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Wednesday, April 25,2012

Running against the wind

First Lansing Marathon came together, despite difficulties and challenges

by ALLAN I. ROSS

Sunday, April 22, downtown Lansing.

At 7:35 a.m., several hundred people are milling about in the shadow of the Accident Fund Building, jumping and stretching to keep warm. It’s cold enough to snow, but clear blue skies belie that fear. The cutting northeast wind is their concern today. Well, that and the daunting challenge of running 26.2 miles before lunch.

After a year of build-up and countless challenges, including eleventh hour infrastructure reorganization and course changes, the first-ever Lansing Marathon is about to begin. 

Angie Simpson is pacing with nervous energy, ready to go. The 45-year-old Chicago resident has never run a full marathon before, but says that she’s “feeling strong” — and she’s got humor to spare.

“I’m originally from Lansing, so I know the route, my friends and family live here, and the emergency rooms are close by,” she says. “I think I’ve got this.” 

Simpson says that the novelty of running a first-year event spurred her to sign up last winter. She encountered some online registration problems, including having her $15 coupon get rejected, but says that things seem to be working fine now.   

“Thank God for Playmakers,” she says. “This race was definitely having some communication and organization issues, but once they got involved, everything just fell into place.”  

Playmakers is the runningwear store in Okemos that is synonymous with well-organized races throughout the region. It came aboard several weeks ago to help Lansing Marathon founder Owen Anderson in the Sisyphean task of putting together his first major running event. Anderson, a Lansing-based runner, speaker and author, proposed the Lansing Marathon last year and was the driving force in launching it. With the addition three months ago of famed race organizer Bill Ewing of Detroit, things were finally in place for a successful event. 

“Owen is very passionate, but we had some differences in opinion that kept us out initially,” says Brian Jones, one of the owners of Playmakers and an official adviser of Sunday’s activities. “But you can have different offenses and still be successful. Operations is like the third leg of a stool, and that was something this race needed.” 

At 7:50 a.m., announcer Tim Barron’s voice booms over the loudspeakers, beckoning runners toward the starting line. He then hands the microphone to Anderson. 

“A marathon is about 26 miles, but more than that: It’s about dreams,” Anderson said, before turning the mike over to Mayor Virg Bernero who decreed April 22 as “Dr. Owen Anderson Day.” Bernero then pledged to be there for every step of the marathon — in spirit — before leading the countdown that sent the runners on their way at 8:05 a.m. 

Almost right on time. 

At the 5K starting line on Capitol Avenue several minutes later, the countdown makes it to “3” before someone on the ground shouts, “Hold the race!” After a couple of seconds of awkward silence, Barron quips that a train is responsible for the holdup — the joke being the course map’s first draft included a train track crossing, a big no-no in race course design.

Bernero doesn’t miss a beat: “Did someone say, ‘Speech?’” Thirty seconds later, the delay is resolved, and Barron does his best race-starting “beeeeeeeeep” in lieu of an actual air horn. 

Barely 15 minutes later, the first sprinter crosses the finish line. Eight minutes after that, Jerry Platte, 36, finishes with a time of 23:35 — well within his goal given the training he put into it. 

“I signed up yesterday, and last night I only had four beers and a shot,” he says. “The course was easy — just a square (up and down Allegan and Ottawa Streets) that you run around twice. It was nice.” 

By the time the half-marathon starts at 9:30 a.m., most of the 5Kers are done and the full marathoners are well into their race. At the Mile 8 marker, marathon runner — er, walker — Kent Moore, 45, was striding down Mt. Hope Road. 

“I have no interest in running,” says the Atlanta native. “I’ve walked 11 marathons in the last 10 months. My goal is to walk one in every state.” 

Moore says he sought out the Lansing marathon because it seemed “interesting” — and enabled him to see two new sports stadiums (his hidden agenda): Spartan Stadium and The Big House in Ann Arbor. 

“But they did a good job putting this together,” he says. “I know I’m in last place, and I’m still seeing 10 people at the water stations helping out. Usually by the time I come around, they’ve already packed up. But not here.” 

The course takes a right on Beaumont Road and a left down Bennett, leading into an idyllic golf course neighborhood in East Lansing. Runners cut down East Sunwind Drive, a block of stately homes and manicured lawns, before the course gets slightly rural through a paved bike path in the woods. Then a 5-mile dip down to Willoughby Road and back up College Road toward Michigan State University, where the view became bleak and the smell of cow manure overpowering. Reported 22 m.p.h. winds (with gusts up to 31 m.p.h., according to weather.com) made the going tough, cold and dispiriting. Elizabeth Demers chose to walk the stretch leading up the Mile 19 marker. 

“This wind is brutal,” she says. “I’m ready for this part to be over.” 

In fact, it was already over for marathon winner Nicholas Maiyo, from Kenya, who completed the course in two hours and 20 minutes. Reportedly, he complained about the wind, too. 

After the turn west down Forest Drive, Thanh Truong, 50, chugs along at a healthy 10-minute-mile pace past the 21 Mile marker. Truong drove 10 hours up from Springfield, Va. to run, and, like Moore, has the goal of completing a marathon in all 50 states. But why the Lansing Marathon? 

“This is a good time of year for a race,” he says. “Not too hot, not too cold, plus it’s nice and small. I really like that. This is a very pretty course, with parks, farms and streets. This is the only good way to see a city.” 

Truong says that he’s taking in the sights while he’s in town. He paid a visit to the Capitol on Saturday, where he was bummed to learn they don’t do weekend tours. 

“But I don’t leave till tomorrow, so you never know,” he says. 

At Mile 25, Doug Graustein, 26, is starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. 

“I’m part of a triathlon team in metro Detroit, and I wanted to do a spring marathon before tri season really gets going,” he says. “This seemed better than the Dearborn one. It was beautiful. I’ll definitely be back next year.”

He runs a couple of steps, then adds, “Provided I can make it this last mile.”

At the finish line, 86 cadets from the Michigan Youth Challenge Academy in Battle Creek are handing out medals, picking up debris and sorting recyclables. Like the plover birds that clean crocodile teeth, the benefit is mutual: Race volunteers don’t have to worry about clean-up, and MYCD cadets get precious community service hours needed for graduation. With spit-shined boots, berets, sashes and last names sewn on the breasts of their uniforms, they’re a paramilitary-looking crew, exceedingly polite and fastidiously adhering to their code of conduct. 

According to the official Lansing Marathon website, lansingmarathon.com, there were 412 marathon runners, 882 half-marathoners, 226 5Kers and about 174 people making up the relay teams, for a grand total of 1,694 — less than the 2,000 that organizers had hoped for and well short of last year’s stated goal of 10,000. In addition, there were 600 volunteers helping out at 150 locations around the course.

But whether it was a case of post-race ecstasy or true adulation, nearly everyone agrees that whatever Anderson and his team did, they did it right. 

“This was a hell of a lot better than I was expecting,” says DeWitt resident Steve Brodeur, 40, as he stands wrapped in a silver blanket and going to town on a bagel. “Both in terms of participation and support, for a first-year event, this was fantastic. But man, I wish they could have done something about that wind. Phew!”

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