The Fox Cities Marathon was first run in 1991 about a year after I moved to Neenah. As a lifelong but fairly casual runner, I had always had a faint but nagging interest in running a marathon, and in 1993 I found myself living only a couple of blocks from the Riverside Park start area. It taunted and tantalized me for years until in 2002, I finally decided to do it.
Though I put in the training time, increasing my run mileage through the teens and into the twenties and was coached by a veteran marathoner friend, I made a serious error. About two weeks before the marathon, I changed the orthotic inserts in my shoes. On my next run, my legs hurt all over, bones and muscles, so I called my coach. Since I didn’t mention the orthotics, he diagnosed overtraining and told me to lay off running until the race.
When the race began, I hadn’t run a mile before my legs began to hurt again the same way, and I knew the truth. Distracted by the hundreds of volunteers at the many water stops and an ongoing conversation with an Iowa woman, I made it through (let’s not mention my time) and crossed the finish line to be wrapped in the Mylar space blanket and awarded a deep red microfiber wind shirt that is still just right for certain conditions in biking and cross-country skiing.
“We always tell people at our seminars, ‘Don’t change anything right before the race,’ said Event Manager Debbie Jansen after I’d told my story, ‘If you buy new shoes at the expo the day before the race, don’t wear them until after.’” Only one of the many lessons the Fox Cities Marathon organizers have learned in 24 previous races.
To get the story around the twenty-fifth, I visited race headquarters on South Oneida, next to the Community First Credit Union building. Expecting a typical office scene with people answering phones and opening mail, what I found looked more like a warehouse, full of boxes of everything it takes to put on a marathon, handouts and signs, cups and energy drink mixes, bibs and bags, shirts and goody bag stuffers.
A large roll of perforated silver Mylar waited to be torn off into the blankets to be wrapped around each finisher.
The Fox Cities Marathon began, Jansen told me, when Gloria West had an idea for a marathon that would be a community event, linking all the Fox Cities. She brought the idea to Maury Dresang, president of Community First Credit Union, who endorsed it. Community First has remained the title sponsor throughout the event’s existence.
Marathons and other community running events were not as common then as now. At first the Fox Cities race offered expense and prize money to attract top talent from among international running professionals, common practice for races seeking to raise their profiles.
The first marathon had a few more than 1400 participants. The associated races then were a 10% marathon (2.6 miles) for those not up to more and a 1% marathon for kids (.26 miles).
Though it had a few thin early years, the Fox Cities Marathon continued and prospered. It meets the sport’s exacting standards to be a qualifier for the Boston Marathon. For the last six years it has had to limit the number of participants.
For 2015 numbers are capped at 1,300 for the whole marathon, 3,500 for the half marathon, 180 relay teams (who divide the marathon in four pieces, usually organized from businesses or families). The 5k is limited to 1,500 runners and the kids’ run to 1,000. Caps encourage early registration and give the organizers a clear idea of how many participants they will need to accommodate.
Twelve years ago the event model moved to a more community orientation. No prize money for winners, instead, average runners would, as I did, find truly worthwhile things in their finish line rewards. What doesn’t go back to the participants is given back to the community to programs such as the YMCA’s Strong Kids. High schools that provide 50 volunteers get $1000 for their cross-country teams.
When I asked about innovation, Jansen told me, “Every year we look to do new things and have new partners. ” This year, for example, the Boys and Girls’ Brigade became a partner and will have a “cheer zone” at their building.
Cheer groups will be judged by Fox Cities Marathon board members who will not only observe them but video. Winners, judged by their enthusiasm and creativity, will receive money for their sponsoring organizations.
Certain organizations have been strong supporters for years. For 15 years School Specialty has donated $6000 every year to the School Challenge. Three schools receive gift certificates of $1000 each and others get smaller prizes. Participation is judged by the percent of students involved. Neenah Rotary, the Pacesetters, Junior Achievement and some area schools have maintained water stations and contributed other services. Girls on the Run, a program that motivates girls in local schools to be more physically active, shares building space with the marathon.
The Business Challenge tries to get area businesses to bring their people out. They compete with others in their own size range. But no monetary prizes for the businesses––only happy hour bragging rights.
This twenty-fifth race has a whole new course with only the beginning and ending staying the same. It includes seven miles of paved trails with stretches on Kimberly’s Sunset Park Trail and Appleton’s Newberry and CE trails. The course crosses the Trestle Trail bridge and swings around Little Lake Butte des Morts to Neenah’s Arrowhead Park and then through the city to the finish at Riverside Park. Medical personnel riding bicycles will provide extra coverage on the trails.
No community marathon will ever be run for the sole benefit of those who might win. The heart of any marathon is in the people who only want to see if they can do this thing, run an arbitrary number of inches, very many in the average person’s conception, and bear up when it gets too hot or too cold or too tired or too painful and continue until standing at the end, knowing that he or she has done this thing.
For the first-timer, it’s a revelation: I’m stronger than I thought I was. For the veteran, it’s a confirmation: I can still do this. The marathon experience teaches what the runner hopes to learn: I can do what most humans can’t do or won’t do. I’ve learned that I can do the repetitive days of training to accomplish this. I’ve come out here and done it.
This self-test by so many is the core of the marathon. All the other shorter events are worthwhile; a half marathon is still a long way to run, relay teams still require a significant effort by each member, a 5k is still a great first goal for new runners. But the 26.2-mile version is what pulls it all together.
The Fox Cities Marathon has become one of the events that punctuate and energize the year here. Its effects on its thousands of participants, volunteers, fans and other watchers ripple through all the Fox Cities. It brings in people from some distant places who might never have come. And it shows this community at its best.
1991 – Inaugural Year of the Fox Cities Marathon––the race started at 10:54 a.m. at Riverside Park in Neenah and ended in Downtown Appleton.
Ray Nitschke was the first Race Grand Marshal.
2,300 volunteers make race weekend happen each year.
2010 – Named one of the Top 25 Medals in the country by Marathon & Beyond Magazine
2011 – Named one of the Top 25 Midwest Marathons by Chicago Athlete Magazine
2 Guinness World Records in 2007 (14) and 2009 (16) for the most siblings to complete a marathon together.