For a brief period in the early 1900s indoor marathon mania gripped the globe. It was sparked by a 1908 mano-a-mano showdown between Irish-American Johnny Hayes, that year’s Olympic champion, and Italian Dorando Pietri, the man who had been disqualified after crossing the line first but with the assistance of two stewards.
The huge crowd that crammed into the “dust and tobacco smoke” clogged Madison Square Gardens witnessed a "splindidly contested" race which was won by Pietri. The commercial success sparked copycat events across North America and Europe (the main pic is of a half marathon held in the Royal Albert Hall in 2009 that marked the centenary of the first indoor marathon in the UK), but the fad soon died.
Yet the little-known race format has been kept going with a smattering of low-key indoor marathons. One is the Icebreaker Indoor Marathon. The ninth edition of it takes place at the Pettit National Ice Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, this Sunday. We speak to race organiser Chris Ponteri to find out how he is keeping the little known American tradition alive.
Why did you first choose to organise an indoor marathon?
This is the ninth year that we’ve done it. I had read about another indoor marathon in Minnesota that is ten years old – one year older than us – and it’s on a real small track, a gymnasium track.
I, like many other runners in the Milwaukee area, was at the Pettit Center doing winter marathon training. [That’s when] I came up with the idea of holding a marathon there.
I approached the management, and they liked the idea, and away we went.
This weekend there’ll be a 5k and half marathon across three days. That first year was it just the marathon?
We just did the marathon the first year. We had 100 spots, and the day before the race it filled up. We had 100 people. We didn’t really know what to expect that first year, but after the race we knew that we were on to something special.
Indoor races are so much different from outdoor races. The camaraderie of the runners; you get to know each other throughout the race because you’re either passing them or they’re passing you on a regular basis. The spectators; if you’re running the marathon it’s about 95 laps, so they can see you pass by about 95 times – you can’t do that in an outdoor race. The volunteers, especially at the water table, get to know the runners real well. So you develop some personal relationships during the course of the race that you wouldn’t in an outdoor race.
From an organisational point of view, what challenges does an indoor marathon present?
First of all: it’s much easier to plan an indoor race. It takes much fewer volunteers, there’s no course to put barricades up and cones and all that. So from a logistical standpoint it’s very easy to put on.
The biggest challenge compared to outdoor races is the timing. It’s very difficult to time an indoor race. Most indoor marathons don’t have chip timing, it’s usually mainly timed by lap counters – human beings counting people’s laps. These races are held on smaller tracks so there are usually 40 or 50 runners, so it’s not hard to do.
But for a bigger race like ours we chip time it. There’s a timing mat at the finish line, and you get a chip on a Velcro band that goes around your ankle. Even though the chips are over 99% accurate, at times it can miss a lap. It doesn’t happen very often, but we have had that happen.
The other challenge is relaying lap counts to runners. Over the years we’ve managed to perfect this with a combination of video boards and the announcer calling things out, and volunteers helping give runners their lap counts. So it’s not really an issue any more, but those first four or five years, that was a big challenge.
How has the event’s reputation grown locally?
It’s kind of the race to do in the Milwaukee area. It’s got a reputation, and because of that it fills up every year. We’ve sold out every event, every year.
Do you still cap it at 100 runners?
We let in, for each marathon and half marathon, about 130 runners knowing that only around a 100 will show up because people get injured during training and all that. We’ve determined that 100 people is about the safe number to have on the track at any one time.
The capacity of the track is really a function of the length of the track, not the width. [The Pettit Center has] the longest indoor running track in the United States [443m: a marathon is 96 laps], and we feel 100 is the safe amount. We’ve never had any problems with congestion on the track, but we fell like if we added too many runners it might be a problem.
Have you ever run the race yourself?
I have. I’ve run the marathon once and the half marathon twice.
How did you find it as a runner?
I love it. It was definitely one of my favourite races to run. It’s very enjoyable, especially when it’s something that you know is your idea. That made it even more meaningful.
Is it a race for personal bests?
No, it’s harder than people think. You would think that with a perfectly flat course and temperatures in the upper 40s that it would be an easy course – but it’s not. The lack of elevation change takes its toll on your legs. Sometimes it’s nice to have some inclines here and there, uphills, downhills. So no, I would say on a scale of one to ten, with one being easy and ten being difficult, it’s probably about a four. I think a lot of people would probably think that it’s a one!
Another issue is dehydration, because it’s very dry in there. A lot of people don’t think to drink enough because they’re not always thirsty. So you’ll see people getting dehydrated more often than a lot of marathons.
"It’s kind of the race to do in the Milwaukee area. It’s got a reputation"
Are you aware of the history of the indoor marathon in the United States? The 1908 Olympic rematch in New York?
I am aware of that. I’ve got clips from the New York Times from back then. They would hold those races in Madison Square Gardens back then. They would draw top runners from all over the world and they’d be big spectator events, which I find very interesting because that’s not the case now. You don’t draw that many spectators other than those that are there to watch their family and friends.
There should be an indoor marathon championships, don’t you think?
It’s something I’ve never thought of. I think you’d have to have prize money, and sponsors and probably a TV contract as well. It’s not something that I’d be interested in doing, but I could see that from a TV perspective, it would make for good TV, for sure.
And for your event next weekend, are you all set up?
Yeah, definitely! The shirts were delivered about a half hour ago, they’re looking good. We’re all ready to go. The last race, the 5k race, just sold out. So everything is full. We’re ready to go.
The Icbreaker Indoor Marathon kicks off tomorow (Friday, 29th) with the 5k, which starts at 19:00. The half marathon comprises two heats, starting at 07:00 and 09:30 Saturday (30yth). Full marathon starts 08:00 Sunday (31st).
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