Nickel: Runners and volunteers at Not Lakefront Marathon show Milwaukee wants a big marathon event

Runners compete in the Not Lakefront Marathon on Oct. 2
Runners compete in the Not Lakefront Marathon on Oct. 2

An hour after the Milwaukee Lakefront Marathon was canceled, runner Claudia Dominguez called the organizer for Milwaukee Running Group – otherwise known as OMG – and simply said, what are we going to do?

"And I said, what we are going to do...?” replied Patrick Bieser, stunned by the news and then the question. “And she said, 'Yes. Do something.'

“And I said, 'OK, well, sure… we'll do a marathon. How hard could that be?' ”

And that was how the miracle of the Not Lakefront Marathon came about last Sunday, Oct. 2, the day of the original race, which was canceled 22 days earlier over planning problems with the organizers and the City of Milwaukee.

The Not Lakefront Marathon avoided all that with a grassroots, just-show-up effort. The organizers set up a starting line right by the beer garden at South Shore Terrace and continued southbound on the Oak Leaf Trail for 6.55 miles, until the runners turned around and ran back for the half marathon. The marathon runners repeated this out-and-back route twice to get their 26.2 miles.

It’s a gorgeous path on the lakefront along new condominium development and winding through trees, with stunning views of the beach and bluff in places.

But the turnout for the Not Lakefront Marathon was even more impressive: 700-800 runners representing 20 states, with a few out-of-country runners. There were distances of 5K and 10k as well. But there's more.

– Runners received official bibs, commemorative shirts and finisher medals.

– 400 volunteers worked as registration officials, course marshals and at water stations

– 9 aid stations were staffed by running groups November Project, Badgerland Striders and OMG

– Medical people were on standby to respond to no emergencies

– One member of the city of South Milwaukee fire chief’s staff was dispatched to “roll the trail” on a bike to keep an eye on the runners

– Port- A-Potties were rented and plentiful

– A massage therapist volunteered to help at the finish line

– Untold amounts of beer were donated for the finish line, as well as milk, donuts, chocolate and bananas

And there was only one slightly taken-aback representative from the FBI building right on the trail in St. Francis.

“We let them know that we were running through and were going to block the building,” said Bieser. “He said, what? It took him about 30 seconds to understand and he was OK with it.”

The Not Lakefront Marathon expense was $3,000, which was covered by donations.

Everyone, it seemed, stepped up to contribute something.

“I likened it to the stone soup story,” said Bieser.

It was a remarkable day considering the anger, frustration and bitterness that had developed after the Sept. 10 cancellation of the Milwaukee Lakefront Marathon.

“It's a beautiful place, and lots of people mentioned how beautiful the course was,” said Bieser. “People came in from different states; there were a couple of international travelers. They all had the ‘Lakefront’ on their calendars, and it was canceled and then probably within a day or two they heard that we came up with an alternative.”

OMG, in its 11th year, has more than 3,000 members – and growing after the run last Sunday. They host 15 organized runs per week and are inclusive to all abilities.

“And we welcome new members, slow members,” said Bieser. “People always say, Oh, I can't come to the run because I'm too slow. Oh my God. Just stop. There's lots and lots of people like you that are slow and they'd love to run with somebody else.

“We have morning people and night people, people doing long distance and short distance. It's just a great way to make connections and encourage each other. There's just wonderful friendship and fellowship. So come on over.”

OMG made it look easy, but don't be fooled. This was a herculean effort by so many volunteers and thankfully it went smoothly.

After the Milwaukee Lakefront Marathon cancellation, representatives from the City of Milwaukee reached out to hosting group Badgerland Striders and race director Scott Stauske in a last-ditch effort to reinstate the marathon within a day.

“But in the end, my team felt there was too much time lost for planning and not sending the wrong message to those who were already planning for the future,” Stauske wrote in an email message. “I have reached out to the City with thoughts of how we can collaborate more effectively.”

The future of the Lakefront Marathon is unclear, but Stauske said he had been busy with responding to more than 1,000 runners by dealing out refunds, or teaming up with OMG in the last month.

While the turnout for Not Lakefront Marathon was impressive, what about everyone else? It was a fraction of the 3,300 runners who were originally signed up for the Lakefront Marathon.

Runners looked for other marathon options

Many jumped over to Silver Circle Sports Events' Non-Cancelled Marathon (Fall edition) in Oconomowoc. This marathon was created in the past, in the spring, when the pandemic and other marathons had been canceled, and it was revived at the last minute again when the Lakefront Marathon was abruptly shut down.

