If we’re defining Milwaukee by its sports, nobody will argue against calling it a baseball town and a basketball town. But this is also a golf town, a volleyball town and a lacrosse town. It’s a fencing town, a town for triathletes and even chess masters. Those competitions held in Milwaukee in recent years have supported the local economy and coincided with efforts to bolster the city’s reputation as a sports and event destination.
You can call it a running town, too, a marathon town – though some bothersome asterisks are attached to its two big 26.2-mile races.
The Milwaukee Lakefront Marathon is like the elder statesman of local racing, a homegrown incumbent who can be counted on to get the job done but may not live entirely in the district. Organized for 40 years by the Badgerland Striders running club, it consistently averages about 2,000 finishers. Despite the narrow geography of its name, the race most precisely can be said to run to the city, rather than through it: The course only enters Milwaukee’s city limits in mile 23 to finish on the lakefront, so most of its point-to-point course passes through the northern suburbs.
VOTE FOR MILWAUKEE’S BEST BEER!
What’s Brew City’s best? We’ve picked 16 of our favorite Milwaukee craft beers for a March Madness-style tournament, but it’s up to you to pick the winner! Will it be bright and hoppy? Dark and malty? A zippy lager? Every one is worthy of the title; who will claim the sudsy crown?
That’s a void that the Milwaukee Marathon was specifically created to fill. Starting in 2015, the multi-distance event has aimed to draw runners to Milwaukee from afar by more fully showcasing the city with a course including diverse neighborhoods and local landmarks. Its sights include the lakefront, but also Marquette University, Washington Heights, Sherman Park, Harley-Davidson’s headquarters and, as of 2019, Fiserv Forum.
If the Lakefront Marathon is the elder statesman, think of the Milwaukee Marathon as an ambitious first-termer with good intentions, plenty of energy and ideas – and a frustrating propensity for gaffes. Its short history has been marked by brief highs and stunning lows, including course length errors, changes of ownership and permitting issues.
Its long-term survival is no sure bet. The 2021 race was canceled at the eleventh hour, and this year’s race planned for April was still in question at press time, an asterisk on top of asterisks.
WHILE NEITHER EVENT could hope to rival the fanfare of a successful Bucks or Brewers playoff run, the races’ proponents argue that these public events promote healthy lifestyles, market the city to tourists, generate commercial activity on race weekends and inspire runners to push themselves.
Visit Milwaukee estimates that 45% of Milwaukee Marathon registrants have come to the city from more than 50 miles away. The economic value is easier to measure than the value of the race in promoting Milwaukee itself. “The more people hear about our city, our destination, and the wonderful things that we have to offer, the more opportunity there is for people to come visit,” says Marissa Werner, director of Visit Milwaukee’s Sports Milwaukee division.
But is the city big enough for two marathons? “They’re both very different, and I think there’s an opportunity for both to be very successful,” Werner says. “The running community is very supportive of well-run events.”
The Milwaukee Marathon’s organizers face a more pressing question: Why has it been so difficult to maintain momentum for a marquee city marathon like the ones hosted by many cities similar in size to Milwaukee?
Simply launching a new marathon entirely within the city limits was an achievement in 2015. Werner gives credit to Milwaukee Marathon’s founder, Chris Ponteri, for making it happen. His event originally was called the Milwaukee Running Festival, which included a half marathon, 5K and 1-mile race.
Ponteri, though no longer affiliated with the Milwaukee Marathon, still champions its success. Last September, however, after the current organizers canceled the 2021 race, his assessment was bleak: “I fear that this latest issue may be the final nail in the coffin for the Milwaukee Marathon,” Ponteri said in a Facebook post.
THE IDEA FOR the marathon came to Ponteri nearly a decade before it launched, when he ran the landmark-filled San Francisco Marathon in 2006. “And I’m like, oh my God, why does Milwaukee not have a marathon like this?” Ponteri says in an interview.
He didn’t have to look as far as the coasts for inspiration. Numerous mid-size Midwestern cities’ marathons have become destination races for runners. More than 4,000 marathoners a year complete the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon, and double that number for the field of half marathoners, according to online results. Both races run through the heart of the city.
In North Dakota, the Fargo Marathon offers city-centered courses at four distances. Those four combined for 12,000 finishers in 2019 – in a city with a population one fourth the size of Milwaukee’s. And closer to home, the Madison Marathon, first run in 1994, has a full marathon course that starts at Capitol Square, passes Camp Randall Stadium and spans the city from the UW Arboretum to the northeast shore of Lake Mendota. After a 2020 cancellation because of COVID-19, it returned in November 2021 with more than 3,700 finishers across four distances – the race’s biggest field in five years.
