St. Jude Memphis Marathon turns 20 as 17,000 runners return to the Bluff City

For Keri Nunley, participating in the St. Jude Memphis Marathon Weekend started as a way to honor her father, who died two decades ago after a battle with cancer. After his death, Nunley found out her father had long been donating to the children’s hospital and wanted his memorial fund to go to St. Jude. 

A friend of hers was going to participate in the marathon weekend that year, the first iteration of the annual event in 2002, and invited Nunley to join. While she had never been a runner, she signed up and walked. And the McMinnville, Tennessee, resident has done it every year since. 

Each year, more friends and relatives joined her, and the weekend became a family reunion, with Nunley’s relatives coming from as far as Pennsylvania, California, Florida and Texas. And while it remains a way to honor her father, Nunley also participates for another reason.

“I'm very passionate about the kids,” she said. “They need our help.” 

Her favorite part of the half marathon was always passing by Target House, an apartment building provided for families of St. Jude patients who are on campus for more than three months. 

“You run a little faster as you go by there with a mother standing out there with a sign, ‘Thank you for running for my kids’... It just pushes you to do more. It is a community,” she said. “There's houses along the route in neighborhoods that all of those people have gotten involved, and they're out there every year… It's amazing how much it has grown over the years.”

Over the years Nunley's team has raised about $300,000 for the hospital. 

Saturday marks the 20th St. Jude Memphis Marathon, and Nunley is one of only a few people who have participated every year, according to the organization. But over the past two decades, the event has grown from a small, local fundraiser to an international event drawing thousands and raising millions. 

Over the life of the race, it has raised more than $100 million for St. Jude. It is the largest single-day fundraiser the organization has. The goal for the 20th-anniversary race was to raise $9 million. According to ALSAC, the fundraising and awareness organization of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, the race is on track to raise more than $12 million this year. 

There will be more than 20,000 people participating in the marathon weekend in 2021. About 17,000 will be running or walking in person, while the rest are participating virtually. Those runners come from all 50 states and 71 different countries. 

Last year's all-virtual event raised $7.5 million. About 15,000 people participated.

The race is also more than a fundraiser for St. Jude, it's a community event, drawing area residents to the course to cheer for the runners and walkers and filling up Memphis hotels, restaurants, cafes and bars. 

Annually — with the exception of 2020, when the races were all virtual — the race has a multi-million economic impact on the city and the wider region. According to Memphis Tourism, the 2021 race is expected to fill almost 4,000 hotel rooms.

posted Friday December 3rd
by Corinne S Kennedy