2016 was the second iteration of the Milwaukee Running Festival, a new weekend-long event that included a mile long race on Saturday and a 5k, half marathon, and marathon on Sunday. With the Chicago Marathon and the Marine Corps Marathon on my calendar over the past 3 weeks, I had been debating running this one as well. While the Lakefront Marathon is and always will be the premiere marathon in Milwaukee, this course intrigued me and offered what seemed to be a cool little tour of my home city. However, I’ve never run two marathons in back-to-back weeks, so I wasn’t sure how my body would handle it after MCM. Add in the fact that I had food poisoning on Monday/Tuesday of this week, and signing up for a marathon just 5 days later seemed like an awful idea. So naturally, I bit the bullet and signed up for my 16th marathon just before the online deadline on Thursday night 😉
While I had been skeptical of this event last year in its inaugural form (I did not compete in 2015), I signed up this year because a) as I mentioned, the course intrigued me b) I was hoping to rid myself of the horrible feeling of the last two marathons and lift my spirits back up going into marathon offseason and c) the start/finish was within walking distance of my apartment, so it literally could not be more convenient.
As a first year race last year, there were definitely some issues that had to be dealt with (like realizing the night before that there was no alcohol license so they couldn’t serve beer, for one), but that’s expected of first-time events. My hope was that with a year of experience under its belt, this event would improve. However, in year two, there were still too many important aspects that this race got wrong, and I’ll touch on some of those as I go along.
The expo and packet pick-up took place (Saturday from 10am-5pm) less than a mile from my apartment at the Harley-Davidson Museum. This was quite convenient for me, as I got in a quick shakeout run past the museum and was able grab my packet and then walk home. Small expo for a small race- there were a couple local races who had booths set up, a sign-making station, and a small selection of running gear and MRF merchandise. Pick-up was simple enough though, and I was able to get in and out in five minutes. There was also a mile race that was held at the museum on Saturday (the 5K, half marathon and marathon would take place at the lakefront on Sunday morning) however, I did not participate.
Sometimes, half the battle of running a marathon is dealing with race-day logistics, so living within walking distance of the start/finish made life so much easier for this one. We set our clocks back on Saturday night, so we gained an hour of sleep (wish this happened at every marathon), so when my alarm went off at 4am, I was well-rested and ready to go. Left my apartment around 6 to walk down to the start at Veterans Park, which is about a 25 minute walk for me. The number of bathrooms seemed to be a criticism last year, and that didn’t appear to be addressed this year. Lines were very long, and despite getting in line as soon as I arrived, I barely made it out in time to get to the starting corrals by 7am. I made it though, and after a delay of about 5-10 minutes as they made sure the roads were secure and closed off, we were off running.
Going into this race, I had no time goals other than break 4 hours since I’ve never run a marathon over 4 hours. Having run a marathon last week and never having done back-to-backs before and recovering from food poisoning just days prior, I simply wanted to finish, run for as long as I could, and enjoy the course as much as possible. Luckily, I was able to check all of those goals off the list.
Conditions were near ideal at the start- right around 50 degrees, mostly sunny, and no wind of which to speak. As mentioned, the race starts at Veterans Park, and the first three miles take runners along Lake Michigan down Lincoln Memorial Drive, past Bradford Beach, and up the hill towards Lake Park. This is pretty much my normal running route; to begin a race with something so familiar is a welcoming feeling, and I never tire of the views of Lake Michigan. I settled into a pace between 8:10-8:30, which I would consistently maintain throughout the race. However, as I’ll get into, the course we ran on this day was definitely long (probably closer to 26.8-27.0, but I’ll touch on that more later), and the physical mile markers were nowhere near where they should have been (see my “splits” at the bottom, which are not at all accurate). I decided not to use GPS for this race (instead simply hitting the lap button on my watch at the physical mile markers), which turned out to be a mistake. Despite running an even pace, my first three “splits” were 7:02 / 10:40 / 6:48. In the early miles of a marathon, not a good sign of things to come. This would turn into a theme.
