Sports, Thrill of Victory

Looking back at 15 years of the St. Jude Country Music Marathon

Marathon banner picThe St. Jude Country Music Marathon is now less than two weeks away,  and as thousands of runners prepare to descend onto the streets of Nashville there is no better time to look back at what quickly became one of the favorite stories we ever had in print or on the website here at Sports & Entertainment Nashville. Prior to last year’s St. Jude Country Music Marathon we looked at the importance of the race to the city, along with some of the personal success stories of just a few of the race participants.

Join us as we take a look back at those inspirational stories, and make sure you stick with it to the end…. Just like running a long road race, the story at the finish line of this post is the worth the time and effort to get there!

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The St. Jude Country Music Marathon & Half Marathon has become a signature event for the city of Nashville. From its infancy in 1999 when it had just 7,500 participants, it has grown to a four-day event with more than 30,000 expected to lace it up in this year’s 15th running of the race. It now also includes a Mini Marathon of 2.6 miles plus a two-day Health & Fitness Expo which will take place the Thursday and Friday prior to the race at the new Music City Center and a Sunday brunch for those running as “St. Jude Heros.”

Every year many participants run as “St. Jude Heros” to raise funds for the Memphis children’s hospital. Organizers hope to raise $1.9 million this year to fund a single day of the hospital’s operating expenses / Courtesy of Competitor Group

Every year many participants run as “St. Jude Heros” to raise funds for the Memphis children’s hospital. Organizers hope to raise $1.9 million this year to fund a single day of the hospital’s operating expenses / Photo Courtesy of Competitor Group

In the 15 years of the event, countless runners and visitors have not only helped boost Nashville’s economy, but they have also achieved new personal goals and helped to support a number of worthy causes.

“To see the transformation over those years is just one of the absolutely thrilling things for somebody that’s grown up in the sport,” said Tracy Sundlun, Sr. of the Competitor Group which plans the event.

The race has had a tremendous boost to Nashville both economically and from a tourism standpoint. The 2013 race alone, which attracted over 30,000 visitors to the city, generated $38.2 million in economic impact, according to data provided by race organizers. Runners traveled from all 50 states and 26 countries to run the streets of Nashville. Organizers also noted that 70 percent of the visitors for the race stayed in hotels during their stay, accounting for over 25,000 hotel room nights.

Despite heavy rain throughout, the 2013 Country Music Marathon weekend attracted 30,000 visitors to Nashville. Photos by Donn Jones.

Despite heavy rain throughout, the 2013 Country Music Marathon weekend attracted 30,000 visitors to Nashville. Photos by Donn Jones.

St. Jude Country Music Marathon and Half Marathon organizers, like Event Director Malain McCormick, know they have a great product on their hands. That is evident by the number of participants each year. The marathon had 2,681 finishers last year, while the half marathon had nearly 24,000 finishers, making it the second largest half marathon in the country according to Active.com, an award-winning website that acts as a national clearinghouse for athletic and recreational activities and events.

Nashville Mayor Karl Dean is also excited about the success the marathon and half marathon have had in Nashville. “It sends a great message about Nashville trying to be a healthier, more active city. It’s just all positive, and you can’t beat having all these visitors come into our city. The city looks good and looks good for over 26 miles.”

The aspects that have made this race such a success over the years are the unique touches that aren’t found in many others around the world. When runners make the 26.2 mile trek through the city, they are greeted by a variety of live bands showcasing exactly why Nashville is Music City, USA. It isn’t all country music, either – while our trademark country genre certainly is well represented, runners can also be treated to classic and punk rock tunes on one mile, then hear jazz or soul music along the next.

This year, runners will get to see even more of the downtown area than in races past, as the course was revamped leading into the 2014 event. Instead of starting in front of Centennial Park like years past, it will begin a mile further into downtown on Lower Broadway. That will allow runners to see more of the downtown district, along with also breaking up some of the hills runners face.

“Nothing says Nashville like the neon lights and live music along Lower Broadway,” said McCormick. “Runners staying downtown will literally be able to roll out of bed and be at the start line. With the finish line just a short walk away at LP Field, this will not only be one of the most convenient marathons for runners, but for the spectators and supporters as well.”

Many runners will run this weekend as St. Jude Heros, raising money for the Memphis children's hospital.

Many runners will run this weekend as St. Jude Heros, raising money for the Memphis children’s hospital./Photo Courtesy Competitor Group

She added, “Most of that distance you’ll see is made up within the downtown area to continue to highlight what the city of Nashville has to offer downtown. So what we’re trying to do is manipulate the course so that it allows the runners to make that incline at a broken up period of time to make it a little bit easier on those legs.”

While runners are traversing the new route, many of them will have something else on their mind. The St. Jude Country Music Marathon & Half Marathon is a fundraiser, and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis is the primary sponsor. Their admirable goal is to raise $1.9 million dollars during this year’s event, which is the staggering amount it takes to run the hospital for a single day.

Many people will run the race as a “St. Jude Hero”, meaning they have committed to raise between $500 and $2,500 for the research hospital before even stepping up to the start line. At the same time, other participants will have their own individual goals and causes on their mind race day.

Paige Boze of Gallatin will be running her first half marathon Saturday.

