The first runners arriving on the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital campus were greeted by cheers, cowbells and The Mighty Electric St. Jude Band — made up of hospital and ALSAC volunteers — playing the old Stax Records hit, “I Thank You.”
It was the perfect musical theme as more than 25,000 participants of the St. Jude Memphis Marathon Weekend took an emotional trip through the hospital campus, a sort of half-mile hug among runners and walkers, patients and their families, staff and volunteers.
“First time we’ve ever come. I think we just started a tradition,” said Brad, whose son Max, 5, was treated at St. Jude for anaplastic ependymoma, a type of brain tumor. “This is truly amazing.”
Max arrived at St. Jude in April and completed his treatment just before Halloween. He turned 5 at St. Jude, during his chemotherapy. “They had a huge party for him, though, in the hospital,” Brad said. “They are concerned as much about the mental well-being as they are the physical. You’re the center of the stage. You’re the star, every day.”
Now cancer-free, Max returns to the hospital for a checkup every four months. Or for special occasions, like St. Jude Memphis Marathon Weekend, which is the hospital’s largest single-day fundraising event. St. Jude was founded by Danny Thomas on the promise that families will never receive a bill for treatment, travel, housing or food — because all a family should have to worry about is helping their child live.
Brad and Max set up alongside the course, in matching “Max Rocks” team hoodies with “God’s Got This” printed on the back. Brad held Max so he was just the right height for hand slaps from the passing runners.
Some runners stopped for selfies with patients before leaving with words of encouragement and, in several instances, a racing singlet souvenir.
The love flowed both ways. From their first step onto campus, runners were hailed as heroes. For the marathoners and half-marathoners, particularly, there were many grueling miles ahead, but on this stretch of the course they might have been running on air.
The dozens of handmade signs said nearly as much, sometimes with more than a little wit.
Students Maddie Webb and Samantha Anderson were a team. Maddie held a sign that read “Only 1 mile left.” Beside her, Samantha held a sign with an arrow pointing at Maddie and the words “Bad at math.”
Their signs became an instant photo-op for runners, who tended to have their cell phones handy.
“We like to make them laugh,” Samantha said.
Laughter was in good supply. There were signs that read “May the course be with you” and “Why do all the cute ones run away!”
There were multiple signs on the theme of “Tap here to power up.” Tap, the runners did. Not that they needed an invitation to interact or otherwise turn the race into something more. Amid the more traditionally shod runners, there were those who came as if for a costume ball.
There was a runner in a cowboy hat, a Santa Claus hat, a tiara. There was a runner in rabbit ears, a kilt, an ugly Christmas sweater. Antlers became something of a fashion trend.
There were runners dressed as Wonder Woman, Batman and Supergirl, among other superheroes.
But then, as one runner told Max, in one more show of gratitude on a day brimming with it: “You’re the real hero.”