This Saturday marks the 14th annual Country Music Marathon & ½ Marathon, when more than 30,000 runners will pound the pavement from Centennial Park to LP Field and everywhere in between. In addition to those 30,000-plus runners — the majority visiting from out of town — more than 100,000 spectators will watch this incredible feat of fitness, proving that an event of this magnitude can be enjoyable for all.
Let’s be honest: Not everyone can — or wants to — run 26.2 miles. Even the comparatively short distance of the half marathon is a staggeringly long jog. And with the deceptively evil rolling hills that comprise the Nashville landscape, the Country Music Marathon is certainly not for sissies.
The growth of Nashville’s marathon echoes a nationwide trend of the rising popularity of endurance sports events. And in Nashville, the Country Music Marathon has grown to be the second-largest race in Competitor Group’s popular Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon Series, in which there are more than two-dozen races nationwide. Not bad for what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has deemed the 16th most obese state in the nation.
So what makes the Country Music Marathon such a draw, year after year?
“It’s definitely a grand experience for spectators in the city of Nashville, and I think that has to do in part with the hospitable nature of Southerners,” suggested Malain McCormick, event director for Competitor Group. “And their desire to always have a party for every occasion,” she jokes, possibly only partially, as the race route is filled with revelers offering runners everything from plastic cups of beers to Krispy Kreme doughnuts.
With a captive audience of roughly 130,000 spectators and runners, an event of this magnitude is ripe for massive corporate sponsorships and partnerships, such as this year’s presenting sponsor, Nissan, and title partner, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, a nonprofit pediatric treatment and research facility founded by late entertainer Danny Thomas in 1962 that is headquartered in Memphis.
The relationship between the Country Music Marathon and St. Jude is attempting to tackle another staggering figure: raising enough funds to cover the daily operating cost of the hospital, which clocks in at $1.8 million.
In 2000, Elite Racing, which was acquired by the Competitor Group in 2007, launched the Country Music Marathon, the second full marathon in the Rock ’n’ Roll series after the flagship San Diego race. Today, Competitor Group owns and operates 83 events around the world, runs the online registration platform Raceit.com, and publishes five athletic magazines serving the running, cycling, triathlon and multisport communities. And while Competitor has launched 26 Rock ’n’ Roll marathons and half marathons in markets such as Phoenix, Portland, Dallas, Chicago and New York City, Nashville has always been unique, branded as the “Country Music Marathon” from day one.
“Our founder, Tim Murphy, realized that there was a true essence in the city of Nashville that he wanted to make sure that he highlighted, so the name Country Music Marathon was the choice,” McCormick explained.
The inaugural Country Music Marathon had 7,514 runners, and in 2002, Elite expanded the event to include a half marathon, opening up the race to a broader audience. That year, the event hosted 11,185 participants, roughly 60 percent running the half. The growth of the half marathon has far outpaced the full; in 2012, there were 22,535 registrants for the half marathon and 4,771 for the full.
This trend continues for the 2013 event, although registration continues Friday, April 26, at the Health & Fitness Expo at the Nashville Convention Center, an event that — in addition to hosting registration and race packet pickup for participants — is free and open to the public. The Country Music Marathon also offers full and half marathons for participants in wheelchairs, a Sunday afternoon race for kids, and a “mini marathon” that spans 2.6 miles.
“2007 is when we really saw the event explode, with the half marathon,” McCormick said. “We did sell out the half marathon two years in a row; we do cap the race when we feel it’s going to affect the experience.”
Ensuring a good experience for all registrants is imperative from a tourism perspective, as the Country Music Marathon draws approximately 65 percent of participants from outside of Nashville. According to McCormick, the event injects more than $40 million into the local economy. “It’s a substantial impact that has definitely grown as our field has grown,” she said.
“The destination is what always makes our events unique, and Nashville is such a interesting destination for people,” McCormick said. “Nashville is a very musically diverse city; we’re able to highlight that with bands featured every mile to showcase what the local talent has to offer. One thing that runners are treated to in this market is musical talent that is unparalleled in any of the cities that we run in.”
In addition to a stellar running soundtrack — this year’s event offers a diverse lineup including jazz/Latin rock from San Rafael Band, country sister act HanaLena and ’80s party band Guilty Pleasures — the marathon is known in the running community for being both a challenging and rewarding course.
