From Aktron to AkRUN: One Marathon's Journey, Part 2/4: Street Cred, by Dave Hunter, note by Larry Eder

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Dave Hunter (the author), Creigh Kelly (the announcer), Steve Marks (the dreamer), photo courtesy of AkRUN

In the second part of this journey from dream to a hard won reality, Dave Hunter talks about the 2003 and 2004 races and bidding for the Olympic Trials in 2008. Be careful what you wish for, it has been said.

It has been said, that, during the Moscow Trials of 1938-1939, that Soviet premier, Josef Stalin, would visit many of the imprisoned at night, and chat with them, negotiating a "quick death". My guess is that what most teams involved in bidding for past Olympic Trial marathon races have felt similar desires. Lots of work, not really many benefits. If running, jumping and throwing are illogical activities, then putting on a U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials is a near journey into insanity.

Bidding for an Olympic Trials, in the current system, is invasive. There are no winners and no losers. The winners will spend up to several million dollars with the joy of giving their city prestige and the sorrow of dealing with an Olympic marketing team that has very little appreciation for local support. The losers know that they were through a battle royale, which is what AkRUN experienced.

In the following article, Dave Hunter speaks of some the challenges, which the team took on, with a smile and lots of energy. What AkRUN got, after only two years, was Street Cred or RESPECT. For AkRUN, it was a good fight...
From Akron to AkRUN: One Marathon's Journey
(Part 2 of a 4 Part Series):


Street Cred

The exhilaration and the adrenalin from the success of our first year was a rush we rode for a couple of weeks.  But it didn't last long.  We soon realized that the stir and excitement we created in Year One would be short lived if we didn't seize the moment and build to an even better performance in Year Two.  We had to get to work - and we had to do it right away.

As we hoped would be the case, greater Akron was instantly in love with the race.  The success of our first year resonated throughout the city.  People now understood that the 26 mile, 385 yard blue line which marked our course was neither a bike lane nor some sort of esoteric marking for handicap parking.  The Akron Beacon Journal ─ which provided generous coverage of our first race day, complete with a tabloid insert featuring color photos and a listing of all finishers ─ proclaimed "everybody in Akron gets free front row seats to one of the best sporting events in northeastern Ohio."

Race leadership wanted to build on that local success ─ to lay a foundation that would establish the Akron Marathon as a serious and progressive event on the national marathoning scene.  As our leadership group deliberated on the preferred way forward, it became clear to us that the best way to grow our event, to enhance the experience for our participants, and to earn credibility in the marathoning community was to focus on two critical areas.

First of all, we wanted to take the positive initial impression we made with USA Track & Field and further develop and strengthen that relationship. We got off to a solid start with USATF in the planning for our initial race.  Working closely with the then USATF CEO, Craig Masback, we collaborated to host in our inaugural year, the first-ever USATF North American Marathon Relay Championships - an exceedingly precise, formatted relay race which would feature elite teams from Canada, Mexico, and the United States - each comprised of five athletes running legs between 5 and 12.195 kilometers. 

Perching these world class athletes at the beginning of our race provided a great international competition for our spectators.  It also showed our authentic interest in putting on a serious sporting event and evidenced the trusted relationship we had established during the planning process with the national leadership in our sport. 

On race day, Mexico won the 2003 championship as its anchorman Teodoro Vega - just back from his performance in the Men's 10,000 meter final in the Paris World Championships - buried the competition by running a blistering 4:38 per mile pace over the final 12.195 kilometers. 

We jumped at the chance to host this Marathon Relay Championship a second time in 2004.  While Mexico defended its title in 2004, the race outcome was not assured until the last 100 meters when Mexico's final runner was barely able to hold off a furious charge down Main Street by the United States anchorman - the late Ryan Shay.  These international competitions in 2003 and 2004 were also paired with the USATF Club Relay Championships - a broad-based event which brought serious runners from around the country to Akron to compete in this championship and - coincidentally - to observe the precise and runner-friendly way our race day is executed.

Secondly, we wanted to develop some sort of "brand" - a distinct identity which not only was authentic but also served to distinguish us from other marathons.  We knew we had to establish clearly what we are ─ or reasonably could become ─ as a race weekend.  Learning what we weren't was easy:  we lacked the heritage and tradition of a Boston Marathon; we did not have the international flair of a New York City Marathon; the rolling topography of Akron precluded us from developing the flat, fast NASCAR-type of course featured at Chicago or Columbus; and we weren't a "destination" marathon like Bermuda, St. George, or Big Sur. 

So what were we?  The more we talked about this, the more clear it became to all of us:  the Akron Marathon is a runner-centric event focused upon precise execution.  Fueled by the enthusiastic support of 3,000+ volunteers, our race is capable of focusing on the enhancement our runners' experience with an attention to detail which is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve by other races. 

