Wednesday, September 15, 2010

St Jude Memphis Marathon and Half-Marathon Course Preview

The St. Jude Memphis Marathon Weekend is sold out again.  The race, once known as the Memphis Marathon, was a regional event for years.  A big field would draw 2,000 runners.  After a variety of course and sponsorship changes the race has finally hit it's stride. When you combine the amazing work and outreach of an organization like St. Jude Children's Research Hospital with the race expertise of the Memphis Runners Track Club you get a world-class race.  This year's event will draw nearly 17,000 runners for the Kid's Marathon & Family Race, Memphis Grizzlies House 5K, half-marathon and marathon combined.   The race venue is located in the heart of downtown Memphis at Autozone Park, the home of the AAA Redbirds baseball team.  The half-marathon and marathon start together before splitting just before the 13 mile mark.   The layout allows spectators to see runners multiple times as the course passes within a few blocks of Autozone Park at the 3, 13 and 14 mile marks.

Race Preparation
The course is not flat... but it is not hilly either.  There are some gently rolling hills throughout with a few key, short, overpass inclines to negotiate.   A slightly rolling course can actually help your performance because your legs do not get set in the same exact range of motion.  If you train on some rolling terrain and get familiar with maintaining a steady effort you can run fast at St. Jude.  If you look closely at the elevation chart the actual elevation gains are minimal.  Personal bests and Boston qualifying times are very common.

The final 3 miles of the half-marathon and the final 10K of the marathon are downhill
Race Day Logistics
The race venue is Autozone Park in the middle of downtown Memphis.  For those staying at a downtown hotel it is a simple walk to the starting line.  There is ample parking available at surface lots and parking garages.  Arrive early for the best spots and to avoid the traffic congestion and street closures associated with the Memphis Grizzlies House 5K which starts at 7:15.    
Autozone Park has covered areas in case of inclement weather, restrooms and is the location of bag check
and the finish line
In order to allow for parking, walking, restroom visits, bag check and walking the 2 -3 blocks to your start corral you should plan to be downtown no later than 6:30 a.m. and have your gear dropped off at bag check on the concourse level inside Autozone Park no later than 7:15.  Once you head to the start corrals there are porto-johns and water available.   (Tip: be sure and put some dry clothes and shoes in your gear check bag.  You will get chilled quickly post-race.  I see runners every year walking around shivering because they did not bring a change of clothes.) *2013 update: Only the race provided clear bags will be accepted at Bag Check.

Spectators: If you are not intimately familiar with the course and the streets of downtown and midtown Memphis I strongly encourage you to remain downtown.  Trying to drive out to see your runner on the course can lead to closed streets, traffic jams and the inability to get back downtown to see them finish.    Watch the start near the FedEx Forum.  Then walk one block to Beale St. and see the runners pass by mile 3.  The half marathoners will then finish inside Autozone Park on the field.  The marathoners will pass FedEx Forum again near miles 13 and 14.

The Start
St Jude uses a wave start system that works very well.  By staggering corrals by two minutes each runner gets a smooth start and is able to get up to race pace quickly.  If you seed yourself correctly it is a great system.  Look for the pace markers in each corral.  It is simple.   A slow runner too far up will get trampled and a fast runner too far back will be negotiating slower traffic.  
The race begins in the shadow of FedEx Forum at 4th and Beale
The Early Miles - Downtown
The first mile meanders through downtown and the South Main district.  The streets are wide and you should have no problems with crowding.  Watch for rough road in the first mile.  You will soon be turning right onto Riverside Drive near mile 1.5.
One of the best views of downtown Memphis and the Mississippi River greets you as you run down Riverside Drive.  Take advantage of this nearly one mile downhill all the way to Beale St.
The Beale St Hill
  Once you turn right onto Beale St., near mile 2.5, you face the first real obstacle of the course.  The short, but steep, climb up the river bluff will get your attention.  Relax and do not push too hard.  It is too early to max out your heart rate.  It is only two short blocks (about 275 yds). 
You are rewarded with a downhill and the biggest crowds of the day on Beale St. as you make your way back past Autozone Park and mile 3.

You will pass the Pyramid at mile 4 and then make your way through the St Jude campus
If being cheered on by the patients, families and caregivers at St. Jude does not put a lump in your throat... nothing will.
Heading East
After you exit the St. Jude campus onto North Parkway, at mile 5, you get a straight, three mile shot, out a tree-lined, relatively flat stretch, except for...  
...the I-240 overpass at mile 6...
...and the Cleveland underpass just past mile 6
Between miles 7 and 8 you will pass the Overton Park Zoo on your right and Rhodes College on your left. 

At mile eight you turn off of North Parkway into Overton Park.  
Overton Park
Overton Park is the site of many local 5Ks and offers a nice tree-lined setting.  However, be prepared for the 2nd surprise hill of the day.

