Ed Meyer

It took nine minutes for thousands of runners to cross the starting line of Saturday morning’s Akron Marathon, and in the final 50 meters some two hours later, the Ethiopian champion crossed the Canal Park finish line in an all-out sprint to defeat his Kenyan challenger by only heartbeats.

That’s how close it was, as thousands of spectators stood in the first-base grandstands and cheered wildly when the slightly built racing machine, Getachew Asfaw, 24, won in a record-shattering performance.

Asfaw’s winning time, two hours, 15 minutes and 59 seconds, was only three seconds faster than Joseph Mutinda of Kenya.

The new champion beat the previous race record by nearly three minutes.

Charles Kamindo of Kenya had held the fastest mark, with a time of 2:18:48, since 2005 when the race was in its third year.

Three other Kenyan runners, George Towett, former Kent State University student Tisia Kiplangat and Richard Kessio, finished behind Asfaw to complete the top five men.

When they stood together on the tented stage of the winner’s stand, sun gleaming down on them as they looked upon the packed grandstand only yards away, Asfaw raised the gleaming silver champion’s trophy in his right hand, with his gold medal clutched in his left.

Ludmila Stepanova, a small woman from central Russia who trains in Hebron, Ky., won the women’s marathon in 2:39:18. Hirut Guangul of New York City was second in 2:42:35, followed by Shanna Ailes Istnick of Kent, last year’s Akron Marathon winner, in 2:53:30. Katie Kay of Fairview Park was fourth (3:02:20) and Tracy Meder of Stow was fifth (3:03:20).

Asfaw smiled broadly in the 10:15 a.m. sunshine.

Kenyans had won this marathon many times before, but stage announcer Creigh Kelley of Denver set a new tone with a proclamation to the thousands inside the park: “Today, it’s all about Ethiopia!”

In all, marathon organizers said 14,856 runners — a record number — started the race by running either the full marathon, the half-marathon or as members of the men’s and women’s relay teams.

Along the 26.2-mile course, officials said 120,000 spectators and volunteers came out in perfect marathon-running conditions — temperatures reaching 60 by 11 a.m., a slight breeze and virtually cloudless skies.

Asfaw, the champion who trains in Silver Springs, Md., had his personal best time, a translator said.

Mutinda, who finished second, had a time of 2:16:02, followed by Towett (2:17:16), Kiplangat (2:21:52) and Kessio (2:22:30).

Speaking to the crowd through translator and fellow Ethiopian Wondimu Ahmed, who teaches educational psychology at the University of Akron, Asfaw was brief and humble in his remarks.

With runners in the shorter races all around him as they crossed the Canal Park finish line, Asfaw was not sure that he won.

“When he was in the final 50 meters and crossed the finishing line,” Ahmed said, “there were some runners in front of him, and he felt: ‘Am I going to lose?’?”

But he finished off his victory with a remarkable sprint as he entered the final runner’s chute inside the ballpark.

Afterward, on the victory stand with the Kenyans, Asfaw did not try to take front and center as they posed together for photographs. He knelt down in front of the Kenyans, all four much taller than him.

Kay, who finished fourth in the women’s marathon, told the crowd what it was like out there on the course.

“The temperature was perfect. The breeze felt good. The weather was great,” Kay said.

Stepanova, the women’s champ, who also needed a translator, drew applause when she was asked how she liked running on the city’s hills and through its parks.

“Yes, she likes Akron, and she’s planning to come back,” her translator said.

Many of the winning runners introduced on stage could not say enough good things about the course.

Rosalie Franek, 50, of Hiram, who won the masters division of the women’s half-marathon in her first race in Akron, finished in 1:32:23, beating her personal best time, set at the Cleveland Marathon, by 37 seconds.

But Franek talked more about the race atmosphere and its surroundings than her performance.

“Everything about it was great; I thought the expo was nice, easy to get in and out, and the fans today were great,” Franek said.

“I don’t think there was a place on the whole course where there weren’t people. Having all the relays makes it exciting, too, because you have a lot going on. There were a couple of sections that were really busy with the fans out there, and that makes it go well.”

Franek comes from a family of distinguished runners. She and her husband, Tom, ran cross country and track in the mid-1980s at Bowling Green State University. Her daughter, Bridget Franek, 25, was a 2010 NCAA steeplechase champion at Penn State and qualified for the 2012 U.S. Olympic team in the 3,000-meter steeplechase.

A runner for 38 years, Franek said the hills on Akron’s course were fun, not hard, as some runners said.

“I am from Hiram, Ohio, which is Northeast Ohio. It’s pretty hilly there, so these hills were nothing,” she said, laughing. “It wasn’t hilly at all.”

Her runner’s spirit, like that of so many on Saturday, carried the day through 13.1 grueling miles.

“Any day I run is a good day,” Franek said. “It’s only going to hurt later.”

Ed Meyer can be reached at 330-996-3784 or at emeyer@thebeaconjournal.com.