Interview with the Race Director – Mississippi Blues Marathon

So, I’m the worst journalist (Would we call me a journalist? Let’s.) ever. I’ve been meaning to interview the race director for the Mississippi Blues Marathon, John Noblin, for quite some time now as I am preparing to run “the Blues” this weekend. I’ve heard from a lot of 50 Staters what a great race this is, but to be honest, I didn’t know too much about it before I signed up besides two things – 1) it’s hilly and 2) it has an awesome medal. In the interest of learning a little more about it and providing y’all with the hard hitting journalism you’ve come to expect from me, I finally got in touch with John a whopping 36 hours before the start of his race and he was somehow more than happy to tell me all about the Blues and not nearly as stressed as I would have been so close to a race!

As always, please note that all italicized remarks are mine, not John’s, so don’t blame him. Feel free to award me with the Pulitzer Prize at any time.

1. Tell me a little about your marathon history. 

I competed fairly seriously regionally and nationally in triathlon when I was younger. I did all different distances, including Ironman. Running was just a part of triathlon training.  I started running marathons in preparation for my Ironman, and it kind of went on from there.  My PR is 2:48 (wait, what?) and I’ve run Boston. I’ve done my share of ultras, multiday races, the Leadville Mountainbike race. My motto was basically that if it required legs as part of the event, I would do it. My head was exploding during this conversation.

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John the race director wins one of many triathlons. I, on the other hand, once finished a triathlon. So there.

2. How did you get into race directing?

My first experience with event planning was back in the 90s, when I put on a professional bicycle race in Jackson called the Tour de Fleurs. It became a very competitive event, and pretty much every professional American cyclist other than Lance competed there at one point. Floyd Landis, lots of other winners of different phases of the Tour de France – you know, all the guys who just got busted for juicing. In 2000, we put a bid together and won the bid to host the Olympic cycling trials for the Sydney Olympics, so I had a pretty good handle on event organization at that point.

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They probably aren’t best friends, right?

Around this time, I had the idea of having a “blues” themed marathon because of the Rock n Roll Series and the Country Music Marathon. I figure the blues fit in perfectly with the history of Jackson, but no one was interested in the idea. Marathons were still a little weird, I guess. In 2005 or 2006, I was asked to be a part of a group of runners who wanted to put on a marathon in Jackson. The Mississippi Marathon was pretty much the only game in town at that point, and at the time it was a “runner’s race” – an event that catered to serious runners and a few 50 Staters. I wanted to do something bigger that appealed to the whole country. The CPA for the president of Blue Cross Blue Shield was among the members of our group and knew that the president wanted to get BCBS involved in its own hallmark event. When he pitched the idea of the Blues theme with BCBS as the sponsor – which he did without my knowledge, by the way -the president knew it was a perfect fit for the company, and they’ve been the sole sponsor of the event ever since. That’s how the Blues got started!

3.  What is the course like? What are some important sites along the way?

The course has changed slightly every year.  We outgrew the first start/finish area, and we’ve had some issues with road construction. One neighborhood that the race ran through decided to change one of the streets runners ran down into a cul-de-sac! So we’ve had to deal with things like that and changed some little things every year. People say the course is hilly, and I guess it is hilly, but only in that it is not flat. What I mean by that is that there are no big hills, but the terrain is constantly rolling. I think people just don’t think of Jackson as a hilly place, which is why some people are surprised by the hills. Contrary to popular belief, Jackson is not in the Delta! The course has evolved from the very beginning with the idea of appealing to the whole country, not just local runners. I thought to myself, “If  you could get somebody in Jackson for one day, what would you show them?” That’s what this course does. It tours pretty much every historic site in Jackson – all the universities, hospitals, old capitol, new capitol, governor’s mansion, blues site/blues trail, Eudora Welty’s home (an actual Pulitzer Prize winner, unlike yours truly. Also, interesting fact: T-Rex Nana’s maiden name is Welty. John was very impressed by this.), old plantation homes,  and “unattractive” areas that you normally wouldn’t showcase, but it’s part of our city and part of who we are, so I think it is important. Homeowner’s associations in some of the more downtrodden neighborhoods are proud of where they live and have huge parties to celebrate the race. They appreciate that the runners are here and that the course goes through.

