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Dave Hunter

Dave HunterDave Hunter is a track & field journalist, announcer, and broadcaster.  Dave reports on the premier track & field gatherings around the globe, frequently serves as an arena or stadium announcer for championship events, and has undertaken foreign and domestic broadcast assignments in the sport.

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Galen Rupp, 2011 WC 10,000m, photo by Photorun.

Random thoughts and observations deep in the heart of Texas as the Olympic Marathon Trials are less than 48 hours away:

All In the Family. Keith Brantley and his new bride Kim Pawelek Brantley were spotted at the Intercontinental Airport arriving for the big race weekend.. Kim will be in the women's Trials race on Saturday morning. With a qualifying time of 2:41 and change - which she posted in the 2010 Jacksonville Bank Marathon - Kim is a realist about this weekend's big race. Although she knows that a top three finish is not a realistic outcome on Saturday, Kim views her Trials race as a "personal challenge." Keith, who assists in devising Kim's training, was a U.S. Olympic marathoner in the 1996 Games.

Meteorological Dream Sequence. While prevailing conditions can always change, it appears that the Weather Gods may be smiling on Houston on race day. Currently, Saturday calls for clear and sunny skies with dawn temperatures in the mid-40's. While the thermometer may creep to the upper 50's by the end of the race, conditions should be ideal. It will be, as Frank Shorter says, a "no excuses" day.

How Will The Race Unfold? You can't go anywhere without overhearing conversations about the race, the strategy, and how the end game may be played out. Various theories abound. Will the dominating presence of Ryan Hall and Desiree Davila inspire others to attempt to find ways to slow the early pace? Will a bold, new talent seek to push to an early lead? Will the race finishes feature furious battles over the final kilometers - like the men's Trials race in 1984 when Pete Pfitzinger upset Alberto Salazar and John Tuttle held off Dave Gordon for the final Olympic team spot? Or will the races feature clean breaks early where a clearly-defined trio gaps the field and works in truce-like unison to capture the top three spots - as was the case in the 1992 men's Trials race when Steve Spence, Ed Eyestone, and Bob Kampainen broke away early and worked together to seal their Olympic positions?

The Rupp Factor. Another topic of incessant conversation and speculation has been the on-again, off-again entry of Galen Rupp. Several weeks ago, when it was announced that Rupp, the American record holder in the 10,000, had unexpectedly entered the Trials, it caught many off stride. Immediately, the blog chatter took off: "Is he ready?" 'How could he not be?" "He would never enter if he wasn't ready to go." Then the real theorists crept in: "Rupp isn't a serious entrant." "He's entered only to provide pace support for Dathan." "He'll drop out - because he'd never want to bypass that debut marathon payday.' "Won't the pure marathoners fear what would have to be impressive closing speed?'. Then, this last week, just as surprisingly, it was announced that Rupp had withdrawn. Did that end the speculation? Not a chance. While most believe the Rupp story is now closed, some knowledgeable marathon aficionados believe there could be another twist to this story...a twist that puts Galen on the starting line on Saturday.

Trials Format: Too Big? Too Small? Qualification Or Open? Another topic bandied about in some quarters this week has been the format of the Trials itself. Are the fields to big? Does it really make sense to bulge the field with participants, who, albeit elite, harbor no real chance to place in the top 3? Or should the Trials maintain a field of reasonable size to cultivate broad-based and inspired performances by America's distance runners and to reward those achievements with a life-shaping opportunity to participate in this glorious event? The conversation has also included fervent discussion about a concept floated several years ago - to do away with qualification and to open the Olympic Marathon Trials to all - a sort of 21st Century all-inclusive celebration of running.

Sharing The Stage. Smiley Pool, photographer for the Houston Chronicle, has covered the town's marathoning pursuits for years. Without question, Smiley notes, Houston has parlayed the 40th anniversary of the Houston Marathon with the 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials to create an opulent and well-coordinated spectacle which is poised to be memorable event in all respects. What no one planned was for the Houston Texans to be playing in their very first NFL playoff series this same weekend- an unexpected development which is deflecting some attention away from the Trials.
 

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Motion, photo by PhotoRun.net

 


 

 

conniegardner.jpg Connie Gardner, photo by Jennie Kormanik, Akrun Second Sole

 

Driven, Free-Spirited AR Holder For 24 Hour Run Does It Her Own Way


Can you run a mile in 9:38? Duh. How about running a 10K at 9:38 pace -- finishing in just under an hour? No sweat, right? OK, how about running a marathon at 9:38 pace -- crossing the finish line in 4:13? Of course you can. With a sensible training program, many do that in races every weekend. All right then, can you run 9:38 pace for an entire day? For 24 hours straight? I didn't think so...

Connie Gardner can. And she is not satisfied. "I don't have any PR's yet. I am not content with anything," she declares. "I am not content with any times or any distances."

Gardner is not even content with the stunning American Record she set last month at the IAU World 24-Hour Run Championships in Katowice, Poland. The new American record-holder covered 149.368 miles to eclipse the pre-existing American best by a mile and a half. Led by Gardner, the USA women also captured the world team title.

