Akron celebrated an anniversary in grand style Saturday morning and invited 15,000 people — along with thousands of their friends and relatives — to mark the occasion.
Amid fireworks and music, thousands of runners took the streets in and around downtown Akron for the 10th running of the Akron Marathon.
The first runners took off at 7 a.m., and it took 10 minutes for the last of the runners to make their way across the starting line.
In the crowd, there were numerous tales of determination, perseverance, love and friendships new and old.
These are a few of their stories.
For at least two runners, the finish line marked the start of a new life together.
David Ramey, 20, of Green, crossed the finish line of his second Akron Marathon holding the hand of Lauren Spickard, 18, of Springfield Township.
As they crossed the line and he congratulated her on finishing her first full marathon, Ramey got down on one knee and proposed to Spickard.
His mother, Pam Ramey, had slipped him the ring quickly as she congratulated him on his finish.
The couple plan to marry in May.
A bonding event
This year’s marathon just might have made four women friends for life.
Kelly Geiger of Strongsville grew up there with fellow half-marathon runner Morgan McKinney. Both came to Saturday’s race separately. But while Geiger was on the course, she said she got a surprise when she saw McKinney’s parents as spectators.
McKinney, who was about 20 seconds behind Geiger, was alerted by her parents at the 9-mile mark as she passed them and picked up the pace until she found Geiger.
And there’s more.
When Geiger arrived in the library parking deck before the race, she met two women she didn’t know — Jen Lytle of Canton and her mother, Regina Dickes. They began talking and decided to run together, Geiger said.
Afterward, all four women had their pictures taken together in front of the Akron Marathon photo-shoot area, each with their gleaming silver medals around their necks.
Geiger said they enjoyed the day’s experience so immensely, all four have decided to become Facebook friends and run future marathons together.
The sold-out event marked a reunion for another group of women who first met in high school when they were cheerleaders in Las Vegas. Life has since scattered them throughout the country.
Hudson resident Jen Tanner said she thought the race would offer an opportunity for her “old” friends to share their love of running and catch up on old times.
Dubbed team Suck it Up Buttercup, the women, who include Tanner and her daughter, Sydnee, a junior at Hudson High School; Courtney Jones of Solon; Kelli Turner of Rockford, Ill.; Jodi Pinn of Saratoga, Calif.; and Laurie Hargrave of Las Vegas. All said they were eager to finish their legs of the relay race.
“We have to hurry so we can go shopping later,” said Jen Tanner with a laugh. “We are going to Nordstroms.”
Slow but sure
Alfred Strong was in no hurry to finish the race.
In fact, Strong is guaranteed to have the slowest pace. He inched along the race’s 26.2-mile course at a snail’s pace of 14 minutes a mile.
The slow pace was just fine for Strong, who is the driver of Summa Health System’s chase vehicle. The bus trailed the runners and picked up stragglers.
It will take Strong nearly seven hours to complete the race.
Aside from keeping his foot on the brake for hours on end, Strong said, the biggest challenge for him and the volunteers on the bus are counseling those runners disappointed by their effort.
“Some just don’t want to give up,” he said.
Hello, down there
As many of the full marathon runners were getting near, or about to cross, the Canal Park finish line at 9:15 a.m., the Goodyear blimp was gliding above Exchange Street and slowly making the turn toward the ballpark in radiant fall sunshine.
Inside the park, the runners saw a splash of bright colors everywhere, heard rock music coming from a stage in front of the 400-foot sign in center field, and were being greeted by a crowd jamming the grandstands and the lush grass of the outfield.
And when they looked up, there was the blimp floating over the middle of the field streaming the message: “Congratulations Akron Marathon for Celebrating 10 Years!”
Rocking in Akron
Just before 10 a.m., the seven-member Roxxy Moron rock band was onstage playing a very upbeat rendition of the Rolling Stones’ mega hit Paint It, Black, which rose to the top of the U.S. charts in 1966.
Although many music critics felt the song had a dark meaning, with the second verse apparently referring to a line of black cars in a funeral procession for a girl who had died too young, Roxxy Moron’s version was done with foot-stomping, hand-clapping enthusiasm perfect for the droves of runners who were beginning to cross the finish line.
Guitarist Matt Petras of Akron, usually the band’s lead singer, gave way on Paint It, Black to Dane Quinn, a University of Akron professor in mechanical engineering, who shook up the place with his booming voice and maracas accompaniment.
Bass player Chris Niekamp of Akron didn’t look tired, but earlier in the morning he ran the first leg of the five-person relay with his group, Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
The other members of the band are attorney Bob Incorvati of Green, on the drums; one of the marathon’s original organizers, Bret Treier of Akron, on the tambourine; George Wertz, a Summit Count probate court magistrate, on lead guitar; and Cuyahoga Falls attorney Harry Wittbrod, on keyboard and soprano sax.
Mom on the run
Laura Lewis of North Canton ran her third half-marathon, a distance of 13.1 miles, for a good reason.
“I try to do one after each child,” she said. Her youngest is a 14-month-old girl named Bree.
Lewis said she finished in 2 hours, 21 minutes, listening much of the way to music on a decked-out iPhone 4S strapped to her left bicep.
The music of the first American Idol winner, Kelly Clarkson, on pandora.com, was particularly inspiring. “It’s like girl-power music,” she said.
Her husband ran the full marathon, and they ran the first 11 miles together.
Behind the scenes
Katie Rennard of Akron, a United Way worker who came to Akron from Roanoke, Va., a month before the marathon debuted in 2003, sat in the stands for that first one and watched all the runners finish.
She said she liked it to much, she has volunteered to work all nine of the marathons since then.
