Sharing miles: Akron running clubs form community through training, races

By Mandy Kraynak

Many runners wear high-tech running gear to races, but members of the Lawn Wranglers Running Club sport cotton T-shirts with iron-on logos of a push lawn mower with flames and their group name written in Sharpie. 

At the Burning River race last year, fellow runners jokingly asked them where their lawn equipment was, referencing a promotional video for the club featuring group members running with tools such as weedwackers and fertilizer spreaders. 

“We’re also goofy. We’re also kind of clownish,” said Larry O’Neil, a founder of the club. “We love the running community. We feel we’re a part of it, but we’re also kind of our own little subculture within the running community.”

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The Lawn Wranglers Running Club is one of many running clubs that make up a larger running community in Akron. Trails like the towpath and MetroParks, as well as events such as the FirstEnergy Akron Marathon, Half Marathon and relay keep everyone in Akron’s running community connected, said Michael Dilisio, the owner of the running store Second Sole Akrun. 

The Akron Marathon relay event is connected to the origin of the Lawn Wranglers Running Club and its group name. In 2010, a five-runner relay team that included a landscaper chose the team name “Lawn Wranglers,” which comes from the ‘90s comedy film Bottle Rocket. The group has grown since then, picking up steam in the past three-and-a-half to four years, O’Neil said.

The club meets in Highland Square for group runs on Wednesdays and does weekly interval sessions at Bolich Middle School, as well as trail runs on the weekends. 

The lightheartedness of the Lawn Wranglers Running Club stands out to Mike Nix, a member of the group who went to high school with O’Neil. 

“Everybody’s always rooting for everybody else — that’s the best part of it. And there’s always somebody to run with,” Nix said. 

About a decade-and-a-half ago, Bernie Rochford was running one morning with a nameless running group that had formed when two groups combined into one. As they were running along the canal, the group decided on the name Canal Rats, a name that Akron’s minor league baseball team had considered.  

The Canal Rats meet in the early hours of the morning, with weekday group runs starting between 5:20 and 5:50 a.m. 

The Friday morning runs, which are coffee Fridays, are the most popular group run days. The Canal Rats used to meet at Bruegger’s Bagels on Merriman Road. Now that the location has closed, Rochford brings carafes of coffee for the runners instead.

“There’s nothing else that can get me up at that hour of the morning other than the Canal Rats and knowing that they will always be there,” group organizer Liz Tucci said. 

The Canal Rats include runners of various levels who call themselves the “Overachieving Rats,” or “OARs,” and the “Rats of Leisure,” or “ROLs.” 

In addition to being a founding member of the Canal Rats, Rochford is also a mentor for Running2bWell’s Akron group and the president of the organization’s board. 

Running2bWell focuses on using exercise as a form of treatment for mental health struggles and addiction. The group aims to make sure that people have the support that they need to use physical activity in their recovery, which means more than just education, said Keith Johnston, the founder and executive director of Running2bWell. 

“It’s a matter of giving that support and community. That’s why we have weekly group meetings where we go out for a walk together or a run, and we make sure that people are supported and encouraged and given the tools that they need,” Johnston said. 

Part of the group’s mission is that everyone has struggles and that nobody’s left behind, Johnston said. After showing up to three group runs, participants can receive a free pair of running shoes. 

The organization will host a race called Around the Beach on Aug. 7 at Munroe Falls Metro Park, which will be a celebration of fitness and wellness as well as a 5K and one-mile walk. The race will not conclude until everyone has crossed the finish line and “that very last person is cheered on even more than the winners,” he said. 

Some running clubs participate in events such as the Akron Marathon Race Series, which consists of three events. 

This year, the 8K and one-mile race took place on June 26. The Goodyear Half Marathon and 10K will take place on Aug. 14. The series will culminate on Sept. 25 with the Akron Marathon, Half Marathon and team relay.

The Blue Line Beginners has the yearly goal of running the Akron Race Series. The club started in 2017 when, on April Fools’ Day, the Akron Beacon Journal invited beginning runners to participate in the Akron Marathon Race Series. Jennifer Kline, whose mother convinced her to participate in the series, had never run a race at the time. Now, Kline is the director of the group, which has continued to grow and participate in the race series.

The location of the group’s runs changes each month. They have been meeting at North Street in Clinton in July and are set to meet at Lock 29 in August.

Walkers are also welcome in the club, and the point is to get out and get moving, Kline said.

“People shouldn’t feel intimidated that they’re not a runner and that they can’t come to a running group, because we’re just excited you’re there, and we will help you any way we can,” she said.

The sense of community within the group extends beyond the Blue Line Beginners into the running community as a whole, which is filled with “runners helping runners,” Kline said. Last year, the Blue Line Beginners participated in the Akron Marathon’s virtual race with another group, Portage Lakes Running Club. 

Nicole Gareri-David started Portage Lakes Running Club, also known as PLX Running Club, about nine years ago. The club is open to runners of all levels, with some people running one mile or walking and others training for ultramarathons. Gareri-David wants to get rid of the misconception that running clubs are only for fast, young runners or people who run marathons.

 The club is “more of a family than just random strangers that run together,” and it already seems as if the people who just joined last year have been there forever, she said. 

“Runners kind of have a unique way of getting to know each other pretty well early on. We share miles with people. You just kind of talk about things you probably wouldn’t talk about with a normal stranger, but because they’re a runner, I feel like you trust them a little bit more,” Gareri-David said. 

Mandy Kraynak is just a writer from Akron. Reach her at mandykraynak@gmail.com.

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