To The Limit
Nashville runners prepare for the city's first major marathon
By Rob Simbeck
MAY 1, 2000: Members of Nashville's running community are as wired and as battered as they've ever been. For six months now, thousands of locals have been rising at 530 a.m. for 6-mile runs and gathering on weekends for 18-milers; they've been chatting in athletic stores and at local 5K races; and they've been scouring magazines, books, and chat rooms for dietary advice, training tips, and moral support. Many are running their best-ever times, while many others are broken down, hobbled by all manner of pulls and tears and fractures.
The healthiest among them, battling only aches and weariness, have been backing off their mileage in the last two or three weeks so that they can, in the words of local running coach and Team Nashville manager Robert Easlick, "go out and totally destroy themselves."
The focus of all this activity is the inaugural Country Music Marathon (CMM), which should see 10,000 participants poised at the starting line on West End Avenue at Centennial Park. They will make their roundabout way through the city toward Adelphia Coliseum, where they will end their day sometime between about 9:10 a.m., when the first runner will likely break the tape, and 1 p.m., when the last of those whose doggedness has overcome their lack of fitness will push, pull, or drag themselves across the finish line.
No one in Nashville can recall anything like this. "I've never seen so many people training for a marathon," says Frank Schmidt, a longtime runner and editor of The Funrunner, the monthly publication of the Nashville Striders running group.
They have all succumbed to the quest for running's Holy Grail: 26.2 miles, one of the ultimate tests of physical endurance and mental focus. The CMM, planned from the start as a major-league race, with world-class runners from Kenya, the Soviet Union, and elsewhere joining others from around the country, has proven irresistible to veteran runners and novices alike. Training groups have sprung up. More than 200 people took part in a 21-mile run from the Franklin Kroger to the Belle Meade Kroger at 6 a.m. on a cold and rainy April 8.
In the process, every one of these people has learned just what running 26.2 miles at any speed demands. Easlick says one of the most common remarks he hears from first-timers is, " 'I didn't know it was this hard.' I tell them all, there is no such thing as an easy marathon."
If the runners think they have it bad, they should talk to the race staff, which will marshal an array of support personnel and paraphernalia that includes 3,000 volunteers, 1,100 medical people, 500 security staffers, 300 uniformed police officers, 48 bands, 26 cheerleading squads, 40 shuttle buses, 4,000 traffic cones, 6 tons of bagged ice, 750,000 paper cups, and 40,000 sports bars. Fourteen-hour workdays are not uncommon for these folks, and the days have been getting even longer as the race draws near.
If anyone should be operating at or near overload, it is Amy Fruland, who handles sales, marketing, and public relations for the race--and she's running the race as well. A lean 27-year-old about to run her seventh marathon, she quit her job selling surgical instruments for Johnson & Johnson and signed on a year ago with Elite Racing Inc., the national sports marketing and management firm putting on the event.
"If people only knew what it takes to put one of these on," she says. "You're talking closing off traffic; talking with neighborhoods, the government, and the police; planning three days of festivals, entertainment, and guest speakers; and a hundred other things besides the race itself." Like most of her cohorts, Fruland sees her work as a mission. "I'm passionate about both sides of it. This is going to be great for Nashville."
Elite manages a variety of road races across the country, luring major corporate sponsorship and drawing world-class runners with top prize money. Its most visible event was the first Suzuki Rock 'n' Roll Marathon in San Diego in 1998, which drew a record-breaking 20,000 entrants for a first-time event. True to its name, the marathon stationed rock bands all along the course.
San Diego's success got Elite owner/founder Tim Murphy thinking about a Country Music Marathon: He saw entries from Nashville pouring in and called some of the better-connected runners to talk about Nashville as a potential site. Two early and enthusiastic supporters were Don Shriver, first vice president of SunTrust Bank, and Christie Hauck of Christie Cookie Co. Shriver introduced Murphy to several local leaders, including Jenny Hannon and Scott Ramsey of the Nashville Sports Council and then-mayor Phil Bredesen.
"They didn't have a course at that point," Bredesen says, "but we basically committed the city to doing what it took to do a marathon." Bredesen made the announcement at a Nov. 19, 1998, press conference, and despite occasional grumbling since then from some neighborhoods, the city and Elite have gotten along very well. Few local institutions, though, have been willing to part with sponsorship money, which is crucial to setting up an event as involved as this one.
