A Runner's Ramblings: Volume 3; 15th Edition
316.8 miles raced in 2008
Race: Akron Road Runner Marathon
Place: Akron, OH
Miles from home: 1746 miles
Weather: Sunny and 60s; mostly overcast; slightly humid
Some events in your life live up to your expectations. Most, for whatever reason, fall short. Even less more than exceed them. The Akron Marathon falls into that last, select group. As I had made reference to in a previous posting, the Akron Marathon has been on my list of races to do for quite some time. However, I could not have expected all the enjoyable intangibles that went with the entire weekend’s events.
First of all, this was a speaking engagement in which I knew I would be quite busy. With three scheduled appearances during the expo, I also knew I would be working the pacing group’s booth and also splitting time working the entire expo floor. To begin, let me state the Akron Marathon expo is top notch. Plenty to see, more to receive in free stuff, and much to do, it is also spacious and expansive while feeling homey and tight-knit. Without a doubt, this is a trickle-down effect from the race director himself, Jim Barnett.
Jim and I have corresponded on and off for the past few years and if ever there is a close friend you have never met, it is Jim. From personally sending out a welcome email to every registered participant (yep, that is not a form email you received, Akron runners) to the handshake he gives EVERY single finisher of the race at the end, the race has Jim’s stamp on it. A barker showman’s voice, bright vibrant eyes, and a spirit which men half his age aspire to maintaining, Jim made me feel like a celebrity from the very beginning of my stay in the rubber capitol of the world.
As my first speech ended (which I felt was my worst, almost one I should have done in front of the mirror in the hotel room) and the second was ready to commence, I took the time to introduce myself to my booth mate for the day, Kathrine Switzer. Echoing the sentiments I had penned earlier, she gave me a heartfelt thanks and we spoke for a great length. After a much better second speaking engagement, I had the pleasure to see Kathrine interview Katie McGregor, Amy Rudolph and Elva Dryer- three women who were participating in the 8k championship the next day, just another part of the race’s wonderful weekend activities.
About 3 feet from these fast women, all Olympians, I could not help but think a few things.
1. Wow. I am right next to Katie McGregor, Amy Rudolph and Elva Dryer.
2. They all seem so nice and fun.
3. Holy crap are these girls tiny!
(Katie would end up 2nd overall to Sara Slattery with Amy Rudolph taking third!)
By my third speech, the entire seating area was packed and there were a good dozen other people milling around. Good friend Cowboy Jeff was making his first appearance at the Akron Marathon and we caught up with each other, realizing it had been nearly two years since we had seen each other in person, shaking our heads at the unbelievable nature of that fact. (Jeff would go on to finish his race in yet another stellar time of 3:41. Please note Jeff is 58 years old. What's your excuse?)
With my third and final speech ending at 4:30, and not needing to head over to be the featured speaker at the pasta dinner for a few hours, I was curious how to kill the time. I then overheard a few people talking to each other about whether they had missed the guy who ran 52 marathons in 52 weekends. As I was standing no less than two feet away from not only this woman but also the big poster board of myself, I could not help but smile. I leaned over to the woman and said: "I think they said something about him speaking again at 5." She smiled and said, "Good! I will go get my t-shirt and hopefully make it back in time". As soon as he left, I whipped out a magic marker and added "5 PM" to the times when I was speaking.
When 5 pm rolled around and I again grabbed the stage to another full seating arrangement, the woman I spoke to was front and center. The look on her face when she realized it was me that had been speaking to was pretty funny. More pleasantly surprising was when I mentioned how I grew up in Titusville, PA and a loud cheer erupted from 4 or 5 women in the back of the crowd. Looking around my age, I assumed I knew them but could not place any of their faces. As it so happens, while I had met one the ladies previously, the others just happened to be Titusvillians making the trip to Akron to run the race. Small world indeed. I thank Time Warner Cable for this great opportunity.
I then scuttled over to the pasta dinner and helped myself to a wonderful ziti and spaghetti mix. In between bites of food I met many of the members of the Summit Athletic Running Club.
Also extremely pleasant people, I was happy to spend a few minutes getting to know all of them. But I had really been looking forward to meeting an old friend of mine. Erin Johnson (formerly Martin) is her name and when I saw her in the pasta feed line, I immediately recognized her, even though it had been every bit of 20 years since we had last seen each other. After an introduction to her husband and cute little baby, we marveled at the fact that we were even old enough to have friends we had not even seen in 20 years. I thanked Erin for showing up and supporting both me and the SARC as, even though she was now living in the area, she had no intentions on running any of the races the next day.
