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Ryan Corby, Becca Addison win the 2021 Detroit Free Press Marathon

By Steve Kornacki
Special to The Detroit News

Detroit — Some finished by punching the air with a joyous fist. Others came across the finish line of the 2021 Detroit Free Press Marathon as a group, arms locked. Some held hands, one woman fighting blisters was shoeless, and one husband carried his wife across the line while both laughed.

One finisher danced, another waved a large U.S. flag, while one man imitated a baseball player — Magglio Ordonez? — hitting a home run. Ken Higgins, a disabled Vietnam Veteran, wheeled to the finish.

Ryan Corby of Novi crosses the finish line to win the men's Detroit Free Press Marathon in 2:22:03.

There were close to 14,000 entrants in the various Saturday and Sunday races connected to the headlining marathon. They finished in different styles, drastically different times and with different stories of overcoming the odds of completing the 26.2- and 13.1-mile endurance tests Sunday morning.

However, all had one thing in common: pure joy.

The race took place virtually last year, and the entries were down from 26,000 in 2019. But the state’s largest celebration of distance running was back as part of one long street party through Motown.

The Spartans and Wolverines both came up big winners in this one, too.

Ryan Corby, a Michigan State graduate from Novi, won the overall race and men’s portion in a time of 2 hours, 22 minutes and 3 seconds.

Becca Addison, who ran for the University of Michigan and now works at Harvard, captured the women’s division in 2:51.08.

Corby triumphs 23 years after first try

He was running track and field at Armada High, located about 45 miles north of Detroit, when Corby got the inclination to run his first Detroit Free Press Marathon. He trained on the track at his school, admitting he had no idea of what would be effective.

Corby said his time was “3:54 or 3:56” back in 1998, but this year he shaved more than 90 minutes off that first effort. He often rises at 4:35 a.m., to run before going to work as a design engineer and manager in the automotive industry.

“It’s something that almost can’t be described,” Corby, who lives in Novi, said of winning. “I feel blessed. ... It’s almost unfathomable. I ran this when I was 16. I’m 39 now, and this is my 10th marathon, and I’m really happy that this was here in Detroit. It’s a hometown event for me.”

It also was a family affair. His wife, Ana, ran the marathon, too. So did his sister-in-law, Amy Corby. Brother Rod Corby did the half marathon. He appreciated the support of his wife and two children in his efforts to train with sometimes as many as 115 miles per week. He thought of them when the pain got to him for “motivation” to keep striding.

He also was inspired by the sunrise that came between the fifth and six miles.

“It was beautiful,” he said. “It’s rare to start a race when it’s this dark, but I train a lot in the dark.”

Corby, winner of the Glass City Marathon in Toledo in April, ran alone after the halfway point of the endurance test that began with temperatures in the mid-40s and ended in the bright sunshine on Fort Street, just across from the Anchor Bar.

“It was a bit lonely,” said Corby, the marathon’s first winner from Michigan since 2016. “There are all kinds of mental and physiological phases you go through, and it was really tough.”

His thoughts upon reaching the finish line:

“I was surprised that I could win and pull this off. A lot of physical pain. I couldn’t wait to cross it for the pain to be over. But, you know, it’s temporary. Pain goes away, and in this case it’s well worth it.”

Corby dropped to his knees on the asphalt road briefly after finishing.

The event was run entirely in Detroit for the third time in 44 years, this time due to travel restrictions to Canada in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Corby added, “Next year, maybe. I’m sure it’ll be open then. I liked doing the bridge and coming through the tunnel, and going to Canada. But it was a certain specialty in having it in the U.S. only this year.”

Addison, Big Ten & state champion

Becca Addison, crosses the finish line to win the women's Detroit Free Press Marathon in 2:51:08.***Detroit (Free Press) Marathon., October 17, 2021,Detroit, MI, (Clarence Tabb, Jr./The Detroit News)

Addison attended last Monday’s Boston Marathon with a purpose.

“I went to the finish line there last week to kind of get inspired,” said Addison, 30, who lives in Somerville, Mass., and is a sports dietician at Harvard. “But I was really excited to come to Detroit. I was more excited about that because it’s closer to home.”

Addison won both the 1,600- and 800-meter state championships for Grand Haven High in 2008, and repeated the next year in the 800.

She was a seven-time Big Ten champion and six-time All-America at Michigan, where she was part of the national champion distance medley relay that set a school record of 10:56.46 at the 2013 NCAA Indoor Championships. 

Addison credited Wolverines women’s cross country and distance running coach Mike McGuire.

“He was just so impactful to my running there,” said Addison, a two-time team captain, “and I also ran with him after college. He was so supportive.”

Addison said she took the lead on Belle Isle, roughly three miles from the finish where family and friends awaited.

“It was really cool to see my parents,” she said of Ron and Sue Addison, “and my friends. So, that helped a lot. I felt really good early on and just kind of went with it.

“And by the time I finished, it was really exciting. I loved the course. My boyfriend is from Detroit and so I ran all the areas on the loop. To see the whole city made it really exciting.” 

Addison said she initially was “disappointed” in not running to Windsor in a truly international event, but added, “When I saw the course, I thought it was really awesome.”

Higgins overcomes

The medal for finishing was placed around his neck by a race volunteer, and Higgins smiled while wiping sweat from his face. The 68-year-old from Dacula, Georgia, didn’t know his time, but knew he had accomplished something special.

“Unfortunately, I had some mechanical problems,” Higgins said. “But I made it in one gear. Hey, last time I raced here, I got a flat tire.”

He chuckled and shook his head.

Higgins wheeled his way for 26.2 miles in a low-to-the-ground bike designed for those with lower body disabilities, pedaling with his arms. The Vietnam veteran said he suffered brain and spinal injuries during the war, and was one of 22 members of the Achilles Freedom Team comprised of veterans and sponsored by General Motors.

They travel around the country doing top marathons in New York City, Boston, Chicago and elsewhere.

“Doing this is addictive,” Higgins said. “It helps you forget your injuries and pain. This is the best race, and it’s great for all the vets who have overcome so much, hearing the crowd behind us, calling our names.”

It’s all about finding a way to the finish line, and every runner had a special story about reaching it. Some were just more special than others.

Steve Kornacki is a freelance writer.