“It’s more difficult than people would expect,” McCormick said. “Nashville has a true rolling-hill landscape, and that affected some of our course decisions.” McCormick said that in previous years, the course circumvented some trying hills, but that these streets were added to the route for aesthetic purposes.
“We want to make sure that we highlight all of the features of Nashville, so we made some course changes that made it more difficult, but more scenic,” she said. McCormick says participants have embraced the changes, as running straight down Broadway allows for a truly exhilarating view of Nashville, rarely seen unless you have the nerve to walk down the middle of Lower Broad in the daylight hours. Additionally, two of the steepest hills — Demonbreun and Granny White — are near the beginning of the race, when adrenaline is high and the streets are lined with cheering spectators.
Despite these minor tweaks, McCormick says that it’s important to keep the course somewhat consistent year after year.
“People tend to be excited about their neighborhoods, and they want to showcase it for the runners who are coming from all over,” she said, explaining that Nashville ranks as “one of the best” in the Rock ’n’ Roll series with respect to spectator engagement and participation.
Mark Miller, founder of the East Nasty running group, which offers year-round running and training opportunities, notes that the spectator/participant interaction found in the marathon community is distinct. “I think that, more so than any other sporting event, running races are community builders,” he said. “Everyone is welcome to participate, spectate or volunteer. This is very different than the Super Bowl, for example, where only the elite can participate, and only the affluent can attend. Also, the professionals are side by side with the amateurs — at least at the start and the finish — experiencing the exact same thing. No other sport comes close to this kind of interaction.”
Pulling off an event of this size is no small feat, and Competitor depends on the help of more than 2,500 volunteers over a five-day period.
“We’ve been working with the Nashville Sports Council every year of our event to recruit the volunteers,” she said. “Volunteers are touched by the runners’ journey. When you see someone cross the finish line, they’re moved by the feat that these people have accomplished. It’s a testament to the compassion that people feel for each other, and wanting to help them finish this journey.” A post-race concert for all participants and volunteers is held in LP Field and has featured Brad Paisley, Sara Evans and Jo Dee Messina; this year’s performers are Craig Morgan and Sarah Darling.
A good experience is also a non-negotiable item given the abundance of destination endurance races available around the country, and the world. According to an IEG Sponsorship Report, in 2012, North American spending on endurance sports activities such as marathons and triathlons exceeded $100 million, surpassing already anticipated growth from the year before. The expanding participant base is an affluent and active audience, desirable to marketers and corporate sponsors, particularly in industries involving food, sports apparel and equipment, and media and publishing.
Increased audiences, increased spending, and increased exposure also affords another more altruistic opportunity: increased charitable donations.
The official relationship between the Country Music Marathon and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis started with the 2012 event, when St. Jude was introduced as the title partner. St. Jude already had an active national fundraising base of athletes through their Heroes Program, which launched in 1999 when a group of runners ran the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., to raise funds for the hospital. Since then, the Heroes program has expanded to events all over the U.S., generating donations through participation in events and peer-to-peer fundraising.
“We started talking in mid-2011, to discuss what St. Jude is all about, and the St. Jude’s Heroes Program, and how to develop and engage their supporters,” explained Dave Hussa, vice president of charity partnerships for Competitor Group. Hussa says that the partnership between Competitor and St. Jude is ideal. “We’re hard pressed to find a better cause, period,” he said.
The Country Music Marathon’s relationship with the Heroes Program is similar to the charity partnerships that Competitor has engaged in throughout the years for the 27 Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon events across the U.S. and Canada. Hussa explained that in 2000, Tim Murphy, founder and then-CEO of Elite Racing, extended the opportunity to Team In Training to be the exclusive charity partner of the Country Music Marathon, a relationship that ended in 2010, though McCormick said Team In Training and other charities are still welcome to participate as a part of the fundraising group program.
“Throughout the establishment and the growth of the [Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon] brand, in some cases, we have a primary charity, and in other cases we have multiple charities involved,” Hussa said. “We work with different groups in such a way to accommodate their goals and vision with the event. … Our charities have raised over $288 million through our Rock ’n’ Roll series, which includes Country Music, since the inception of the series in 1998.”