Amazingly, Gardner actually was the second woman finisher -- behind overall female champion Michaela Dimitridau of the Czech Republic. The new American record holder actually held the lead in the 22nd hour, but ultimately was overcome by the eventual winner. To put the finish in miler's terms, it was as if Gardner was leading "coming off the final curve", but was "outkicked" -- over the final two hours.

Oh, and here's the kicker: Connie Gardner will be 49 in November. Can you name another elite American athlete who performed at their best in their late forties? When George Blanda was passing and kicking for the Oakland Raiders in the twilight of his career, he was 47. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar led the Los Angeles Lakers to an NBA title -- his sixth and last ring -when he was 41. And Nolan Ryan pitched his 7th and final no-hitter when he was 44. All were younger than Gardner.

A grade school field day first sparked Gardner's interest in running. "I started running in elementary school to train for field day. I was terrible," she laughs. "They wouldn't put me in anything because I wasn't very fast. If you weren't good at anything else, they threw you into the distance run because nobody wanted to do it. So the first year I failed and then I started to train for it. I wanted to do it," she notes in earnest. "I've always wanted to see what I could do."

After an upbringing in several different cities which featured high school running on several different teams, Gardner headed off to the University of Massachusetts. At UMass she rowed on the crew team. But she also kept up with her running. "I would always run a marathon in the fall and one in the spring," explains Gardner. She ran her first marathon -- the Columbus Marathon -- in 1981 at age 17. She finished in 4:11. "Twenty years later, I came back to Columbus to run the marathon again. Same course. I ran 3:11 -- one hour faster," she laughs. The following year she set her PR -- excuse me -- her current fastest marathon time of 3:04.

By then, she was in the midst of a post-collegiate geographic odyssey which saw her hopscotch around the country -- first to Oregon, then to Michigan, then to Connecticut, and finally to Ohio. The travels were a quest to get centered, get settled, and find a home for herself and her two daughters. She seems to have found it Medina, Ohio where she and her girls have lived for the past 15 years. "It's the longest I've lived anywhere," she smiles.

Through her travels along the way, many of her training partners encouraged her to try longer distances, fueling a curiosity that was sparked when she read a story about the Western States 100 Mile Trail Run when she was 17. But it wasn't until she landed in Ohio that she undertook her first ultra -- a 50K trail run. Shortly thereafter she was ready for the next step -- a 50 miler. She found one in Kentucky. "I had no idea what I was doing," she concedes. "I knew I was passing a lot of people between mile 20 and mile 30-35," she explains. "And then I came up on this guy at about mile 35 and I asked, 'Who's up ahead.' And he answered, 'It just us,'" she says laughingly. "We had about 15 miles to go and I'm thinking that this guy probably doesn't like me very much at all. If I were a guy, I know I wouldn't want me coming up on me." Gardner's competitor copped a quick lead as Gardner refueled at a late aid station. He was able to hold on for the win. But Gardner, who was finishing fast for a close second, discovered an event, a joy that she has embraced ever since.

What has transpired since then has been a steady diet of ultras -- 6 to 10 a year, on the roads and on the trails -- sprinkled among the "over 120 marathons" she has logged over the years. Her overall body of work is most impressive. For more than a decade, her ultra finishes are mind-numbing. A review of her performances shows that she has been the first woman finisher in the clear majority of her races. And, on occasion, she has been the first overall finisher -- beating everyone.

But without question, the longer ultras are events in which Connie Gardner thrives. The longer the better. But what makes Gardner so dominant in these events? She has figured out the nutrition regimen that works for her: 100 calories and fluid every 30 minutes. "I have a lot of options. I fuel at the top of the hour and the bottom of the hour. I'll grab a gel or some peanut butter and some water," she explains. "Then you run your loops and about a half hour later you grab another." Another critical element is a type of gliding locomotion. "I just try to stay as relaxed as possible and as efficient as possible, so it's smooth and relaxed," says Gardner. And as for concentration, Gardner is as an associative runner, focusing on the task at hand. "I just stay focused on my running," she notes. "Nothing else is distracting me."

And perhaps, more than anything else, that focus to stay in the moment may be the key. By her own admission, Gardner's life is a flurry of frenzied activity. And sometimes attending to all of those competing demands on her time and attention can be overwhelming. Gardner's younger daughter, now 18, is developmentally delayed and has special, time-consuming needs. Gardner shapes her life so that her mother is there for her. In a way, adhering to a training schedule that has her approaching 150 miles per week has become a rejuvenating activity for Gardner -- a safe haven away from the demands of everyday life and a daily place of solace, a place where she can reaffirm her strength to do it all.

And the ultra-races may prove to be the ultimate safe retreat, the place where she can shut out all of the noise and bring a simple and undistracted approach to a monumental challenge. "I don't care if its hour 8 or hour 12 or whatever, it doesn't matter. It's a relaxed pace and I'm just moving forward -- real simple. If a dog is eating all the chickens at home, if things are going crazy, there's nothing I can do about it, I'm in Poland or wherever. It is very, very simple. It's as simple as it could possibly be."

