At a glance, the Akron Marathon might seem like an athletic spectacle, an epic gathering of long-distance runners eager to show off their stamina or push their personal endurance to new heights.
In truth, the colorful wave of humanity washing through Akron’s streets Saturday will be made of 15,000 ordinary people, many of whom have extraordinary reasons for running.
Some are celebrating their victory over an addiction or illness. Others see it as a method for losing weight or gaining confidence after a disastrous relationship. Still others use the race as an opportunity to honor a loved one’s memory or to raise awareness for a beloved cause.
“It’s really an incredibly moving human-interest story,” said David Hunter, vice chair of the marathon’s board and co-designer of the course.
Runners don’t wear their stories on their bibs, but knowing just a few of them demonstrates how the marathon can be more blood and tears than sweat.
With 4-, 3- and 1-year-old sons at home, it’s easy for a mother to lose her identity.
Angela Heckel said running is the one self-centered activity that fits into her life.
“There are times during the week when ‘Angela’ is lost and there is only ‘Mommy,’ but when I’m running, there is nobody following me around,” the 38-year-old Seville mom said.
Her new passion came into her life accidentally but with powerful emotion.
Heckel was working her way back from a C-section on a treadmill — she worked out while the boys napped — when a particularly stressful day caused her to start running.
“I told myself I was gonna run till it hurts and figured it would last a minute,” she said.
She lasted four.
It became a game to up the ante each time she returned to the treadmill, and last New Year’s Eve, she exploded in laughter and tears when she reached five miles, causing a commotion that sent husband, Kevin, flying down the steps to see if she was injured.
Heckel’s husband and mother-in-law started sitting with the boys so she could take her running outside.
It was a shaky start. “I didn’t like it at all” the first time, she said, but she learned to pace herself and adjusted to the changing terrain and temperatures she didn’t confront in the comfort of her home.
This summer, Heckel entered some short-distance races and even managed to place in the top three. Now she’s ready for her first half-marathon.
Little Adam, Ryan and Joey are too young to drag along on her 5:30 a.m. trip into Akron on Saturday, but they’ll be waiting eagerly to hear about her experience.
“I’ve never been so scared and so excited at the same time,” she said.
To honor a friend
In February 2007, Howard Zickefoose and family friend April Stiver stepped outside after Sunday services to smoke a cigarette when Stiver mentioned a pain in her stomach.
“What if it’s cancer?” she casually remarked to Zickefoose, he recalled. “We should quit smoking. It’s really bad for us.”
Two weeks later, Stiver learned she had stage 4 cancer, and Zickefoose gave up his two-pack-a-day, 22-year habit.
“She started chemo and I started running,” he said. “I had to do something, and you can’t smoke if you’re running.”
Stiver, the pastor’s wife and “the most amazing person I know,” Zickefoose said, died that August.
By fall, Zickefoose registered for his first half-marathon in Akron in honor of his friend.
“Once I found out about that race, I knew I wanted to do it for her,” he said.
Zickefoose, who lives in Girard near Youngstown, has become a serious runner. He’s tackled full marathons and completed “ultramarathons” of 31 miles through wooded terrain.
He returns to Akron every year for the half-marathon that holds a special place in his heart.
“It is my favorite race of the year,” he said. “... I keep that tradition for April.”
Breast cancer survivor
For Stephanie Kunkel’s 30th birthday, she was given a diagnosis of breast cancer.
The news came with the knowledge she had no medical insurance.
Still, after some soul searching and a surgeon’s advice, Kunkel decided to have both breasts removed.
“I didn’t want to live my life worrying about whether I was going to get it again,” the 37-year-old Green woman said.
The surgery took its toll. Kunkel lost her energy and had bouts of depression.
When the surgeon suggested she take up running, “I had no interest in it,” she said.
But her husband didn’t give up, and coaxed her into a walk that lasted a quarter of a mile.
“I was whooped,” Kunkel said, but she kept going back out.
Three months later, she found herself jogging at Boettler Park. As her distances grew, the idea of running became addicting.
“You want to push yourself,” she said. “You want to know, ‘How far is it possible for me to go?’ ”
Running hasn’t helped only her body, it has also healed her mind.
“I got back to the old energized me,” she said.
Now a teacher at Jackson High School, it’s a lesson she likes to share with her students.
“I want to be a good role model for my kids,” she said. “Determination can get you farther than you think. When kids say they can’t afford to go to college or their parents aren’t interested in what they’re doing, I tell them, ‘It’s all in you.’ If you put in the hard work and have the drive, you can reach your goals, no matter how big or small.”
Samantha Gordon was tilting the scales at about 220 when she saw people far bigger than her running long distances on TV’s Biggest Loser reality show.
Inspired by their achievement, the then-29-year-old Westlake woman vowed, “I am not going to turn 30 fat.”
Gordon was also watching her father struggle with a series of strokes and other family members suffering medical problems related to weight.
“I was thinking about how unhealthy I was feeling and I didn’t want to be there,” she said.
So she started to run, but oh how she hated it. Still does, as a matter of fact.
“It’s mentally boring,” she said. “It’s the same repetitive motion over and over again.”
But several months later, Gordon weighs 150.
The upcoming half-marathon — and the idea of maybe a marathon next year — motivates her to keep going.
“If I can get myself to run a marathon, I’ll know I did something I never thought I could do in my life,” she said.
Besides, the marathon events themselves (she ran a Cleveland half-marathon earlier this year) are uplifting.
“When you run with a group of people, there’s so much energy,” she said. “It’s not like running alone.”
The cardiovascular benefits of running support her new passion for martial arts.
Getting in shape has also restored in her a confidence she lost during an abusive relationship.
“I was overseas and living with this guy and he really had me believing I wasn’t capable of doing anything,” she said. “He was probably one of the worst mistakes I ever made, but at the same time, when I accomplish something now, I really appreciate what I can do.”
Paula Schleis can be reached at 330-996-3741 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/paulaschleis.