Still, the partnership between the Country Music Marathon and St. Jude has raised a few eyebrows in the Nashville community, where some Nashvillians are wondering why Competitor didn’t chose to align with The Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt, the world-class facility dedicated to the health of children whose campus is just blocks from the race course. According to Hussa, Vanderbilt was approached during the inception of the Country Music Marathon back in the late 1990s.
“It is my understanding that Vanderbilt … if they weren’t the first entity, they were certainly among the first entities that were approached, and they declined the opportunity,” Hussa explained.
And while it’s hard to deny the popular hyperlocal ethos that it’s best to keep dollars — even ones secured through charitable fundraising — in one’s community, Competitor Group is an endurance sport industry behemoth that produces events around the world, not a local homegrown institution. Regarding St. Jude, Brandon Wilmoth, manager of sports marketing and charity athlete programs at ALSAC, the fundraising arm for St. Jude, explains that funds raised for St. Jude helps children and families far beyond Memphis.
“We are fundraising nationwide for a hospital in Memphis, so sometimes it gets confusing,” Wilmoth said. “St. Jude treats patients from all 50 states and around the world. We’re an international institution, and all of the research that we do is shared freely throughout the global medical community. Helping children here in Memphis is one thing, but we’re also helping children around the world.”
Furthermore, St. Jude is a facility with a specific mission to find cures for children with cancer and catastrophic diseases; Vanderbilt Children’s hospital clearly states on their website that they “treat and help prevent all health issues ranging from colds and broken bones to heart disease and cancer.” While it’s inarguable that both institutions are dedicated to providing the best possible care for children, their missions are not a direct comparison.
“We’re not a general children’s hospital; we’re a specialty children’s hospital,” explained Richard Shadyac, CEO of ALSAC. “We treat kids with cancer and diseases of the blood, and other catastrophic diseases. St. Jude is unique because it’s the place where doctors from around the world and the United States send their toughest cases, because St. Jude has some of the highest survival rates for cancers like leukemia and brain tumors.”
Vanderbilt declined to comment on the relationship between the Country Music Marathon and St. Jude. However, its involvement with the Country Music Marathon should not be overlooked. “Keep in mind, they currently provide medical volunteers on course to service the runners,” Hussa pointed out.
There is also confusion about the affiliation between Competitor Group’s races and the charities they align with. For the St. Jude partnership, which is contracted throughout 2015, funds secured through event registration — which range from $90 to $150 — do not go to St. Jude.
“The entry fees themselves go to offset the expense of staging the event and creating a platform in the first place,” Hussa said. “Once that platform is in place, that’s a great opportunity to fundraise.”
And while Competitor certainly helps their event partner St. Jude in encouraging participants to bring in donations, whether through email blasts, social media, and through their own websites and publications, it’s up to the race participants to raise that $1.8 million that St. Jude hopes to secure this year. This $1.8 million amount is critical, as St. Jude, in addition to conducting research, offers treatment to children at no cost to the families.
“Over the last 51 years, no family has ever paid St. Jude for anything,” Wilmoth stated. “We do work with insurance companies, but no family ever sees a bill from St. Jude. If their insurance does not cover a treatment, they will never be charged.
“It goes beyond the treatment; it extends to travel, to get families here to the hospital,” he continued. “Once they’re here, we take care of all the housing. All of their meals are taken care of while they’re here. We have an on-site school. We do everything we can to keep not only the patients, but the families, as much in a regular routine on a day-to-day basis. It comes at a cost, but we take care of it all.”
Anna Miller, a mother of three who lives in Franklin, experienced what St. Jude does for patients and their families firsthand. When her son Ian was 16 months old, he started throwing up frequently and his eyes started wandering. The Millers took Ian to Vanderbilt, where a PT scan and subsequent surgery revealed that Ian had a very rare — one in 3 million — PNET brain tumor.
“People that we didn’t even know were telling us to go to St. Jude,” Miller recalled. “When we called, they were so compassionate. They said, ‘Get here as soon as you can, we’re going to do everything we can to help your son get better, we’ve treated this before.’ We had to do what’s best for our kid, so we packed up and moved to Memphis pretty much that week.”
While the initial plan was for Ian to have full radiation at St. Jude to fight the tumor, the Millers opted for a new experimental treatment called proton therapy.