Paige Boze of Gallatin will be running her first half marathon Saturday./Submitted Photo

Paige Boze of Gallatin is using the race as a culminating event to celebrate a life change. “I quit smoking two and a half years ago and picked up running to compensate,” she said. “I’m finally feeling confident in my ability to do it and lost 45 pounds in the process, so I’m feeling really good.”

Jamie Jenkins, principal at Hillsboro High School in Nashville, will be making the Country Music Marathon his first 26.2 mile effort. While he is far from a novice, having completed multiple half marathons in the past, he is choosing to challenge himself even more this year to honor a very special lady, his mother.

“I want to show the toughness and determination she gave me as a kid,” Jenkins said. “I’m running in honor of her for the sacrifices she has made throughout her life to give me a chance at success. We grew up in a tough neighborhood, but she was always the rock that saw me through.”

Jenkins, who grew up near Shelby Park, will have an exceptionally proud cheering section down the final stretch as the course route will take him directly by his mother’s house in mile 20. That encouragement will be the extra push Jenkins will need as he works to finish under 3:10, qualifying him for the prestigious Boston Marathon – another of Jenkins’ goals.

Another participant who is anything but a marathon novice is Gabryelle Conklin, or “Gabby,” as she is known. Gabby is one of a set of triplets born to Regina and Chuck Conklin in 1993. Since birth, Gabby was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, which confines her to a wheelchair.

Heath White pushing  Gaby Conklin in the pair's first marathon, the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington D.C. Saturday they will do the St. Jude Country Music Marathon together.

Heath White pushing Gaby Conklin in the pair’s first marathon, the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington D.C. Saturday they will do the St. Jude Country Music Marathon together./Submitted Photo

Growing up, she often saw her sisters and friends participating in events and playing sports, but she was unable to participate herself. It all changed in 2009, though.  As she was preparing to attend Wilson Central High School, she said to her mother, “Mom, I want to be a cheerleader!”

That is exactly what she did, too! Gabby became an honorary cheerleader and was a fixture on the sidelines at Wilson Central Wildcat football games for four years, helping to not only cheer on the team but also show people you can do the things you want, in spite of what challenges you may face.  Gabby’s inspirational story touched many and caught the attention of the producers of the ESPN series “E:60,” which profiled Gabby on its national show in 2013.

Regina Conklin received a phone call after the show aired, and on the other end was a man named Heath White. White had seen Gabby’s story and was inspired to reach out. White himself had also been featured by “E:60,” detailing his story of running races with his daughter Paisley, diagnosed with Down Syndrome. White and his daughter had run numerous races together, totaling 321 miles. This significant number was chosen to represent Down syndrome, which is, in genetic terms, the third replication of the 21st chromosome. After all these miles with his own daughter, White was touched by Gabby’s story and wanted to run a race with Gabby, too.

The two paired up to run the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington D.C., in June 2013. In their first marathon together, Gabby and White finished the race in 3:02 which was a time fast enough to qualify for the Boston Marathon, which they are considering! Since then, they have also competed in a pair of marathons in Little Rock, Ark. Our hometown St. Jude Country Music Marathon will be their fourth marathon together.

While not running marathons with White, Gabby and Regina have been training for 5K races together. Gabby had previously met Cayden Long, who is also diagnosed with cerebral palsy, at summer camp. While there, ESPN’s “E:60” was actually filming a story about Cayden, too. Our readers may remember the remarkable story of Cayden and his older brother Connor. The two compete in triathlons together as “Team Long Brothers.”  Their mother, Jenny Long, is in the process of starting a local chapter of My Team Triumph, called My Team Triumph TLB. Part of their fundraising went to cover the cost of an additional jogging chair to be used by others who wanted to compete. The first user of that chair was none other than Gabby Conklin in The Mayor’s 5K Challenge here in Nashville.

On top of running her first half marathon Saturday, Regina and Gabby Conklin also run a number of 5Ks together.

On top of running her first half marathon Saturday, Regina and Gabby Conklin also run a number of 5Ks together./Submitted Photo

As the St. Jude Country Music Marathon approaches, Gabby continues to inspire people. While Gabby and White run the marathon, Regina plans to participate in the half marathon. She has wanted to run a half-marathon since 2012, but she has the extra motivation to see it through this year, so that she can be at the finish line to greet Gabby and White when they cross their own finish line.

“Once we decided that they were going to do the Country Music Marathon, I said, ‘Here’s my chance, here’s my motivation!’  So I’m going to start training to do the half marathon,” Regina said. “I signed up and have been training since January.”

Her mother won’t be the only person joining Gabby in the Nashville race this year, either. Gabby’s best friend Rashel lives in Colorado, whom Regina describes as Gabby’s twin. White had the idea for Rashel to compete in the marathon with him and Gabby. He recruited his sister, also an avid runner, and together they will push both Gabby and Rashel through the streets of Nashville, undoubtedly continuing to inspire people along every inch of those 26.2 miles, which is exactly what Gabby wants.

While recently sitting at dinner, Regina asked Gabby, “If you got to choose between going to your favorite college and cheering for your favorite football team or continuing to do marathons, which would you pick?” Without hesitation Gabby said, “I think I want to do the marathons, because I think I can reach more people with my story.”

So, while the St. Jude Country Music Marathon is certainly an economic boost for the city of Nashville, even more importantly, it also serves as a way for people to achieve personal goals and help those around them.  For some,  this marathon is the perfect vehicle to share their inspirational story of never, ever giving up.