When I turned 50 I ran a marathon on each continent in celebration. The sixth was in North America.
I hated country music. Until I ran the Nashville Country Music Marathon. In typical American style, this race was a huge commercial venture. The good news about such blatant and outright monetary intent is an outstanding level of organisation. Right from the time I entered, a regular stream of emails enticed me to buy all sorts of memorabilia. Then there was the well-appointed Expo, held in a huge downtown convention centre. Outside of the London Marathon, this was the biggest event I had run on my whole pilgrimage.
Before the race, Kay and I visited the Nashville Museum of Country Music. Running in country music’s heartland, you either have to yield to its melody, or be swamped forever in the ample bosom of Dolly Parton. As we walked around on the “audio” tour, the history of the music unfolded. I am ashamed to admit it, but I came away with a new appreciation for country music, and even bought some CDs. The best exhibit in the whole museum was a gold car owned by Elvis Presley. In all of Nashville, that had to be the clincher.
On a drizzly, unseasonably cool spring morning, the 16 000 throng was out to have a party. It was a race of festive proportions. The music belted out, the upbeat man on the mic at the start knew how to whip up the crowd’s enthusiasm. I was in an expansive mood to enjoy my ride down Marathon Avenue in the king’s limo. Oh Yeah.
For large parts of the initial stages, the running was an out-and-back affair. The effect was running against a steady stream of competitors coming the other way. Pumped by the incessant beat that filled every corner of the race, I ran close to the centre of the road and stuck out my hand. The oncoming traffic was quick to catch on, and in no time, I had many a good mile of new friends and well-wishers. High fives and “howdys”. “Good job” was the slogan, good job indeed. The insular, aloof runner that was New York was transformed into an exuberant and friendly citizen of Tennessee.
The energy emanating from those thousands was electrifying. The opening magical miles carried me well into the “dead zone” of the race. When I got into the dreaded place of fatigue and pain, there was yet another band pumping out volumes of energetic music, yet another crowd dancing and singing in the streets. Nashville has vast tracts of parkland and country estates, so this race was more than just an action-packed country music concert; it was beautiful as well. The support at the side of the road was enthusiastic, sometimes even hysterical.
The stadium and the finish line was a good distance yet, but in all of this excitement, I gradually became mindful that my long journey was coming to an end. This would be the culmination of almost two years of planning and training. Take your time, live the moment. “Be here now,” is what I told myself.
This, in all likelihood, was going to be my last marathon. Ever. After 20 years of distance running, with well over 100 marathons run and five Comrades Marathon medals, it was time for pause and thought.
The last mile. There it was. The last mile of the last marathon. Accomplishment. This was a long run. I had come a long way since the first steps taken after turning 50. Kay had already finished the race and she jogged back to meet me. We ran together to the point where only finishing athletes were allowed.
“Well done, see you on the flip-side.”
The music had been belting almost the whole way.
“And here comes Tom Cottrell, all the way from South Africa.” Obviously picked up my details from my race number.
As I turned the last corner a sea of South African flags in the finish corridor greeted me. The Nashville Alive Hospice team was out in full force. And they gave me a real “Southern Comfort” welcome. I hugged them, kissed them and spent a while at the side of the race just breathing in the atmosphere. There had been many moments of utter bliss on this pilgrimage. This was just such a moment. I felt truly alive.
With only a few hundred metres to go, I charged off to the finish, fuelled by adrenalin, love, country music and a sense of madness. Ahead of me was a runner sprinting for the finish. I drew level and pulled back a little. I gave him a side-ways glance. He thought I was trying to out-kick him to the finish. He sprinted – I matched him. I grabbed his hand and smiled.
“Oh, now I got ya man, good job.”
We finished together holding hands aloft. That day I finished a hero in 5:23:17. Good job.
The Five Hour Pilgrim was at the end of his quest….Well, for now.