Maniacal planning?  We wrote the book.  Our race crew even holds training sessions to instruct water stop volunteers on the correct way to hand cups of Powerade and water to our racers.  Precision race schedule?  Trust me, our race starts precisely at 7:00 a.m. E.D.T.  Digital clocks?  Boston has them every 5 kilometers.  Akron has them every 5 kilometers and at every mile mark.  But wait, there's more.  Akron features "pace announcers" who stand by digital clocks at the 15 mile and 20 mile marks to inform racers of their targeted finish time based on their then-current pace. 

Fluid stations and medical stations along the course?  Routine, but Akron also has Gu stations at numerous locations around the course.  Race day course management?  We utilize a squadron of "Sector Chiefs" who, after months of preparation, arise hours before the dawn race start, and armed with communication radios, prowl the course like 21st century commandos, supervise the course set-up, monitor the race performance, and assure the course tear-down on race day.

After another taste of success in our second year, we were inspired to look for other ways to press our event to an even higher level.  With our runner participation in our 2004 race increasing to over 4,900 runners and the growth of our Thursday night pre-race Mayor's Reception and our Friday Runner's Expo, the Akron Marathon was no longer just a Saturday morning race.  It had blossomed into a weekend event. 

Less than a year later, we were gratified to learn that the Akron Marathon had been included in the newly-released publication: From Fairbanks to Boston: 50 Great U.S. Marathons.  We pressed on as we looked for additional ways to show our loyal participants, our spectators, and the sport that we were serious and innovative race presenters worthy of their respect.

What would be our next challenge?  Early in 2005, Bret Treier and I approached our founder Steve Marks with our idea to compete in the USATF selection process to be named to host either the Men's or Women's race for the 2008 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials.  Our naïveté in the sport ensured that we would not fully appreciate - nor be discouraged by - the challenging pathway that would lay before us.  Our dream here was not a total flight of fancy: Treier and I had attended every men's Olympic Marathon Trials since 1992. 

We had observed the past propensity of USATF to select smaller market cities featuring race leadership committees with a proven track record of thorough organization and race day execution.  And, by the way, hadn't Akron completed two successful years of hosting an international road race event for USATF?  Treier and I were thrilled when Marks - who was not without skepticism - gave us his blessing to proceed. 

A whirlwind of planning events ensued:  conference calls with USATF top brass and race directors from New York, Boston, Minneapolis, Chicago, and other locales; sessions with city officials about the creation of the speedy criterium course we proposed to create; meetings with corporate donors and local and national foundations to garner funding commitments; collaborative planning sessions with regional television network executives to explore broadcasting possibilities; and, finally, the assembly of a glossy multi-faceted proposal to USATF - a mammoth "term paper" which set forth our credentials, our prior race presentation experience, our fast and beautiful criterium course, our comprehensive budget and financial sources, signed testimonials from corporate and political leaders and sports figures throughout our state, and even detailed information regarding the likely temperature and humidity range on the date we proposed to host the Trials race. 

We didn't know whether to be stunned or elated when we subsequently learned that - along with Minneapolis, New York, and Boston - we had been selected as one of four finalists still in the running to host one of the two Trials races. We prepared feverishly for the onsite visit by USATF officials that followed soon thereafter. 

We pulled out all the stops for the visitation: comprehensive power point presentations, guest speakers from Akron and national foundations outlining their anticipated support for this event, a frigid mid-winter test run of our criterium loop with selected members of the USATF Visiting Committee (fans with signs lined the streets to show the city's support); even specially-created Akron/Olympic Trials candy bars and faux newspapers proclaiming Akron as the named site which were placed in USATF hotel rooms. 

We emphasized how an Olympic Trials weekend in Akron, unlike the Trials in a big city venue, would allow the race to receive undistracted notoriety.  When the long-awaited USATF decision came months later, we were saddened, but not completely surprised, to learn we came up short.  (New York and Boston prevailed - and each orchestrated memorable events.)

When high-ranking USATF officials confided in me later that the governing body was predisposed to select a big city venue and that our innovative proposal to host the Trials was viewed with great favor, I knew that we had lost the battle but won the war.  We weren't selected to serve as a host city, but our near-miss bid had earned our city and our organizing team respect throughout the road racing community. 

by Dave Hunter


Next week:  "Burnishing The Brand"

[You can learn more about the Akron Marathon at www.akronmarathon.org.  The writer, who can be emailed at: [email protected], has raced over 90 marathons, including the 1983 BAA Marathon where he set his PR of 2:31:40.]

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