Things have been changing in the last few years for the Whitefish Marathon — the name change from Two Bear, the switch to an all-road course and moving the event to the spring.
These changes will pay dividends soon, race director Todd Oliver says, and puts Whitefish on the map as a strong racing destination.
“Looking at it this year, it’s really kind of a 24-month campaign. This year is the finalization of the rebranding, the new name, some advertising, some social promotion ... but we really think we’re going to see the dividends come 2020. ‘Our changes are done, and here we are to stay and, by the way, did you see this is a state championship event?’ What we’re hoping for this year knowing we had a short promotional window is to get our numbers to be at least equal to what we were last year, knowing that that’s definitely going to spike in 2020,” he told the Pilot.
Hundreds of runners will hit the streets on Saturday for the marathon, half marathon and 5K races, all of which start at 8 a.m. at Depot Park. The race continues to be a fundraiser for the Wave.
Most noticeable among the changes to the event, which for 13 years has been the Two Bear Marathon and was a half road, half trail race, is the name.
Art Krueger, director at the Wave, says the change came after the races switched to being road-based and will hopefully improve the branding of the event.
“We felt we really wanted to re-identify what we were doing as well as try to bring out the iconic nature of our area. So naming it the Whitefish Marathon seemed to resonate,” Krueger said, noting there’s been a small bit of confusion with the name change but for the most part the transition has been smooth.
“We’re doing as well as can be expected from numbers,” he said. “They’re not quite as high as what we’d like. We’re at about 350 runners right now with only having about four months to really get the word out. But things are coming along nicely, the weather is going to be great and we’re looking forward to a beautiful Saturday.”
The date of the event has been changed in the hopes of avoiding another year like 2017, when the race was canceled due to wildfire smoke.
Previously the race has been in the fall, but as wildfire seasons continue to intensify, having the race earlier in the year seemed a better choice, Krueger said.
“Over the course of the last decade, we have had many brushes with the wildfire season in terms of smoke, and two years ago we had to cancel the event. Which was terrible on many fronts, not only for the runners but also for our organization,” he said. “This is our primary fundraiser for our scholarship program, so it was very unfortunate. It’s actually been the trend in the northwest portion of our country to see traditionally fall events moved to a different time of year, mostly being the spring.”
Along with those changes, the half marathon will also act as the Montana state championship race through the Road Runners Club of America’s certification. That, along with the full marathon being a Boston Marathon qualifier, adds another layer to the event, Oliver said.
“The fun part about it is it comes with additional corporate support through Gatorade and some other companies, and we will get national recognition on the rrca.org website. And what we will do on race day is only Montana residents can win, so it kind of eliminates some hot-dog elites coming in from out of state to win the championships,” he said. “It’s one of those things that anytime you get any kind of regional or state or national award, it puts some eyeballs on the event and attracts some attention.”
For the marathon, runners will start and finish in Depot Park. The course starts out heading east along Second Street, dipping past the Armory and looping around east Whitefish and the North Valley Hospital area. After returning to downtown, the course heads north on Wisconsin Avenue and Lakeshore Drive just past Eagle Point, where runners turn around and head back to Depot Park for the finish.
The half marathon course shares the start of the full marathon course, with runners completing the first 13.1 miles around East Whitefish and returning to Depot Park rather than heading north on Wisconsin.
The 5K starts at Depot Park and follows Second Street down to Dodger Lane near the dog park before turning around.
Water and sports drink stations will be set up every few miles on all three courses.
After the race, a post-race celebration will be held near the finish line in Depot Park. Piggyback BBQ is donating barbecue and drinks, including local brews, will be available for free for participants and for $5 per person for friends and families.
Awards will be given out for top female and male overall in each race as well as a top three for both genders in 10-year age divisions.
The entry fee for the races are: $85 for the marathon; $70 for the half marathoner; $40 for the 5K, $15 for ages 13 and under. Registration includes water and coffee provided by Montana Coffee Traders, a finishers shirt, a medallion and a day pass for The Wave.
Race packets can be picked up on Friday, May 10 at The Wave from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on Saturday, May 11 at Depot Park at 7 a.m.