"Financially, we've fallen far short of our expectations as far as sponsorship and overall involvement with the community," says Peter Douglass, the race's director of operations. National corporate sponsorships have fallen short as well. "It's really going to be a struggle for us financially to put on this race, and we will definitely not do well this first year, but we're going to put on a big show, and we'll be here for the long haul. Next year should be a different story."
The Country Music Marathon course is something of a compromise. Routes planned through some of West Nashville's more scenic areas succumbed to the realities of emergency access and residential traffic patterns. As a result, there are a couple of taxing hills and at least two stretches cited by runners as boring (a long loop through MetroCenter) and ugly (a late stretch past the industrial unsightliness along East Nashville's Davidson Street).
Runners will embark from Centennial Park and proceed down West End Avenue nearly to the river. From there, they'll head up Demonbreun Street, which in spite of ongoing construction near Music Row will be specially paved for the race. The course then follows 17th Avenue South to Belmont Boulevard just past I-440, where it will turn around and wind back through downtown and out to MetroCenter. Then it's back into town, across the Woodland Street Bridge into East Nashville, through Shelby Park, and back along Davidson Street to the Coliseum.
The tough stretches come at mile 2.25 through mile 5--up a long, rising Demonbreun Street and 17th Avenue to Belmont Boulevard--and in East Nashville just after mile 20. Some observers are predicting relatively slow times.
Elite, of course, is hoping for fast times, which generate excitement. Prize money will help, and Nashville's total offerings consist of a nicely substantial $100,000, with first- through fifth-place awards of $20,000, $10,000, $5,000, $2,500, and $1,500, respectively, for both men and women.
Though the field of entrants is a good one, the timing of the race may not draw the best possible runners: Selection of a date depended on weather and other races, and the only day that worked is just 12 days after the world's most famous 26.2-miler. "We'll get a lot of runners who didn't qualify this year for Boston," Nashville runner Maureen Manning says. But the CMM is a Boston qualifier, so many of this year's runners will try to use it as a springboard to entering the Boston event next year. A few people--Frank Schmidt is one of them--are going to run both races this year, a daunting task best undertaken advisedly.
Runners to watch here include Philip Rugut, who ran a 1:00:04 half-marathon last year and is making his marathon debut in Nashville. Other top contenders include Kenya's Philip Chirchir, who has a blistering 2:08.51 to his credit; John Kemboi, who has run a 2:09.29; and a half-dozen others with sub-2:13 times.
Among the women, Nashville will see another chapter in the sometimes bitter duel between Russians Nadezhda Ilyina and Irina Bogacheva. At the 1997 Los Angeles marathon, Ilyina crossed the finish line first but was disqualified for cutting a corner. Then, when she beat Bogacheva by 11 seconds at the first Rock 'n' Roll Marathon, Bogacheva made clear her animosity.
"I do not like her," she said. "I do not want to even sit with her." At last year's Rock 'n' Roll Marathon, Bogacheva ran a spectacular personal record (PR) of 2:28.46 to win the duel. Expect the competition between these women to be fierce when they hit the streets of Nashville. Keep an eye as well on Lucia Subano of Kenya, Aurica Buia of Romania, and Zinaida Semenova of Russia, all of whom have run sub-2:32 times.
The showpiece of the marathon will be the four dozen bands on 28 stages all along the course. The first notion was to keep it country, but Dennis Freeman, who's overseeing the music, opted for enough variety "to showcase the fact that Nashville's not just about country music." The only requirement was that the bands be upbeat, "to keep the runners up." There will be a Christian swing band at the Boyce Street Church on Eighth Avenue North, a couple of blues bands, and eight student bands from Belmont University's Curb School of Music Business. The theme extends to the start and finish lines, where Vince Gill and Amy Grant are slated to fire the starter's pistol and hold the finish-line tape. Capping the entertainment will be a post-race concert at the Gaylord Entertainment Center headlined by Kenny Rogers and featuring Collin Raye and Linda Davis.
No one expects the CMM to go perfectly, although everyone hopes runners see nothing but a smooth, well-run race. And there has been enough cooperation and good will to keep everyone optimistic. Neighborhoods around the city are doing clean-ups; CMT and a host of other media outlets are involved; and running-related businesses, from athletic equipment sellers to sports medicine clinics, are booming.
Running a marathon does enough damage to the body to qualify as medical trauma. It helps to remember that if the course went straight out I-40 West from the Parthenon, it would end 2 miles past the Dickson/Fairview exit. But the week-in, week-out training required just to get to the starting line offers the most perils.
"What we really should have done as a medical community," says Dr. John Bruno of the Tennessee Orthopedic Alliance, "was to host a prevention clinic last fall, to tell people about things to expect along the way." It didn't happen, he says, because there was no way to anticipate the incredible surge of patients with training-related problems.