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“Greater than scene is situation. Greater than situation is implication. Greater than all of these is a single, entire human being, who will never be confined in any frame.” -Eudora Welty

4. What sets Mississippi Blues apart from other marathons?

  • Well first of all, the medal. Once we decide what we want to do for the design that year, we spare no expense to create it. If making our design means the medal is going to be 8 inches across, then so be it. We go with the vision first and don’t worry about what it takes to get there. I love this, but I realize not every race has a sponsor like BCBS, and so does John.
  • The theme. We really make an effort to tie the theme into the entire race. There’s blues bands on the course, at the expo, at the finish party – all over the place! We have the Blues Crawl, where all the bands who played on the course and at the expo play downtown on Saturday night at a variety of venues. Runners get on a party trolley for free that takes them to all the different bars and venues, and there’s some very famous blues musicians. Um, Team T-Rex? Can we stay for this? The blues culture is amazing, because guys that would sell out a concert in Europe are virtually unknown here. You’re seeing some pretty amazing musicians. I feel like this is what is going to happen to me. I’m going to be totally huge in Europe and no one here will know me. I’m fine with it.  Each year put together a cd with the music of all the different musicians that the runners here, and it is part of the race swag. We’ve also got a ton of local art, blues stuff, etc that is feature at the expo.
  • I think our charity is really unique too. The proceeds from our race benefit the Mississippi Blues Commissions’ Benevolent Fund, which allows blues artists to apply for a grant when they experience an unexpected financial crisis. Because of the lifestyle a lot of these guys lead, they don’t always have a steady income and they might not have things like health insurance. This fund allows us to give back to the musicians that give our state so much character.

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    Oh you know, just BB King accepting a check from the marathon. No big deal.

  • Food! We make sure our food never runs out at the finish line! There is hot pizza, red beans and rice, tomato bisque soup, and beer for every runner. I love reading on Marathon Guide and seeing how excited the 6+ hour finishers are about having hot food still left when they finish the race. I have made it my goal to make it my perfect race. What would I want if I was running?

5. Your medals are famous. What made you decide to make the medals a focal point of the race?

I never cared about medals when I was running. Honestly, I probably couldn’t even tell you where any of my medals are except for Boston. However, we wanted to incorporate the theme into every aspect of the race, so we started with the idea of a guitar. Because of the sponsorship, we never had to worry about expenses, so we were able to start with something unique. We built from there each year and the medal grew with the theme of each year. One year, the race fell on Elvis’ birthday, so we made everything Elvis themed. It became obvious that people were really excited about the medals for different marathons, so once we realized how much everyone loved the medals, we decided to just really go for it and make them as exciting as possible every year.

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I almost can’t even process this.

6. Besides Mississippi Blues, what is your favorite marathon that you have run?

I’ve never run my own race! I’ve run the course plenty of times, but not the race itself. My favorite marathon is Boston. It’s got to be Boston.I’ve run 10 or 12, but they were smaller regional races, and back when I was running, marathons were nothing like they are now. Boston was a thrill for 26.2 miles and there are people the entire way cheering you on. It’s a tough course and it nearly killed me, but it’s a great race.

7. I’m coming in from South Carolina to do your race. What should the other traveling runners and I make sure to do while we are in Jackson?

Eat somewhere good! We’ve got a ton of great restaurants down here. Check out the live blues scene for sure. The Blues Crawl after the race is a great way to do that, but there are incredible musicians all over Jackson. You really can’t go wrong.

8. Is there any great swag runners should know about?

I think we’ve got one of the best race packets out there. In addition to the huge medal, runners get a really cool sublimated shirt and backpack. The shirt is a tech material and is printed from seam to seam with a design that goes all the way around, and our backpack has the same design. Ever runner also gets the CD we create from the musicians playing at our events, plus a wristband for entry into the Blues Crawl on Saturday night. Runners also get a commemorative harmonica, which we’re really proud of. It’s a real harmonica and can be actually used – it’s our souvenir for every runner. Omg, AJ. Sorry in advance.

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I’m obsessed. AND I already knew what sublimated meant thanks to the Maniacs website.

Uh, to say I’m beside myself with excitement for this race is an understatement. I can’t wait to see what Saturday holds! In related news, I ran today for the first time since my stomach test, and it turns out it really hurts to breathe hard with this stupid capsule implanted in my esophagus. So uh, I might be finding out for myself whether there’s really hot food still left for all the back of the packers. John promised me there would be, though, so I’m fine.

Comment: Are you running the Blues? Let’s meet up and be best friends!

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