Melissa Johnson remembers what it was like running in the first Akron marathon in 2003.
She and her husband, Bob Kazar, had been married for five years. They both worked full time as accountants and were neglecting their health.
They got in shape and completed the race — their first. Fifteen years and 98 races later, the 50-year-old Canton woman is preparing to run in her 100th marathon Saturday in Akron.
Training to change her Life
Johnson, who has two stepdaughters and a 5-year-old grandson, didn’t participate in sports in high school or college. Though she occasionally swam and ran and casually played softball, she didn’t consider herself athletic.
In February 2003, a friend told her about the Akron marathon happening in October. Upon hearing about it, she thought it would be great motivation for her and Kazar to get back into shape.
They trained for eight months. They spent their evenings after work running around the neighborhood and part of the marathon route.
The couple enjoyed their training.
“We would barely have time to spend time together because we would work so much,” Johnson said. “It was a great way for us to spend time together.”
Johnson realized her training was doing more than just helping her prepare for the marathon. She found herself feeling better mentally and physically and was performing better at her job.
“It was almost like brushing my teeth,” said the mother and grandmother. “I just began to feel better about everything.”
Fast-forward to race day, a cold, brisk Saturday in October 2003.
“I was nervous,” she said. “It was something that I’ve never done before. I wasn’t sure if I was able to finish it.”
The race began and she and Kazar, along with 860 other participants, started running.
After the first mile, she began to feel better about the race.
“You see everybody at the marathon and you realize everyone’s nervous and it made me feel better,” she said. “But I knew 26 miles was still a long way.”
Johnson and Kazar didn’t stop. At mile 17, Johnson began struggling a little bit.
“I remember telling my husband to go on ahead,” she said. “I was really unsure if I was able to finish it.”
Johnson started to break down her route. She knew if she made it to point A, she could make it point B. Same thing from point B to point C and so on.
Along her route, Johnson saw friends and family on the sidelines, rooting and cheering her on. That motivated her to keep running.
It took her four hours and 23 minutes to finish, but she did it. She met up with her husband, overwhelmed with excitement.
Johnson may not have finished first, but to her, it was more than placing in the race.
”I was thrilled,” Johnson said. “I worked really hard to do it. It was something I didn’t think I could do and actually finishing it was a really good feeling.”
The couple didn’t just stop there. They participated in the New York marathon in November 2003.
Johnson then made it a goal to run in all 50 states. As years followed, they ran in more places outside Ohio, including Washington, D.C., California, Virginia, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Around the world
As Johnson continued to run in marathons, she talked to a multitude of people about their experiences. Some traveled the world for races and it gave Johnson the idea to do the same.
Next thing she knew, she and Kazar were participating in a race in London.
Johnson recalled a tough run in Antarctica in 20-degree weather. She took a boat to get to her destination and became seasick.
She almost backed out of the race until she talked herself out of her negative thinking.
“I had to tell myself, ‘When would you be the next time you get this opportunity?’ ” Johnson said. “I ended up bearing through it and went through with the marathon.”
To this day, Johnson has run on all the continents but one — South America. That was a goal she never thought she would reach.
“If you would’ve asked me ... before the first Akron Marathon, I would have never guessed that running the Akron Marathon would lead to us running all around the world.”
Closing in on 100
Johnson never set a goal to run a certain number of marathons.
“I did tell myself that if I were to do 100 marathons, I wanted my 100th one to be Akron,” she said.
Johnson is excited that her next marathon will be at the one that started it all.
“The Akron marathon is my favorite event and is significant because it changed my life,” she said.
Brandon Bounds can be reached at 330-996-3762 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Bounds on Twitter @brandonbounds_.