Bruno, a former Vandy football player and a 3:00-PR marathoner himself, knows the sport from both sides. "What I've seen recently is this vast inflow of people without running histories...coming in with all sorts of problems. Then there are people who might be great at 20 miles a week [but] may fall apart at 40. If I could look for a common denominator, though, I think it's the long run. When you get past 15 or 17 miles and everything starts breaking down and it's no fun anymore, and your stride starts to change and the way you impact the ground changes, that's when these injuries show up."
He knows, though, that most marathoners coming to see him want to be told how to keep going, and he does everything he can to accommodate them. One patient was injured just three weeks ago, but her family is flying in from all over to watch her, so she's going to alternate walking and running to get through the event.
Whether they're fighting injuries or remaining reasonably healthy, Nashvillians see challenge and self-discovery as their motivations for tackling the CMM. George Austin, a 55-year-old who works swing shifts in the powerhouse at the DuPont plant, started running two years ago. He dropped 50 pounds and ran a very respectable 3:41 last year at his first marathon in Jackson, Tenn. He's been running 55 miles a week in preparation for this one.
"I've still got the bug," he says. "They say this course is tough, and it will be bad for people who've been running flatter courses, but I've been doing long runs in Percy Warner Park, and I think that'll really help."
The city's top runners, like Maureen Manning, aren't immune to pushing it. Manning's coach had urged her to sit this one out, but after first agreeing with him, she told him she was going to run. "If I wasn't running," she says, "I'd be standing on the sidelines going crazy, kicking myself for not doing it. I have that trouble when I go to watch my husband race and I'm not running. This time, at least those of us from Nashville get to sleep in our own beds the night before."
Fruland, who has a blistering 2:41 PR to her credit, has done all the training she can while working 14-hour days for Elite. "I ran the Tom King half-marathon [on a murderously hilly Percy Warner Park course] a couple of weeks ago and felt great. I'm feeling on top of the game, although you never really feel exactly like you're where you're supposed to be. It's like your wedding: You plan and plan and plan for that one day, and everything has to be on track, and if one thing goes down, it's all down the drain."
As the number of neophyte injuries suggests, accomplished runners aren't the only ones rising to the challenge. "There is a lot of enthusiasm from people in all walks of life," says David Graeflin, owner of The Athlete's House. "People you never would have expected to be out there running two or three years ago are out there now. Of course, there are a few who shouldn't be running, but they're still going to run. The enthusiasm is great."
Many of the first-timers are training with groups, some for charitable causes. Team-in-Training (TNT) trains people to walk or run a marathon and asks for fund-raising help in return. "Most of the people who participate in TNT are not what you would call runners," says Tom Stumb, president of the board of trustees for the Tennessee chapter of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, which oversees TNT. "We are people who have been inspired by patients to channel our energy and do something productive for this cause."
Inspired by the story of twin girls with leukemia, Stumb decided to make the CMM his own first marathon. While the TNT program offers all kinds of guidance to first-timers, from health tips to advice on training, he acknowledges that doesn't make it easy. He did his final long run on the same day as the Kroger-to-Kroger run. "It was awful," he says. "It was cold and windy. I got rained on, sleeted on, and even snowed on for a brief period. I was very glad when it was over."
Stumb, though, has been masterful at fund raising, bringing in nearly $50,000 in pledges from friends and family. Overall, TNT raised $40 million nationwide last year. The organization hopes to raise $4 million in Nashville.
Like any mass event, the Country Music Marathon has an element of fad in it, and many people who do it this year, or attempt to do it, will not be back. But many participants and observers see the seeds of a great deal of good in the marathon's lure. Besides TNT's fund raising and the great civic pride that comes with hosting such an event, there's something far more intangible as well, something that touches each man and woman who decides to undertake this most exacting and exhausting of endeavors.
"This is a challenge people don't have to take on," Bruno says, "and it requires a sacrifice from job and family that's not small. But I think everyone will come away a little prouder about themselves and more knowledgeable that their limits are not nearly so small as they thought they were. That's the fun message in this. There are not many things like that out there."
At bottom, once the gun goes off, there is just the runner and the road, and each individual must rise to the occasion however he or she can. "In the last couple weeks, it's really been sinking in," says runner Kellee Mulloy, who is leading another of the training groups. "[People] are at the point where they're thinking, 'I'm going to do this. This is not an impossibility anymore.' That transformation is really cool to watch."
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