Charting the Race Course

When most of us think about a race course, chances are, it’s mostly about how flat or hilly it is and perhaps the aid station locations. But did you ever think about the planning that goes into the course for a major race?

We recently chatted with Chris Ponteri, Executive Director of Milwaukee Marathon, Inc., and got the scoop on what went into planning the courses for the upcoming Milwaukee Running Festival.

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Can you tell us a bit about the planning that goes into the courses for a major event like this one?
My background has been in planning races with 1,000 runners or less, so this has been quite a learning experience. There are so many things that go into planning a major event like this. From small things like choosing the size of the stage for the expo speakers to big things like how many EMS units to have on the course, it’s a huge undertaking. I can’t begin to describe the enormity of setting something up like this. And this has been done with minimal staff.

When did you start planning the race courses? What was the process for getting them approved?
The original work on the courses was started a few years ago. Over time, changes were made for this reason and that reason. Just last week there were a half a dozen changes made to the marathon course. They are always a work in progress due to construction or logistical concerns. In fact, our marathon course is still not finalized because it is in the process of being certified to make it a Boston qualifier. So even though our GPS measurements say it’s 26.2 miles, it’s likely shorter than that and distance will need to be added somewhere.

How did you decide on the course locations and path traveled? Were there any factors that influenced the courses?
We tried to strike a balance between going big and going small. By big, I mean major urban arteries like Wisconsin Avenue, and by small I mean trails like the Hank Aaron State Trail. If you are paying $90 to run an urban marathon, you want to make sure you get the urban experience. But at the same time, if every street on the route was a major one it would make police costs and barricade rental costs too expensive.

Do things like water stations, port-a-potties, and other types of aid stations require additional permits? Also, how did you decide where to place these stations on the course?
We did not have to get any permits for those types of things. The permits we have gotten are from the city, county and state for use of their land by runners. We have 18 aid stations on the marathon course, which I think is higher than your average marathon, but we wanted to make sure our participants were safe. We chose locations by distance from the previous aid station more than anything.

Were there any landmarks, hills, bridges or other components you really wanted to include in the courses?
Obvious things like the Milwaukee Art Museum and lakefront needed to be on the course, but we are also very pleased to be going through or by several county and city parks in both the marathon and half marathon. We wanted to make sure we were going by the corporate headquarters for two iconic Milwaukee companies: Harley and Miller. My personal favorite landmarks are all on the marathon course: Sherman Boulevard, the VA Grounds, and the Journey House Packer Practice Field in Mitchell Park. The marathon runners are really in for a treat.

Can you rate the difficulty of the race courses (marathon, half marathon, 5k, 1-mile) on a scale of 1-5 with 5 being the hardest?
I would rank the marathon course as a 3 on difficulty level. There are more hills than you think there would be in Milwaukee, but none of them are crazy hard. Whatever the hills add to your time the cool weather will more than make up for it.

Marathon course, as of today

The half marathon course is much easier than the marathon course since most of the hills are on the west portion of the marathon course. I would give it a 2 on difficulty level, and that’s mainly because of the early hill on Lincoln Memorial Drive.

The 5k and 1-mile courses are very flat and are a 1 on the difficulty scale. The 5k course sticks to the lakefront and is very scenic. I am particularly proud of the 1-mile course. It’s entirely within the confines of the Harley-Davidson Museum grounds and is actually quite beautiful. I think people are going to be very surprised when they see how cool that mile course is!

What can you tell us about course set-up and take-down? How many volunteers are needed?
Course setup will begin on Friday afternoon and will continue on Saturday and into early Sunday morning. We have trucks that bring out aid station supplies and tables, other trucks with cones and signs, and we have hired a company to put out all of the barricades (we need over 1,000 of them!).

Any other comments?
I can’t even begin to tell you how humbled I have been by the support of so many people in the Milwaukee running community. There is a long list of people who, without their help, this would not have been possible. It takes so much teamwork to get to the point where we are. I just wish I could properly express my gratitude in words to all of those people who have worked so passionately to make this happen. They know who they are.

Thanks for chatting with us, Chris! There’s still time to register for the inaugural Milwaukee Running Festival. To learn more about the races or to regsiter, visit milwaukeerunningfestival.com.

Keep Running MKE – you’re doing great!

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