There is a shop-worn expression: show me a great distance runner, and I'll show you a person with anger management issues. Is anger at work here? For Gardner, it seems as if the process of training for and racing these incredible distances is able to unlock a special power from within that enhances her coping skills. "It's not like anger," asserts Gardner. "It's hard to focus, to balance things, to manage money, and things like that. So there are a lot of things in my life that are out of control. So when I am running, I think about all that running has given to me and I am able project myself into the race and the challenges of running 50K, 50 miles, 100K, 100 miles, or 24 hours. And a lot of times, if I have a really good race, I think to myself, 'I can do this.'"

Many would suspect that Gardner, in the afterglow of her American record at 24 hours, might adopt a more relaxed, reflective view on a career full of impressive accomplishments. They would be wrong. The new American record holder hears time's winged chariot hurrying near. "It's starting to be a panic now," confesses Gardner. "I want to run 150 in the 24 hour and I know I can. And time's running out. So I'm going crazy. I also feel confident at the 100 mile distance. If I win a 50 mile championship, I feel lucky. 50 miles is still too short. There are still good marathoners that I worry about all the time, that can hang with me for 40 miles in that kind of race."

Looking ahead, Gardner has ambitious goals -- goals that cover a broad span of racing distances. She notes unfinished business in the marathon. "I think I'm going to focus on the marathon as soon as I turn 50. So I've run 3:04 [10 years ago when she was 38]. But this year I've run a 3:08 in the middle of four 120 mile weeks. I want to break 3:00 when I'm 50."

Gardner's more immediate goals are intriguing: a 50-miler the third week in October, a 100-miler the following week; and then, 6 weeks later, a date with destiny: a 24 hour race on a track. "I really want to try to get the 24 in the mid-150 range," she outlines in all seriousness. "I know I am capable of 5 more miles. And that's why I'm not content right now."

But is this 48-year old American record holder capable of attaining contentment? What would take her there? "Mid 150's for a 24," she offers matter-of-factly. "I should be sub 20 hours for Western States 100."

In a rare reflective moment, Gardner concedes, "I think I am getting too old to do that [the 50 mile and 100k events]. But the 24 hour stuff, 100 mile stuff, the Spartathlon [the Greek 153 mile ultra run from Athens to Sparta] I think I could still be very good at those distances." And, with a wry smile, she can't resist adding, "Those are the kinds of things you can do when you get older."

"You see, it's the process along the way of trying to accomplish something," explains Gardner. "It's trying to get there, trying to fit the training runs in, trying to squeeze everything in, and balance everything." And with a smile, she adds, "And doing it on your own with my personality is very tricky." It may be tricky, but as her competitors in Poland can attest, Connie Gardner is America's best at taking it one day at a time.
 

 

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Start of the Akron Marathon, photo courtesy of AkRUN

 

 


 

From Akron to AkRUN: One Marathon's Journey
(Part 4 of a 4 Part Series):

 

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Akron Marathoners in pursuit of the goal, photo courtesy of AkRUN

We can't figure out if our journey to date has been a quick jaunt or an ultra marathon. On the one hand, it is hard to believe that next year will already witness the 10th running of the Akron Marathon. Yet, on the other hand, during our extended trek through our first decade, our city and our race leadership accomplished much: we hosted two international road race championships, staged one national women's championship road race, nearly missed landing the opportunity to host a U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon, and grew our race day participant total from slightly over 3,500 to more than 14,000 in nine years.

Make no mistake, our race organizers are gratified with what's been accomplished to date. But we don't dwell on it. We are busy focusing on creating a great sporting event and gala celebration on September 29, 2012 - the 10th running of the Akron Marathon.

Helping to shape our efforts have been several economic impact studies which have been assembled by one of the heads of the Economics Department of the University of Akron. The recently-released study of the 2011 race reveals that the total spending impact of the race weekend in our region was a sparkling $5.25 million. While this is an impressive number for a mid-sized Midwestern city - Akron's population is approximately 210,000 - even more impressive is the fact that this statistic increased 30% from the prior year. Further, the sophisticated report - which employs a comprehensive calculation of direct and indirect spending - further noted that the race weekend stimulated the formation of nearly four dozen new full-time jobs in Akron. Hey, we're a "job creator"! Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, this upbeat economic study serves as a welcomed validation of the city's decision to provide broad-based in-kind support for our organizational and race weekend efforts. Quite simply, the economic impact study provides irrefutable political cover for our mayor who believed in the event from its inception and was courageous enough to provide the type of extensive support that has helped make the Akron Marathon what it is today. The economic impact study proves the mayor's bold decision to provide city support was the right move.

