DETROIT — Thousands of runners paced anxiously on the cold, brisk October morning on W. Fort Street. In the dark, donning disposable layers and gloves, the runners awaited the horn to signal the beginning of the end of their months of tireless training: the start of the Detroit Free Press/Talmer Bank Marathon.
Soon, the city’s streets filled with marathoners as thousands funneled through the starting line. Traveling over the Ambassador Bridge, into Canada, back through the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel, through Mexicantown, Corktown, Greektown, Indian Village and Belle Isle, the participants took a unique tour of the city — and a bit of a neighboring country.
Some took a shorter tour, opting for running the more manageable 13.1 miles offered for both halves of the full distance. The first half of the marathon — which runs through Canada and offers a sunrise view over the Ambassador Bridge — hosted almost 14,000 participants, and was the day’s most popular event.
Mike Andersen of Walled Lake, Mich. who coaches cross country at Milford High School, was the first to cross the marathon’s finish line in 2:24:54. Andersen overcame University alum Zach Ornelas, who won the 2013 marathon, in their final strides of the race. Ornelas, who dealt with a hip injury throughout the year, finished in 2:25:13.
The Detroit Marathon is on the rise. Hitting a record-breaking number of participants this year with 27,389 runners, the marathon is more than an event; it’s a spectacle. Sandwiched between two of the most popular marathons in the world — the Bank of America Chicago Marathon and the New York City Marathon on Oct. 12 and Nov. 2, respectively — runners have a host of options for their choice of marathon. And for Detroit, the runners keep coming.
Executive Race Director Barbara Bennage said runners represented 48 states and 19 countries. She attributed the marathon’s success to “the vibe that’s coming out of Detroit” and the appeal of the international component to the race. Despite its national draw, she said 80 percent of participants come from the Metro Detroit area.
“I think it’s people that love the city and love what’s happening to it,” Bennage said after one of her staff members handed her a paper reporting the record-breaking total of the participants.
Each runner has a specific reason for running the 13.1 or 26.2 miles. Some, as Bennage said, want to cross it off their bucket lists. Some want to set a personal record. Some want to qualify for the Boston Marathon. Others are influenced by loved ones.
Randal Brown, who lives in Detroit, decided to run the marathon after his close friend and mentor passed away. Though he did not consider himself a runner before, he completed the marathon in 3:27:39 — which beat the average marathon time for men in 2013 of 4:16:00.
“It was a lot of fun and a lot of people cheered. It’s worth it. It’s good for the city,” Brown said at the finish line, catching his breath.
Tom Claflin of Brighton, Mich. has run 20 marathons, and said the Detroit Marathon stands out due to its unique course. At age 66, Claflin started running eight years ago, and said he had the “perfect race” Sunday.
“It’s terrific,” he said. “Over the bridge with the sunrise and back through the tunnel, it’s much better than anybody who would go through the tunnel with a car would know.”
With two of his sons based in Ann Arbor, Claflin said he usually visits there more than Detroit, though he hopes to travel back to the city more often.
For Ornelas, a former member of the University’s men’s cross country team and winner of his first marathon in Detroit’s 2013 event, the spirit of Detroit drew him to the marathon for a second go. Having lived in Texas before attending the University, Ornelas said the marathon gave him a unique tour of the city that seems so far from the Ann Arbor “bubble,” as he called it.
After graduating from the School of Education, Ornelas now teaches at the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy in Detroit — a job, he said, he earned with help from his 2013 Detroit Marathon performance. The experience gave him a unique perspective of Detroit — one that students may not always see. In a survey conducted by The Michigan Daily, only 22 percent of the 230 randomly selected undergraduates said they would consider living in the city after graduation.
For many college students, Detroit’s portrayal in popular media paints a negative picture of the city. While in college, Ornelas said he found it “disheartening” when friends would make jokes about Detroit, calling it dangerous and warning others against traveling to it.
“I’d encourage students to stop talking about Detroit negatively,” he said in an interview before Sunday’s marathon. “They’re quick to do it — and that’s because that’s what we’re used to — but they need to stop.”
Ornelas said he was exposed to parts of the city by running through it that he had never seen and had previously only imagined based on the image of Detroit painted in the media.
“I got to see just how tough a lot of the people have it,” he said. “We all think we know, but it’s different once you’re there.”
Behind the finish line and throughout the race, 3,000 volunteers handed participants water, offered motivation and greeted finishers with Gatorade, water, bananas and medals.
University alum Leah Ouellet, one of the volunteers, brought high school students to help at the race. Ouellet works at buildOn — a nonprofit based in Detroit that aims to engage students with community service in the city. Ouellet said she knew she would work in Detroit immediately after graduating from the University in 2013.
“Having it happen in Detroit at this time, you can tell there are a lot of people who don’t live or work here that came down, so it’s a cool cosmopolitan event with a lot of people in the city to help with the rebranding of Detroit,” she said.
As participants recover and take a week — or many — off from running, the preparation for next year’s race has only just begun.
Daily News Editor Will Greenberg contributed reporting.