On the Road recently profiled the Minneapolis Marathon. Not to be perceived as urban snobs, this month we cast our gaze in a north-easterly direction, out to lovely Stillwater.
I spoke with Dave Eckberg of St. Croix Events (producers of Lumberjack Days, the Rivertown Art Festival, and basically any major event that occurs in Stillwater) about the inaugural Anytime Fitness Stillwater Marathon.
Eckberg repeatedly stressed the organization’s focus on putting on a great event centered around satisfying runners. The Stillwater Marathon, which features a 20 mile, half marathon, and 12k in addition to the keystone event, goes off at 7 a.m. on Sunday, May 24.
DtB: Where did the idea for the Stillwater Marathon come from?
Eckberg: I think within our group [St. Croix Events] running a marathon came up over 5 years ago. It’s something that’s been mentioned and talked about for a long time. At St. Croix Events, we do all the big events in the Stillwater area. People have been interested in bringing a marathon here for quite some time.
DtB: I notice you have Anytime Fitness as a title sponsor. How did that relationship come about?
Eckberg: Yes, we were able to work that out just recently. Anytime Fitness came on as a multi-year sponsor, which is great.
DtB: What has the process been like so far of getting a marathon started?
Eckberg: It’s been smooth overall. It’s an immense, immense project. And I say that as someone who has done events for over 30 years, including putting on air shows, where we worked with the Kremlin in Moscow. We’re aware that the runners are putting their lives in our hands, and we take that very seriously. There are so many details and possibilities to plan ahead for.
DtB: Why did you choose the date that you selected, especially given the other area marathons falling on the same day? Are you planning to stay on the day before Memorial Day, or is that something you will re-evaluate after this year?
Eckberg: That date will be when it is. We viewed the dates as something that works here for the local schedule. We are very aware that there are other marathons going on the same weekend. The way we look at it is that we’re providing people an option, and this is the date that works for Stillwater. If people want to run Fargo or Madison, or other events, that’s fine. Those are great events too. I don’t view this as particularly competitive. I want to provide a good experience to the runners. The way I look at it is that if we don’t exist 10 years from now, it's not anyone else’s fault. It’s our own fault for not giving runners the experience that they want.
DtB: You have a marathon, 20 mile, a half marathon, and a 12k. Why did you decide to offer that many options, and why did you select those distances?
Eckberg: It has to do with the course. Originally we looked at a point-to-point race from Taylor’s Falls to Stillwater. Well, pretty early on we found ourselves looking at a dozen red flags. The first thing that really hit us in driving that course was that there is a real cell phone coverage issue in some of those areas. That’s a safety concern. And then some of the runners who drove the course with us said that the elevation change is just too huge. It was just too brutal. The third thing was the spectator-friendly aspect. On that course, there just aren’t many spots where someone could get to if they wanted to cheer for a runner.
With the course we decided on, you can get to lots of points on our course to see the runners. There was nothing like that on the original course. We figured out a full marathon course that we thought was great, and went from there. If you take a look at our course, the different distances just cut off different parts of the full marathon course. What we were doing was literally sitting at the conference table figuring this out. It was basically a Lego-type of situation.
At Myrtle and Owens, which is in a residential area in Stillwater, the half breaks off and runs down to the finish. Meanwhile the marathon goes north and loops before coming back. The 20 mile was an option that we wanted to provide for those running Grandma’s Marathon. The 12k we were sort of left with as the final piece to the puzzle after we figured out the half marathon and the 20 mile. Initially, I kind of thought, ‘12k—what am I supposed to do with that?’ Then my daughter said, ‘duh, Bay to Breakers’. [The Bay to Breakers 12k in San Francisco is one of the largest road races in the U.S.]. So we decided to go with that.
It’s really just a great spectator course. Pioneer Park, where the 12k and Half Marathon finish, hangs right over the marathon and 20 mile course, so we can make an announcement, and people can get over to see the marathoners go into the finish.
DtB: Will all the races go off at the same time?
Eckberg: Right now, we plan to have all the races start at the same time. We may stagger them slightly if that makes more sense. John Magnuson [of timing company ChampionChip Minnesota] will decide.
DtB: The course looks to be very rolling. What can you tell readers about the features and challenges of the course?
Eckberg: We are very, very aware of hills, being born and raised in Stillwater. As a kid, I remember figuring out ways to bike places that would avoid hills, so yes, we’re aware of how hilly Stillwater is. The course we have chosen has a highest to lowest point of only 190 ft. apart, so we really avoid the extremes. We view it as a rolling course, not a hilly course. Some of the people I’ve talked to have said that the flat courses can pound the hell out you, because you’re using the exact same muscles the whole way. So the rolling course may actually work everything a little bit more evenly.
DtB: How many runners are signed up, how many do you expect, and is there a cap on the field?
Eckberg: We’re doing fine. We’ve agreed to limit it to 5,700 this year so we don’t over-run the city of Stillwater. We’ll see how it goes. The worst thing that we could have happen is to have more runners than we could handle, so we want to avoid that. Capacity-wise, we’ll evaluate how things go and make a decision after this year.
DtB: Warm weather could be a factor that time of year. Is that something you have considered and are prepared for?
Eckberg: This is one of the things that was definitely a part of the initial discussions. We feel that the 7 a.m. start is a little bit of a buffer. We will be working with our friends at Hubbard Broadcasting, Dave Dahl specifically, to get forecasts well in advance so that we can bolster water stops if need be, or be prepared for anything else.
We have Dr. Matt Sedgley on board to head up our medical team. He has worked with Dr. Bill Roberts of the Twin Cities Marathon for many years, and he is doing a great job. We will probably have around 50 doctors scattered around the course. In getting this thing going, I talked with [Race Director] Dave McGillvery of the Boston Marathon. He told me, ‘in your head, you need to understand that the runners are putting their lives in your hands.’ We’ve really taken that to heart. So yes, we’ll be ready for any kind of weather.
The beauty of Lumberjack Days [the festival, not the 10 mile race] is that it basically takes place in a four block space. If we need to evacuate we can do that quickly. It’s trickier when you have people out over the full course. It’s a fascinating event. Initially, somebody made a comment of ‘how big of a deal can it be to put on a marathon?’ Let me tell you, it is a big deal.
What we have tried to do is surround ourselves with good people. We have John Magnuson doing the timing. He’s the best. We have a roster of vendors and suppliers from Lumberjack Days who will transfer over for the marathon. Many of them work with the Twin Cities Marathon as well, and Twin Cities is as good as it gets. I’ve been honored to meet Virginia and Brian at the Twin Cities Marathon – talk about quality people. It really is one of the top marathon organizations in the world.
DtB: What sets the Anytime Fitness Stillwater Marathon apart, and what do you see as being your niche?
Eckberg: We’ve got a beautiful, beautiful course for people to run. I think we’ve addressed the fear of the hilliness of Stillwater affecting the experience for the runners. We’ve structured this to be a fund-raising event for many local charities, including the Jon Francis Foundation. David Francis, Jon’s father, approached us about a year. The sorrow he still carries with him every day is incredible. He wanted to do a race in Jon’s name, and we’re honored to be able to be a part of that. Mainly, we want runners to be able to come and have a good experience. We think we’re setting things up for them to be able to do that.