Elena Orlova crossed two continents and an ocean, running the last 26.2 miles to reach her dream in downtown Akron.
For the Russian athlete, Saturday’s Road Runner Akron Marathon marked just her second marathon race. The run also marked her first victory — in record-setting course time and only 20 minutes behind the men’s winner, Andrey Gordeyev of Belarus. In all, 3,272 runners took part in the second running of the Akron Marathon. But it was Orlova, 34, who ran out of obscurity to capture the gold medal, the $4,000 winner’s prize and the attention of her fellow runners.
In April, she ran her first race and finished in fifth place in a marathon in Nashville, Tenn. On Saturday, she ran alone for most of the race, beating her next female competitor by almost 20 minutes.
“I don’t know where the other women were, but this is a wonderful feeling to win,” Orlova said through an interpreter. “I am still new, still learning what I can do. But it is a dream come true.”
With distance running legend Bill Rodgers cheering at the finish line and race director Jim Barnett congratulating every sweaty finisher, the Road Runner Akron Marathon appeared to be as successful as the first — if not more so.
Cool air and wet roads did not hamper the run.
“The runners don’t mind a little rain,” founder Steven Marks said. “It cools them off.”
The first pair of runners to cross the finish line highlighted the best competition of the day, as Team Mexico anchor Alejandro Suarez dashed through at 2:05:31.
Four seconds later, right on Suarez’s heels, was U.S. anchor Ryan Shay, who appeared to gain speed as he neared the end but had to settle for second place.
“We started to make up some good ground, but we ran out of room,” U.S. Coach Hank Brown said. “But it was back-and-forth all day. It was never over.”
Although tightly contested, the Mexicans successfully defended their first-place title from last year’s inaugural running of the North America Relay Championship, winning a check for $25,000.
“On the second leg, we were 51 seconds ahead,” Mexico coach Rafael Martinez said. “But the Americans began to catch up over the last two legs, and it was just a matter of seconds. It was a great finish.”
Martinez said he was confident his team would hold off the Americans.
“Alejandro is very strong,” he said. “Now, if (U.S. team member) Dan Browne would have been running the last leg, maybe. But the way it was, I knew we could hold on.”
For the second year in a row, Team Canada finished third, this year with a time of 2:11:28.
In the men’s and women’s races, Gordeyev and Orlova were separated by less than 20 minutes, with Gordeyev taking the men’s title with a time of 2:22:16 and Orlova finishing with a course-record time of 2:40:18.
“The first half of the marathon was wonderful,” Gordeyev said.
“But the second half was very different. Too many ups and too many downs.”
Gordeyev was followed just over a minute and 15 seconds later by Kenya’s Amos Gitagama (2:23:34), who finished second in front of fellow Kenyan Mike Korir (2:31:22).
Defending champion Jonah Rono, who still owns the course record time of 2:21:59, struggled to finish fifth with a time of 2:46:33.
“I was tired,” admitted Rono, 32. “I did a lot of workouts and long runs to prepare for this race — maybe too much.”
Rono said he stayed with the elite group of runners through mile 17 before beginning to fall behind as the course got tougher toward the end.
“I told myself, ‘I must finish,’ because the people here have been so good to me and would be looking for me,” he said.
Russia’s Tatyana Maslova, 38, finished nearly 19 minutes behind Orlova for second place. American Kendra Lowe, from Clinton Township, Mich., cut 28 minutes off her personal best time to capture third place with a time of 3:01:44.
With the clanging of the starting bell ringing through downtown Akron at 8 a.m. as the race began in front of the Morley Health Center on South Broadway, runners of all ages began a 26.2-mile trek that highlighted many of Akron’s historical sights.
The race concluded in front of the first-base dugout at Canal Park.
The outcome of the day’s many events had to be what the Road Runner organizers were dreaming of -- a day when the biggest thing that went wrong was simply the malfunctioning of one of two clocks by the finish line.
“It was no big deal; we fixed it and moved on,” Marks said. “From start to finish, we couldn’t ask for a better outcome.”