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Akron Marathon, photo courtesy of AkRUN

From Akron to AkRUN: One Marathon's Journey
(Part 3 of a 4 Part Series):


After a solid inaugural running of the Akron Marathon in 2003 - our total runner count exceeded 3,500 - our race day participation grew each year. By 2006 - when we added a half marathon to our race day events - our total number of participants had grown to nearly 6,200.

We continued to focus on our dual branding approach: (i) working to strengthen our relationship and visibility with USA Track & Field; and (ii) enhancing our reputation as a precisely-executed value-added runner-centric celebration of running.

Each year we worked feverishly to tinker with our race day model. Over the years, we added new elements. We refined certain operations. And we deleted earlier elements which had proved to be flops.

Looking back, it is now clear that our various experimentations fell into two categories: those that didn't work; and those that did.

Some of our added accoutrements proved to be costly missteps that were gone after one year. In 2003 - our first year - we arranged to charter in Jay Leno from Los Angeles to stage a post-race stand-up performance in Akron's treasured Civic Theatre - a lovingly-restored downtown theater fashioned after a Moorish castle and featuring Mediterranean décor. The performance - a ticketed event, but complementary to all runners - was well attended. Although wildly entertaining, this ancillary event cost a fortune and we never repeated it.

In 2004, in an effort to bolster our marathon field, we held a dramatic post-race drawing on the baseball diamond in our Canal Park finishing venue. All marathon finishers were eligible to win a brand new 2004 Toyota Camry in our must-be-present-to-win lottery drawing. As part of our post-race celebration, bib numbers of 10 finishing marathoners were drawn at random. The 10 lucky runners were called down to the field and each was presented with a key - only one of which would start the car. The drama which gripped our packed crowd at Canal Park was somewhat diminished when the ultimate winner - visibly tipsy from some over-exuberant post-race reveling - seemed underwhelmed when his key fired up the Camry. True, this ploy was less expensive than the Leno presentation, but we never did this again either.

In 2005, we redirected race resources and fortified our marathon prize money for both men and women. That year, we paid five deep in the marathon and offered a first place price of $12,000. Hey, this wasn't "big city" prize money, but our research indicated that these monetary prizes would compare very favorably with other mid-major marathons. To paraphrase the famous line from Field Of Dreams, "if you pay them, they will come." With this prize money boost, the quality of both the men's and women's fields in the marathon improved dramatically. And it's no surprise that the 2005 winning performances - Charles Kamindo in 2:18:48 and Maria Portilla in 2:39:09 - remain as our course records. While this prize money experiment was pricey, we didn't abandon this approach in future years - we modified it. Although we moderated our cash awards after 2005, we installed several performance-related tiers which allow top finishing men and women marathoners who exceed pre-established time goals to be monetarily rewarded - whether they win the race or not. This pay-for-performance approach has allowed us to present pay day opportunities to a broad array of top performing marathoners which compare favorably with other mid-tier marathons.

While some of our experiments were either discarded or re-engineered, a good number of the ideas we implemented to make our race more appealing were immediate hits. Beginning in 2006, we re-deployed race resources in a manner calculated to enhance overall value for all of our marathon finishers. We provided a free pair of top-flight name-brand running shoes for all marathon finishers. It didn't take much reflection for us to understand why our marathon participation improved handsomely - the retail value of these post-race shoes exceeded the marathon race entry fee! But we were all about increasing our participation and building runner loyalty. And we did just that in 2006 and in subsequent years with free shoes for marathon finishers.

An entrants study allowed us to observe that we were building a significant core of marathoners who ran our race every year. Inspired by that observation, we enacted a Legacy Runners distinction which recognized - and accorded special benefits to - marathoners who were consistently running our marathon. This facet of our event was immediately and enthusiastically embraced. In 2011 we refined this initiative and introduced our comprehensive Loyalty Program - a more open-ended incentive program that rewards race loyalty by our marathoners in 5-year, 10-year and 15-year tiers. This past fall our race announcer Creigh Kelley and celebrated author and training guru, Hal Higdon, emceed our race expo pinning ceremony where 213 runners were inducted into our five-year club.

Early on, we recognized that first-rate running apparel was greatly valued by our race participants. As all runners know, "it's all about the schwag, baby!" So we set out to develop the best. Our offered clothing - shorts, tops, singlets, fleeces, hoodies, vests, windbreakers, track pants, etc. - is high quality, displays no advertising, comes in a variety of upbeat colors, tastefully displays our discreet race logo, and is competitively priced. We learned from the start that attractive and well made apparel not only is a revenue source but also is a vehicle for more broadly-based cost-effective race marketing. Next spring on Patriot's Day, notice how many Akron Marathon tech running caps you spot between Hopkinton and Boston. The ever-growing civic pride about our expanding event has even produced a clever play on the city's name -running gear sporting "AkRUN" can be spotted year-round at various running venues in our region. And, yes, you can purchase "AkRUN" merchandise at our race expo.

2008 was a big year in the evolution of our race weekend. Anne Bitong, our skillful Marketing Director, was rightfully installed in the newly-created position of President/Executive Director of the Akron Marathon. And, as the race grew larger and more established, so did our opportunities with USA Track & Field. Our near-miss in being named to host one of the 2008 Olympic Marathon Trial Races, while a disappointment, did not dampen our resolve to seek further collaborations with USATF. In 2008 we worked closely with the governing body to plan for and host the 2008 Women's 8K National Championship Race. Held on our traditional race day, and starting 30 minutes after our customary race start, the 8K Championship race featured a select field of 30 elite American women dueling for the national title. Breaking away slightly before the 3 mile mark on the only upgrade on our speedy course, Sara Slattery went on to capture the 2008 national 8K crown in 25:54. Ohio native Katie McGregor claimed second in 25:56. And crafty veteran Amy Rudolph got up for third in 26:00 to round out the podium. By all measures - from the elite athletes, from USATF, from our regular race participants, from our spectators, and from the media - the return of a national championship race to our town was recognized as a great success. The devastating recessionary forces which plagued our country in the months thereafter undermined our future championship race funding from a most supportive local charitable foundation. But as the economy improves, so will our ability to return to this type of national championship activity.

This dual branding approach - with a focus on selective participation in national racing opportunities and a runner-centric approach to our race - has allowed us to grow our event and make it better for 9 consecutive years. On September 24th of this year, 14,000 runners hit the streets of Akron. Their efforts were aided by 3,000 race volunteers. And the runners were cheered on by a reported 100,000 spectators who lined the course and later filled Canal Park to applaud our intrepid finishers.

Bill Rodgers' observation about our race - "Akron treats all of its runners like world-class athletes" - may have been a casual comment by one of America's running legends. But it has been and continues to serve as our mantra leading into 2012 - our 10th Anniversary year.

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Dunaway AwardAt the 2019 annual meeting of the Track and Field Writers of America, Dave was presented with the James Dunaway Memorial Award “for track & field journalism excellence.”

Dave Hunter

Dave HunterDave Hunter is a track & field journalist, announcer, and broadcaster.  Dave reports on the premier track & field gatherings around the globe, frequently serves as an arena or stadium announcer for championship events, and has undertaken foreign and domestic broadcast assignments in the sport.


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