There are a lot of moving parts – and bagels and bananas – involved in the annual Nationwide Children’s Hospital Columbus Marathon, which also includes a 1/2 marathon, 5K, mile run, and kids run. And a total of about 13,000 runners. At the center of it all is Darris Blackford, the longtime director of the two-day event (October 15 and 16 this year). Blackford took some time out from his busy, race-week schedule to fill us in on some of what it takes to organize such a massive event.
Blackford’s marathon day
He arrives at the start/finish at North Bank Park at about 3:30 a.m. Sunday morning and has a tradition. After the bomb squad of the Columbus Police Department completes a thorough sweep of the area, Blackford cuts the zip ties on all the portable toilets (“They’re zipped up to prevent tampering.”). And then … “I’m all over; I have on a radio headset and there’s a ham radio operator volunteer who follows me around, like a football coach who has someone to make sure his headset is working,” Blackford said.
Blackford wore a GPS watch at last year’s event and racked up 22 miles of walking during the marathon and ½ marathon on Sunday, all within about a half-mile radius of the start/finish.
“Until we’re done for the day, I’m on a heightened sense of alert,” he said, adding he can’t relax and begin to unwind until “I know everyone has come across the finish line and goes home safely.”
8,000 bananas, 6,000 apples, 10,000 bagels
“It’s like that line from Animal House where [Flounder] goes into the store and says, ‘I’d like to buy 10,000 marbles, please,’” Blackford said. “We think on that scale.”
Bagels and bananas are a tradition at marathons, and for a good reason. “You don’t want to eat something like jalapeno poppers after running 26 miles, when your stomach might be a little upset,” Blackford said. Bagels and bananas are easy to digest option, and they’re filled with carbs and potassium.
America’s most meaningful marathon
There are hundreds of marathons and ½ marathons across the United States and around the world. What sets the Columbus version apart is the connection with Nationwide Children’s Hospital, which began in 2012. The race has raised more than $11 million for the world-renowned children’s hospital and funded life-saving research and treatments. At every mile marker, a patient, a Miracle Mile Patient Champion, is there to cheer on and inspire the runners.
“When people are out there on Sunday running the marathon or ½ marathon and struggling and feeling hot and tired and maybe wanting to quit, when they see these kids out there, they may start to think about their challenges are nothing compared to what these kids go through,” Blackford said. “That’s what makes it so meaningful. It’s bigger than just you as a runner or a walker and it takes it to a different emotional level.”
If he were a spectator
Blackford has mapped out the ideal way to watch the marathon – if he was a spectator. It begins at the start/finish line, and from here, head east on Broad Street to 18th Avenue, where you can watch runners cross the 2-mile mark. And see them again at the 7-mile mark. “Then I’d walk back to the statehouse, to see the runners at the 12-mile mark and then walk to the finish. You can see the runners four times in this 3-mile walk.” Click here to see the marathon map.
Then again, he might camp out in Grandview Heights or Bexley or on The Ohio State campus. Or at Mile 20, in Upper Arlington on Coventry Road, where he said this year the neighborhood folks will be having a party.
Why he runs
Blackford has completed more than 200 marathons. You read that correctly: 200-plus marathons. Including 15 Columbus Marathons, the most recent in 2009, the year before he was named director and became a little too busy on race day to run.
“I started running after I got out of college,” he explained. “I loved snack food and barbeque and was putting on weight and didn’t want to give up the foods I loved. So, I decided to get into running.”
“Getting into” is a bit of an understatement.
Blackford has run marathons all over the United States and in several dozen he has served as a pacer. Pacer? These veteran runners run at a set pace so that someone who wants to finish in, let’s say, 4 hours, or 4 hours and 15 minutes, and so on, can connect with and run with the appropriate pacer and all the other runners who want to run at this pace. An instant community of runners is created.
Favorite marathon memories
It involves being a pacer at several marathons, including the Columbus Marathon. Blackford volunteered to create the Striding Sliders Pace Team (sponsored by White Castle) for the local marathon more than 20 years ago and it’s still going strong – and on pace.
“I’ve had the opportunity to help thousands of people and at the end of the day, every time, at Mile 23, I get choked up,” he said of pacing other runners. “The emotion hits me that all these people are about to achieve their dreams and their goals, they’re going to make it to the finish  … and it’s been overwhelming at times, and I was flat-out crying. That sticks with me to this day.”
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