Surprises can be great fun. You know when itís not fun? When itís 6:45 a.m. and you still havenít figured out where to park for a race that begins in 15 minutes. When you go all out because there's a nice long downhill stretch, then suddenly find a hill around the bend. When you come to a dead stop after crossing the timing mat of your relay segment only to find your teammate is nowhere in sight.

The Sept. 23 Akron Marathon event will involve more than 13,000 runners, 3,000 volunteers and tens of thousands of spectators. As a participant, your part in all of this will go a lot more smoothly if you have a good idea of what to expect on race day.

This is the first of a five-part series showcasing the Akron Marathon course as it is broken down into five Team Relay segments.

Today, we feature the first 5.8 miles - also known as Relay Leg No. 1.

For starters, I and Deputy Metro Editor Joe Thomas did a video driving tour of all the relay segments and chatted about the course, the history of the neighborhoods and some fun facts about the Akron Marathon. Here's Relay Leg No. 1:



SPECIAL ASSIGNMENT: THE SLAP BRACELET

If you are running the first leg for your relay team, you have one additional responsibility when you pick up your race packet at the John S. Knight Center on the Friday before the race: Grab a relay slap bracelet. They will be sitting on the counters where you get your bib.

The bracelet is passed between relay team members and since youíre the first runner, this all starts with you. Slap the bracelet on either wrist at the starting line. If you forget or lose your bracelet before you get to the starting line, you can pick up another at the Start Line Information Booth.

For competitive teams hoping to actually win the event, the slap bracelet is vital. But for those of us not expecting to stand in the winner's circle, if for some reason you drop or lose your bracelet on the course, donít panic. Just carry on!

RACE DAY PARKING DIRECTIONS

The race begins at 7 a.m. so plan to be in the downtown area no later than 6 a.m. If you come later, you will encounter some road closures, not to mention delays caused by the traffic and parking of more than 13,000 runners, 3,000 volunteers and assorted spectators.

For those running Relay Leg No. 1, your recommended parking is at the University of Akron parking deck on Exchange Street. To get there, take state Route 8 and exit at Carroll St./Buchtel Ave. From there, continue onto Fountain Street, turn left on Carroll, then left on Spicer, and right on Exchange. (Iím guessing youíll just be following the crowd!) Event parking signs will guide you using the color on your racing bib. If you're doing the relay, your bib will be pink.

When you leave the parking deck onto Exchange, turn right (west) and walk to High Street, then right again toward the starting line at 217 High Street. But you won't go as far as the starting line because...

GEAR BAG DROP OFF AND PICK UP

...if you're bringing along the clear gear bag provided at Friday's packet pickup (containing nonbreakable things you'd like to have available to you when you are finished with your race) then you'll walk from High to Buchtel, then turn left to Main, right across the street from Canal Park. It's not as far as it sounds, pretty much a half-block walk. This is the Gear Check station. Here is also where you will pick up your bag after your race is done.

THE STARTING LINE CORRALS

After you drop off your gear check bag, you'll need to find your corral. There are four of them, marked A, B, C or D. Your corral is determined by the pace you gave when you registered. Go to Corral A if you are running an 8:29 pace or less, B is for an 8:30 to 9:29 pace, C is for 9:30 to 11:26, and D is for everyone slower than an 11:26 pace.

Your corral assignment will be marked on your bib and you will be admitted only to that corral. This enforcement allows the smooth start of a race that involves thousands of people moving at very diverse speeds. Each corral will be walked to the starting line in waves. And remember, your personal start time doesn't begin until you cross the timing mat.



SAG WAGON

The full marathon course is officially open for 6 hours. There is a "Support and Gear" vehicle that brings up the rear. When it passes, roads behind it are reopened and course support such as fluid stations are removed. This vehicle will follow the first half of the marathon course at a pace of about 16 minutes. If you are doing Relay Leg No. 1 faster than 16 minutes, you won't even know it's there.

If the wagon passes you up and you are well enough to continue, just† move to the sidewalk and keep going. From an official perspective, the race is over after 6 hours. But the Akron Marathon staff has an unofficial tradition of staying at the finish line as long as possible to give latecomers the chance to complete the race and collect their medal.

If you are injured or unable to continue, the vehicle will offer you a lift. In that case, if you have a way of communicating with your teammate on the next leg, notify them that you have withdrawn. That teammate should then leave their relay zone and continue the race. If you do not have a way of contacting your teammate, notify a race official so they can contact the next relay zone and try to get word to your teammate.

Note to our Blue Line Beginners: Our teams are comprised of runners as well as walkers below the 16-minute pace. It is conceivable that the SAG vehicle will pass a walking teammate on one leg, then be passed by a running teammate on the next leg. Regardless on what side of the wagon you find yourself on, just keep following the Blue Line. We are anticipating all of our BLB teams will take the full 6 hours to finish the full marathon course, so donít let this discourage or stop you.

