Nearly 2,000 people filled the starting line corral at the University of Akron’s InfoCision Stadium on Saturday morning. Music with thick bass beats poured from oversized speakers, building adrenaline.
Many of them had been here before, experienced runners who became avid fans of the Akron Marathon and its summer-long race series long ago and no doubt have a wall full of medals and a closet full of commemorative tech shirts to show for it.
But I was looking for the silicone wristbands that identified Blue Line Beginners, a group of new runners and speed walkers who had spent the past 12 weeks working together to reach this place on this day at this hour.
They weren’t hard to find. There were 88 of them; 88 souls whose diverse life journeys intersected long enough to share one common goal: To train for and finish their first organized race.
The National Interstate 8k & 1 Mile event announcer sounded a two-minute warning and I briefly flashed back to April Fools’ Day when I asked the community to join me and Akron Beacon Journal photographer Karen Schiely, a couple of running newbies, in tackling the race series together.
Those who knew the invitation was no joke joined us the following week for an inaugural 1.3 mile stroll through Firestone Metro Park.
Look at us now, I thought. April’s fools turned June’s warriors.
I saw Steve and Paula Kmet, 60-somethings from Tallmadge who had spent years standing on the outside of such race corrals cheering on their athletic children. Now they were on the inside. Now they were wearing the racing bibs.
And there was Marcia Linberger of Fairlawn, who waited until the day before to tell her daughter she’d registered for the same 8k her daughter was running. Before the day was done, Linberger and her daughter would be posing for pictures together, their twin Akron Marathon 8k medals glinting in the sun.
Sixty seconds, the announcer shouted. Runners and walkers stretched and pivoted like caged animals pleading to be set free.
I spotted Debra Baglia, Diane Fuller, Darlene Kirkland and Denise Kraft — the “Hansen” sisters from Clinton, Akron, Uniontown and Norton, respectively. Before the morning was over, their smiling faces would be on the giant scoreboard after getting snagged for a random interview.
They stood near MaryJo Jones, Penny Spickard, Joanne Grosko and Kris Wagner, four fitness friends from Green who have turned into a speed-walking force that can outpace some of the runners.
Anita Zona-Peters of Akron was lined up with her grandson, 14-year-old Collin McGrath, who came in from Pennsylvania to share the experience with her.
“Ten seconds,” a voice echoed over the long, narrow corral. The White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army blared, its staccato rhythm sounding like a determined heartbeat.
I stood on my toes and spotted the three Jims ahead of me. Jim Mitchell, a civil engineer who used to run when he was in the Army but had never tried an organized race before. Jim Merklin, a CPA who picked up running after gastric bypass surgery changed his life. And Jim Thomas, a retired limo company owner who was less than 90 minutes away from putting a medal over the heart that just underwent a quintuple bypass in March.
And then the starting gun sounded. It was time to chase those dreams.
Akron Marathon Race Director Brian Polen told me only a small percentage of people in the race would look like typical runners, and that was abundantly clear as I ran, walked and trotted along the 8k course that wove through University Park and downtown Akron.
Participants came in every shape, size, age and fitness level. Only the top athletes consider this a “race.” For everyone else, it’s a personal challenge, a chance to set a goal and work hard to achieve it.
For 16 of our Blue Line Beginners, victory meant finishing the 1-mile route, a loop down Brown Street and up Spicer Street and ending inside InfoCision Stadium.
As they peeled off, another 72 Blue Line Beginners continued for another 4 miles, never suspecting some of the welcomed surprises in store.
On Main Street, they exchanged high fives with Santa Claus. Near Spaghetti Warehouse, they ran through a misty shower created by volunteers with hoses. On Exchange Street, speakers pumped music to motivate them into the final mile.
Cowbells sounded from curious places, including a well-prepared motorist who rang one outside her car window as she waited to cross an intersection.
Even police officers shouted words of encouragement to isolated runners who looked as if they could use a boost. To a runner, downtown Akron can feel like the hills of San Francisco.
There’s an inherent warning in a city whose name is derived from the Greek word for “highest point.” What goes down must come up.
For many runners, there are less welcome surprises. With a mile to go, my left foot cramped, feeling as if I had two toes suddenly decide to twist and exchange places.
I thought of my fellow Blue Line Beginner Georgena Austin of Hudson, who has had foot surgery and was determined not to let her chronic pain derail her goal. I thought of Connie Pacanovsky of Akron, who persists through her multiple sclerosis. I put my head down and pushed on.
An hour and 17 minutes after crossing the starting line, I entered the stadium and cranked my legs, determined to finish with a flourish. Akron Marathon Director Anne Bitong was waiting.
“You did it!” she said as she put the 8k medal around my neck and gave me a hug. Behind her, Blue Line Beginners who stayed at the line to welcome their teammates lined up for high-fives.
For the next hour, 88 people who didn’t know each other 12 weeks ago lingered for the Finisher Festival, dining on chicken sandwiches, bananas and beer, exchanging stories of how they exceeded their pace expectations and how they managed that last brutal mile.
It was the moment of a lifetime. After all, while most of us will go on to tackle the Goodyear 10k in August and the FirstEnergy half marathon or team relay in September, there can only be a “first” race once.
Paula Schleis can be reached at 330-996-3741 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/paulaschleis.