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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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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.