THE COURSE

Relay Leg No. 1 runs through downtown, across the Y Bridge and into the North Hill neighborhood, then winds around Gorge Boulevard before returning to downtown via the opposite side of the Y Bridge. Historically, North Hill is Akronís Italian neighborhood, having been largely settled by immigrants from that country a century ago. But the complexion of the neighborhood has changed much in the last couple of decades. The International Institute, which works to resettle refugees in Akron, needs to keep its clients within walking distance of its resources. As such, North Hill is now home to a large population of Bhutanese, Nepalese, Hmong and other immigrants, who have brought to the neighborhood new stores, restaurants, activities and social events.

The first part of this relay segment is mostly downhill or flat, which tricks inexperienced runners into going out too fast and expending too much energy early. Don't do this! Race Director Brian Polen ran the first mile in this video sharing helpful advice on how to tackle this early challenge:



FULL MAP TO RELAY LEG 1

COURSE SUPPORT AND HERO ZONES

* You'll find mile markers at each mile. Clocks and kilometer markers are also located at every 5k to help you judge your pace, although remember those clocks started when the first runner crossed the starting line. If you didn't cross the line for, say, another 10 minutes, you'll need to deduct that from the time you see on the clock.

* Youíll find a medical aid station at miles 1.2 and 4.9.

* There are fluid stations and portable restrooms at miles 2.1 and 4.4.

* Akron Childrenís Hospital, which sponsors the Akron Marathon Race Series, will feature ďsuper heroĒ patients at special Hero Zones along the course. For Relay Leg No. 1, youíll encounter Elise Bonsky at the .1 mile marker, Abby Mogen at 2.5 miles, and Josie Greco at 4.85 miles. Be sure to give them a wave as you pass them by!



COURSE ENTERTAINMENT

Watch for the following entertainment along the route:

* As you pass the Akron Art Museum, before the Y Bridge, youíll find the reggae band Umojah Nation. (Think ďimaginationĒ when you say it.) https://umojahnation.com

* DJ Bobby will be on the Y Bridge. You may remember him from the 8k, when he was Santa, and the 10k, when he was, well, um, Iím going with Roman gladiator or Greek warrior. Itís anyoneís guess what heíll show up as this time!

* Somewhere along Cuyahoga Falls Avenue youíll encounter DJ Kenny Kidd.

* And on Gorge Boulevard, the North High School Marching Band will be making a joyful noise.

RELAY HAND-OFF

Each member of your relay team has his or her own bib, but all the numbers are the same. Actually, youíll have two bibs - one for the front of your shirt, and one for the back of your shirt. Know your number.

As you approach Relay Zone No. 2 - which is behind the John S Knight Center after you cross the Y Bridge for the second time - there will be color-coded sign separating you from the half marathon and marathon runners. If you are a half marathon or marathon runner who is doubling as a Relay Leg No. 1 teammate, follow the pink sign indicating relay teams (not the gray half marathon signs or yellow marathon signs) because you need to cross the timing mat of the relay zone to complete the slap bracelet handoff.

This is important: When you cross the timing mat at the relay area, do NOT stop running. Your teammate may very well still be a 10th of a mile from you! That's because there are up to 1,200 runners waiting beneath signs that show ranges of bib numbers. Keep jogging while looking for the sign with the range that includes your bib number. Your teammate will be there. There will also be volunteers looking at your bib number and trying to match you up quickly. When you find your teammate, hand off the slap bracelet.

If you are a half marathon or marathon runner, continue running out of the relay exchange zone and back onto the course.

Side note: The marathon doesn't ask what relay leg you are running, so your team has the option of switching things around until the start of the race. The timing device on your bib will tell race officials which leg you ran.

FINISHER FESTIVAL

When you finish your 5.8 mile leg, youíll find fluids in the parking lot of the John S. Knight Center. Take a moment to hydrate. Then you'll need to walk a few blocks to Canal Park so you can enjoy the Finisher Festival.

The best way to get there is to continue past the Knight Center along Broadway to Buchtel Avenue, about four blocks away. Turn right and go to Main Street to pick up your gear bag. Once you have your gear bag, go across the street to the Diamond Boardwalk entrance of Canal Park. That is just south of the main entrance. You must be wearing a bib to enter here, and you CANNOT get to the Finisher Festival from the main entrance, so for now youíll need to stay separated from any supporters waiting for you.

At the Finisher Festival, your bib tickets will treat you to pizza, a snack bag and beverages.

You will not pick up your medal yet. All five medals will be given to your Relay Leg No. 5 teammate to pass out. Many teams will take the full six hours (or even more) to finish the full course. Since you are likely to be at the Finisher Festival hours before your last teammate arrives, if you cannot stay, youíll need to make arrangements to get your medal another time.

Wait, you're not doing Relay Leg 1? Well come on back tomorrow for the scoop on Relay Leg 2!

-- Paula Schleis, Beacon Journal staff reporter