So what is next? First of all, inspired by the encouraging economic impact study, we are working to expand the footprint of our event - both the days our event covers, as well as the sectors of greater Akron it touches. We are inspired by Louisville, Kentucky - a city where each May an entire week of exciting and varied events are borne out of a two-minute horse race! With our race traditionally run on Saturday morning and knowing how post-race marathoners love to party, we have plans in the works to create a multiple-sited Saturday evening musical celebration (think Memphis's Beale Street). Named with a nod to our 26 mile, 385 yard blue line, "Paint The Town Blue" can create an ideal venue for our runners - who have trained with disciplined focus for months - to engage in a little post-race revelry in the city that gave you Devo, Chrissie Hynde, and The Black Keys.

With a longer vision, we also want to lay the groundwork for identifying and partnering with a "sister marathon". For several years Akron has had a special reciprocal relationship with Chemnitz, Germany which has involved a certain degree of trade and cultural exchanges - and even some runner reciprocity. The concept of partnering with this or another city to exchange runners not only would help our event but also would add some spice to our partnering city and help the sport in general.

The Akron Marathon is working to develop a mutually-beneficial relationship with a major marathon under a type of "Gateway" program. The concept would be to work in tandem with a large sold-out marathon to encourage its turned-away applicants to run the Akron Marathon as a pathway for guaranteed entry to the participating major marathon the following year. Both marathons stand to gain through such partnering. A Gateway program - which can be made to be economically beneficial to both participating races - would reflect favorably on the major marathon. These mega-races - which annually disappoint tens of thousands of aspiring marathon participants when their applications are denied - could suddenly present a positive option: a top-flight alternative marathon opportunity and a guaranteed entry into the larger urban marathon the following year. Of course, a Gateway program would obviously help our up-and-coming marathon which is naturally seeking - and could easily accommodate - more runners. Providing an encouraging race alternative to dejected, would-be entrants who have been turned-away by the large urban marathons would help promote fitness, boost marathon participation, and generally be positive for the sport of running in the United States.

As the Akron Marathon grows each year, we continue to search for ways to make a stronger and more expanded positive impact - not limited merely to the sport of running. The Akron Marathon is committed to directing time and resources to promote an overall healthy lifestyle - one component of which would, of course, be the type of regular cardiovascular exercise that can be offered through sensible year-round running. No city marathon is better situated to embrace this healthy lifestyle component than Akron. Northeastern Ohio is the home of an inordinate number of highly-respected healthcare organizations, several of which have stellar international reputations. The willingness of these enlightened health care organizations to work together with the Akron Marathon (e.g. partnering to promote healthy lifestyles; to better address the obesity epidemic; etc.) becomes more evident every year - and the perceived upside impact of such collaboration has the potential to be truly significant.

Civic philanthropy has to be an ever-increasing element of the Akron Marathon as we head into our second decade. Aided by the generosity of others during our earlier years, the Akron Marathon is committed to honor this past support by paying it forward. While the economic growth of the race is still in its infancy, the Akron Marathon Charitable Corporation - the nonprofit corporation which runs the organization - has been able annually to dedicate revenues for charitable purposes. And it is committed to increase its civic philanthropy yearly.

While the economic recovery of our country has been and will continue to be a long slog, there are detectible indications of modest economic improvement - even in our manufacturing-laden region. This encourages and inspires us to find effective ways to resume collaboration with USA Track & Field in hosting future national road racing events.

The recognition of all of these opportunities that surround us invigorates our race leadership team and makes it easy for us to sidestep any tendency toward complacency. We often conclude our planning meetings with the hopeful remark "We're getting there". But in reality, and in our heart of hearts, we know that there is no "there" there. With each accomplishment, our eyes are opened to even more we could - and should - be doing. It reminds me of one of my favorite running posters - a solitary runner knocking out miles on a desolate highway in the deserts of southern Utah. The poster caption reads "There is no finish line". That's alright. It's not about the destination. It's about the journey.  

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Akron Marathon, photo courtesy of AkRUN


From Akron to AkRUN: One Marathon's Journey
(Part 3 of a 4 Part Series):

 

After a solid inaugural running of the Akron Marathon in 2003 - our total runner count exceeded 3,500 - our race day participation grew each year. By 2006 - when we added a half marathon to our race day events - our total number of participants had grown to nearly 6,200.

We continued to focus on our dual branding approach: (i) working to strengthen our relationship and visibility with USA Track & Field; and (ii) enhancing our reputation as a precisely-executed value-added runner-centric celebration of running.

Each year we worked feverishly to tinker with our race day model. Over the years, we added new elements. We refined certain operations. And we deleted earlier elements which had proved to be flops.

Looking back, it is now clear that our various experimentations fell into two categories: those that didn't work; and those that did.

Some of our added accoutrements proved to be costly missteps that were gone after one year. In 2003 - our first year - we arranged to charter in Jay Leno from Los Angeles to stage a post-race stand-up performance in Akron's treasured Civic Theatre - a lovingly-restored downtown theater fashioned after a Moorish castle and featuring Mediterranean décor. The performance - a ticketed event, but complementary to all runners - was well attended. Although wildly entertaining, this ancillary event cost a fortune and we never repeated it.

