Prime Living: Ken Akin keeps rolling amid 'a lot of good memories'

·4 min read

Feb. 16—A few bicyclists around Aiken County may log more mileage than Ken Akin from week to week, but at age 80, the Savannah River Site retiree is in a class by himself.

Some local residents know him as an employee at Lionel Smith Ltd., helping customers find their way through hundreds of wardrobe options on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Others may remember his time at the nuclear site, where he was a control-room operator and supervisor, working from the 1980s until 2001.

Much more recently, he is likely to be visible for just a few seconds, staying fit by taking his carbon-fiber bicycle ("all the bells and whistles") out for hundreds of Aiken County miles each month. The preference is to be "away from the heavy traffic," he confirmed.

"I keep a book on my mileage, each time I ride, and sometimes I can get up to 175 miles, but normally it's probably 100-125 ... where I'd be comfortable and have the time," he said.

"Comfortable" may be a relative term in Akin's case, as his life's major adventures included a variety of marathons, from coast to coast, as well as qualifying for a full-scale Ironman triathlon (2.4 miles of open-water swimming, 112 miles of road bicycling and 26.2 miles of road running, in that order) and also taking part in a trans-America bicycle ride.

The coast-to-coast trip, in early August 1993, had him and three friends set off from Irvine, California, as a relay team working in two-hour shifts and aiming to keep rolling until they reached the Atlantic Ocean, in Savannah, Georgia.

"Our strongest rider on the course, that first night, he crashed and broke his hip, so he was not able to ride, so then it was three of us kind of picking up the slack. Every four hours, it was your time back on the bike. We ended up averaging right at 17 miles an hour, for the whole trip across America," he said, recalling that his squad finished fifth among the nine participating teams.

Akin's fitness journey took an odd turn at age 33, when he was working at a clothing store in Kalmia Plaza and a shoplifter headed out the door with a leather coat. Akin gave chase onto a nearby golf course — off the course and on again.

"Finally, he dropped my coat, and I got back to the store and I had to lay down on the floor for probably an hour and a half," Akin said. "I was toasted, and so that's when I started running, and I ran just for fitness, and then I got involved in the road-racing part of it, qualified for the Boston Marathon, ran Boston like seven times, I think, ran the Chicago Marathon," and banged out 26.2-mile challenges again and again in locales ranging from Washington, D.C., to San Diego and Anchorage, Alaska, he said.

Akin also became a coach in the Team in Training program, a fundraising component of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. "I would take a group of people that wanted to run a marathon, and I would train them ... and take them to a marathon and make sure that all of them finished," he said.

"I never did have a team that didn't finish. Every person finished. There were times when I had to run back out and meet with them and make sure they were running, and give them encouragement."

His home team, based on Berkley Street, near South Boundary Avenue, includes his wife, Janice, who retired in 1996 as the assistant to the comptroller of Aiken County's public schools, and their family tree now includes two daughters, one grandson and one granddaughter.

Akin, a couple of generations ago, logged plenty of mileage with help from Uncle Sam, as a member of the Navy's air corps. He was a mechanic, based in San Francisco from 1963 to 1966, with two cruises to Vietnam as part of the package.

"My primary job was on the flight deck. When the planes were getting ready to be launched, we'd make sure that everything was working properly before they got off to fly sorties over Vietnam."

Akin has also found some encouragement through a longtime friendship with one of Aiken's most prominent businessmen: Lionel Smith, the namesake of the men's clothing store on Laurens Street. They have known each other since the 1960s.

"Ken Akin is essentially family — almost like a brother to me," Smith said, in a 2020 Aiken Standard interview. "He and I started together in 1966 at Manning Owens (clothing store). He was just home from Vietnam, and I was from just across the street at Belk ... Everybody is like family. All of our personnel have been here forever."

Smith, whose background includes thousands of miles of bicycling over decades, was also one of Akin's companions on the road. "Ken and I started running about the same time," Smith said. "Ken's always been a real athlete. We got started and ran for about 30 years and then biked for probably another 15 or 20 years. A lot of good memories."