In this age of voice-mail, automated teller machines and other technologies that have, for better or worse, contributed to our increasingly impersonal society, the 6th annual Road Runner Akron Marathon on September 27 provides a refreshing change: a race that prides itself on the personal touch.
Much has changed in the years between the ancient Greek Phidippides hoofing it from Marathon to Athens and the invention of GU energy gels. But much has stayed the same when it comes to what we look for when entering a road race. Sure, PRs are swell, but so is being treated well. And you certainly will notice the special treatment at the Road Runner Akron Marathon.
Race Director Jim Barnett won't make like the marathoning tooth fairy on race-day eve and place chocolate GU energy gels under each runner's pillow. But Barnett will do just about everything else to ensure an enjoyable experience for each race participant. And that includes greeting every runner as he or she crosses the finish line with a congratulatory handshake and thank you. That's 5,000-plus sweaty palms and a lot of "personal touches," but that truly is the Road Runner Akron Marathon's modus operandi.
"Every decision we make (in planning and putting on the event) is based on the question: Is it good for the runners?" Barnett said.
As far as greeting every runner at the finish line, Barnett said the practice started in the race's first year when he shook hands and greeted the first runners to finish the race. "Next thing you know, more runners kept coming, and I just kept greeting everyone until the last runner finished," Barnett recalled. "I feel blessed with the opportunity to say hello and thank the runners. But this is just one of many things that take place on a personal level."
Other personal touches include sending thank you emails to all race entrants, answering every inquiry with a personal email reply, and putting runners' names, not just numbers, on their race bibs. Like the sit-com Cheers, everybody will know your name at the Road Runner Akron Marathon.
"It is just another way to further personalize things," Barnett said of inscribing names on bibs. "Around mile 18, runners can start feeling a little mushy. If someone yelled 'Go (random) number!' the runner may ask, 'Is that me?' Instead, people are calling you by name."
Runners love to get free stuff at road races. Mission accomplished at the Road Runner Akron Marathon, where registration gets you a pair of Brooks running shoes (yes, free shoes), a long-sleeve tech shirt, a Running Times magazine subscription, a goodie bag and free food and beer at the fantastic post race party.
"A couple of years ago we decided to reallocate the prize money funds to buy shoes for the runners. It's just another personal touch," Barnett said.
Although the Road Runner Akron Marathon course includes some hills in the late stages of the race, it is strikingly scenic, well-supported and marked with a blue line that extends the entire 26.2 miles.
Runners will enjoy panoramic views of the Little Cuyahoga River, cross the All-America Bridge, travel through parks, past museums and the old Firestone building and onto the four-mile Towpath, a crushed limestone path considered to be one of the most eye-pleasing parts of the course.
"The course itself showcases the best of Akron. The Towpath is a historic trail that follows the Ohio and Erie Canal," Barnett said. "It's a little over four miles (from about mile 11 to 15), and it gives the runners a nice break from the hard surface."
After exiting the Towpath, runners will pound the pavement through West Akron, where they will be greeted by some of the largest crowds on the course, then return to downtown Akron, past the 25-mile mark near St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, the alma mater of Cleveland Cavaliers hoops hero LeBron James, and towards the "Olympic-style" finish at Canal Park, home of the Double-A baseball team, the Akron Aeros.
"Runners enter Canal Park in centerfield and as they run toward the finish line, their images are shown on the new scoreboard," Barnett said. "As they cross the finish line, the public address announcer calls out their names. Runners feel like they just won in the Olympics."
The race course is fully supported with 2,000 volunteers, 20 fluid stations, six GU energy gel stations, 20 entertainment spots, more than 175 portable restrooms, clocks and markers at every mile and 5K, and lots of cheering fans.
"Throughout the year we are proactive in the community. We tell people that race day is a wonderful opportunity (for them) to be ambassadors of the city of Akron, and we ask people to come out and support the race. And they do," Barnett said, noting that local newspapers have estimated race-day crowds of 80,000. "Because of the blue line on the course, we have what we call 'Blue-line families' on the route. The blue line goes by their houses and the families host parties on race day with bands and everything."
For detailed course information and to see an impressive video of the entire Road Runner Akron Marathon course, visit: http://www.akronmarathon.org/coursemapdetails.aspx
For information on all aspects of the 5th annual Road Runner Akron Marathon, including on-line registration, volunteer opportunities, detailed course description and more, visit the race's website: http://akronmarathon.org