Akron Marathon weaves through Middle East desert this year
Akron Beacon Journal
AKRON, Ohio — Part of this year’s Akron Marathon course is surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers.
It features a six-mile dusty, barren section with no plant life, though the athletes might spot a wild dog, desert fox or scorpion.
And it’s a given that the starting temperature on this leg will exceed 100 degrees, with hot winds of up to 15 mph buffeting the participants.
Yet the 390 runners who have opted for this special course couldn’t be more excited.
Sgt. 1st Class Glen Glace said he was thrilled to hear the Akron Marathon was offering a “shadow race” to soldiers in Kuwait.
“The idea of running it, even though I am here, was unexpected,” Glace said from Camp Arifjan, 6,600 miles from his home in Stow. “And I can run the same day as the Akron Marathon. I love the Akron Marathon.”
While 15,000 people tackle the full and half marathon, team relay and Kids Fun run on Akron’s streets Saturday, the soldiers of the Ohio Army National Guard’s 371st Sustainment Brigade will be pounding the ground only 10 miles from the banks of the Persian Gulf. They will be joined by a smattering of military contractors and some U.S. Navy logistics sailors stationed at the camp. Race organizers in Kuwait are expected to send over scenes of their event so they can be flashed on the giant scoreboard at downtown Akron’s Canal Park, where local marathon participants will be crossing the finish line.
The Kuwaiti race director is 1st Lt. Kevin McGee, who lives in West Akron and has run in or volunteered for the Akron Marathon almost every year.
“The blue line runs right through my neighborhood and I have conducted my training runs along it for years,” he said, referring to the painted line that guides runners along the asphalt.
Satellite races for deployed service personnel are not uncommon, said McGee, but many of them are fairly primitive, only marked by the fact that soldiers are running the same time as a race back home.
The attention the Akron race is giving its Kuwaiti runners is unparalleled, McGee said.
“Treating runners like royalty has been part of the Akron Marathon’s brand since day one, and they approached this Camp Arifjan Shadow Run in the same manner,” he said. That includes sending over medals, backpacks, finisher certificates and specially designed T-shirts. They also sent an official start/finish banner. Expenses are being borne by special business sponsors.
To avoid the worst of the heat, the race at Camp Arifjan will start in the late afternoon, when it’s 10:30 a.m. in Akron. In addition to 140 registered for the half, full and team relay, another 250 are signed up for a special 5K race not offered in Akron.
There are unique challenges to training for such an event in the Middle East.
“Security is a very strong concern, and it limits the places that a runner can find to go long,” McGee said.
While there is a rubberized road and a paved one that can be used for speed work and middle-distance running, longer distances must incorporate a dusty perimeter trail.
Water is also an issue. During long group runs, the soldiers place bottles of water on the course so they can snag them as they run by.
“This water becomes hot as tea as it sits there in the sun,” McGee said.
On race day, volunteers will be handing out water kept on ice.
The desert should be very quiet, except for the diesel-powered generators that will power lights on the trail; those running the half and full marathon will be finishing in the dark.
Then once every six miles as the runners finish the loop, they will pass by a picnic organized for the entire camp, with the chance for some loud crowd support.
“I expect a small gallery of fellow Ohioans to be cheering into the night,” McGee said.
Sgt. 1st Class Andrea Motley, 31, of Alliance, said the race is a “great motivator” and helps pass the time. There is also a special camaraderie as soldiers spot each other wearing their Akron Marathon T-shirts throughout the week and strike up conversations about the upcoming race.
An avid runner since middle school, Motley has run other satellite races while deployed overseas. She runs to stay healthy, relieve stress and honor her grandmother, who had MS and was unable to walk for many years.
Back home, her husband, CJ, will be waiting for pictures of her Akron Marathon experience, she said.
“The feeling you get when you complete something you never have before is awesome, and I am grateful that I have been blessed to complete all I have,” she said.
Glace, 40, also has family at home waiting to hear how he fares. He said his daughters, Hayley and Tea, and his girlfriend, Julie Zovath, will be looking forward to hearing he finished safely, the heat being a concern.
“But I have been training for it, and I’m ready,” said Glace, who has run in the Akron Marathon at home several times. “Running keeps me sane, especially over here where my outlets are limited.”
Spc. Carl Sansavera, 23, of Macedonia, said he wasn’t much of a long-distance runner until he was deployed to Kuwait this summer.
“It’s nice to throw on some music while I run, and forget all the stress and daily routines with the army,” he said.
When he first started training, his intention was to run the Akron Marathon when he returned home. Then he heard about the shadow race and “it immediately grabbed my attention. I decided to participate in the half marathon because I have not worked my way up to the full marathon just yet.”
Sansavera said his family was “shocked” at his new enthusiasm for running, especially because he’s nurturing it in such a difficult environment.
He admits, “I used to hate how hot it was and I’d feel miserable as I ran, but now I just think to myself, ‘Yup ... It’s hot again.’”
“I realize that some people see this as crazy, or a waste of time, but that doesn’t matter here. I’m going to finish this thing for my own sense of accomplishment,” he said.
Meanwhile, McGee, 42, is looking forward to watching his race plans unfold.
“I spent quite a few hours working on the course by mapping different routes,” he said. “I had to consider safety, lighting at night and the need to staff water points.”
The full marathon runners will loop a six-mile course four times, with an additional 2.2 miles on a track to complete the required 26.2-mile length. Medics will be at the starting line so they can monitor the runners as they pass each time.
It won’t be as scenic as it is in Akron, where the course “shows the best of what Akron has to offer,” McGee said.
Still, “the soldier runners are excited about the race,” he said. “Having the Akron Marathon during their long deployment is boosting morale and maintaining connections with the community back home.”