some of the historical sites make the hills a little more bearable but this is still a pretty tough course overall.
There’s a lot of crowd support along the course and also plenty of great local bands playing at various spots (and they’re not all country bands so even if you’re not a big fan of country music, you’ll still enjoy this race).
My favorite story from this race was from the first year I did it. Being my first big race, I spent the first few miles just kinda taking everything in and enjoying the experience, when right around mile 6, I noticed two guys running about a quarter mile ahead of me with something written on the backs of their shirts. They were also carrying something between the two of them and giving high fives to all of the spectators that were lined up along the course. As I got closer to them, I noticed that what they were carrying was a cooler full of beer and they were also drinking beer with their free hands in between high fives. Finally I was able to read the writing on the backs of their shirts… one said “Run all the way”, and the other said “Straight to AA”. I have no idea if these guys ever finished the race. Over the years I’ve seen runners dressed like spartan warriors, bananas, gorillas, chickens, and wearing a variety of other costumes but to this day, I think those guys were still the strangest I’ve seen.
Post Race / Bling
The medal that I got in Nashville set the bar for every other race that I’ve done since.
The half marathon medal was shaped like a music note and the full marathon medal that I got the following year had a guitar on it with the Nashville skyline in the background. Both medals were colorful, solid, and did an excellent job of capturing the spirit of what it’s like to visit Nashville. Race medals have gotten a lot nicer over the years but for the first few years after doing the races in Nashville, it was hard to find a finishers medal that compared to these two.
A few hours after the race ends, there’s a big concert at Bridgestone Arena that usually features a big name country act. Runners with race bibs get in for free and tickets for non-runners are available at the race expo or at the door if they aren’t sold out. I have mixed feelings about post race parties. On one hand, they’re a great way to celebrate finishing the race, but on the other hand, a lot of times after I finish running, I want to shower, change, and then go out and explore whatever city I’m in on my own. In Nashville though, I actually would recommend going to the post race party – it’s always entertaining and Bridgestone Arena is right in the middle of downtown Nashville, so it’s close enough that you’ll still be able to get out and check out the rest of the city either before or after the concert if you want to.
Getting Around Nashville
Whether or not you think Nashville is a big city depends largely on where you’re from. As someone from Chicago, it seems compact to me, but then again so do a lot of other cities, and I know plenty of people from other areas who think of Nashville as a major metropolis. Either way though, the city Nashville and the surrounding suburbs are laid out pretty nicely and it’s fairly easy to get around.
If you like live music, Tootsie’s, Legend’s Corner, The Stage and a number of the other honky tonks and restaurants on Broadway are within a few blocks of each other. It’s also only a short walk from Broadway to BB King’s Blues Club, the Wildhorse Saloon, and the other honky tonks on Second Street or the bars in Printer’s Alley, and it’s just a short cab ride to some of the more local favorites like the Bluebird Cafe. No matter what time of day it is, you’ll be able to find live music in at least one of these places and the beer is always cold in all of them.
If you’re into music history, the entire city is a living monument to country music. Tootsie’s is well known for being one of Hank Williams Sr.’s old haunts and a lot of the other places on Broadway and Second Street have a lot of history behind them as well. There’s also the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Johnny Cash Museum, the Ryman Auditorium (where you can go for a tour and get tickets for the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday Night), and the Musicians Hall of Fame. The race course goes past a lot of these places and it also goes down Music Row, but it’s also worth a trip back afterwards to check out some of the record labels and to take a tour of RCA Studio B where artists like Elvis Presley, Waylon Jennings, Charlie Pride, Dolly Parton, and Roy Orbison recorded some of their most well known songs.
If you’re into American history, there’s plenty of that to be found in and around Nashville too. You can take a short drive outside of the city to see The Hermitage, which was the home of President Andrew Jackson. You can also swing by the Tennessee State Capitol Building, or check out a number of Civil War sites. There are also several mansions and plantations to tour and the Tennessee State Museum has some interesting artifacts as well.
And lastly, if you like the outdoors, make sure to check out Radnor Lake State Park or Percy Warner Park. The gardens at Opryland Resort are technically indoors but they’re still amazing to see. Or you can also go to Centennial Park to check out the Parthenon and the Athena statue inside, both of which are exact replicas of the ones from ancient Greece.
I did my first Half Marathon and my second Marathon in Nashville (the 2006 Chicago Marathon was my first). Both of these courses not only have great scenery, but doing the half was such an amazing experience that as soon as I crossed the finish line, I couldn’t wait to do another one. In a lot of ways I can say that I wouldn’t be where I am today as a runner if it wasn’t for Nashville and I’ll always have fond memories of running there.
Even better than all that though, one of the other big additions to the race over the last few years is a partnership between the race organizers and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. I’ve been a huge supporter of St. Jude for years and in a way, I also owe my annual participation in the St. Jude Chicago to Peoria Run to the Country Music Half Marathon because a friend of mine asked me to join her team after I finished the half and went back to Chicago told her about what a great time I had running it. Any race that supports St. Jude is awesome in my book and deserves a huge recommendation for anyone who might be interested in running it.