Running generally is a lonely sport.
Solitary athletes train whenever they can find time between jobs, school or family commitments, their only company the cars or bikes that pass them on city streets and trails.
The Akron Marathon is an entirely different experience.
As many as 100,000 spectators are expected to line the 26.2-mile course next Saturday as it weaves through residential neighborhoods that feature block parties, bands and screaming supporters.
Torchbearers, a community service group for Akron’s young professionals, helps build that enthusiasm each year by walking the course a couple of weeks before the event and hand-delivering notifications to every house along the route.
“We chose to support the marathon because of the impact it has on Akron. Look how many people come to town for this. There are more than 13,000 runners” not to mention their friends and family, volunteer Kyle Kutuchief said.
A flier that group members distributed had a blue cover announcing, “Your invitation to the 10th running of the Blue Line,” and included race-day details, a course map and street closings. Some 15 volunteers spent a week hanging the material on doors from Firestone Park to West Akron, from North Hill to Highland Square.
The painted blue line that marks race streets “has become part of the identify of the neighborhood. It’s a simple thing, but it really adds to a neighborhood’s reputation,” said Kutuchief, who recently joined Kimberly Baitz and Kevin McCauley on a walk along Wiltshire Avenue.
This year, Torchbearers also carried the news to residents who lost their front-row seat to the race because of a new course design.
“We have a separate flier for them. We wanted to invite them to walk over a couple of blocks and enjoy the race again this year,” Baitz said.
Rob Remmel was content to hear he’s not losing his position along the course. The Torchbearers handed him an invitation while he worked on a Corvette in his garage.
“It is special — the idea that these runners from all over the world are coming past my house,” Remmel said.
Remmel, who is retired from a law-enforcement career, said he steps outside to watch the runners every year and chat with the traffic officers he knows.
During their annual walk, the Torchbearers talk with the homeowners who are out and about when they deliver the door hangers. The feedback has always been positive, they said.
And there is no denying that runners benefit from the race-day attention, Baitz said.
“The hustle and bustle of people around makes your adrenalin so high, and you go faster than when you’re training,” she said.
New course faster
The changes made to this year’s course were done to cut out some troublesome hills and make the course faster, explained David Hunter, one of the course designers.
“Front-of-the-pack runners can expect to run 45 to 90 seconds faster on our new course,” Hunter said. That’s not a small matter for top finishers.
“People want to go where they can post fast times,” he said.
The old course was of particular hardship to those running the half-marathon. They faced a steep climb out of the Elizabeth Park Valley in the final two miles of their race.
“I think we had runners cursing under their breath when we did that,” Hunter said.
Now that race avoids the valley altogether.
Meanwhile, Akron’s other valley — Merriman — has been brutal on full-marathon runners.
“Everyone loves Sand Run, but we all know its in the valley, and if you go in the valley, you have to come out of the valley,” Hunter said.
Instead of the long uphill run on Sand Run Parkway between Portage Path and Revere Road, runners will turn onto Sand Run Road. What awaits is a steeper, but shorter, distance to Overwood Road and the relief of flat land.
Either way, it’s a challenging section, given that it comes 18.5 miles into the race, “but people who like [the change] say the hill is over faster,” said Hunter, who plans to do a personal survey of the athletes to see whether they preferred this year’s short and steep option to last year’s longer ascent.
Designing a runner-friendly course that is exactly 26.2 miles through an urban setting is no easy task.
Hunter said marathon officials started considering modifications a year ago and worked hard over the past six months to fine-tune the course and get it certified.
“We didn’t want to change the finish line” featuring an Olympic-style glory run into center field of Canal Park, “but that means for every piece you take out, you have to put something else back in.”
Losing blue line
The course still weaves through most of the same residential neighborhoods, though some blocks have lost their blue line.
The Sand Run alteration takes runners away from Revere Road and West Market Street altogether, two places that were always problematic because traffic there could never be completely shut down for the race.
The course also no longer goes down Wilbeth Road on the way to Firestone Park, opting for a direct turn onto Firestone Boulevard.
“We gave a lot of thought to it, and we really think it’s a better route,” Hunter said.