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Blue Cross Blue Shield running hard for race

For 30 years, the Mississippi Marathon ran in the greater metro Jackson area, building a solid reputation. Annually, it drew runners and fans from across the state, nation and world.

However, this year the race is being replaced by a new event that, thanks to corporate sponsorship from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Mississippi (BCBS), is getting hefty promotion both in print and online. The new race has also adopted a new course and incorporated a secondary mission of promoting and supporting Mississippi’s musical heritage as well as healthy living.

On January 5, 2008, the racers competing in the inaugural Mississippi Blues Marathon and Half-Marathon will wind their way through the streets of Jackson and Flowood. As the name implies, the race will incorporate a blues theme in an effort to tout Mississippi as “Birthplace of the Blues.”

This, coupled with BCBS of Mississippi’s support, has organizers expecting a significant increase in participants and a corresponding boost in the number of spectators.

“We’re excited about the running of the first-ever Mississippi Blues Marathon,” says John Sewell, director of corporate communications at BCBS of Mississippi. “So far, our expectations have been exceeded. We’re receiving interest from people from around the world.”

Final kick

In 1976, the first Mississippi Marathon was run in the Jackson area. Hosted by the Mississippi Track Club, the original course incorporated parts of Jackson and surrounding communities, and the event ran annually since then, with the only significant change being a shift of the course from Jackson to Clinton and the Natchez Trace.

In 2006, more than 160 runners participated in the race representing 28 states and two Canadian provinces. Just as with past events, the race drew positive feedback from both runners and spectators.

Still, the event’s proponents envisioned more, of taking the race “to the next level.” In early 2007, a group of Jackson-area runners began meeting to discuss how to significantly grow the marathon.

Organizers faced several challenges. Perhaps the most critical of these was the lack of resources. They had a limited budget with which to promote the race to runners and the running industry. In order to grow the race, organizers needed some “deeper pockets.”

Enter BCBS of Mississippi. Sewell is a runner and marathon veteran, and he saw exciting possibilities in the race. He says the Mississippi Marathon’s promoters did a tremendous job in marketing the event with the resources they had. If more marketing dollars were available, he believed the event had the potential to be much more successful in attracting both runners and fans.

Sewell also saw the marathon as an excellent way for BCBS of Mississippi to meet one of its goals — to improve the health of Mississippians. He carried the idea back to senior management at BCBS, and they gave the go-ahead to financially back the event.

There were some other new elements that excited Sewell and BCBS. The organizing group kicked around ideas about incorporating some theme that would ratchet up interest. In the end, they struck on the blues. The state is currently promoting the blues as a tourism draw, and race organizers saw that the marathon could further that cause while tapping into the proven drawing power of the genre.

A portion of the proceeds from the race will benefit the Mississippi Blues Foundation, and blues music will be featured before, during and after the race.

“The Mississippi Blues Marathon is a perfect combination of the blues heritage of Mississippi and our commitment to a healthier Mississippi,” Sewell says. “It will highlight our rich musical history as well as the importance of a lifestyle based on proper diet and exercise, and it will showcase Mississippi to runners from around the country.”

Finally, Sewell and BCBS liked organizers’ decision to change the race’s venue. The former Natchez Trace course was beautiful and challenging. But the rural setting hurt spectator numbers and kept runners and fans — and their wallets — out in the country and away from local businesses. The decision to move the race back to Jackson addressed these issues.

On course

The new course should appeal to runners, fans and local businesses. It will begin and end in the historic Fondren District in Jackson before winding through Belhaven and downtown Jackson. The runners will then take Lakeland Drive to Flowood, then come back through North Jackson to Fondren. The course is hilly and challenging, with a flat, straight section between miles 13 and 19.

Instead of watching the race well away from the front door of local businesses, spectators can browse the stores and eat at the restaurants along the course. This has the local business community excited. In fact, the Greater Jackson Chamber Partnership has committed to recruiting approximately 300 volunteers to assist in putting on the event. Approximately 200 BCBS of Mississippi personnel have already committed to help.

It appears all of these volunteers will be needed. Organizers have placed ads in a number of running-focused magazines, and have received interest online at its Web site (www.msbluesmarathon.com).

Another shot in the arm came from USA Track & Field (USATF). Earlier this month, it certified the Mississippi Blues Marathon course. Now, the race is a qualifier for the Boston Marathon, another appeal to marathon runners.

The added promotion and USATF certification is paying dividends. At press time, commitments had been received from people as far away as Ireland and Iraq. With almost three months to go until race time, approximately 160 runners had signed up, and organizers are hoping to see more than 1,000 runners vying for the first Mississippi Blues Marathon title.

The size of the race purse was still being hammered out at press time, but the tourism industry is expecting to see nice winnings.

Mara Hartmann, manager of communications and public relations at the Jackson Convention and Visitors Bureau, says, “More than 1,000 people are expected to take part in the marathon, and certainly many of them will come from outside of not only Jackson, but the State of Mississippi, so that gives us a terrific opportunity to showcase the Capital City.”

There will be a little of something for everybody at the first Mississippi Blues Marathon. In addition to the marathon and half-marathon, there will be a children’s marathon. Children around the state will be invited to run 25 miles in the weeks leading up to the race, and will complete their “marathon” with a 1.2-mile run January 5.

In addition, a pre-race expo is planned for January 4 that will include food and music, and a post-race event is also in the works. Details were still being finalized at press time

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at wally.northway@msbusiness.com..


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