Chicago Athlete on the Road: Wausau Marathon

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Chicago Athlete hit the road and headed north this weekend to the town of Wausau, Wisconsin for the Wausau Marathon. Wausau is a city that is divided by the Wisconsin River and located in central Wisconsin with about 40,000 residents. The downtown area is centered around the 400 Block, which is basically a town square, complete with a stage for performances, several benches, and a large grassy recreational area. The square is surrounded by shops, restaurants, and hotels.

It is an adorable area that seems to be expanding with its offerings to visitors and residents. There was live music that played each evening and several people went to the 400 Block to listen and enjoy during the last of the summer evenings.

I left Chicago and arrived about 4 hours later on Friday evening, just in time to grab my race packet from the 400 Block, and check in to my hotel, The Jefferson Street Inn. This is the perfect place to stay if you plan to run any of the distances offered by the Wausau Marathon. It is directly across from the 400 Block, which housed packet pick up, and was the location of the start/finish line. It is also located in the heart of the downtown area and within walking distance of a plethora of restaurants and shops.

We spent the first evening at the pool and had a quick dinner before turning in for the night. The Jefferson Street Inn rooms were large and incredibly comfortable. It took me about 3 minutes to fall asleep in the cozy bed, which was so important, as race morning came quickly!

I rolled out of bed around 6am and grabbed a cup of coffee from the hotel lobby before heading across the street to the race start line. Music was playing and the energy was high, as runners gathered to chat before the race. The Wausau Marathon offered a full marathon, marathon walk, marathon relay, half marathon, and 5K. The distances each began at different times, allowing for less congestion at the start line. The marathon runners, of which I was a part, began promptly at 7am.

The race start was open for runners to select their placement, based on anticipated paces. On Pace provided pacers for various finish times, which is so helpful for runners. I ran with the 3:30 pace group, led by Jeff Picken and he was a fantastic pacer. He kept us on our time goal and spirits high with intermittent conversation built into the three and a half hours. He also gave us tips as we tackled the many elevation changes and wind pick ups.

The course was brand new for 2023 and designed by Race Director, Scott Smith. It had many out and backs which took runners on a tour of Wausau. The course allowed runners to experience the charm of Wausau as it wound through the restaurant districts, trails, and residential areas. The nature that has been preserved in this community was evident in the authentic beauty of the areas we toured.

Runners had several out and backs that crossed courses with each distance. The course design allowed runners to hit aid stations several times, so there was never a shortage of water and Gatorade, which was important as temperatures reached the high 80’s with full sunshine as the morning hours crept in. The downside of a criss-cross course design and multiple distance options is that it can be confusing and proper signage is key.

New courses always have quirks to work out when put into application and RD Smith is already working on changes for next year’s route to make it more clear for runners. I loved the course as it was, and can’t wait to see what he comes up with for 2024.

Runners had full course support and there was no congestion on the route. The scenery was constantly changing, and truly took runners on a tour of Wausau. There were several hills that were semi-challenging, but the real doozy came at mile 21. This hill was seemingly upright and in full sunshine, with pure blacktop at our feet. It felt unending, but relief came when, at the top, runners turned and headed back down to make the jaunt back to the finish line. At the finish line, runners were greeted with water, beer, brats, chips, and a multitude of snacks. A DJ called out each runner’s name as they crossed the finish line, where we were given a medal and friendly congratulations from the volunteers.

The awards for the races were unique and thoughtful. The top three winners were given a hotel package and free race entry for 2024. The top three winners in each age group were given Goodr sunglasses! What a treat for runners who were able to catch those top times.

Staying at the Jefferson Street Inn allowed my family to swim in the morning and have breakfast, while still watching my run. They would pop down to watch me weave back into the area, and then head back to the hotel to enjoy some active family fun. They came out to the 400 Block for my finish and we all enjoyed the festivities hosted by the race. It was such a fun atmosphere, and I would have stayed longer, if I didn’t need a shower…badly.

Luckily the hotel was about one block from the finish line, again perfect placement for this race, so I wobbled back and enjoyed a shower before we set out to find the best soft serve ice cream in the area. Wausau has a district called, RiverLife, which has multiple playground structures, a large arcade/restaurant, and the best soft serve chain in central Wisconsin.

