Milwaukee River Marathon and the Tribal Challenge

The Milwaukee River, fitness and participation have replaced the alcohol-fueled street vibe of the old River Splash.

By - Jun 8th, 2012 04:00 am
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The river chariot awaits. (All photos courtesy Milwaukee River Marathon and The Tribal Challenge)

Adam VanderVeen, photographed at the Laacke & Joys dock on the Milwaukee River, May 26, 2012.

When Adam VanderVeen started his job as the director of operations at the Water Street Entertainment District last spring, he faced pleas to bring back RiverSplash. For many years, the long-running downtown street festival kicked off Milwaukee’s summer festival season. It ended after the 2009 event, after crowd control, drunkenness and brawling tarnished its reputation.  Though a revival was not a viable option, VanderVeen looked into alternatives.

“RiverSplash really was about celebrating the river, this great natural resource that we have, but had lost that focus over the years,” says VanderVeen. He looked for an event that actually paid homage to the river.

He came up with the Milwaukee River Marathon, a five-mile kayak and canoe race and recreational paddle. The inaugural filled the void last summer and laid the foundation for a weekend-long festival this June.

The Milwaukee River Marathon will return on Sunday, June 10, in its original format with competitive, non-competitive, and recreational divisions.

VanderVeen has expanded the River Marathon, made it more challenging and has incorporated the nearby Oak Leaf Trail and Milwaukee River trails. He’s added running and cycling legs to the original paddling leg. The result is the Tribal Challenge, branded as an “untamed triathlon” and slated for Saturday, June 9.

The Milwaukee River Marathon and the Tribal Challenge share the same paddle course, starting at Estabrook Park and finishing at Laacke & Joys, the presenting sponsor of the races.

The Tribal Challenge gives participants a sense of the pre-industrial hunting and gathering life. They will cover 15 miles of water and trails on bike (the modern day horse), foot, and canoe or kayak and complete survival challenges on the way.

“It’s some weird hybrid of triathlon and adventure race,” says VanderVeen.

But participants will travel in “tribes” of two or more, with a designated chief. Costumes are optional but welcome.

“We’re definitely encouraging larger tribes, because you’re really going to have a much more enjoyable experience if you’re doing it with your friends,” says VanderVeen.

The survival challenges are under wraps until tribes encounter them on the course. But VanderVeen divulged that the hunting and gathering missions are geared to benefit larger tribes. He guarantees there will be no mud—a gimmick that has become synonymous with extreme adventure races.

The challenges are not limited to the course.

“Being new and small is definitely the biggest challenge in putting it all together, trying to get people behind a concept instead of something that is proven,” says VanderVeen. He said that community support has been overwhelming—and acame from some surprising sources.

A veteran adventure racer overheard VanderVeen’s conversation about the Tribal Challenge one day at a coffee shop and offered his insight.  The advice proved  a blessing. VanderVeen is a professional mixed martial arts fighter and former Marine, but a newcomer to adventure races and endurance sports.  He invited the expert to develop and design the course challenges.

Vander Veen wanted floating bonfires to draw attention to the event.  Milwaukee School of Engineering students stepped in to design and build the fire pits using materials donated by Miller Compressing Company in a workshop provided by Milwaukee Maker Space.  The chief of the winning tribe will have the honor of lighting the fire pits Saturday evening, in lieu of a grand prize.

“We really want this to be more about the experience than about winning,” says VanderVeen.

It’s all about the river.  The Tribal Challenge encourages participants to fundraise for the Milwaukee Environmental Consortium. Anyone who raises $100 or more will get a registration discount.

VanderVeen predicts a diverse turnout of  triathletes based on last year’s Milwaukee River Marathon.  Inaugural participants ranged from seasoned kayak competitors to a kayak builder who paddled her handmade wooden craft to river rookies who simply floated downstream.

“I think people just enjoy challenging themselves,” says VanderVeen. “Experience is the new luxury.”

Despite designing the Tribal Challenge to accommodate all abilities, VanderVeen advises all participants to incorporate some running in their training preparation.  For those without the desire to compete, there are still opportunities to volunteer at water stations and the bike valet or serve as race marshals.

“It’s really just about having a fun, successful event and planting the seed to help grow a large Milwaukee festival down the road,” says VanderVeen.

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