In Milwaukee, Ponteri initially had to overcome skepticism from city officials and a rivalry with the Badgerland Striders, partly stemming from the Milwaukee Running Festival being scheduled just weeks after the Striders’ Lakefront Marathon. The new festival still recorded more than 3,000 finishers in each of its first two years, but steep costs for permits, police and equipment meant the race was hardly a moneymaker, Ponteri says.
Scott Stauske, Lakefront Marathon’s current race director, was skeptical from the start of Ponteri’s goal to grow the new marathon to 10,000 registrants. “I just don’t think Milwaukee is a big enough destination currently,” Stauske says. And while he and the Badgerland Striders touted registrants from 46 states at last year’s Lakefront Marathon, most were from Wisconsin.
Ponteri chose to step down as director of his race after the second year and sold it to ROC Ventures, the company that owns The Rock Sports Complex in Franklin. Then in 2017, disaster struck when the Milwaukee Marathon course was found to be only 25.4 miles – a nearly unpardonable sin in the eyes of runners who had trained for 26.2, some with dashed dreams of qualifying for the prestigious Boston Marathon.
The race took a year off and came back in April 2019 under new owners. It now is part of USA Today Network Ventures Endurance, an event-planning division of Gannett, the parent company of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The start and finish were moved from the Summerfest grounds to Fiserv Forum, with the Bucks signing on as presenting sponsor. By most accounts, 2019 was a high point for the event, which no longer competed with the Lakefront Marathon in the fall. More than 6,000 runners finished, a majority in the half marathon division, and Visit Milwaukee estimated the race produced $1.5 million for the city’s economy through hotel stays, restaurant visits and other runner expenditures.
Months later, the COVID-19 pandemic halted in-person racing everywhere. Ventures Endurance tried to bring its marathon back in April 2021, then postponed it to October, citing public health concerns. By early September, the marathon had yet to announce its race day plan, sparking confusion and speculation in the local running community. On Sept. 23, an update arrived in registrants’ email inboxes. Its subject: “IMPORTANT: Milwaukee Marathon Canceled.”
The reason? The new race date had brought new obstacles.
Milwaukee County Parks requires closures of Lincoln Memorial Drive to be requested up to a year in advance, and alternative routes weren’t available. City police were already committed to October assignments at Miller Park, in case the Brewers made a deep playoff run. (They didn’t.)
“In a way, none of it was related to the pandemic,” Ponteri says, “and in a way 100% of it was, because had they been able to have the race in the spring, they wouldn’t have had any of these issues.”
Stauske expressed dismay at his competitor’s lack of timely communication. “I know that they were trying to work something out,” Stauske says, but he thinks the obstacles were as obvious as they were insurmountable.
Brandon Presern, Ventures Endurance’s liaison to city officials, declined to comment on the status of the race for this story. Even if his team can secure permits to proceed as planned next month, the tight registration window would leave marathoners with far less than the typical 16 to 20 weeks of training.
Milwaukee Ald. Robert Bauman, a regular critic of the race, sees no need to bring back the Milwaukee Marathon. “Most actual constituents impacted by this event are either opposed or ambivalent,” he says, and he doesn’t think it is worth the hassle to the city. “The city has no financial incentive to incur the cost and inconvenience of this event.”
Other council members have been more receptive in the past, but Ald. Michael Murphy says he had reservations about endorsing the race this year after how the 2021 cancellation was handled. “I feel really bad for the runners,” he says. He thinks the race is positive for the city, “if it’s done in an appropriate manner,” but “I just wish we had a professional operator, which we haven’t had good luck with.”
SPORTS MILWAUKEE remains confident in the Milwaukee Marathon’s viability. “We’ve spoken with the event company, and I do feel they understand large events,” Werner says. “I think they did have a lot of registrants for this past year who were really hopeful that this was going forward.”
Either way, runners still have the Lakefront Marathon. Registration was down somewhat in 2021 and rain dampened the October day, but 1,750 runners completed the marathon course from Grafton High School to the Milwaukee lakefront.
That morning, Raul Medina was one of the volunteers at the start of the race. He’s also run the Milwaukee Marathon. “It’s not a bad marathon,” he said of that event. “It’s nice that it brings the runners to Milwaukee Downtown, because that’s what Milwaukee needs. It needs people to see how much of a great city it is.”