In 2004, in an effort to bolster our marathon field, we held a dramatic post-race drawing on the baseball diamond in our Canal Park finishing venue. All marathon finishers were eligible to win a brand new 2004 Toyota Camry in our must-be-present-to-win lottery drawing. As part of our post-race celebration, bib numbers of 10 finishing marathoners were drawn at random. The 10 lucky runners were called down to the field and each was presented with a key - only one of which would start the car. The drama which gripped our packed crowd at Canal Park was somewhat diminished when the ultimate winner - visibly tipsy from some over-exuberant post-race reveling - seemed underwhelmed when his key fired up the Camry. True, this ploy was less expensive than the Leno presentation, but we never did this again either.

In 2005, we redirected race resources and fortified our marathon prize money for both men and women. That year, we paid five deep in the marathon and offered a first place price of $12,000. Hey, this wasn't "big city" prize money, but our research indicated that these monetary prizes would compare very favorably with other mid-major marathons. To paraphrase the famous line from Field Of Dreams, "if you pay them, they will come." With this prize money boost, the quality of both the men's and women's fields in the marathon improved dramatically. And it's no surprise that the 2005 winning performances - Charles Kamindo in 2:18:48 and Maria Portilla in 2:39:09 - remain as our course records. While this prize money experiment was pricey, we didn't abandon this approach in future years - we modified it. Although we moderated our cash awards after 2005, we installed several performance-related tiers which allow top finishing men and women marathoners who exceed pre-established time goals to be monetarily rewarded - whether they win the race or not. This pay-for-performance approach has allowed us to present pay day opportunities to a broad array of top performing marathoners which compare favorably with other mid-tier marathons.

While some of our experiments were either discarded or re-engineered, a good number of the ideas we implemented to make our race more appealing were immediate hits. Beginning in 2006, we re-deployed race resources in a manner calculated to enhance overall value for all of our marathon finishers. We provided a free pair of top-flight name-brand running shoes for all marathon finishers. It didn't take much reflection for us to understand why our marathon participation improved handsomely - the retail value of these post-race shoes exceeded the marathon race entry fee! But we were all about increasing our participation and building runner loyalty. And we did just that in 2006 and in subsequent years with free shoes for marathon finishers.

An entrants study allowed us to observe that we were building a significant core of marathoners who ran our race every year. Inspired by that observation, we enacted a Legacy Runners distinction which recognized - and accorded special benefits to - marathoners who were consistently running our marathon. This facet of our event was immediately and enthusiastically embraced. In 2011 we refined this initiative and introduced our comprehensive Loyalty Program - a more open-ended incentive program that rewards race loyalty by our marathoners in 5-year, 10-year and 15-year tiers. This past fall our race announcer Creigh Kelley and celebrated author and training guru, Hal Higdon, emceed our race expo pinning ceremony where 213 runners were inducted into our five-year club.

Early on, we recognized that first-rate running apparel was greatly valued by our race participants. As all runners know, "it's all about the schwag, baby!" So we set out to develop the best. Our offered clothing - shorts, tops, singlets, fleeces, hoodies, vests, windbreakers, track pants, etc. - is high quality, displays no advertising, comes in a variety of upbeat colors, tastefully displays our discreet race logo, and is competitively priced. We learned from the start that attractive and well made apparel not only is a revenue source but also is a vehicle for more broadly-based cost-effective race marketing. Next spring on Patriot's Day, notice how many Akron Marathon tech running caps you spot between Hopkinton and Boston. The ever-growing civic pride about our expanding event has even produced a clever play on the city's name -running gear sporting "AkRUN" can be spotted year-round at various running venues in our region. And, yes, you can purchase "AkRUN" merchandise at our race expo.

2008 was a big year in the evolution of our race weekend. Anne Bitong, our skillful Marketing Director, was rightfully installed in the newly-created position of President/Executive Director of the Akron Marathon. And, as the race grew larger and more established, so did our opportunities with USA Track & Field. Our near-miss in being named to host one of the 2008 Olympic Marathon Trial Races, while a disappointment, did not dampen our resolve to seek further collaborations with USATF. In 2008 we worked closely with the governing body to plan for and host the 2008 Women's 8K National Championship Race. Held on our traditional race day, and starting 30 minutes after our customary race start, the 8K Championship race featured a select field of 30 elite American women dueling for the national title. Breaking away slightly before the 3 mile mark on the only upgrade on our speedy course, Sara Slattery went on to capture the 2008 national 8K crown in 25:54. Ohio native Katie McGregor claimed second in 25:56. And crafty veteran Amy Rudolph got up for third in 26:00 to round out the podium. By all measures - from the elite athletes, from USATF, from our regular race participants, from our spectators, and from the media - the return of a national championship race to our town was recognized as a great success. The devastating recessionary forces which plagued our country in the months thereafter undermined our future championship race funding from a most supportive local charitable foundation. But as the economy improves, so will our ability to return to this type of national championship activity.

