Becki Michael has never run in the Akron Marathon. The event always lost out to other commitments.
This year, the Akron resident has been named the favorite to win the women’s division in Saturday’s 26.2-mile race, with an expected finish time of 2 hours and 36 minutes. That would break the course record of 2:39.
More importantly, Michael said, this is the last marathon she’ll run before next year’s U.S. Olympic Team Trials, and she needs a 2:39 or better before USA Track and Field will foot her expenses to Houston.
“I’ll pay to go if I have to, but it would be nice to have it paid for,” Michael said.
While the majority of participants in Saturday’s Akron Marathon are recreational runners with the humble ambition of finishing the race, others are serious athletes in the hunt for cash prizes, trophies and exceeding their personal bests.
Here’s more about whom you are likely to see leading the pack, along with their bib numbers to help you spot them:
Bibs numbered 1 (for men) and F1 (for women) are always reserved for the previous year’s winner, but 2010 champions Geoffrey Kiprotich of Toledo and Ludmila Stepanova of Kentucky are not returning this year, so those numbers were not assigned.
Runners marked through No. 99 also give an indication as to predicted speed. In general, the lower the number, the faster the athlete.
But don’t be surprised to see No. 41 cross the finish line first. A late registrant, Kenya native Peter Kemboi is the favorite among the men and expected to finish in 2:20. The Kentucky resident finished third last year in 2:26.
Meanwhile, Akron’s Michael will wear bib F2 in her pursuit of the course record. The 28-year-old Alliance native ran for Marlington High School and the University of Akron, but didn’t originally see herself as a marathoner.
“I thought it was way too far, but coaches pushed me toward bigger distances, and they were right,” Michael said. “I’m a pretty competitive person, and I’m good at it. I absolutely love running, and I love going fast.”
In her first marathon, in 2008, her time qualified her to participate in the Olympic trials leading to Beijing.
Michael already has qualified for next year’s Olympic trials, which will send the top three women to the London games in July, but her time wasn’t fast enough to qualify for funding. She hopes Akron will rectify that.
Rounding out the top five women and their bib numbers are Amanda Raynor (F5) of Tallmadge; Shanna Ailes (F6) of Kent; Tracy Meder (F9) of Stow and Joanie Washington (F12) of Sheffield Village.
Men’s favorites include Joshua Koros (3) of Byron Center, Mich.; David Mars (4) of Westerville; Dominic Smith (9) of Hyattsville, Md. and Michael Seymour (10) of Akron.
Bibs 50-99 represent the favorites in the “masters” group, or runners over age 40.
The husband-wife powerhouse of Sergey and Elena Kaledina, of Eugene, Ore. — they have won or finished high in their respective masters division several times in Akron — were registered but dropped out due to work conflicts.
This year, the top five men’s masters and their bib numbers are Andrew Musuva (50) of Santa Fe, N.M.; Brady Kip (51) of Mineral City, Ohio; Mark Godale (52) of Aurora; Damon Blackford (53) of Akron; and Bob Flajnik (54) of Avon Lake.
Blackford said it’s an advantage that he lives just blocks from the Sand Run leg of the course.
“It’s a tough course. I live close by, so I know it really super well,” he said.
Blackford has registered for the Akron event all nine years, although he had to bow out in 2009 due to an injury. He has finished high most years, and even won the masters in 2005, a feat he would love to repeat.
“I’m feeling pretty good ,” he said, “and I always go out to win.”
Still, Blackford noted that Musuva, a Kenya native, regularly posts faster times and will be tough to beat.
“My goal is really to break 2:40,” he said. “I did that in 2007 and 2008, but not last year, so I’d like to get back there.”
Women with the top five predicted times in the masters are Sarah Plaxton (F50) of Highland, Mich.; Tracy Wollschlager (F51) of Novi, Mich.; Connie Gardner (F52) of Medina; Nancy Schubring (F53) of Novi, Mich.; and Canadian Charlane Vitez (F54).
Gardner, who won the women’s division in 2008, acknowledged that she’s recovering from last Saturday’s ultramarathon event in Cleveland, in which she covered 144 miles in a 24-hour period.
“It’s really hard to come back and run fast after that,” she said, “but I’ll run and do the best I can.”
Besides, she said, she has coaxed a lot of runners into registering for the event, “and I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t run. I love the Akron Marathon. It’s the best in the Midwest.”
Paula Schleis can be reached at 330-996-3741 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/paulaschleis.