Briq’s soft serve is the home of the one pound cone, which my teenage son, immediately took the challenge of eating. The rest of the family opted for the smaller versions, dipped in Butterscotch, coated in sprinkles, or turtle-topped. We sat outside on the Wisconsin River and enjoyed our ice cream in the summer sun. The RiverLife area was just over a half mile from the hotel and town square, and an easy walk.

Once our sugar high set in, we headed back to the 400 Block area to visit the shops. We found a large local bookstore called, Janke Book Store, where my daughter spent time exploring the rows of stories. The area is very dog friendly, and we met a 15-year-old gal, named Fiona, who was snoozing on the bookstore floor and enjoyed pets from the patrons.

We then went to Downtown Grocery, which was right out of a Hallmark movie. There were rows of gluten free and dairy free options. My husband created a four pack of “build your own beer” and we grabbed a monster size gingerbread and chocolate chip cookie. (I had just run a marathon and my sugar supply was depleted.)

We then headed back to the finish line to cheer on the back of the pack runners, coming in at 6-7 hours. Even though the course officially closed at 1pm, the race kept the finish line open and energy high to cheer on these runners and walkers, who certainly earned their brats and beer!

We needed a break from the heat at this point and went back to the hotel to swim. The Jefferson Street Inn has an indoor pool and hot tub, both of which were extremely clean and pristinely maintained. The pool had colored lights that switched from purple to red to blue, illuminating the room and creating a fun underwater scene for the kids. I headed straight to the hot tub, where I stayed with the jets full blast on my sore muscles. Immerging into a pool and/or hot tub is one of the most therapeutic things you can do for your body following a long race. The water helps to heal the muscles and soothe tired legs. I appreciate when hotels provide this amenity for so many reasons but especially for a post-race recovery session.

The hotel also houses a great workout room that has a full body weight machine, yoga mat, stretching bands, treadmill, elliptical machine, and bike. I used the room for a full body stretching session, utilizing the bands to stretch even deeper.

I mentioned earlier that the rooms in the hotel were spacious, but I feel it needs mentioning again. The rooms were much larger than those of a traditional hotel. Everything was clean and well kept. The air conditioning was controlled by a wall unit, which responded quickly when I lowered or raised the temperature. The bathroom housed a standing shower unit, and a large sink area.

There was also a microwave and fridge in the room, which I was so thankful for. As a runner with allergies and one who really depends on a food routine (yes, I’m a very boring eater), I especially am thankful when a hotel provides amenities that allow me to continue the routine while traveling. There was also an in-room coffee maker and full supply of coffee, but the lobby provided ample coffee and tea all day, so I never had the need to use that.

In addition to accommodations, the hotel has a banquet facility and a floor of shops and restaurants. Parking was free and ample. The hotel staff was friendly and welcoming. I can’t recommend the Jefferson Street Inn enough. Beyond the fact that the hotel itself is charming and relaxing, it’s placement in the town center is ideal. We parked and did not use our car once the entire weekend. And, it’s steps away from the start/finish line of the Wausau Marathon!

Oh, and did I mention that there is a free breakfast at the hotel’s restaurant, Char??? A full breakfast buffet with eggs, sausage, yogurt, granola, and an assortment of pastries is included in your stay. This family-friendly hotel provides fitness options and an active way to enjoy your time away. It is the perfect place to stay if you are running the Wausau Marathon or just want to enjoy the downtown delights.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the RedEye Brewing Company as a healthy restaurant option, with many food choices, and a sensitivity to gluten intolerance. Located about 3 blocks from the hotel, we found this hidden gem. The menu was robust and the server asked if the gluten free food choices we ordered should be prepared separately for intolerance of if the preference was for a sensitivity, and therefore needed a lower level of care. There was indoor and outdoor seating, with a bags set for pre or post dinner play. Dogs were welcome in the outdoor seating area and the mood was fun and upbeat. This is a great option for families with or without allergies, for fresh, healthy meal options.

The weekend in Wausau was a great way to begin to closeout the summer. I would highly recommend you add the Wausau Marathon to your list of races in 2024. It’s a quiet weekend for races in the Chicago area, and this event truly fills a need in the race calendar. It’s a smaller race, but has big race feel with the amenities, course support, and start/finish line area. And a trip to Wausau should definitely include a stay at The Jefferson Street Inn, a visit to the local shops, and a one pound soft serve cone dipped in butterscotch!

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