Every triathlete, cyclist and runner knows the possibility exists that their big race could be derailed.
It’s why they check the weather forecast obsessively for excessive heat or severe storms. It’s why they avoid crowds and colds, new foods and supplements that might make them sick. It’s why they invest in physical therapy to treat injuries.
Even still, the most driven and disciplined athlete knows there is always a risk of circumstances they cannot control to wreck race day.
But canceling a race because of miserably poor cooperation and collaboration between elected officials and event planners is never on that athlete’s list.
It has to be now.
If you’re a runner, how willing would you be to sign up for a big Milwaukee marathon or half marathon next year, the year after, or ever again?
The decision to cancel Milwaukee Lakefront Marathon 2022 on Friday, a scant 22 days before the starting gun was to sound has now marred the city’s reputation for willingness and capability to host such events. Everyone should be wary — runners, event planners, sponsors and volunteers.
A troubled history with the Milwaukee Marathon
Milwaukee has had its problems with a marathon race the last five years — but it was the other race. There are two, and they are often confused.
In 2015, Milwaukee Marathon was created — the first entirely within the city limits, then called the PNC Milwaukee Marathon. But in 2016, with a new route, there were issues with the course markings, so the lead pack of runners faced a course marked too long and some athletes — including women’s winner Denise Manthy — ran at least a mile or two longer than 26.2.
The next year was a disaster; the course was again marked erroneously by a race planning company, but this time it was short, at 25.4 miles, for all participants.
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Despite new ownership and leadership, changes in location, the Milwaukee Marathon was doomed thereafter. In 2018 and 2019, the race moved to the spring so it would not compete with Lakefront Marathon, but in 2020 it was canceled due to the pandemic and faced issues by the city for 2021.
This year it just ghosted everyone and vanished.
Despite all those issues, the running community felt reassured that they still had the Lakefront Marathon (LFM) to count on. This is a very different race, that only ends in Milwaukee, but it is still called ‘Milwaukee’ Lakefront Marathon and often confuses almost everybody.
Standing on a respected reputation of four successful decades, Lakefront Marathon had a point-to-point, declining elevation route starting in Grafton and ending in Milwaukee and it was only shut down in 2020, like everything else, due to the coronavirus pandemic. Its return last year with a new finish-line location was triumphant. Runners love the possibility for PR times on this route and racing behind incredible volunteer turnouts.
After months of planning, cancellation of Lakefront Marathon 2022 was a shock to many
But when construction projects forced the 2022 race to either be postponed or rerouted, LFM hosting running group, Badgerland Striders, and LFM race director Scott Stauske, accepted the challenge and began exploring options for a new route.
After working on it for months, Stauske felt comfortable enough in June that he had the right permits, permission and written or verbal agreements to announce the new LFM route.
So, the announcement on Sept. 10 of a cancellation led to all the reaction stages: shock, panic, and anger.
Stauske hasn’t returned messages yet seeking comment but another respected and well-known area race director, Sean Osborne of Silver Circle Sports Events, did share some perspective of how challenging it is to put on a marathon.
Osborne works as race director or race timer for at least 70 events a year, which was one of the few people who found a safe way to race during the pandemic, and is constantly dealing with event planning challenges. (When reached on Friday, in fact, he was scrambling to find a new shuttle bus company for his own runners at an upcoming race after the first existing company abruptly canceled.)
Several factors led to cancellation of the Lakefront Marathon, including grievances about road closures
LFM was canceled because of rerouting issues, memories of previous complaints from Milwaukee area residents and business owners about closed down streets and challenges in staffing the event with Milwaukee police. Osborne wasn’t surprised.
Osborne only has one race in Milwaukee this year — the Milwaukee River Challenge 5K and 2-mile walk this week.
“I’m sure there will be some residents that call the city, they’re not happy about that. The city is the one that takes the brunt,” said Osborne.
“But generally speaking, if we’re closing a road, we notify people. We send post cards. We create a resident website and we give them traffic ingress and egress into different neighborhoods and how they can get around. If I was a resident , I’d be pretty angry if somebody closed down my road and didn’t tell me.”
Osborne said it’s different for him planning an event in a city of 10,000 compared to a Milwaukee marathon; he can hope for less aggravation from unhappy residents, especially when he notifies everyone.
Osborne volunteered at the finish line of the Lakefront Marathon last year, knowing that every race is in desperate need for staffers to make an event successful.
Osborne said the issue of finding enough police was a factor for him too for races.
“There definitely is a shortage; I’m sure they’re short on cops,” said Osborne. “I mean, we are short on cops out here in Oconomowoc.
