And then there were none.
Milwaukee is without a major marathon again in 2022, and this time, the pandemic isn’t to blame. The Badgerland Striders Running Club, organizer of the long-running Milwaukee Lakefront Marathon, announced last week it is canceling the Oct. 2 race with less than a month to go, saying the nonprofit club couldn’t resolve challenges in staging a new course for the marathon and a new half marathon through the heart of the city.
If this feels like deja vu, it should. A year ago, runners who registered for the Milwaukee Marathon – a larger event but one with a short, checkered history – received an email exactly a month before the Oct. 23 race day saying the event had been canceled “despite months of working with the city of Milwaukee on necessary approvals.” Efforts to bring the Milwaukee Marathon back in April failed. Brew City Half Marathon added a marathon distance this year in April, in a race run almost entirely on the Oak Leaf Trail, though only a few dozen runners registered for the full distance.
Milwaukee also was without a marathon in 2020, when the pandemic forced cancellation of both races. The latest cancellation is renewing concerns about whether Milwaukee is welcoming enough or equipped to host a major running race like these on its central streets – let alone two large city marathons in the same year.
Course issues have weighed heavily on both races, but in different ways. Since 2015, the Milwaukee Marathon’s reputation has been marred by race length errors, changes of corporate ownership and permitting issues. Then in 2021, organizers failed to secure permission from the county to close Lincoln Memorial Drive, and alternative routes weren’t available. And for a race run entirely within city limits, Milwaukee was unwilling to commit city police to the course, in case the Brewers made a deep playoff run that October.
Lakefront Marathon, first run in 1981, is well-established, but its traditional point-to-point wasn’t possible this year because of construction on and around I-43 in the northern suburbs. “Since November 2021, when we learned that our beloved Grafton to Milwaukee course was no longer going to be an option due to multi-year construction, our goal was to bring a major running event to the shores of Milwaukee that we, residents, spectators and of course runners could be proud of for years to come,” the Striders said in a letter to registrants on Sept. 9 that also was posted to Facebook.
Race organizers considered more than a dozen possible routes before settling on one that, they said, had been “verbally approved” by city officials. “Unfortunately, we faced hurdles that we simply could not overcome, including ongoing changes and demands to route safety and security measures, governmental procedures and timelines and city vendor staffing shortages.” The Striders are offering registrants full refunds.
Fox 6 reported receiving a statement from Milwaukee Police that the department had not heard from race organizers since June – which may sound surprising, given how much police presence is needed to stage such an event. The Badgerland Striders also would have needed course clearance from the Department of Public Works and, ultimately, the Common Council. Without those clearances, coordination with police would have been a moot point.
In a comment on Facebook, Kristine Hinrichs, a well-known former Lakefront Marathon race director, alluded to some of the ever-present challenges of organizing such a large event through Downtown Milwaukee.
“In my 13 years as race director I had many conversations with Milwaukee officials about a potential LFM half-marathon on a city course,” Hinrichs said. “In those discussions I learned how lucky LFM was to be ‘grandfathered’ on its course as (at that time) every intersection on any new course would have to be barricaded and protected by one (usually two) police officers. This was obviously an expensive and manpower intensive problem to overcome.”
The Striders, given their longevity, appear to be getting the benefit of the doubt from local runners in their Facebook reactions. They’re generally pointing blame instead at the city.
“This is ridiculous,” Mark Edmund commented. “A city of Milwaukee’s size should be able to handle and accommodate an event like this.”
John Sajdak, however, expressed frustration with the Striders for promising and then failing to deliver, especially given how prominently the club had announced its new course in June, including a Hoan Bridge crossing.
“Four months of training. 700 miles run looking to qualify for Boston. And you didn’t have a contract signed for the event with the changes? Absolute garbage. That’s putting it politely,” Sajdak said. “This was my favorite run. Have done it for years. Lost all confidence. Give people the information on where you are actually at and let them decide. You oversold and underdelivered.”
In a recent internal Department of Public Works email provided to Milwaukee Magazine by a department spokesman, city officials address some of the challenges in accommodating such events, particularly the request for an extended closure of South First Street.
“We have been working with the Milwaukee Lakefront Marathon organizers since March to make this event happen,” the memo says. “The difficulty is many marathons, bike races, parades and other larger scale events create traffic closures, difficulties for traffic to maneuver around the route and inconveniences to residents and businesses.” Closure of South First Street “landlocks businesses [and] hundreds of residents between the marathon route and the lake.”
The traffic control plan submitted by race organizers on Aug. 30 did not identify detours or explain how the race would implement a “rolling opening” of South First Street. Without those issues resolved, “there is not time to have this approved through the Council cycle by October 2.”
The Badgerland Striders, in addition to offering full refunds within the next couple weeks, has suggested alternative races for those still hoping to get in a marathon next month. They also offered the option of running a “virtual” Lakefront Marathon and receiving the race’s number bib and T-shirt for $35.
“As volunteers putting on a race for you to enjoy, we are as devastated by this news as you are,” the race’s cancellation email says.