This dual branding approach - with a focus on selective participation in national racing opportunities and a runner-centric approach to our race - has allowed us to grow our event and make it better for 9 consecutive years. On September 24th of this year, 14,000 runners hit the streets of Akron. Their efforts were aided by 3,000 race volunteers. And the runners were cheered on by a reported 100,000 spectators who lined the course and later filled Canal Park to applaud our intrepid finishers.

Bill Rodgers' observation about our race - "Akron treats all of its runners like world-class athletes" - may have been a casual comment by one of America's running legends. But it has been and continues to serve as our mantra leading into 2012 - our 10th Anniversary year.
 

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Dave Hunter (the author), Creigh Kelly (the announcer), Steve Marks (the dreamer), photo courtesy of AkRUNFrom Akron to AkRUN: One Marathon's Journey


(Part 2 of a 4 Part Series):

 

The exhilaration and the adrenalin from the success of our first year was a rush we rode for a couple of weeks. But it didn't last long. We soon realized that the stir and excitement we created in Year One would be short lived if we didn't seize the moment and build to an even better performance in Year Two. We had to get to work - and we had to do it right away.

As we hoped would be the case, greater Akron was instantly in love with the race. The success of our first year resonated throughout the city. People now understood that the 26 mile, 385 yard blue line which marked our course was neither a bike lane nor some sort of esoteric marking for handicap parking. The Akron Beacon Journal ─ which provided generous coverage of our first race day, complete with a tabloid insert featuring color photos and a listing of all finishers ─ proclaimed "everybody in Akron gets free front row seats to one of the best sporting events in northeastern Ohio."

Race leadership wanted to build on that local success ─ to lay a foundation that would establish the Akron Marathon as a serious and progressive event on the national marathoning scene. As our leadership group deliberated on the preferred way forward, it became clear to us that the best way to grow our event, to enhance the experience for our participants, and to earn credibility in the marathoning community was to focus on two critical areas.

First of all, we wanted to take the positive initial impression we made with USA Track & Field and further develop and strengthen that relationship. We got off to a solid start with USATF in the planning for our initial race. Working closely with the then USATF CEO, Craig Masback, we collaborated to host in our inaugural year, the first-ever USATF North American Marathon Relay Championships - an exceedingly precise, formatted relay race which would feature elite teams from Canada, Mexico, and the United States - each comprised of five athletes running legs between 5 and 12.195 kilometers.

Perching these world class athletes at the beginning of our race provided a great international competition for our spectators. It also showed our authentic interest in putting on a serious sporting event and evidenced the trusted relationship we had established during the planning process with the national leadership in our sport.

On race day, Mexico won the 2003 championship as its anchorman Teodoro Vega - just back from his performance in the Men's 10,000 meter final in the Paris World Championships - buried the competition by running a blistering 4:38 per mile pace over the final 12.195 kilometers.

We jumped at the chance to host this Marathon Relay Championship a second time in 2004. While Mexico defended its title in 2004, the race outcome was not assured until the last 100 meters when Mexico's final runner was barely able to hold off a furious charge down Main Street by the United States anchorman - the late Ryan Shay. These international competitions in 2003 and 2004 were also paired with the USATF Club Relay Championships - a broad-based event which brought serious runners from around the country to Akron to compete in this championship and - coincidentally - to observe the precise and runner-friendly way our race day is executed.

Secondly, we wanted to develop some sort of "brand" - a distinct identity which not only was authentic but also served to distinguish us from other marathons. We knew we had to establish clearly what we are ─ or reasonably could become ─ as a race weekend. Learning what we weren't was easy: we lacked the heritage and tradition of a Boston Marathon; we did not have the international flair of a New York City Marathon; the rolling topography of Akron precluded us from developing the flat, fast NASCAR-type of course featured at Chicago or Columbus; and we weren't a "destination" marathon like Bermuda, St. George, or Big Sur.

So what were we? The more we talked about this, the more clear it became to all of us: the Akron Marathon is a runner-centric event focused upon precise execution. Fueled by the enthusiastic support of 3,000+ volunteers, our race is capable of focusing on the enhancement our runners' experience with an attention to detail which is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve by other races.

Maniacal planning? We wrote the book. Our race crew even holds training sessions to instruct water stop volunteers on the correct way to hand cups of Powerade and water to our racers. Precision race schedule? Trust me, our race starts precisely at 7:00 a.m. E.D.T. Digital clocks? Boston has them every 5 kilometers. Akron has them every 5 kilometers and at every mile mark. But wait, there's more. Akron features "pace announcers" who stand by digital clocks at the 15 mile and 20 mile marks to inform racers of their targeted finish time based on their then-current pace.

Fluid stations and medical stations along the course? Routine, but Akron also has Gu stations at numerous locations around the course. Race day course management? We utilize a squadron of "Sector Chiefs" who, after months of preparation, arise hours before the dawn race start, and armed with communication radios, prowl the course like 21st century commandos, supervise the course set-up, monitor the race performance, and assure the course tear-down on race day.