After you pass the Memphis College of Art you take a hard left and face a fairly challenging hill at mile 9.5
Art Museum Hill is about 350 yds long.  It is manageable as long as you know it is coming.  
Heading Back Downtown
After exiting the park and turning right on Poplar the half-marathoners are headed for home.  The marathoners are headed to... well... halfway.
Poplar Ave has a few rolling hills along it's two mile stretch.  These hills are the type that you would hardly notice while driving.
Once you pass mile 11 you get a glimpse of the big red heart on top of LeBonheur Children's Hospital and the downtown skyline.   Turn left at LeBonheur ,on Manassas, and mile 12 is just ahead.   

The Fork-In-The-Road
At mile 12.5 the half-marathoners turn right on Marshall and the marathoners continue straight on Union.
This intersection is significant in the history of music.  Sun Studios is where Sam Phillips first recorded Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Howlin' Wolf, BB King, Ike Turner, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and invented the rock-and-roll sound.
(Tip: Marathoners should be prepared mentally for a significant thinning of the crowd at this intersection when the half-marathoners turn for home.)
The Half Marathon Finish
After turning in front of Sun Studios there is just over a half-mile to the entrance to Autozone Park.
When you pass the Wonder Bread bakery (the scent of baking bread is well known to generations of Memphians!) you have a gentle 1/4 mile downhill all the way to the stadium.
Run through the outfield gate of the stadium to the finish line. 
The Marathon Continues...
Marathoners head down Beale St. again passing the halfway mark and circling a few blocks around the FedEx Forum.  Spectators can catch you near 13.5 miles (4th and Beale) and then one block south just before mile 14 (4th and Linden) as you head out of downtown for your second loop.

Linden to Peabody to Cooper -Young
Miles 14 through 17.5 will lead you out Linden and then Peabody, a beautiful, tree-lined street in the historic Central Gardens neighborhood.
Peabody will roll a bit but has no significant climbs
When you pass under this decorative railroad trestle you will be in the Cooper-Young district of shops and restaurants and soon pass mile 18
Union Ave, underpass on East Parkway
When you exit Young Ave onto East Parkway you face two short hills between 19 and 19.5 miles as you pass under the railroad bridge near Christian Brothers University and the Union Ave. overpass.  The downhills will hurt more than the short inclines.  Once you get past these obstacles you are soon rewarded with mile 20 at Poplar and East Parkway.

Headed Home
Turn left onto North Parkway you will retrace your steps past Rhodes College and the Zoo (mile 21).  It is flat except for the underpass/ overpass combo at mile 22.5 and mile 23.  The short downhills will hurt more than the uphills.  Be prepared mentally.
North Parkway underpass a mile 22.5
Between miles 23 and 24 you will begin to see glimpses of the Pyramid in the distance.  Stay focused but know that the end is near!
When you pass mile 24 the sprawling St. Jude campus again appears to your left

*2013 update: Runners get to return through the St Jude campus! You can draw inspiration from the true struggles going on inside those buildings.  That dose of perspective can help propel you over the last two miles
Fire Station #1 awaits just past mile 24.5
You will pass mile 25 on Alabama St. just before making this right turn onto Danny Thomas Blvd
Pass under Union then turn right on Gayoso. *2013 update: runners no longer have to climb the steep Union ramp!

*2013 course change: Right on Gayoso. Right on 4th. Right on Union. Quick left back onto 4th & mile 26.  Run a few hundreds yards and turn left into Autozone Park.
Turn left and run down the ramp into the stadium
.New finish line located on the field
...and FINISH!
After You Finish
Once you finish and receive your medal you make your way from the baseball field up the stadium stairs to the concourse.  The concourse level will be very crowded with tired runners, family and friends.  I encourage you to go straight to bag check and get your warm, dry clothes.  Then head for the "runners-only" food area to refuel.  Have your family meet you where the food area exits into the stadium plaza.  Another great feature: the stadium locker rooms are open to runners to shower and change.  Be sure and bring a towel.
Other Tips:

  • The Race Expo and Packet pickup are located at the Memphis Cook Convention Center on Thursday and Friday.  The expo has grown along with the race and typically has a good assortment of exhibitors.  If possible go on Thursday to avoid the crowds.  If you do not arrive until Friday go as early in the day as you can.  **Runners MUST bring ID and pick up their own packet.
  • Caution:  There is NO race day packet pickup.  Like most major marathons, race day logistics do not allow for number and timing-chip pick up. 
  • The MRTC provides Pace Groups with goal finish times from 3:00 to 5:45.  No sign-up is required.  Just look for the start corral that corresponds to your goal pace.  There will be a volunteer "Pacer" in a bright yellow shirt running with a sign displaying their goal pace.  They typically do a great job.  
  • Aid stations with clocks, water, PowerAde, and porta-johns at every mile.  There are numerous bands playing along the course also.  Watch for Elvis singing on Beale St.  
The St. Jude Memphis Marathon and Half-Marathon provides runners with an excellent running experience.  They know what runners need and make sure they cover all of the details.  If you are looking for a fun, scenic marathon where you can run a good time you should give St Jude a try.  
For detailed race info visit the St. Jude Marathon website. 


  1. This is great Kevin! I'm excited already.

  2. Great spectator advice ... this should be posted for all long races in cities

    (Do you think the Panda would mind if people drop kick him in the gut when they run by? just asking)

  3. Thank you for this Kevin. This will be my first half marathon and I can't wait!!!

    Jocelyn Johnson
    Festus, MO

  4. Thanks so much for all the photos & commentary !! It's my first time running the Memphis Half and I'm excited !! I'm running w/a good friend and we're pumped !!

