Marathon participants, spectators pour out a whole lot of love for community on another engaging race day.

A couple got engaged (for a second straight year), two guys from Akron won the big event as a whole lot of love for the community and one other raced through the city Saturday.

The Akron Marathon drew an estimated 115,000 people around a blue line stretching 26.2 miles from North Hill to Firestone Park and West Akron — intersecting downtown where the race began and ended.

The full and half marathons and relay races brought runners from six countries and 44 other states — some traveling far to prove their mettle. Israel Merkle, 29, of Akron, thought he was happy to finish first in the full marathon at two hours, 26 minutes. Then he saw his Merriman Hills neighbor Dylan Garritano, 25, come in second.

“That’s a dream come true to defend Akron,” said Merkle, an environmental inspector for a private firm. “It is,” said Garritano, who not only enjoys running but gets a “good perspective” as a city planner for Akron.

Likewise, Emma McCarron, 28, of Mansfield, who won the women’s full marathon last year, relished a fourth-place finish in the half marathon Saturday. She’s training for a flat race in Columbus next month, so Akron’s half marathon, which cut out the hilly West Akron leg, seemed like good practice.

Then Emma noticed her last name at the top of the full marathon listing. Her sister, Grace, 31, crossed the finish line to take first place in the women's division at two hours, 51 minutes. Emma lost it. She buckled over and cried from the overwhelming joy, endorphins and emotions flowing on a jumbo screen overlooking the finish line inside Canal Park downtown.

“That’s how we roll,” said Grace, maintaining her composure.

Two more hours passed before Kristen Pleat of Cuyahoga Falls finished. Waiting on a knee was her boyfriend, Anthony Mara. She gasped, too, then said "yes" to his marriage proposal.

Before all that, Michael Iacofano, who lives in Boulder, Colo., but grew up in Medina and graduated from St. Vincent-St. Mary in 2013, won the half marathon. Becki Spellman of Galloway, near Columbus, won the women's half marathon. Each finished three seconds shy of records set in 2015.

Restive energy

For a race that started at 7 a.m. in the dark, there were plenty of these bright moments ahead of the Saturday sunshine.

A total of 8,898 people — some shirtless and some on teams in coordinated attire, one guy wearing fake bare buttocks and nearly everyone in spandex — entered the relay, half and full marathon races. In the moments before sunrise, they packed South High Street.

Throughout the city, volunteers busily poured water over white paper cup castles stacked on foldout tables. Friends and family — and the runners they’d come to watch — crowded the starting line in downtown Akron.

Five minutes before race start, the heart of the city quieted to observe the national anthem, followed by anticipatory cheers quickly drowned out by “Going the Distance” by Cake. The corralled racers crept closer to the front, exchanging body heat on a brisk, 56-degree autumn morning.

Leading the pack was a group pushing Steven Bracken, who has ALS, a debilitating nervous system condition also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The Wooster man started racing for awareness in 2012. In Akron, it was but one of the countless causes fueling runners.

All 9,000 headed up South High Street into the first of three legs: North Hill, then Firestone Park for the half marathon and on to West Akron for the full 26.2 mile trek. Relay teams headed to shuttle buses at Main and Exchange to be carted off to their marks. Onlookers headed up a hill to the east to watch the pace-setters come flooding back downtown across the Y-Bridge a half-hour later.

Power up

At the 32-minute mark, the lead runner rounded the corner at South Broadway turning east toward E.J. Thomas Hall on the marathon’s tour of the University of Akron.

Layla Popik, 10, held a foam circle over the blue line. It read, “Press for Power.”

Popik is one of 16 Akron Children’s “Heroes” offering inspiration along the race course. Her stop included music, food and the gold and blue of its sponsor, Kent State.

Layla was abandoned to the streets of China at age 2. Her parents, who also have dwarfism, found Layla in an orphanage with help from their membership in the Little People of America organization.

The Popiks couldn’t have kids, so they adopted Layla, said her father, Joe Popik, an engineer at General Electric who lives in Seven Hills. “I think we should give someone a chance who really needs it,” Joe recalls telling his wife, Lisa.

November is Layla’s second anniversary in America. She’s learning English quickly and makes routine trips to Akron Children’s Hospital. Standing behind her family on race day, Layla’s doctor looked as inspired as the runners who tapped her blue button.

“She’s just such a smart ball of energy,” Dr. Frank Artinian said. “She has such an infectious smile. Look at her,” he said as Layla let out a “run, run, rah rah, run!” cheer for the racers.

Bill Considine took notice. On a Cleveland television news show that aired Tuesday morning, the CEO of Children’s Hospital gladly sat by as the camera focused on Layla.

“They pushed me off the couch,” Considine joked with a smile almost as big as Layla’s.

Running the event

Bret Treier, chair of the marathon’s board of directors, played trombone in the band that entertained runners at the finish line. In the morning, he drove the blue line as course co-chair. Occasionally, he called a tow company on standby to move a car to the nearest side street, not to an impound, then got ready to tell the driver where the vehicle went.

Before taking the stage, Treier checked to ensure nourishing water and food had been delivered along the race route. Then he hung the digital clock that kept the finish times.

Treier, community partners, sponsoring organizations and about 2,000 volunteers made Saturday run smooth.

As runners crossed the first-base finish line at Canal Park, they stopped in the dugout to massage a cramped leg or turned the bases in reverse order. At third base, they walked toward Treier’s band, which played punk, rock and pop hits for a left outfield of mingling runners in tinfoil capes, eating bananas and drinking low-calorie Michelob Ultra.

At the stadium alone, donations and sponsorships provided 1.5 tons of bananas and 14,670 bottles of water from Acme Fresh Market, about 10,000 silvery heat-trapping blankets, 18,000 beers from House of LaRose and other items for weary, relaxing runners.

Marathon Executive Director Anne Bitong watched them all enter the stadium. On her iPhone, there’s an app of folders within folders, each loaded with documented plans to strategically deploy everything nearly 9,000 people might need for support and encouragement, including 30 roadside entertainment attractions from DJs to school and university bands.

“There are very few races as well-organized or as well put on,” Spellman, the women’s half marathon winner, said in her victory interview with WAKR’s Jasen Sokol, who emceed the event.

The Akron Marathon consumes $1 million of its nonprofit $1.2 million annual budget, which covers a half marathon sponsored by Goodyear and an 8k-run/1-mile walk supported by National Interstate Insurance. The marquee event Saturday is a massive logistical undertaking. Consider just how 905 pizzas, which were still warm, arrived from nine locally owned Papa John's stores with roads closed all around the stadium.

Bitong had golf-cart-like vehicles fitted with roof racks to speed them into the stadium. On her phone is a spreadsheet of how many racers, based on individual speeds they submitted, would enter the stadium throughout the morning, and how many pizzas they’d need. Deliveries came from various directions at specific times to circumvent road closures.

“That’s just one example,” Bitong said, putting her phone away. “There’s a document for everything.”

Then the pizza boxes were recycled. The Akron Marathon is proudly one of only five in the nation with a green-certification from the Council for Responsible Sport.

 

Reach Doug Livingston at 330-996-3792 or dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow him @ABJDoug on Twitter or www.facebook.com/doug.livingston.92 on Facebook.