“[The doctors] came back to us and said they had this new radiation that they thought would be a lot easier on his brain,” Miller said. “They took care of everything, because our insurance at that point said, ‘This is experimental, so we’re not going to pay for this.’ And so that’s one of the big things that St. Jude took care of for us.”
Four years have passed since Ian’s initial diagnosis, and in June, the Millers will celebrate three years since the end of his treatment. He is currently showing no evidence of disease — the term “remission” is not used with brain tumors — and is a happy, healthy and incredibly smart 5-year-old boy.
“If you saw him today, you’d never know [that he had cancer],” Miller says. “With regular radiation, his hair probably wouldn’t have grown back, but he has a full head of hair that covers up his scar completely. He has this incredible personality that people are drawn to; he has tons of friends, and he’s really thriving. He’s thriving.”
In 2012, father Jason Miller ran the Country Music half marathon, and Ian crossed the finish line with him. This year, the Miller family formed a team to run in Ian’s honor, and also to raise awareness about how St. Jude helps children everywhere, including their own.
“We do have great hospitals in the area, but people need to understand that St. Jude does a ton for research specifically for children with cancer and other genetic diseases,” Miller explained. “You’re not just helping St. Jude hospital in Memphis when you’re giving money, you’re helping hospitals everywhere, because when kids like my son thrive after having proton-beam radiation, and they find out that it’s better, then other hospitals get that information, and more kids are able to benefit from that. It’s a benefit for our whole country. It’s pretty amazing.”
While St. Jude and ALSAC have fundraising events across the nation, the partnership with the Country Music Marathon is among the largest. At press time, Wilmoth said that current fundraising efforts are just shy of the $1 million mark, far from the $1.8 million goal. Individuals interested in contributing can make a donation online at stjude.org.
Following the Boston Marathon tragedy, the Metro Nashville Police Department is increasing security for the Country Music Marathon, including staffing additional Metro police officers and working with law enforcement in Boston and the FBI.
“We are working diligently with the local agencies to ensure that our event will be a safe and enjoyable event for all,” said Competitor Group’s Malain McCormick. “We’ve had a very comprehensive plan over the course of the last 14 years. We’re prepared for inclement weather and things of that nature, but we’ll be working … to ensure that our security protocol and safety procedures are changed in light of the tragedy.”
At a Tuesday press conference, Metro Police Chief Steve Anderson promised an increased presence.
“While we will not detail the specifics of the entire plan, the end product involves the deployment of hundreds of law enforcement and security personnel in a strong showing that will most certainly add an important measure of assurance for the tens of thousands of runners and spectators we expect at Saturday’s events,” Anderson said.
Road closures in downtown Nashville will be in effect between 6 a.m. and 1:30 pm.
What might be described in a travel guidebook as “gently rolling hills” can be towers of pain to participants in a marathon. We asked two local runners to talk about them:
Claire Gibson: half marathon runner:
“UGH. Hills. The first major hill is up Demonbreun. That’s when you can separate the tourists from the locals. Locals have been training on hills — the tourists, maybe not. When training, I learned to tackle the hill by trying to maintain the same energy output — not the same pace — which means I had to slow down on the hills in order to make it through the whole race. If you can keep the same level of breathing all the way up 12South to Wedgewood ... that’s quite a feat. The hills hurt, but in some ways it’s like childbirth. Once it’s over, you forget.”
Daniel Hudgins: full marathon runner:
“There’s another hill that seems to spectators almost like a large dirt mound at Mile 25 that is one of the most significant hills. It’s not very steep, but at that point in the race, you are so tired. Your legs begin to cramp. The last thing you want to do is run up an incline with fatigued legs and a weary mind. It is so essential to see a friend on the hill, read a comical sign about how ’You are all Kenyans in our hearts!’ or hear a shout that the finish is ’just around the corner.’
The human spirit begins to open its eyes wider and pump energy from somewhere other than the heart and lungs. All of the miles spent training with your best friend, all of the tragic news from lives lost or altered in Boston, and all of the successes and struggles in your own life come rushing to the surface. You reach the top of that hill on Fifth Street, turn left on Woodland, and the crowd and your soul carry you to the finish when your legs want so badly to stop and rest. After it’s all over, no matter your finish time or place, you discover so much about yourself and how to unleash the power of the human spirit from that one tiny hill at Mile 25.”