After another taste of success in our second year, we were inspired to look for other ways to press our event to an even higher level. With our runner participation in our 2004 race increasing to over 4,900 runners and the growth of our Thursday night pre-race Mayor's Reception and our Friday Runner's Expo, the Akron Marathon was no longer just a Saturday morning race. It had blossomed into a weekend event.

Less than a year later, we were gratified to learn that the Akron Marathon had been included in the newly-released publication: From Fairbanks to Boston: 50 Great U.S. Marathons. We pressed on as we looked for additional ways to show our loyal participants, our spectators, and the sport that we were serious and innovative race presenters worthy of their respect.

What would be our next challenge? Early in 2005, Bret Treier and I approached our founder Steve Marks with our idea to compete in the USATF selection process to be named to host either the Men's or Women's race for the 2008 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. Our naïveté in the sport ensured that we would not fully appreciate - nor be discouraged by - the challenging pathway that would lay before us. Our dream here was not a total flight of fancy: Treier and I had attended every men's Olympic Marathon Trials since 1992.

We had observed the past propensity of USATF to select smaller market cities featuring race leadership committees with a proven track record of thorough organization and race day execution. And, by the way, hadn't Akron completed two successful years of hosting an international road race event for USATF? Treier and I were thrilled when Marks - who was not without skepticism - gave us his blessing to proceed.

A whirlwind of planning events ensued: conference calls with USATF top brass and race directors from New York, Boston, Minneapolis, Chicago, and other locales; sessions with city officials about the creation of the speedy criterium course we proposed to create; meetings with corporate donors and local and national foundations to garner funding commitments; collaborative planning sessions with regional television network executives to explore broadcasting possibilities; and, finally, the assembly of a glossy multi-faceted proposal to USATF - a mammoth "term paper" which set forth our credentials, our prior race presentation experience, our fast and beautiful criterium course, our comprehensive budget and financial sources, signed testimonials from corporate and political leaders and sports figures throughout our state, and even detailed information regarding the likely temperature and humidity range on the date we proposed to host the Trials race.

We didn't know whether to be stunned or elated when we subsequently learned that - along with Minneapolis, New York, and Boston - we had been selected as one of four finalists still in the running to host one of the two Trials races. We prepared feverishly for the onsite visit by USATF officials that followed soon thereafter.

We pulled out all the stops for the visitation: comprehensive power point presentations, guest speakers from Akron and national foundations outlining their anticipated support for this event, a frigid mid-winter test run of our criterium loop with selected members of the USATF Visiting Committee (fans with signs lined the streets to show the city's support); even specially-created Akron/Olympic Trials candy bars and faux newspapers proclaiming Akron as the named site which were placed in USATF hotel rooms.

We emphasized how an Olympic Trials weekend in Akron, unlike the Trials in a big city venue, would allow the race to receive undistracted notoriety. When the long-awaited USATF decision came months later, we were saddened, but not completely surprised, to learn we came up short. (New York and Boston prevailed - and each orchestrated memorable events.)

When high-ranking USATF officials confided in me later that the governing body was predisposed to select a big city venue and that our innovative proposal to host the Trials was viewed with great favor, I knew that we had lost the battle but won the war. We weren't selected to serve as a host city, but our near-miss bid had earned our city and our organizing team respect throughout the road racing community.  

start line_2011.jpgAkRUN, Starting Line 2011, courtesy of AkRun

From Akron to AkRUN: One Marathon's Journey


(Part 1 of a 4 Part Series):

 

    It was a typically raw, late winter day in March 2002 as I slid out of the wind and into the Grille Room of a suburban country club near Akron, Ohio. I was a few minutes late for a luncheon meeting with Steve Marks, a resourceful and successful entrepreneur who wanted to share with me his vision to create a marathon in Akron. This would be my first meeting with Steve, a man whose reputation as a bright and innovative business man preceded him. Over lunch, I smiled broadly as Steve outlined his thoughtful and comprehensive grand vision of 10,000 runners competing in the streets of Akron. I was able to restrain some of my initial skepticism as I reminded myself that this is the man who started his business by purchasing an abandoned building in downtown Akron with a newly-issued credit card and ultimately transformed a muffin store into a publicly-traded enterprise that has become one of the most highly-respected and successful manufacturers of frozen gourmet bakery goods in the country.

    During our lunch, my restrained skepticism turned first to interest and then to guarded enthusiasm as I realized Steve had already laid an important foundation for this marathon vision through earlier pivotal meetings with key community leaders. More importantly, he was wise enough to allow an additional glide path of over 18 months until the initial race day of October 11, 2003. During my long runs over the years, I would often daydream about just this type of vision: a marathon for Akron. But when my endorphin-induced fantasy would subside and the realities of my real world obligations with my family and private law practice, etc. returned, I would routinely dismiss my flight of fancy as an intriguing idea for another time. But lunch with Steve changed all that. He had performed a lot of the spade work; he had the financing; and he allowed himself adequate additional time to assemble the many remaining organizational pieces. "This could be done", I thought as we shook hands after lunch. I was in... and I was hooked.

