Art Krueger, director of the Wave Aquatic and Fitness Center in Whitefish, grew up as a basketball player.
“I ran 90 feet at a time, that’s it,” Krueger said. “Never in my life did I think about connecting those together.”
That mentality changed after he ran in a local 5-kilometer race at Herron Park and began to wonder if he could go further. To put himself to the test, in 2012, he ran the Two Bear Half Marathon, an event put on by The Wave that included a full marathon that circumnavigated Whitefish Lake.
“I really pushed my fitness and figured out I was able to run 13 miles,” Krueger said. “I want to see other people be able to do that. I want to open the door for folks who never thought they could run or walk a 5k, much less a half or full marathon.”
That’s the impetus behind the Whitefish Marathon, formerly the Two Bear Marathon and now in its 15th year, which will take this place on Saturday, May 21 along with a half marathon and 5k run.
A week out from the event Todd Oliver, race director for the Whitefish marathon, was in a flurry to get race packets together for a virtual race he was also in charge of.
That’s one thing he doesn’t have to worry about as much for the Whitefish run — almost every participant is showing up in person — a fact he’s ecstatic about.
“Ten days out, we’ve already got record registration, and they’re all going to be there on race day,” Oliver said. “We anticipated being about 10% down from last year, but we’ve been tracking ahead of last year’s numbers.”
That’s especially impressive seeing as the 2021 event doubled in size from 2019, surpassing 1,000 total participants.
The full marathon saw 162 finishers last year, surpassing Helena’s Governor’s Cup marathon, a nearly half-century old event, and making Whitefish the third largest marathon in Montana behind Missoula and Bozeman.
The half marathon had 332 finishers last year, again the third largest in Montana, and Oliver said more than 400 people have signed up this year.
The Whitefish Marathon has come a long way from its humble beginnings in 2004, when a group of runners set out to find a way to spend 26.2 miles circumnavigating Whitefish Lake on trails. They successfully mapped out a challenging, albeit scenic, course and the Two Bear Marathon came into existence.
For many years the Two Bear Marathon course changed every year, utilizing a mixture of trails and roads around Whitefish Lake, before Krueger opted to pursue a different format to increase the event’s fundraising ability
Oliver was brought on as race director, the race shifted to the spring and the marathon moved entirely to the roads and was certified as a qualifier for the Boston Marathon. Oliver says the latter is huge for drawing out-of-state participants, which last year made up nearly half of participants representing 37 different states.
“‘Runcation’ is a buzzword we saw before COVID, but especially since then people have been picking races that can anchor a multi-day trip,” Oliver said adding that roughly half of registered participants this year are from outside Montana. “Whitefish is already a known tourist town, and people see this as a great way to sightsee around the community.”
The continued growth has directly helped both the Wave’s scholarship fund, a program that allows community members who wouldn’t otherwise have the means to enroll at the facility on a sliding scale and its School to Pool program that teaches third graders how to swim as well as water-based lifesaving techniques.
Last year, the event brought in $40,000, which Krueger said almost fully funded School to Pool and helps with the roughly 300 scholarship recipients.
That ability to funnel all proceeds to the scholarship fund is aided by local sponsors, which this year includes a new multi-year partnership with Whitefish-based Hammer Nutrition as the presenting sponsor for the race.
“We sponsor hundreds of events all around the world every year, so it only makes sense that we support this one,” said Hammer Nutrition founder Brian Frank.
In addition to providing on-course nutrition and hydration, Hammer is contributing a cash purse to podium finishers of the half and full marathons totaling $3,400.
“We’ve always had an interest in having a cash purse and a true elite field that can draw fast racers, and we can do that with Hammer’s commitment,” Oliver said. “In Whitefish we have a half course especially that is conducive to some really fast times, so we’re excited to see what happens in the next few years.”
Aiming for some of those podium spots this year will be 2019 marathon winner Drew Coco and 2021 Bozeman Marathon champion Kaitlyn McNamara.
For Oliver, however, he says it’s not the first person to cross the finish line but closer to the 15th that’s his favorite.
“As race director, my heart rate only comes down once there’s a steady stream of finishers cross the line, and none of them are bee-lining it to me to report a problem,” he said. “Standing at that finish line and seeing it come together is the best, when everyone is crossing the line and they’re either smiling, exhausted or both.”
To register for the race visit www.whitefishmarathon.com. The marathon, half marathon and 5k all begin at Depot Park in Whitefish on Saturday at 8 a.m.
Registered runners can pick up their race packets on Friday, May 20 between 12 p.m. and 6 p.m. at The Wave Aquatic and Fitness Center in Whitefish, or on race day at Depot Park beginning at 6:30 a.m.’
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