At mile 3, the course turns back towards downtown, with miles 4 and 5 running back past Lake Park and through some residential areas as it makes its way towards the East side. This would be another strong area for improvement. The half marathon started 12 minutes after the full and at Mile 4, half marathoners (at Mile 2) meet up with full marathoners. However, the half marathoners at this point are running much slower than the full marathoners. This caused a LOT of congestion and frustration in trying to weave around them. As the course narrowed in some points over the next few miles to paths that can only fit two runners across, this became a runner’s worst nightmare and caused major slowdowns and flat out dangerous conditions. I would hope in future years, they would realize this problem and start the half marathon later.
7:02 / 10:40 / 6:48 / 8:17 / 8:28
Mile 6 takes runner down Brady Street on the Lower East Side, one of Milwaukee’s hot spots and popular business districts, an area where I’ve imbibed plenty in the past. Next, the course goes past Lakefront Brewery, a must-do tour if you’re ever in Milwaukee. After that, it’s onto Old World 3rd Street and into downtown. As mentioned earlier, this portion of the course features some narrow pathways where congestion with half marathoners became a huge issue. I was able to maintain a fairly steady pace, but it took a lot of work to weave in and out and there were a couple times I nearly took a nasty spill from people not being aware of their surroundings.
From about Mile 7.5-Mile 10, runners travel up Wisconsin Avenue, right past my apartment, Grand Avenue Mall, and eventually Marquette University (boo- go Badgers!). Wisconsin Ave is a long, gradual hill (about 100 feet elevation gain over 2.5 miles), which can be a bit of a challenge. But the crowd support in this portion was pretty good, so that helped. Right before mile 10 is where the half marathoners turned around, so we were left to ourselves for the next 16+ miles.
8:22 / 8:22 / 8:29 / 8:28 / 8:16
This portion of the course took runners to Washington Park around mile 11 (and again in mile 15) before heading for a mile-long out and back down Sherman Boulevard. There were some enthusiastic spectators in this portion, including some students from the Washington High School marching band, helping to encourage runners as the reached the halfway point of the marathon. The Washington Park areas of the course were extremely annoying, however, as we ran on trails through the park that involved a ton of twists and turns. Running in straight lines is ideal and this was far from it. My pace felt even and easy through these miles, but again, the misplaced mile markers make it seem like I was either drunk or I’ve never run before in my life. And to be honest, I don’t know if I could even run a 9-minute mile (without walking) if I tried.
9:01 / 9:11 / 8:05 / 9:23 / 8:17
Mile 16 was really the only trying portion of the race for me. As I hit the 16 mile marker, I started to feel some decent pain in my knee. At Chicago (because I went out too fast and didn’t run a smart race) and Marine Corps (because I overexerted myself exploring DC the previous day and because of the heat), this is the point in the race where I crashed and was forced to run/walk the final 10 miles. Up until this point today, I had been telling myself I’d definitely be able to make it 20 miles and if I had to walk at all after that, so be it, but I would make it at least 20 miles. So I continued on and ran through the pain, and by about mile 19, my knee was feeling better, and my optimism for the rest of the race had increased.
Around mile 17, we ran through Miller Valley and the heart of Miller Brewery, a mainstay in Milwaukee for many, many years. Mile 18 saw us go past Miller Park, home of the Brewers and then onto the Hank Aaron State Trail. Here is where another huge problem occurred, as someone apparently moved some of the cones at a turnaround on the trail, and about 20 runners or so (near the front, like 16th-35th overall, so not me) ended up running over an extra mile because they missed the correct turnaround. I can’t imagine dealing with something like that if you’re trying to qualify for Boston or something. Anyway, this portion of the race probably had the fewest spectators, but as we reached mile 18 and beyond, I actually started to pick up speed and pass people, and this would continue the rest of the marathon. It’s amazing the mental difference it makes to be passing people in the latter stages of a marathon versus being passed by people. I finished 82nd overall and passed close to 80 people after the halfway point alone.