If things had gone well at the expo, they went spectacular at the pasta dinner. I saw many smiles and laughs and think I did a fine job of keeping all in attendance pleased for a little while at least. I got to see my friend Holly Koester and embarrass her by mentioning how she was the first wheelchair athlete to race a marathon in every single state. Her bright smile made my evening. After a quick Q&A, I released the runners to the night and went to say goodbye to Erin. She seemed to be in a little bit of hurry in saying our goodbyes and she explained why. “You got me so pumped up to run that I need to head over to the expo to sign up for the marathon.” Now Erin is an accomplished athlete but with no specific training for this particular race, she shocked me with her statement. If that isn’t a ringing endorsement for motivation, I do not know what is!
After a long past few days, I was more than ready for bed. I had been on my feet all day and definitely needed rest. The next day’s event called for me not to be racing but rather pacing, and pacing the 3:10 group, to be more exact. While I have run a 3:10 or better in nearly 1/3 of all my marathons, there is something quite taxing about being the pace group leader. With a group of people more or less depending on you to set the pace, even if that pace is much slower than your normal pace, there is definitely pressure on you to perform. So my bed called and I answered.
With a prediction of rain forecasted, and the ever-present possibility of heat and humidity in Ohio in September, all runners were quite pleased to wake to a slight nip in the air and cloud cover that threatened no rain whatsoever. Creigh Kelly, announcer extraordinaire, lined up the runners for the start of the race and I, with my 3:10 pace group sign attached to a three foot dowel rod, spoke to my charges. Telling them my plan to run as close as possible to a 7:14 mile and help them in anyway, I can to get them to qualify for Boston there was a palatable anticipation in the area. The gun sounded and we shuffled forward. Positioning myself a little ways back in the pack where the 3:10 runners should be, it took a few seconds at least to get to the start. I knew the race started with a very nice downhill and even though I wanted to run even splits every mile, I could tell from the energy of this group that unless I reined them in from the start, they would be flying along. So with a first mile about 10-15 seconds slower than our goal pace (and I informed them all that I would do that to keep them in check), I was later justified by about 5 or 6 runners who said it was that first mile that allowed them to stay with the group as long as they did.
By mile 5 we were right on pace and clipping along in a huge group. I told little anecdotes and offered advice as we climbed and then went back down Akron’s many hills. Now, let me quantify that statement, lest someone be turned away from the course because of it supposed difficulty. The Akron Marathon is not easy. However, it most assuredly is not difficult. But one must respect this course (like any 26.2 miler) and know what lies ahead. Preparation is the key and luckily, well, I am me and had not only researched the course as usual but knew where and when the hills occurred. As such, I provided as much information to my runners as I could, especially when one commented “Are there any flat stretches on this course?!”
With a marathon relay occurring at the same time as the marathon itself, we were quite pleased that the relayers had demarcation on their backs indicating that they were doing that part of the race. Even a group running together can be pulled apart by one stray guy or girl who takes off. While crowd support in most places was a little spotty (but loud where it was), the relay exchange points were packed with people who were both boisterous and excited for all runners as they passed through. A twirling 3:10 sign held aloft doesn’t hurt to bring in the cheers either.
After 11 miles of traversing the streets of Akron, we headed onto the towpath area right along the Cuyahoga River. Every time I turned around I saw I still had a pack of 15 guys running with me. I told them how proud of them I was and could say so without a single touch of condescension. Running a 7:14 minute mile for 11 miles is no small feat. While the sun had stayed away so far and the tree-lined coolness of this forest was helping keep the runners cool, there was a definite humidity in the air. We passed through the half way point at 1:34:30, almost perfectly on point to nail a 3:10.
A few more miles along the towpath included three more near-perfect mile splits for my runners: 7:15; 7:13; and 7:16. However, I knew the toughest test was to come. For about 3 miles, we faced, more or less a continuous uphill climb. Nothing too steep, the hill’s cruelty lay in its placement so late in the course. As we hit mile 17, 18 and 19, my pack behind me dwindled.
I tried to will each runner to simply stay with me and hold on as we powered through the hills. Every set of footsteps that faded into the distance behind me was small failure on my part. A death of a thousand cuts, each runner lost actually sapped a little of my energy.
By the time the hills had more or less ended, I was running with maybe one or two runners. With a flat section of a mile or so, I kept hoping that perhaps the runners behind me had saved their legs for this stretch and would be catching up. A few glimpses behind me showed there were a few stragglers, so I slowed my pace just a few seconds hoping to catch them in my wake and bring them along. Mile 20 became 21 and then 22 and my efforts to slow were to no avail. Serendipitous fate intervened here as I happened to look down at my shoe the exact minute it became untied. In my 83 marathons, I can count on one hand with fingers left over the number of times this has happened. Unfortunately, when my shoe became untied, my chip came falling off. Shaped like a small band of paper, the “chip” acted like tumbleweed in the wind and rumbled away.
