Nickel: Cooperation, commitment help bring back Milwaukee Lakefront Marathon

The 2023 Lakefront Marathon will run south and then back north again across the Hoan Bridge on this years 2023 route. Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2023 - Mike De Sisti / The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

For the first time in two years, Milwaukee will have at least one of its marathons up and running.

It took a lot of cooperation from the cities of Milwaukee, St. Francis and Cudahy; from race director Scott Stauske and Milwaukee commissioner of public works Jerrel Kruschke; from the volunteers at the local running club Badgerland Striders and an outside consulting race director. But the Milwaukee Lakefront Marathon, canceled abruptly last year over rerouting concerns, is back this weekend.

As of last week, more than 4,000 runners from 46 states and nine countries had registered for the three distances, Stauske said – 1,750 for the full 26.2-mile marathon distance and 1,850 for the half marathon. The rest have signed up for the 5K.

More: Milwaukee's Lakefront Marathon returns Oct. 1. Here's what to know about the new route, road closures

Soon after the 2022 Lakefront Marathon was canceled, Stauske and Kruschke worked to get the ball rolling for 2023.

"He is responsible for making this happen,” Stauske said. “I asked him for 20 minutes. He gave me 45. I left feeling like I've got an advocate.”

Setting a new Lakefront Marathon route brought challenges

Originally disrupted by major construction projects on the original route, the marathon relocated with southern communities but also faced backlash over concerns for safety as well as residents and local businesses that didn’t want the road closures for the race.

The ongoing troubles of an entirely different race, the Milwaukee Marathon, may have hurt the city’s reputation – deservedly or not – for holding a big event, too.

But Professional Triathletes Organization (PTO) raced in Milwaukee successfully this summer with USA Triathlon. While those two organizations could afford to pay the costs of closing down streets or limiting access to local attractions – a budget Stauske doen't have – it still demonstrated that the city could successfully host an event that was well-attended by participants and spectators, he said.

The Striders finally got the approval to hold the marathon.

“It was hit or miss up until a couple hours before the deadline for the Common Council to vote,” Stauske said. “But in the end, as a true nonprofit, we've held Al's Run for many years and that kind of set the precedent. If we were able to close down Prospect Avenue on a Saturday, why wouldn’t we be able to do it between 7 and 8 o'clock in the morning on a Sunday?

“And all of a sudden, it's like, ‘well, fine.’”

Many have contributed to preparing for the 2023 Lakefront Marathon

The 2023 course will be different from any other, a path Stauske and the Striders were trying to establish last year before running into too many conflicts.

Stauske got assistance from others, including James Washington of street and bridge services of DPW, and Don Weyer, a member of the Striders, to mark the course and make it USA Track & Field certified, as well as well-known statewide race director Sean Ryan (Door County Triathlon).

"He's been a great advocate of ours and he brought up a couple of suggestions,” Stauske said. “So I feel confident going into this that that we're prepared.”

Ryan’s message to Stauske and the Striders was that producing a large-scale event requires a large team of committed leaders each fully embracing their roles. Solid execution depended on fully defining what the expectations are for each of those roles.

“From what I’ve seen, they are doing that,” Ryan said. “This year is a major pivot for the Striders, not just in terms of launching a new course, but also charting a plan for how to staff and produce this event.

“The old days of chalking a start line and finish line with a handful of water stations are gone. The audiences are larger, and so are their expectations, which presents new challenges.”

The Hoan Bridge could be intimidating to Lakefront Marathon competitors

This new course isn’t expected to be as fast as the old one.

The former Milwaukee Lakefront Marathon was a point-to-point race from Grafton to the Milwaukee lakefront that overall had a slight decline in elevation. It was a Boston Marathon qualifier, so a lot of marathoners – especially rookies – looked to it as a fast course. Runners this year likely won’t say the same thing.

This course traverses the Hoan Bridge, which could become a landmark of the race, but right now it might be intimidating to some with an expected 700-foot elevation climb total.

“I'm not going to rule out any PRs,” Stauske said. “The Hoan Bridge – it's a long slow grinder. But contrary to popular belief, the course is really not that hilly; the total elevation change on the bridge is about 125 feet. People Google it and they see a number of like 260 and they're freaking out. I have to point out to them, that's the distance from the water to the bridge.

“Yes, the course is going to be more challenging than it had been in the past. But I think that the scenery and the small rollers that are in between are actually going to help the athletes using different muscles.”

After all we've been through with the two marathons, the pandemic, bad weather and some mistakes in the last decade, mostly everyone is hoping for great weather with crowd support and volunteers.

“We would love for them to come out and support our event by volunteering or even playing some music,” Stauske said. “We want this event to grow and really showcase the beauty of the area and the hospitality we are known for.”

This is the best chance Milwaukee has in maintaining this race that is more than 40 years old, because Stauske does not anticipate the old course will be back.

“I certainly didn't go through all the efforts with our team to do this as a short-term, stopgap measure,” Stauske said. “The old course will never be back. And the way that I'm looking at this is, it's a transition for change that is good.”

Added Ryan: “Based on the enthusiasm and passion I’ve seen from the organizing committee, I’m optimistic for the future of the event.”

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Cooperation, commitment help bring back Milwaukee Lakefront Marathon