My biggest complaint here was the fact that I never got another Gu. I only carried two with me, which I used after each of the first two hours. There was supposed to be GU at Mile 20 according to the race website, but there was none (apparently there was at mile 18, but I wasn’t looking for it there). Little details, but they end up being important in a marathon.
8:59 / 8:19 / 8:14 / 8:17 / 8:10
Mile 21 takes some more odd twists and turns through Mitchell Park before doing a lap around the Journey House Packer Stadium. I suppose this is a neat idea, but I do have to say it was odd running on the artificial turf of the football field. From there the course took us back towards Milwaukee’s Third Ward on our way to the finish. I was feeling especially strong during these miles and it was then I knew that I’d be able to finish strong, so the only question remaining was how fast that would be. The criticism here would be the lack of water stops in the final portion of the race; there were only three over the last 5-plus miles, usually the stage in a race where water stop frequency increases, not decreases. But I made do.
Around mile 23.5, we headed behind the Summerfest grounds and through Lakeshore State Park, another one of my mainstay running routes. Again, there’s something so reassuring knowing exactly where you are and how far is left to go that can carry you when you’re starting to tire. Some great views of Lake Michigan are there to carry runners over the final 2.5 miles. Just before mile 25, we headed for a loop behind Discovery World before hitting the final water stop and running the final mile behind the art museum and along the lake back into Veterans Park. I cruised in and finished with way too much energy left in my tank, but it was great to enjoy a marathon again and know I had plenty more to give going forward. My final time was 3:39:35, though this would later be adjusted to 3:35:29 because the course was found to be about 0.5 miles too long.
8:09 / 8:09 / 7:09 / 9:08 / 8:03 / 7:48 / 1:50
As I entered the finishing chute, I was presented with bottled water, a banana, granola bar, protein bar, chocolate milk, and cups of Gatorade. Just before I dropped everything on the ground, I was also given a plastic bag to hold it all. Great idea, but my only suggestion would be to maybe give the bag first. 🙂
Each participant was given a ticket for one free beer, and although they had quite a few different beers on tap, apparently it was only good for Coor’s Light (until they ran out of Coor’s Light- then they changed their minds and said it was good for anything). But at least there was beer this year. The finish festival was a huge improvement over the (nonexistent) one in 2015. There were a couple food trucks available for purchase, music playing, a climbing wall (I assume aimed more at the kids/spectators than the exhausted runners) and some fun games and contests. It turned out to be an absolutely gorgeous November day in Milwaukee, ideal for hanging around outdoors. I stayed a little while to enjoy my beer and watch other runners finish, but I didn’t really take part in any of the other extracurricular activities myself.
As far as the course length, I’ve run enough marathons to know that GPS isn’t always accurate, and it’s not always possible to run the tangents, so most runners will end up running further than 26.2 miles. But on this day, every single runner I talked to or read about online logged between 26.8 and 27.2 miles. In a race like Chicago, where it’s so crowded and impossible to run the tangents, that is reasonable. But in a race with fewer than 700 finishers on a perfectly cloudless day? No, there was definitely something wrong with the course that the marathon runners ran. And these were also many of the same people who ran last year’s race and came in at 26.2 miles or very close. (EDIT: Milwaukee Running Festival has officially released a statement recognizing two errors on their part and saying the course was 0.5 miles too long.Finish times will be adjusted for this. However, Boston will not accept the adjusted times for BQs, so I feel awful for anyone affected by this.)
Despite the numerous things this race got right (and it did- it was an extremely enjoyable marathon), with a clearly long course and inability to place mile markers correctly (maybe my biggest pet peeve in a race) in addition to all the issues from last year, the reputation of this event suffers. Throw in some other minor issues as well (the website said Gu would be at Mile 20 so that’s where I looked for it- it wasn’t there but apparently was before the 18 mile mark, the website said awards for the top 5 in each age group (as did the printed results, but they only had awards for the top 3, etc.). At this point in time, I find it hard for this race to gain my trust and think it’s probably best to wait a few years and let them work their kinks out before coming back. The race director is highly regarded around the Milwaukee area, so I have confidence he’ll make things right in the end. But with so many race options available, my philosophy generally is to stick with what I know works.
