Runners test limitations within the city's limits


The lean-and-hungry look that used to characterize those who ran marathons disappeared rather quickly yesterday, after only a few score of the 6,000 runners in the inaugural Baltimore Marathon had passed by. It was replaced by a seemingly endless parade that displayed the full panoply of the human condition.

Those who left PSINet Stadium just after 8:30 a.m. - planning to return three, four, five, six, seven or more hours later - came in all shapes and sizes and motivations for propelling themselves around a 26.2 mile, counterclockwise loop of the city.

There were the earnest joggers and the charity walkers, the costume wearers and balloon carriers and sign holders, and the countless Moms and Dads and brothers and sisters who were heroes to spouses and family, proudly holding signs of encouragement and offering cheers and water bottles along the way. One man went the full distance skipping rope.

A small army of city police ensured that, for this one day, runners were the kings and queens of the road: Huge lines of impatient cars and trucks were brought to a halt when a limping walker doing, at best, a 12-minute-per-mile pace entered an intersection.

The traffic problems were to be expected as the course cut across the city's main north-south thoroughfares between Harford Road and Roland Avenue, including York Road and North Charles Street. But the jams were probably worse than anticipated, as plans to close off one lane of some streets on the course and let traffic pass on the other were stymied by the sheer volume of participants who took over almost every road they traveled.

There was still a chill in the air when the entrants, after some words of encouragement from Mayor Martin O'Malley - whose wife, Katie, was among the runners - heard the starting horn and headed north on Russell Street by Camden Yards. But within a couple of miles, many were shedding gloves and sweat shirts and long-sleeve T-shirts that could be found strewn alongside Pratt and President and Fleet streets.

"This is just wonderful," O'Malley said, as the runners passed behind him, taking more than five minutes for all to cross the starting line. "This is what a city is all about."

In Fells Point, rock music blasted from open windows on the top floor of a row home. At the corner of Highland Avenue and Monument Street, an impromptu gospel choir provided a dose of inspiration. On Parkside Drive alongside Herring Run Park, a woman sang an a cappella rendition of "America the Beautiful," drawing applause from the passing participants. A bit further along, a group of percussionists banged bells and blocks and drums as they cheered runners.

Along Walther Boulevard, Ken Fox applauded constantly as the runners passed. "At first, everyone was saying 'Thank you,' but these people seem too tired for that," he said. Fox, a native of Baltimore, had come in from Pittsburgh to cheer on his sister Kristy Morrison. "I've got a brother who does triathlons, a sister who runs marathons. This is what I do," he said, still applauding as he looked for Kristy. "I just hope my hands hold out."

The short, steep climbs of Edison Highway and Walther Boulevard gave way to long uphill stretches along Northern Parkway where spectators were sparse. But just past the halfway point, near Loch Raven Boulevard, Michael Brooks and his mother, Estelle Logan, cheered every runner as they awaited Michael's 26-year-old daughter, Okeysha Brooks, who was up from Washington.

"It's great to see so many people out here doing something good," Michael Brooks said.

By that time, almost everyone going by was walking, but his mother was still quite impressed. "Nobody is giving up," she said. "They are all going to make it."

"Here she comes," Michael announced, spotting Okeysha, who was running for one of the many charities, by the mismatched bands around her knees. "She's doing fine. She'll start running again when it gets downhill up ahead."

The assurance of "it's all downhill from here" was given to runners from the halfway point on. It was a cruel joke to many. Certainly overall there was an elevation drop as the course returned to the Inner Harbor. But along the way, there were climbs on Northern Parkway, on Lake Avenue, on Roland Avenue and a long uphill stretch into Druid Hill Park before the course headed down for good.

Meg Wright said she had left her home in Homeland and settled in along Northern Parkway to await the runners when she learned they were on Lake Avenue. So, she came over and parked herself in the middle of Roland Avenue where, perhaps, the biggest crowds cheered.

"I heard on TV that they needed encouragement. So, that's why I came out," she said. "It's just fun to see folks try to take on a challenge." She had been joined by Kelly Stith, who came out to encourage a coworker but had become mesmerized by the passing parade.

Back at the distance's halfway point, almost two hours after 24-year-old winner Luka Cherono of Kenya finished at about 2 hours, 20 minutes, race workers started packing up the strips that recorded times from the computer chip each entrant had on a shoelace. There were still a dozen or so approaching in earnest walks.

At the rear was Christine Morin, joined in the buddy system of her training group in Washington to Sheryl Witherspoon, who was struggling to keep going.

"I had no idea this city was so beautiful," Morin said. "I thought we would just be passing through warehouses and industrial areas and city stuff. The neighborhoods were great."

Morin said she didn't mind their position in the race.

"The only people to get a police escort are the ones in the front and us," she said, though at that moment there was no sign of the police and she was a bit concerned about the traffic that had grown impatient with paying attention to the orange cones.

Reached later on her cell phone, Morin said she and Witherspoon were passing by the 22-mile point at Druid Hill Park, headed for finishing 8 1/2 hours after their departure.

"It's a beautiful spot," she said from the reservoir in the park. "All the kids want to slap hands with us. This is a great city. I had no idea."

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