Stopping my forward pursuit I chased down the errant timing device and grabbed it in my hand. I then spent the next few seconds debating what to do. I could not run the remaining miles with my shoelace untied. However, I could tell I was rather dehydrated having foregone liquids at many aid stations when stepping over would have gotten in the way of many runners pacing with me. (This is one of the only drawbacks of having such a tight-knit group. There is almost always someone on your shoulder and the whole group moves as one wherever I go, making it difficult to saddle over to an aid station). The dilemma was between possibly tripping over my shoelace or bending over to retie it and having my legs cramp up uncontrollably. Throw in the uncertainty of trying to figure out what to do with my chip, and let’s just say I was happy for the first and only time that I had no other runners depending on me. Finally, I made the executive decision that my shoe needed tying.
Bending over as quickly as I could, I knotted my shoelace as fast as possible, not bothering to double tie it. I did indeed cramp which is what shot me up from my stance without making sure it was tight. Losing about 20 seconds or so was worth it to keep my shoe on my foot. However, the pain in my legs was nowhere near the pain in my heart as I passed runner after runner who was wearing a 3:10 on their back in hopes of qualifying for Boston but could not hold on. Everyone gave a valiant effort and held on for about 100 yards until the strain of pushing through so late in the race when the energy simply was not there became too great and they faded behind me.
I passed Connie Gardner, a local Ohio running legend and the female winner of Ultracentric (the 24 hour race I took part in last year). I said hello to her and would have introduced myself but had not to energy for much more than the “Hi Connie” I gave her. A nice downhill section of a mile or two just set me up for a particular nasty (albeit short) uphill before the final push towards the end.
(I felt better having beaten her to the finish until I heard she was doing the Quad Cities Marathon the next day!)
Down a straight flat section, runners made one final right turn and then erupted into the Akron Aeros minor league baseball stadium. With a crowd of thousands cheering each runner on, and Jim to shake their hands, I unfortunately entered the stadium with not a single 3:10 guy with me. I saw Jim smiling broadly at me and stepping forward to congratulate me before I even finished. I waved the 3:10 sign to the crowd, crossed the finish line and shook Jim’s hand. His eyes went to my shoe which had come untied again. It was then I remembered my chip, which I was holding in my hand. I told him “My chip came off!” He told me “Go over to the timing guy to see what he can do.” By this time, a larger crowd of relay runners, half-marathoners and some marathon runners were streaming into the finish line. Trying my best to not interrupt the gentleman who was making note of every runner I told him “I have a problem.” He looks at me and says:” You didn’t have a chip did you?” When I told him it had fallen off and showed it to him in my hand he mentioned I should have passed it over the finish line down low when I had crossed. I tried to let him know I was not exactly with it when I had crossed the finish line and he nodded knowingly. He told me to get in touch with them later and hopefully we can resolve the problem as running the chip over now was definitely going to add a large amount of time to my finishing time.
However, completely out of habit, I had stopped my own watch when I crossed the line and was able to at least see I had met my goal by running in 3:10:52. (And fix it they did. So to go with the irony of finishing in a number that ended in 52, I was also 52nd place. Weird.)
After a brief interview with Creigh Kelly again, which I would have enjoyed having gone on much longer than it did but my energy was wavering by the second and I think Creigh could tell even through my sunglasses, I escaped the infield to the bleachers to get some sustenance. The race had absolutely sapped me. Or more accurately, 3 marathons in 13 days, two at elevation and one with the difficult, but enjoyable burden of pacing, had sapped me. I sat down in the seats and gingerly ate potato chips and drank water. I had a feeling that one of the runners who had stayed with me through the hills, and had pulled away when my chip fell off had also qualified for Boston. I so wanted to find him and give him the pace group sign. However, he was nowhere to be found and I did not have the energy to search him out.
Finally, I was able to gather my wits and begin the walk to my car. I needed a shower and food. Another wonderful experience of running one more marathon was in the books. Besides the feeling of disappointment over not having more of my runners meet their goals, I can say the weekend was an absolute success. I cannot wait to work with the wonderful people of Akron again and would recommend this race to anyone who wants a fine race on a great course.
And, if you disagree with me on the course and the people, finish this race under 6 hours and you get a free pair of Brooks shoes (of your choice!) Beat that.
Erin emailed me later and said I wasn't that motivating - it was the shoes. And in case you are curious, I got the Brooks Defyance.