-It was an unseasonably warm day in November for Milwaukee, but that led to near-perfect marathon running conditions. Temperatures were right around 50 degrees at the start, rising up to 60 by the time I finished. Wind wasn’t an issue, but the sun was out all day and there wasn’t much cloud cover, so that’d be the only complaint. Opportunities for shade were always taken advantage of.
-I really do love the scenery/imagery and layout of the course. You see a lot of cool and recognizable parts of Milwaukee as well as some parts you’re probably not used to seeing. The execution could be better though, as there are a decent amount of hairpin turns and a couple weird out-and-backs. And getting the distance right would be another big step in the right direction. But the start/finish was in the perfect spot this year and I love running along the lake.
Packet pickup/Race Expo: 3.0/5.0
-As mentioned, the expo was at the Harley-Davidson Museum. Packet pickup was easy
and painless, but the expo was extremely small, reflecting the size of the race. Absolutely love the shirt this year though. It’s a long sleeve, technical t-shirt with thumb holes (wasn’t a huge fan before, but they work well with this shirt), and the design is fantastic. Last year’s was super ugly though, so anything was going to be an improvement. This just might be my favorite race shirt of all-time though.
-One complaint from last year was that half marathoners and marathoners all got the same medal and there was no distinction. This year, it’s still an identical medal for both distances, but at least the ribbon now differentiates between the two. The Milwaukee skyline, including the iconic art museum, is a nice feature, as is the featured “I Run MKE” slogan.
Race Performance: 4.0/5.0
-It felt good to enjoy a marathon again (though technically, with the long course, this was my 2nd ultra marathon under 27 miles at 26.7 haha). After a couple really rough performances in October and low expectations coming in (especially right after food poisoning), I walked away pleasantly surprised and very content with how I ran. My adjusted time of 3:35:29 was my 7th fastest out of 16 marathons.
Post-Race Party: 3.5/5.0
-As mentioned, I didn’t stay super long, but it was an enormous improvement over last year, and they seemed to have a decent amount of things to do to keep people occupied (though mostly aimed at spectators). Everyone got one free beer. Runners had a ticket for Food on their bibs, but it didn’t appear good for anything, although there was food available from local food trucks available for purchase.
-This race has potential. The course is really enjoyable and challenging enough. Free race photos are always a plus as well. But it’s taking some time to work out the kinks. Some mistakes (like getting the course length wrong) are just bigger race sins than others. Hopefully this race continues to improve and grow (though in a race that is very small to begin with, there was a 28% drop in finishers from Year 1 to Year 2). I don’t see myself running this in the next few years, but hopefully I’ll be back someday to run a headache-free race.
Splits (according to the mile markers):
Mile 1- 07:02
Mile 2- 10:40
Mile 3- 06:48
Mile 4- 08:17
Mile 5- 08:28
Mile 6- 08:22
Mile 7- 08:22
Mile 8- 08:29
Mile 9- 08:28
Mile 10- 08:16
Mile 11- 09:01
Mile 12- 09:11
Mile 13- 08:05
Mile 14- 09:23
Mile 15- 08:17
Mile 16- 08:59
Mile 17- 08:19
Mile 18- 08:14
Mile 19- 08:17
Mile 20- 08:10
Mile 21- 08:09
Mile 22- 08:09
Mile 23- 07:09
Mile 24- 09:08
Mile 25- 08:03
Mile 26- 07:48
Mile 26.2- 01:50
FINISH – 3:39:35 (official adjusted 26.2 time = 3:35:29)
6/37 age group (M 25-29)
Next: Go! St. Louis Marathon (April 9, 2017)