“There was a pretty decent crowd, many from Lakefront, ” said veteran runner Stephanie Graf, who was supposed to do her third Milwaukee Lakefront Marathon – this time the half marathon distance.

“Not racing wasn’t an option. I trained far enough to throw it away. Silver Circle does an excellent job with races and this was no different. I’m glad I had the opportunity to put the training to use.”

An additional 200 runners also took advantage of a special discount coupon from the Twin Cities Marathon to switch races altogether.

One of them was Jack Hackett, a former runner at Marquette University and now coach who was intending to make his marathon debut. Instead he hustled up to Minneapolis last Sunday, clocking in at 2 hours 47 minutes and taking 68th place overall.

"Jack had to make a trip five hours north, but I think he would agree that his race turned out very well for his debut marathon," said his running friend, Scott Kasten, who was scheduled to run the Lakefront half marathon. "And he is definitely one of the faster individuals who I think had to make that pivot up to the north there."

It’s a credit to the running community and the kind of resiliency found in runners, as well as all the volunteers who make it happen.

"People kept posting on social media: We're making lemonade out of lemons," said Kasten, who was set to run in the Chicago Marathon on Oct. 9. "It was a bad situation, or an unfortunate situation, and it ended up being very positive for a lot of people."

Added Hackett: "The runner mentality is to put your head down and just get it done. So we pivoted and figured it out. I just kind of wish I wasn't racing so I could have helped with the Not Lakefront marathon."

Downfall of the Milwaukee Lakefront Marathon

As for the collapse of the 2022 Milwaukee Lakefront Marathon, one month later, there still appears to be plenty of blame to go around.

More: Nickel: Athletes feeling betrayed after course hangups in Milwaukee result in Lakefront Marathon 2022 cancellation

Construction in the North Shore forced changes in the long-standing marathon route that started in Grafton and ended in Milwaukee. The City of Milwaukee took a lot of criticism for not accommodating the Badgerland Striders and organizers in the efforts to re-route this year from Milwaukee to the South Shore communities.

Milwaukee officials would not cut off a neighborhood for the sake of the marathon and would not accept unanswered questions about details, like when barricades would be removed, and what exact involvement would city police have.

Milwaukee faces similar challenges for the national Age Group Triathlon Championships or Al’s Run – for example, Discovery World doesn't like being cut off from public access during those events.

And while the City of Milwaukee was aware that the Striders are a volunteer-driven organization (the race director does draw a salary, however), there were too many unresolved issues for 2022.

“The complication comes in organizing an event in a way that meets the basic safety requirements, and the needs of the entire community – not just the participants,” City of Milwaukee spokesman Jeff Fleming said. “It requires a level of experience and sophistication. Unfortunately all the pieces were not in place this year to pull off the marathon.

“City staff did work with organizers, but in the end there were so many loose ends that needed to be taken care of on the part of the organizers that it was just not possible to answer all the of questions in the short length of time that remained.”

Organizing a marathon is a major undertaking

Perhaps no one understands more than Christ Ponteri, the former race director of the other event in Milwaukee from 2015-19, the Milwaukee Marathon. His creation was a multi-race race bonanza within the streets of Milwaukee with the crown jewel being the marathon distance, and he said there is an enormous amount of work that goes into getting the approval of a route.

In an email, this is what Ponteri said:

•  I made about 15 to 20 trips to City Hall to meet with the mayor, members of the Common Council and Public Works Department to discuss the event and the route, as well as several meetings at the Police Department

•  I went before the Public Works Committee twice and Milwaukee County Parks Committee once

•  I had at least 20 meetings with various neighborhood groups and leaders of churches which were along the route

•  We entered into an Operating Agreement with the City of Milwaukee several months before the event. This agreement laid out the requirements for us to obtain our event permit. This included the amount and type of insurance we had to carry, the traffic plan, the safety plan, the neighborhood notification plan, and a timeline for all these items to be completed. These plans were very detailed and all required a significant amount of time to organize and complete.

It may be necessary for the Badgerland Striders to hire an event-planning company to organize the marathon for 2023. Or it may be necessary to pause the race altogether until construction is complete and the old route is, hopefully, made available again.

Message Lori Nickel on Twitter at @LoriNickel, Instagram at @bylorinickel or Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ChinUpLoriNickel 

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Runners and volunteers show Milwaukee wants a marathon event