    The next step was completing the assembly of our leadership team. Steve had already secured the commitment of another local businessman, Jim Barnett, to serve as race director. Jim - a former Marine, a rugged outdoorsman, and an avid skier - lives 10 miles north of Akron on the banks of the Cuyahoga River in the expansive and beautiful Cuyahoga Valley National Park. With his boundless enthusiasm and energy, Jim would be the perfect symbol for our race. Steve looked to me to bring additional running experience and expertise into our leadership group. I tapped two of my running buddies: Bret Treier, a 3:06 marathoner and a top-flight corporate lawyer, who would work with me to create and manage the race course; and Don Luscher, a 2:32 marathoner and a hyper-organized healthcare executive, who would manage the starting line. The assembly of the rest of the leadership team followed a basic credo: the identification and selection of passionate individuals who share and possess the common bond of running with proven organizational skills.

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Expo Panorama, 2011 AkRUN, photo courtesy of AkRun

 


    The next step - an essential one - was forging a collaborative relationship with the City of Akron. (Cities like Pittsburgh know all too well - both the good and the bad - how essential municipal support is in putting on a city-wide marathon.) Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic, himself a visionary, immediately appreciated the upside potential of a city-wide marathon and knew the significant positive economic impact that such an event, if successful, would have on the region. The city's assistance was complete: from safety surveillance at intersections to bicycle fencing for crowd control - and everything in between. The city even agreed to paint a blue line of 26 miles 385 yards to mark our course.

    Another key ingredient proved to be the city itself. The people of Akron and the culture of the city reflect a long heritage of a can-do attitude and hands-on involvement. Akronites never disappoint. Within days after the September 11 attacks, Akron residents, almost by magic, assembled the funds, purchased a state-of-the-art fire truck, and drove it to lower Manhattan to present it to the New York Fire Department as a gift from the City of Akron. Committed attention to detail has allowed Akron to serve as the site of the All-American Soap Box Derby since 1934 and allowed Akron's Firestone Country Club to host PGA tournaments - including the World Series of Golf, three PGA Championships, and, currently, the Bridgestone Invitational - every year since the mid-1950s. We knew if we could capture the City's proven imagination the rest would take care of itself.

    Great care was taken to design a top flight marathon course. Our focus? To assemble a course which would allow our marathoners to see all of our town. Essentially a tour of greater Akron on foot, the Akron Marathon race course now features a dramatic dawn start over the All American Y Bridge (think NYC Marathon start over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge), a tour through the town's rebounding inner city, a visit to several venerable residential neighborhoods, a four-mile stretch along the Cuyahoga River on the crushed limestone Towpath Trail, a three-mile run through the tree-canopied grandeur of Sand Run Metro Park, a half-mile loop through Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens (the gated grounds and mansion which decades ago served as the home of F.A. Seiberling, founder of the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company), and an ultrafast final two-mile descent back downtown for an exciting Olympic-style finish inside Canal Park - the town's 9,100-seat HOK ballpark and home of the Akron Aeros, the Cleveland Indians AA farm team.


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2011 AkRUN finish in stadium, courtesy of AkRUN


    The remaining months leading up to inaugural race day on October 11, 2003 were filled with attention to various details: the creation of a nimble website, complete with precise course maps displaying porta-johns, aid stations, and medical stations; the retention of nationally-renowned race announcer Creigh Kelley; the scheduling of a city-wide pre-race reception; the organization of a top-flight expo in the city's new, gleaming John S. Knight Center; the placement of digital clocks at every mile marker and every 5 kilo marker; the development of a lead vehicle configuration to guide the runners on race day; the assembly of a squadron of "sector chiefs", armed with communication radios, to ensure glitch-free execution on race day; and, finally, the planning of a festive, celebratory finishing venue at Canal Park.

    All of this preparation led us to our final examination: our first race day. The meteorological gods shined upon us as race day emerged as a beautiful, crystal clear, bracing fall day. With the beloved Goodyear blimp hovering overhead, the emotions of our 3,500+ runners peaked as the national anthem was sung and the race began. Notwithstanding a brief on-course train crossing - which caused a momentary delay to only three of our speedier relayers (You didn't expect us to pitch a perfect game in Year One, did you?) - the race was a boisterous and joyful success. On into the early afternoon, marathoners and team relayers continued to stream through the center field fence toward the Canal Park finish line and were greeted with a hearty hand shake from our race director - a personal finish line congratulation he still provides to every finisher every year. We surveyed the broad array of human emotions displayed by our finishers: the strong, determined finish of an experienced veteran; the unbounded joy of an exhilarated first-time marathoner; the quiet display of tearful emotion of a marathoner running in memory of a departed loved one. There could be no doubt: we knew we had struck a resonating chord in our city. We were on our way.

 

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Dave Hunter (the writer) and Hal Higdon (Famous Running Columnist, Writer, Masters record holder),

photo courtesy of AkRUN


 

RunBlogRun Some photographs on this site have been reproduced with permission from runblogrun.com.