The Akron Marathon has become an economic engine on multiple fronts

Steven Marks and his wife, Jeannine, were avid runners and knew the kind of preparation and training it took to run a marathon when Marks approached the city of Akron in 1999 about bringing a race to the Rubber City.

Akron officials liked the idea and were only too happy to give Marks the go-ahead to create the event. There was just one catch.

“They said, ‘If you’re willing to support it financially, get it off the ground and organize it, we’ll support it from our end,’” Marks says. “I walked into a meeting and two days later, I’m in charge of a marathon without any experience.”

Marks, who is CEO at Main Street Gourmet, says he didn’t feel any pressure to get the first marathon scheduled quickly. He and his team spent three years planning and studying how other marathons were conducted to get a sense for what needed to be done.

“We put committees together and treated it like a business, a startup we didn’t have to start for three years,” Marks says. “We wanted to make a big splash and get attention, get runners and get participation and buy-in that first year. That’s how it evolved.”

Akron Marathon Charitable Corp. is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization funded by Marks’ foundation. The foundation put hundreds of thousands of dollars into the nonprofit as seed money to launch the event.

“There were a lot of infrastructure costs to get it off the ground,” says Marks, chairman of the nonprofit. “Our first year, we brought in Jay Leno, which was very expensive, and we had to get office space, buy supplies. There were a lot of prepayment expenses to get it started. Otherwise, you couldn’t do it.”

The first Akron Marathon took place in 2003 and featured more than 3,000 participants, 3,000 volunteers and two staff members.

“I was very nervous,” Marks says of that inaugural event. “You can imagine the pressure of trying to put on a community event from scratch. There were a lot of reputations at stake and there were a lot of things that could go wrong.”

One of those things was a train blocking the race. Despite assurances that trains would not be running during the race window, there was a train and it came through just as marathon teams from the U.S., Mexico and Canada that were competing in a team relay approached the tracks.

Fortunately, that was one of the few problems that occurred. It was also a beautiful day and the Akron Marathon was off and running.

A world-class experience

The Akron Children’s Hospital Akron Marathon Race Series has now become three races that will take place beginning on June 25 with the National Interstate Insurance 8K and 1-Mile races.

That will be followed on Aug. 13 with the Goodyear Half Marathon and 10K. The series concludes with the marquee event on Sept. 24 in downtown Akron, the FirstEnergy Akron Marathon, Half Marathon and Team Relay.

Last year’s series generated almost $8.2 million in increased economic activity as more than 52 percent of all participants came from outside the Akron region, according to a study conducted by two associate professors from Kent State University.

“Our big mantra is to treat every runner like a world-class athlete,” Marks says. “We’re very customer focused and treat our runners like customers because if they are upset and we don’t react, we won’t have them back.”

Work on the next marathon begins almost immediately after the last runner crosses the finish line. The passion and dedication that Marks and his team, which now consists of seven full-time staff members, bring to the cause has paid off in multiple ways.

AMCC has helped charities raise more than $1 million through a concept in which runners raise money for causes that mean the most to them.

“What we found is the most efficient way to raise money is for charities to use our race as a forum to raise money,” he says. “In addition, you have companies participating and putting wellness programs together that are in conjunction with the race. So you have this wellness component, this economic component and this feel-good thing in the community. A lot of people have called it Akron’s holiday.”

Estimates by the Akron Beacon Journal are that as many as 100,000 people watch the race each year, Marks says. Participation in the event has grown to 20,000.

Marks has taken steps to secure the race’s future by signing a deal with Akron Children’s Hospital to buy five years’ worth of sponsorships which the hospital can then go out and resell to other entities.

“It’s a double benefit for them that they can raise money and promote their hospital,” he says. “The big thing it does for us is we don’t have to worry about a major sponsor going out and then we have a hardship. We want to become a more dominant force in our industry.” ●