“There’s a continuous improvement effort to make it a better experience for the runner,” Rennard said.
Organizers who visited other marathons, she said, come back with new ideas virtually every year.
The medals awarded to the runners, for example, used to be placed on long tables. The Olympics-styled medals this year — gold for the full-marathon runners, silver for the half and bronze for the relay teams — were prominently displayed by color in the middle of the outfield, hanging from long racks.
“It looks great, the runners see the medals on the racks and are very excited. It means a lot for the runners to get their medals,” Rennard said. “They’re challenged by their time and they’re always trying to beat their personal best.”
Rennard said every runner finishing the race was given a food bag and, if they desired, two beers in the tall, slender Michelob Ultra cans.
Tall cool one
Rich Nelson of Zanesville, who is a Mahoning County supervisory engineer, said he ran the half-marathon in close to two hours flat. Several minutes after finishing, he was enjoying a brew with two friends from Zanesville near the first-base dugout.
What is the theory behind having a beer?
“Celebration — and rehydration,” he said.
Natasha Wagner, a University of Akron law student, ran her first half-marathon to gain from its health benefits.
“I wanted to lose weight and several of my law student colleagues recommended I sign up for the marathon,” she said. “The race day created a deadline and admission fee that committed me to my goal.”
Wagner said she finished in 2 hours and 30 minutes and sprinted to the finish line at the end.
“The crowd support here is energizing.”
26 miles at 26 years
Leah Gay of Akron is inspired by the community’s support and is encouraged to participate in next year’s Akron Marathon.
“I’ve lived in Akron for seven years and this is my first time coming to this event and I plan to run next year,” she said. “I will be 26 years old next year and the marathon is a few days after my birthday, so I plan to be 26 years and some days old and run 26 miles and some yards.
Gay supported her boyfriend, Nick Kolesar, and his brother Jonathan Kolesar of Akron as they ran the half-marathon.
Sprain is no strain
Jim Gilchrist 25, of Akron ran with co-workers on one of the many Merrill Lynch team relays.
Gilchrist ran the 7.5-mile third leg for his team on a sprained ankle and benefited greatly from the new course design.
“The leg of the course I ran was more flat than the others and the beautiful day made it a lot easier,” he said.
Grateful for plenty
Mike Pistorino, 38 of North Olmsted, is a recovering from a 15-year drug addiction and is going on 11 years clean.
“I never did much running in the past, at all unless it was running from the cops,” he joked.
Pistorino, a graduate of the Day Top Village program, began running three years ago because he “started to get fat.”
He finished the full marathon in 4 hours and 17 minutes.
“This is my second marathon race and this is by far the best. The city was beautiful and everyone was so helpful and nice to me and my family,” Pistorino said.
“When it [the race] started to get a little difficult, the cheering of the crowd is what kept me going. I looked into the crowd and saw a woman with a poster that says ‘Hey Stranger! I love you!’ Well, I’m that stranger, and I kept going and I will be back next year.”
Nicole Weatherby of Akron completed her 26th marathon Saturday morning.
The United Airlines flight attendant, 40, said of the marathons she has run, including the vaunted Boston Marathon, the Akron Marathon beats them all.
Weatherby, who completed the full marathon in 3 hours, 23 minutes, said she likes the layout of the course, its scenery and the enthusiastic crowds along the way.
She likes it so much, she said, she has run in every Akron event.
Comparisons to Boston?
“This is so much better than Boston,” Weatherby said. “I ran Boston in 2003, I think. This one rocks. It rocks the whole way.
“The Boston Marathon, it’s very, very sparse at times. Here, there’s somebody on the path, on the trail, cheering you on at all times. They don’t know you, but you feel like you all know each other. It’s just great,” Weatherby said.
She is not merely a recreational marathoner, if there is such a thing.
Joe Cingle, 42, of Copley Township, said he saw the 5-foot-1 Weatherby crossing the finish line at Canal Park.
Cingle stands 6-foot-4, but Weatherby, he said, was still running like a champ at the end.
He called her “wickedly fast.”
What is it like when a runner does more than 26 miles and can finally see the finish line approaching?
“I’ve never been high before,” Weatherby said, about 15 minutes after finishing, “but I imagine that’s what it would be like. It’s just the best feeling in the world, and this is the best marathon in the world.”
Comparing the previous 25 that she has run, Weatherby said the 10th Akron Marathon was at the top of her list.
“This is, by far, the best, and I was 24 when I started running marathons. There’s so much crowd support here,” she said, “it’s a party the whole way.”
Amputee runs relay
John Gravino, 46, an above-the-knee amputee from Sagamore Hills, ran the 3.9-mile first section of the Akron Marathon Relay with a time of 44:40.
When he was 22, Gravino was involved in a car accident in 1989 that resulted in the amputation of his left leg above the knee.
But that has not stopped him from competing in races. Saturday marked the second time he competed in Akron’s relay race.
“I had a great race day and everyone was very supportive,” he said.
Register by Monday
Runners are able to sign up for the 2013 Akron Marathon.
“The race has produced a galvanizing impact, all of this year’s events totaled a record number of participants. Our race sold out,” says Dave Hunter, vice chair of the Executive Board of Directors.
“The registration for the 2013 race weekend is now open and we encourage runners to take advantage of early registration opportunities,” Hunter said.
The Akron Marathon is extending special pricing to the first 500 runners who register for the 2013 event. The rates are $65 for the marathon, $55 for the half-marathon and $25 for the team relay.
This special is only good until midnight Monday or the first 500 runners, whichever comes first.
To register, go to www.akronmarathon.org.