There was no way she was going to let that bus beat her.
Marathoners undergo all sorts of psychological challenges over the course of 26.2 miles, but perhaps none more unique than the urge to pour it on at the end -- in order to finish last.
And so, with the slow-moving “chaser bus” marking the official end of the Road Runner Akron Marathon crawling toward the finish line, Donna Lapczuk screwed up her face, reached deep down inside and found a last surge of adrenaline. She came alongside the bus and passed the front bumper less than a block from Canal Park.
Oblivious to this was John Cornelius of Abingdon, Va., who had kept a solid hold on last place for most of the past few miles. After six hours pounding the Akron pavement, he quickened his walk-awhile-jog-awhile pace.
Perhaps he didn’t want to be last. Perhaps the sight of Canal Park gave him a final burst of energy. Perhaps he, too, was worried about not getting in under the six-hour limit. Whatever it was, he made a fluid, straight-backed burst to the finish, the announcer calling out his name and time.
And then there was one.
With the clock ticking down, Lapczuk pounded one exhausted foot in front of the other, the pained look on her face washing into the brightness of accomplishment.
Her T-shirt said it for her: “26.2 miles and still smiling.”
After a year of training in her hometown of Windsor, Ontario, the 52-year-old was pushing herself to be the final official finisher in this, her first and (she says) last marathon.
The brightness elevated itself to euphoria, her eyelids fluttering and the momentum of all those miles carrying her into the arms of her three friends who’d finished well ahead of her. All wearing identical T-shirts, the women pushed aside the silver thermal wrap draped over their shoulders to embrace their friend.
Eighteen seconds to spare.
Other runners would continue crossing the finish line into the drizzly afternoon, and they too would receive the medallion and certificate for a free pair of Etonic running shoes provided to all the marathoners who finished. But the six-hour mark represented the end of the official results.
“I had two goals,” Lapczuk said as she huddled close with her three friends and running partners, “to get in before the six-hour mark, and to finish. I could not have done it without these guys.”
The four of them — Lapczuk, Donna Mailloux, Nancy Mayuille and Laurie Young, along with Young’s husband Bruce — met while training for the Chicago marathon. They ran a half-marathon together last year in Detroit and when they discovered that the Chicago race was all booked, they chose Akron. They all would run together, and they all would finish. That was their promise to one another.
It is one thing to watch the winners cross the finish line. It is quite another to watch those bringing up the rear.
Finishing a marathon in six hours, I’m told, is far more difficult on the body than finishing in two. So that’s what I wanted to see -- the way the Akron Marathon played out in the thin ranks of the stragglers, hours after the top finishers had been massaged, had showered and settled into their afternoon.
About an hour before the finish, an official marathon van took me and Beacon Journal photographer David Foster out onto the course, where we settled in at a pace just ahead of that bus bringing up the rear.
Moving at a few miles an hour, the two of us sat in the back with the doors open, our legs dangling across the bumper. At that point, Cornelius appeared to be our guy. He was alone in the rear, keeping a slow but steady pace. There was no pain on his face, just that determined gaze that thousands had worn throughout the day.
So we recorded every nuance of his journey, the faint smile he gave to a group of young men hooting at him and raising their beer bottles from a North Portage Path front yard; the woman who came out of Square Records on West Market Street to hoist her coffee cup and encourage him.
“That’s so great! Keep going!”
He did just that. He picked up his pace and moved ahead, conceding last place to another runner.
In a white T-shirt with a cartoon picture of the rising sun, Bryan Rhodes of University Heights looked to be in great discomfort, his hair damp and disheveled, his lips mumbling a silent mantra, his eyes glazed.
Keeping a pace about 20 feet in front of the chaser bus, Rhodes accepted a cup of water from a young volunteer near the West Hill McDonald’s restaurant, dumping it over his head.
A traffic cop clapped his hands.
“Just two little itty bitty hills and you got it!”
And then he overtook Cornelius.
“Never say die,” he muttered as he passed.
We had us a race, in a backward sort of way.
From behind the bus
The route made its final turn onto South Main Street. It appeared, to us in the back of the van, that we had our guy, that it would indeed be Cornelius, the runner we’d pegged back around the 25-mile mark.
Canal Park came into view. Foster and I thanked our driver and jumped from the back of the van, sprinting ahead so we could record Cornelius’ expression as he covered the final yards.
As I got close to the finish line, running backward to watch Cornelius’ determined face, I saw it:
A woman in a white T-shirt coming along the side of the bus.
Lapczuk was going to mess up my story.
She began moving faster, staring straight ahead under furrowed brow, her elbows locked at right angles, pumping rigidly. She was not going to fall behind that bus.
Cornelius crossed the finish line.
Thirty seconds later, Lapczuk squeaked under the wire, stumbling into the arms of her friends, who’d been waiting there for her.
They had kept their promise to one another.
Lapczuk had won by coming in last.