This weekend, Darris Blackford will compete in the Canal Corridor 100 Mile Endurance Run. The race, Saturday, July 8, and Sunday, July 9, will take runners through portions of the scenic Towpath Trail in Cuyahoga Valley National Park and begins and ends at Lock 3, and kicks off at 5 a.m. Blackford, a Kent State University Journalism graduate and Cuyahoga Falls native, will be among an expected field of 150 runners is anticipated. For info, visit canalway100.com or www.facebook.com/canalcorridor100.
In July 2007, I debuted as an ultra-runner when I tried my hand (or rather feet, legs, etc.) at a new 100-mile race called Burning River. Over the next few years I did the race a couple more times, plus a 100 miler in North Carolina, another in Texas, and one in Michigan.
Then, in 2013, I did the Badwater 135 (where temperatures that year in Death Valley hit 130) for my 50th birthday.
This Saturday I’ll toe the line in another new race, the Canal Corridor 100, taking place in and near Akron. Like Burning River, this one holds a lot of sentimental value, being that I was born in Akron and spent my childhood in the parks and nature areas of the region through which the race course passes.
Burning River has always held a special place in my heart, but the Canal Corridor route might have even more meaning.
It starts in downtown Akron, where before each school year my mom would take me and my brother Damon clothes shopping – on the un-air-conditioned Metro bus in August because she didn’t drive. Best part of these trips was lunch with Grandma Bodnar, who worked as a secretary for Polsky’s department store. She was a 4-foot-8-inch, 90-pound dynamo who took over raising four kids under the age of 12 when her husband died at age 38, retired at age 60-something and remained super-active but got bored, so went back to work in her 70s.
She died at age 85 when she was out for her second walk of the day and was hit by a car. I definitely got my love of long-distance foot travel from her and my Aunt Judy. When we would stay with them some weekends, we would walk everywhere – I remember a particularly long walk from their house in the Kenmore area of Akron to downtown, and back.
The running bug also came from Judy, who lived with Grandma Bodnar and was more like an older sister to us than an aunt. She took us hiking, row boating and fishing, on drives through back streets and alleys of downtown Cleveland just because, and introduced me to this thing called “jogging” back in the early 1970s.
I still remember that first run, down the sidewalk along California Avenue, not so far from where the Canal Corridor will pass in the first 20 miles.
So, I am dedicating miles 1 through 20 to Grandma Bodnar, and miles 21 through 40 (which are the same as the first 20, in reverse) to Aunt Judy. Shout-out to Uncle Mike, too, who once lived in Canal Fulton, near where the race has its first turn-around.
The next 20, from 41 to 60, are going to mom. She often walks the towpath I’ll be running and frequently visits the parks it passes through, including the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area, which we knew simply as “The Valley” as kids.
As youngsters we spent many summer days in parks such as Virginia Kendall, Deep Lock Quarry and Hampton Hills, whether with family, at Y day camp, or on bike rides as pre-teens. As a teen, I enjoyed frequent visits to the parks with my buddies with cars, and Blossom was so close that going was often a decision made late in the day when it was determined there was nothing else to do. First concert there was the Doobie Brothers, summer before ninth grade, $6 lawn tickets.
I won’t get to see it this time, but on Saturday I will twice pass by Brandywine Falls, another big part of my childhood. My parents knew Ben Richards, the owner of the land whose property included the Falls, and we often went there before it became a public place to visit.
We set pet turtles free, climbed among rocks and crossed the river, and played with Cap, the Richards’ big German Shepherd. Their house is now the B & B at Brandwine Falls. Pretty pricey for a stay or meal, I bet. We ate sandwiches in the kitchen for free. The building still standing behind the house (the Burning River route passes right between the two) is where Ben did tinkering for this idea people had of going to the moon. Yep, he worked with folks at NASA.
Miles 61 to 80 are being dedicated to my wife Star. I need her in these miles, since all of my DNFs in these crazy things happen just after mile 60. Some have been legitimate drops, like last year at Burning River when I got a leg infection of some sort and swelling and severe pain struck me down. Another time at BR I just wasn’t enjoying myself and figured it would be more fun to drop and watch Star have another great finish. It was, and she did.
She will be my crew and will inspire (at times yell at?) me to keep going, and may join me for a bit as a pacer starting just before mile 67. That includes being with me on the turnaround at mile 70 (I NEED to get to the turn!), and then on the straight shot back to downtown Akron (as straight a shot as 30 more miles can be).
The final 20 miles are being run for me, and I intend to think about the places I am passing and the people who were on my path during my life in Northeast Ohio and who are still part of my journey today.
My elementary/junior high/high school/college friends with whom I am still close, of course my brother, sister-in-law and nieces, my dad and his wife Sharon, my old neighbors, high school football teammates and coaches, and a myriad of others who helped shape me.
This might be the inaugural Canal Corridor, but for me, it is a well-worn, well-lived path I can’t wait to travel again.
Profits from this event will be donated to the Conservancy for the Cuyahoga National Park, Canalway Partners and the Ohio and Erie Canal Coalition, nonprofit organizations that oversee and help maintain the trail systems in Northeast Ohio. For info, visit canalway100.com. Facebook page: www.facebook.com/canalcorridor100.