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“Trample the weak, hurdle the dead” at Elvis’s hometown marathon.

As a Houstonian, finding a marathon to run over Labor Day is daunting. The sanity line is Mason-Dixon. Anything south could involve an I.V.

Then I found Crazy Jimmy’s Tupelo Marathon, where insanity is revered. It was a hot ticket in more ways than one. As a glutton for cut rate punishment I couldn’t pass up an 83 degree start, $60 fee, and slogan “Trample the weak, hurdle the dead”. But, in the end, Tupelo delivered much more.

Now, getting from my hometown to Elvis’s in northern Mississippi was no bargain. Options were Delta for $1000, 12 hours on the road, or crop duster. I chose the blacktop.

Crossing the river at Vicksburg, recession in rural Mississippi seemed redundant. Rusted Humble Oil signs hand painted with advertisements for fresh eggs.  Garage sales. Dollar Stores.

But, things changed when I turned north on the Naches Trace Parkway, an old Indian trail winding through lush forests along the Mississippi River. For 180 miles the only reminders of civilization were markers eulogizing Choctaw and Comanche villages. These were people of simple values, respectful of nature and their place in it. I could almost sense their presence. Marathoners understand minimalism. I wanted to tell them they had it right, but I was 150 years too late.

By Tupelo the stress of fenders and freeways was gone.  Things were simple. No expo no lines. Crazy Jimmy himself handed out race packets at his running store on the out skirts of town.

I was struck by the lack of commercialism surrounding big city marathons. These Gotham events have become a microcosm of our over hyped, technology driven, bottom line, society where human needs have been supplanted by sales quotas. Instead of celebrating the purity of the sport, corporations make a living off the marathon, branding it with logos and slogans. Vendor’s who’ve never run a step hawk products that are non-essential to the act of running. Like in society generally, the selling of running products has become a mere exercise in service to no superior, significant goal. We’ve sold out.

But, not so in Tupelo. Cotton tie-dyed shirts and finisher’s medals sport no brand names or logos, only a skull and cross bones. Enough said.

Everything in Tupelo revolves around its favorite son. The Elvis Presley Memorial is next door to Elvis’s Boyhood Home, which is not far from Lake Elvis Presley. Carbo loading was easy with Elvis’s favorite snack, peanut butter and ‘naner sandwiches, in ample supply.

At 5 AM on a country road 560 runners holding mini-flashlights sang the national anthem then eased into the darkness like a twinkling centipede. Sunrise revealed farm houses, combines, and pick up trucks loaded with ice chests which served as water stops.

The course was out and back so the leaders blew by us on their return trip just after daybreak. The first woman was a young blond with a grin. It was not the last time I’d see her.

By Mile 20 there were quarter mile gaps between runners. We shared the rolling hills and the heat, alone. There were no split times announced. At 85 degrees survival trumped pace. It was a good trade.

Free from time, I was a boy again lumbering along a creek bed in Louisiana, a young brave chasing a deer through green Mississippi fields, my mother as a girl snow shooing across a frozen Wisconsin lake. We covered the final miles together, if only in my mind. I wonder if I’ll see them again.

From training alone, to running the biggest marathons in the world, to Tupelo, I’d come full circle. It felt like home. No pretense, no fanfare, just runners and the road. Does anything else really matter?

That question was answered at Mile 26, where I had my second encounter with the first place woman. She wasn’t in a limo heading to her hotel. No. After winning the race in 2:46, just shy of the qualifying time for the U.S. Olympic trials, Leah Thorvilson was retracing her steps through 90 degree heat to encourage penguins like me.

After struggling home at 5:04 and recovering for an hour I drove back down the course to retrieve some clothing. Near Mile 25 the women’s champion of Crazy Jimmy’s Tupelo Marathon was walking in the last place runner.

In life you can see others, but you can’t see yourself. What I saw in the young champion exemplified the best of our sport. I hope someone tells her so.

They say Elvis returned to Tupelo to perform each time his career needed a boost. Perhaps if he’d found his way home one last time he’d still be with us. Although he didn’t make it, I did. It was worth the trip. Thank you Tupelo, thank you very much.

Malcolm D. Gibson
Copyright 2016
All Rights Reserved

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