“I feel bad for the athlete, that first time athlete that has trained all this time, and all of a sudden the carpet is pulled out from underneath them, and they’re freaking out right now,” said Osborne. “Looking for another race on runningintheusa.com trying to find a race to go to fit in their schedule. And that’s awesome.
“It’s equally awful that we’re less than a month away from a major marathon in a major metropolitan city and canceled because of permits. And I am not blaming the Striders by any means.
“Why can’t we get our act together Milwaukee and get permits done? I don’t know why or what but it’s ridiculous that this isn’t the first time it’s happened. It’s not just the Striders. It’s almost as though Milwaukee is saying, ‘we don’t want it.'”
LFM isn’t the only one. Ben’s Cycle had to cancel a recent cyclocross race at Kosciuszko Park—with the proceeds that would have been donated to Downs Syndrome Association of Wisconsin. Why? Because Milwaukee wouldn’t grant a permit that was requested in March and again in the late spring months of April and May.
“It’s true,” said Ben’s Cycle owner Vince Hanoski. “It sucks. That park has 10,000 acres and the only other event they had that day took up a 50-by-50 area.”
Hanoski said the race — Cross Shooshko — is a long-standing event. It was never an issue before, at least not pre-pandemic. Hanoski even brought the Milwaukee city permit rep donuts occasionally, as a friendly reminder.
“I don’t think the city parks want us in their parks anymore,” said Hanoski.
A possible marathon in the western suburbs as a Lakefront replacement?
In response to the cancellation, Osborne pulled permit requests on Friday and is attempting to put together a cheap marathon of his own on the same day for runners who still want an area marathon. If he can pull it off (and get enough volunteers) it would be in the western suburbs like Oconomowoc or Summit; it would be $30 and the proceeds would go to the group’s charitable foundation. Osborne hopes to know for sure by Tuesday.
About:Silver Circle Sports Events, LLC
Meanwhile, several running clubs have vowed to band together on October 2nd at South Shore Park to run a timed 5k, 10k, half and full marathon. Volunteers from OMG, November Project and Badgerland Striders said in a Facebook post they will have aid stations, a marked and measured course race bibs and after-party.
Exactly how many written and phone complaints come from the Third Ward, which seems to have blossomed in population growth not only with condo and apartment residents but also small businesses.
How many cops do not want to work these events, regardless of shortages? I’ve seen angry, argumentative drivers approach barricades and the police guarding them near the finish line of Al’s Run when it was by the Italian Community Center, and it was scary and uncomfortable.
I wonder if the city thinks that 3,300 total registered runners for the marathon, half marathon and 5K races is an insignificant group?
And I wonder if the smattering of other runners I overheard at races and fundraisers, and read their comments on social media, who mocked the Milwaukee Marathon for its troubles are humbled now, maybe with a new appreciation for how difficult it is to run a marathon with significant miles traversing through Milwaukee.
I do know this:
Stauske began working on a new route starting last November; the city started collaboration in March.
The route issue was the toughest on South 1st St., which would have locked residents and business patrons in an area for several hours Sunday morning between the marathon route and Lake Michigan’s shores. The city needs open routes not just for these people but emergency vehicles.
Stauske thought he had verbal approval to work with the MPD and DPW in June to go ahead with race plans for October and announced it in an interview.
Marathon organizers have faced challenges in Milwaukee
And he is not the first race director to face challenges by the city; I’ve heard this from three former Milwaukee Marathon organizers as well as race directors from one other event, all the complaints off the record or on background. Why? It’s of no use for a race director to go public with their grievances because they want to keep the potential for future races in Milwaukee open.
I do know that past issues have affected racing forever: a cardiac death on the Hoan Bridge in the Summerfest Rock ‘n Sole; the bombings at the Boston Marathon; the devastating Waukesha Christmas parade last year. The need for staff, security and barricades to safely hold a race is a major challenge for an event planner.
It won’t be fair, but the general public will look at this latest LFM cancellation as just another gaffe by the city that can’t get its act together, even though these were two marathons with two different problems.
There are certainly challenges to host an event like this and maybe Milwaukee has too many others to deal with right now. But when Milwaukee’s tourism bureau and public relations team works with officials like the City Council and is presented with a chance to bring the community together from near and far corners of the state, to shine and showcase its natural resources and it’s civic pride, it should take it This was a disaster.
Instead, every runner now will think twice about ever signing up for one of these marathons again. All those hours dedicated to training, all that money invested in the planning and travel, all that mental preparation down the drain — not because of weather or adversity or injury, but because of Milwaukee’s wretched track record when it comes to city marathons.
Message Lori Nickel on Twitter at @LoriNickel, Instagram at @bylorinickel or Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ChinUpLoriNickel