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Editor’s note: This is the entire Jay Heater column intended for Sunday’s Republic. Its final part was inadvertently omitted in that edition.
It was a picture postcard moment for Columbus, with leaves trickling off the trees along Jackson Street as Greenfield’s Suzanne Smith crossed the Mill Race Marathon and half-marathon finish line Saturday.
The beauty not only was in the gentle breeze on a crystal-clear fall day, but in Smith’s eyes, which were welling with emotion as she looked to the skies with a broad smile.
“I just ran my personal best,” said the 35-year-old Smith, who stopped the clock at 1:49.11 in the half marathon. “Oh God, it hurt so bad, but it feels so good.”
It was a finishing time that meant nothing to anyone else, but everything to her.
Off she went, a healthy, sweaty mess who quickly was swallowed by masses of other runners who were munching on bananas, slurping energy drinks and talking about their own personal triumphs.
It had to be the kind of moment that Cummins Inc., MainSource Bank and Columbus Regional Health imagined when they hammered out plans for the big race in our little berg, known for its cool buildings and Tony Stewart.
The idea was to promote health and wellness in the community, which was an undisputed slam dunk. Next, I’m sure the sponsors wanted to put together an event that would showcase the community and convince other individuals and businesses from who-knows-where that Columbus should be on all those top 10 places to live lists.
Everything was flowing quite nicely early Saturday morning as the biggest issue was squeezing through that covered bridge in Mill Race Park. That went well, though, and the mist coming off the park’s showcase lake made for a tranquil scene that didn’t seem possible with the invasion of a human snake of runners. How could it get any better?
Then all the plans for the perfect marathon veered off course — literally.
If Hollywood writers could design scripts where a hometown hero like Danny Fisher triumphs when the three big, bad elite runners in the field veer off course, well, we wouldn’t be watching reality TV programming.
Let’s not kid ourselves: Having Columbus’ Fisher win the first Mill Race Marathon was a bonanza for the home folks, who swallowed him up with unwavering support as he navigated those final gruesome three miles. Fisher’s pain was padded by Columbus’ love. As he pounded toward the finish, it was like the stretch at Churchill Downs. Louder and louder.
The noise had everyone twisting their neck to see about the commotion.
Which Kenyan was first?
Oh my God, it’s Danny Fisher!
Fisher said he just used it as inspiration that he wasn’t considered one of the event’s “elite runners,” even though he had won the 2009 Kentucky Derby Festival Marathon.
“I’m OK with the underdog kind of feeling,” he said. “The other guys came in with good times, but you have to get out there and race. You can’t win on paper.”
With no competitors in the rear-view mirror late in the race, he still started to labor.
“The wheels came off
at 23 miles,” said Fisher, the first-place medal hanging from his neck. “But coming down that last stretch, all the people know your name. Those last three or four miles, I really needed those people to yell at me. It helped.
“It’s magical, I guess. To win in your hometown is the ultimate goal.”
As Fisher finished talking, Richard Chelimo, Bryan Morseman and Reuben Kipkemoi crossed the finish line after checking out parts of town that weren’t on the race map. Needless to say, they were upset.
It appears the elite runners were led astray by a confused cyclist, whose volunteer job it was to show them the way. Race Director Ken Long said the misdirection was his fault for not expecting a mob of spectators to be crowded around the intersection at 11th and Franklin and therefore not making sure the course direction was clear.
Chelimo, Morseman and Kipkemoi followed the cyclist, Columbus volunteer Chet Munliew, like a car hugging a tractor trailer in the fog, before going right off a cliff. They realized their mistake later when they ran 26.2 miles and still had three miles to go. All three were disqualified for not following the course correctly, but all three were “compensated” with cash because Long said he would take responsibility for the misdirection.
The hubbub probably caused race sponsors discomfort because all those distance running websites are bound to pick up the snafu.
Then again, my advice to anyone connected with the Mill Race Marathon would be ... relax. The event, imperfect or not, was awesome.
Perhaps an elite runner or two will scratch the event next year.
One hundred other runners will listen to the stories told by Smith, and thousands like her, who had the time of their lives.
Even the spectators knew there was something more going on than standing on a podium. Consider, for instance, Scott Wilson and Jeremy Bolduc of the German Township Volunteer Fire Department. They ran the 5K in full black gear, and that’s 80 pounds including compressed air tanks.
They wanted to honor the memory of fallen German Township firefighter Rick Drake, who died in 2010.
Wilson, who is 20, said boiling along the route was like an out-of-body experience, especially as the crowd went nuts with their every step.
Bolduc, 36, collapsed upon the finish and had little to say.
“I made it to the end,” he said, falling to his back.
The Mill Race Marathon was all about people making it to the end, and for that matter, to the beginning. To think of the event as anything other than a success would dishonor that spirit.
Jay Heater is The Republic sports editor. He can be reached at email@example.com or 379-5632.
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