Everything sold out. The organizers of the Akron Marathon did another fantastic job coordinating the 10th year of the event. This was the sixth year in a row I've participated in my local big race, but my first time running the relay event.
Team Booze Hounds Inc. joined 14,995 other participants in a tour of Akron's best neighborhoods and landmarks.
The weather was perfect. The temperature at start time was in the mid-40s and slowly rose to the low 60s on a clear day. My teammates arrived in downtown Akron at 6:20 a.m. We got "E" lined up in the second wave somewhere between the four- and five-hour pace groups.
As in years past, a ringing bell marked the start of the race, but this year we also were treated to a fireworks display throughout the 10 minutes it took for all the participants to cross the starting line. The race was on.
Soon after watching the start, we escorted "R" toward her relay exchange point, then walked back toward the crowds to get a good viewpoint for "E" to come back through downtown after crossing the All-American Bridge (aka the "Y" bridge).
We met up with Mrs. Viper's mother and grandmother, who would be spectating as they have the last few years.
"E" passed by and snapped at us, "You owe me a beer."
After we cheered him on, we walked back to the starting line where we left our spectators at a bench to wait for "K" to come through. Then, the three remaining team members walked through the University of Akron toward the third relay exchange point.
By the time my wife and I got back to the shuttle buses to our exchange zones, we were cold and stopped in a Subway for coffee. We said our goodbyes and jumped on our respective chariots and were off.
The team plan was for the finishing runner to text the remaining members that next runner was on the course. By the time I reached my exchange zone, I still had not heard from "R" that she had handed off the baton (a slap bracelet) to "K," our fastest runner.
I jumped in line for the portable toilets, the coffee having done its magic, and kept checking my phone for updates. Finally, as I made my way to the corral, a text came through. "K" had started a half hour ago. He had hoped to come in under an hour.
The wait started to make me anxious. There was a GU station right at my exchange zone, so I grabbed a vanilla bean packet for breakfast and jumped back in line for the toilets just to make sure everything was out.
By my math "K" would arrive at a quarter until 10 a.m. I still had a decision to make: shoes or barefoot?
A couple factors weighed on my mind. It was chilly, and the first couple miles of my 4.5-mile leg of the race were in shade. While five of my last six runs were barefoot, the last one was Sept. 5. Also, I had never raced barefoot before.
I slipped a foot out of my Altra Samsons and felt the ground. Not the smoothest terrain and a bit cool. I kept my heels out as I waited for "K," trying to decide if I should go for it. Finally, it dawned on me that this may be the last chance I have to complete one of my goals for the year.
Soon after making my decision, I heard my bib number announced. He we go. I stripped off my jacket and shoes and stuffed them into my gear bag. I snaked up to the edge of the crowd and held my arm up for "K" to see. I bellowed his name. His head snapped to attention. He gave me the baton, and I gave him my bag. I was off.
Sand Run has been my most frequented running location since I began running in 2006. I know this terrain like no other. I've run barefoot here on sections of single-track hiking trails and the multipurpose path, but never on the road where I ran now.
The asphalt on Sand Run Parkway is pocked with craggy sections borne of Ohio's brutal winters. Before I even got started, the comments started. A race volunteer cried, "Put on some shoes!" She looked legitimately concerned.
Within the first mile, fear started to close in. What if this was a mistake?
My feet were going numb from the cold. I slipped to the left side of the road and ran on the white line, which was smoother and a bit warmer than than the rest of the road. Two runners wearing Vibram FiveFingers commented on the strategy of a "real barefoot runner."
An interesting part of Sand Run is the ford where the eponymous creek crosses the road. It's fun to drive through and create a giant tidal wave. For the marathon, they have a bridge, which in years past was a narrow metal structure with a sharp, gated surface. Again, the fear.
When I got to the ford, my fears subsided. Because of the large crowd, they had instead created a bridge with a series of steel plates typically used in construction to cover excavation holes.
Instead, the grooved concrete leading up to the bridge proved to be the toughest test of tactile fortitude.
What may be my crowning achievement for this race is the fact that I did not start too fast. This was critical in my ability to run the entire way, including the big bad hill that they added to the race this year to paradoxically make the entire course flatter.
Instead of running the entire length of Sand Run park to Revere Road, the course turned onto Sand Run Road (yes, at the intersection of Sand Run and Sand Run). The steep hill reduced many fellow racers to a walk, but not me.
The final stretch of my leg of the relay is a long, slow incline. During the full marathon, this section has always been tough for me, as it crosses the 20th mile. This time, however, I felt stronger and stronger as I picked off those ahead me one by one.
About a mile from the final relay exchange, I passed a fellow relay runner who grumbled, "Are you kidding me?"
My pace quickened. Firestone High School approached. A woman with a walkie-talkie said my bib number and added, "He's barefoot." I broke into a sprint.
Weaving between other runners, I spotted Mrs. Viper at the end of the corral. She held her arm out for me to slap on the bracelet, passing the baton. I gave her a kiss and wished her luck. I called my mother-in-law to tell her the exchange had taken place and headed toward the buses to get back to Canal Park for the finish.
The bus was packed. That guy I had passed shortly before finish was right behind me. He grilled me about barefoot running as we boarded. The bus ride was perhaps the scariest moment, as the grooved flooring of the aisle was uncomfortable to stand on and people all around me threatened to crush my toes with their giant clodhoppers. But I survived.
Once inside the stadium, I grabbed my food bag and two cans of light beer and roamed the outfield of Canal Park, where the AA minor league Akron Aeros play. The cool grass was soothing to my tender feet. I parked myself along the fencing to watch the finishers and wait for my wife to arrive. It would be about an hour for a just-before-noon finish.
Watching the marathoners file through sucker punched me. The range of emotion on their faces. Joy and anguish, smiles and tears. Oftentimes all of the above. I felt left out.
That feeling of triumph never gets old, but perhaps I had taken in for granted.
I needed to see this to remember why I had done it myself the five years prior. I'm happy I participated in the relay, but I wish I had been able to find the strength to train for the marathon.
Mrs. Viper arrived early. She rounded the corner into the stadium looking strong, tired and happy. I reached my arm out to her and screamed her name. She ran over to give me a pre-finish kiss, crossing the line before getting upstaged by a marriage proposal.
The team finished in 4:47:34, beating my time of last year, a secret goal of mine. My pace was 10:19 per mile. Three of my teammates were running their first race ever. Mrs. Viper ran her longest race ever. And I ran my first barefoot race ever. All in all, we had a great experience.
We capped the race with lunch at Rockne's, a local pub chain, and I downed a giant glass of Great Lakes Octoberfest.
Mrs. Viper and I have vowed to use this experience to keep us active.
We're planning to ensure exercise at least three times a week to start.
And we started the new habit with a three-mile hike Sunday afternoon to shake out our legs.
And we're planning to run again today.
And we're already looking toward our next races.
And, and, and, and -- and, well, you'll just have to wait to read about the rest.