    St. Charles, MO

  5. Thank you soooooooooooooooo much for sharing. I ran my first Half Marathon last year, and this will be my first Marathon. I am really excited, and you made the hills seem a little less scary. Thanks again!

  6. Thank you for the great recap!! Don't suppose you have one for Wynne, AR by chance?

  7. So very nice of you to go to all this trouble posting this information! I like this marathon already and I've never run it! I'll be doing the full this year and this will be my 5th marathon. Thanks again for all the great course info!

    Tim Mahoney
    Mobile, Alabama

  8. Great preview! This is my first marathon and I'm excited & nervous. The spectator info will be very useful for my cheering squad.
    Birmingham, AL

  9. I just got really pumped up by reading through this. It will be my first half marathon and this "fly-by" is making me want to switch to the marathon.

    Off to run...

  10. This was also do a great job with Triathlons...this has become part of my race prep...thanks again !

  11. This was great...I am so excited to be running my first half-marathon. You have helped me be a little less fearful now that I know what to expect.


  12. Thank you so much for this great inside look at the course. I know that it will help me through the marathon. I am so excited already and getting ready for a great run. Ashley C.

  13. Thank you Kevin for the great layout & pics along with some history. I am Really excited about running for the kids & families of St. Jude's.

    Thanks for the info - running sprints won't seem so bad tomorrow!! Maybe I will run some uphill. : )


  14. Wow...I feel so honored to be part of this's my first marathon, but will be easy compared to what the St. Jude kids and families face every heart-felt thanks to everyone who is participating to make this event special for the runners and to make a difference for St Jude!

  15. You're right about the thinning out of crowds at the mile 12.5 mark at Marshal and Union Ave. It is a real downer knowing the halfers are about to be done and you've still got to run the city again AND it's so dang lonely that last half. You don't see half the people cheering as the first but if you mentally can do the full. I love this race!

  16. Wonderful write up! ... Many thanks :)

  17. Thanks so much for writing this!! It's a great preparation tool :) See you at the race!

  18. Nice job - we're hoping to "test" the half marathon route next weekend and glad for the chance to see what we're up against.

  19. This is great! This is the first year for me to do the full. It's helpful to know what to expect. Thanks!!

  20. Kevin,

    I am a Memphian and have run this race 2 years ago and will do so again this year. The details are right on. Dress in layers as this race starts cold and slowly warms. Great advice about bringing dry clothes to the finish. The hills you mention are the same ones I remember from my first race. Few in number but good to know about. The photos bring back the memories! I wish I had this blow by blow account then.

  21. Awesome informaton. This will be my first Memphis 1/2 and looking forward to running it with my friends from the Show Me State (St. Louis to be exact). Praying for good weather.

  22. Great information...first time to run Memphis Marathon! Excited and ready!

  23. perfect info! can't wait for this weekend!

  24. Great overview of the course Kevin. I just wish you could run along side of me and tell me it is going to be ok. Somehow your definition of a hill or incline is comforting..... :) Hope the real course will be comforting.

  25. Great presentation Kevin. This will be my first marathon, but I have run the St Jude half before and it is a great course and your descriptions are right on! My wife and I are running as St Jude Heroes in memory of Mallarie Graves. Thank you to everyone running to support all the kids at St Jude!!!

    Glenn Harris
    Henderson, TN

  26. This is my 1st 1/2 marathon and your info, to me, is priceless! I'm glad I viewed this for the after run info! Thanks!

  27. I just ran this as my first marathon, and miles 13-18 were the toughest for me and this stretch was where I wiped out. The higher temperature and humidity did not help either. My advice to others would be to take it easy until mile 17-18 and then turn it on if there is anything left. The Beale Street 3-block incline and the hills along Linden and Peabody were worse than I was anticipating.

    It is still a great race and an excellent cause!


  28. The Parkway street crowning is STEEP (both ways). Stay as far over to the left as possible to keep the road level. Linden to /Peabody stretch is rolling uphill. 14-18 can bury you if you are not careful and pace it. Temps are going to be higher this year. Good Luck!

  29. Our second go at the half as walkers in memory (and honor) of DWD.

  30. Great posts of advice are two key attributes for tackling the marathon course: focus (on your pace) and patience (thru 20) :-)

  31. I had soo many questions and you laid it all out~ KUDOS!

  32. I can't tell you how priceless this course description has been the four times I've done the marathon, and the mental preparation it provides is one of the reasons I PR'd this year. I think I finally solved the Mile-13-to-19 puzzle with (a) lots of speedwork and (b) many and varied sorts of training runs in that mileage range.

  33. Thank you for your post. It is really helpful to know about the course and how well the race is run. Your information and tips are very appreciated.

  34. Having just run the 2014 full,would add that roads are cambered during miles 19-24,leading runners to run in middle of road to avoid the slope. Otherwise,an incredible event and coach Kevin is amazing.

  35. Will this be updated to cover the 2015 changes?

    1. Greg- here is an update I found....