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Eau Claire Marathon deals with pandemic, route changes, roadwork
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EAU CLAIRE — It took a long, winding path to get here, but the Eau Claire Marathon will return this weekend.

In addition to challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, race organizers have contended with route changes and roadwork leading up to this year’s races.

“It’s been a long year and a half with changes that keep happening,” said Emi Uelmen, race director, “but it’s all worth it when you get to that finish line.”

After holding its 26.2-mile, 13.1-mile and 5-kilometer races virtually last year — participants ran on their own and logged their times online — the event will bring thousands together on Sunday.

Though it had used Carson Park as its home through 2019, the Eau Claire Marathon is now basing itself downtown with the starting line by Phoenix Park and the finish in Haymarket Plaza.

Over 2,000 people are signed up to run this weekend’s races — well below the 5,000 the event usually aims for.

“That’s definitely about half the size we usually have,” Uelmen said.

Holding numbers down is one way to reduce the chances it could become a COVID-spreading event. But Uelmen also acknowledged that moving the Eau Claire Marathon from its usual early May date to late September also put it in competition with other, larger long-distance races.

Pandemic precautions

Holding a large event during the pandemic prompted organizers to write six plans with different levels of precautions to prevent COVID-19 from spreading among runners, volunteers and spectators.

“For the most part we’re using plan C,” Uelmen said, noting it’s midway between the most lenient and restrictive measures.

One of the precautions in place is changing how the race starts so not all runners are crowded closely together. Sunday’s rolling start will have five runners leaving the starting line every few seconds to prevent congestion in the beginning and throughout the course.

“We feel like with the numbers we have, we can social distance,” Uelmen said, noting that wearing face masks is optional for runners.

Some other features of the race that could’ve caused people to congregate in spots have been cut back.

The Saturday before the race, the Eau Claire Marathon typically holds a large expo in the McPhee Center on the UW-Eau Claire campus. Runners pick up their bib numbers and T-shirts there, as well as visit more than 30 vendors who set up booths.

This year’s pre-race expo, which will be 3 to 9 p.m. Saturday in Phoenix Park, will be scaled back with just title sponsors there as runners pick up race materials.

Cheer stations — groups of 10 to 20 people from community organizations that cheer on runners along the courses — won’t be part of this year’s race. However, there will still be 10 DJs, five high school bands and music played at water stations on the routes.

Blugolds are back

A highlight of the full and half marathon routes since 2015 will again be part of Sunday’s races.

The Blugold Mile — a section of the races that passes through the UW-Eau Claire campus — will again have students and faculty there to energize and entertain runners.

“Our emphasis is always to have people cheering, making signs and be encouraging,” said Kristin Schumacher, director of University Centers.

How many will show up this Sunday is hard to predict, she said, but Schumacher is anticipating UW-Eau Claire sports teams, its marching band, many student clubs and many other individual students to be there to show the energy the university brings to Eau Claire.

“It’s a really nice blend of community and students,” she said.

The Blugold Mile is a little over a mile from the finish line for the full and half marathon courses. When runners reach the end of their races in Haymarket Plaza, they will be given their medals for finishing and bags of food to help them refuel and recover.

Organizers are asking that people not linger at the finish line, but instead spread out to cheer on other runners still on the courses or explore downtown.

To help encourage that, the beer garden affiliated with the race will not be in Phoenix Park, but at the parking lot at the corner of South Barstow Street and Grand Avenue, next to The Lismore Hotel.

“There’s going to be lots of options for people to stick around and stay,” Uelmen said.

Route changes, roadwork

COVID-19 wasn’t the only unforeseen event that affected the Eau Claire Marathon.

An unexpected change to the full and half marathon routes happened when the city shut down the High Bridge — a pedestrian bridge featured on those routes — in June due to structural issues.

Recertifying a new route around that took time, energy and money, Uelmen said. But she added that it did result in showing runners a section of riverfront trail that hadn’t previously been part of the marathon.

One of the more recent challenges to the 26.2-mile route has been a road project on Eau Claire’s north side that has experienced delays.

A quarter-mile section of Riverview Drive that was expected to be paved by this time was slowed down by multiple factors, including materials delays, according to Leah Ness, deputy city engineer.

So instead of the sandy soil that has been on that stretch, a pathway about six feet wide of gravel was laid this week so the runners have an acceptable surface to use.

SAWDUST STORIES: Remembering the one thing that counts
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Upon unloading our gear at the Coon Fork County Park campsite, my wife Meredith is reminded that I am still not the seasoned camper I pretend to be.

“So let me get this straight,” she says. “You forgot to pack the baby’s shoes?”

“Well, to be fair,” I say, “she forgot to pack them...”

“She’s a baby!”

“Right! And does a baby even need shoes?”

It is not the best of all possible answers.

“Seriously,” Meredith sighs. “How did you forget her shoes?”

Where to begin? Because I was trying to remember the tent, and the rainfly, and the cooler, and the towels, and the kayaks, and the lifejackets, and the paddles, and the children, and the dog, and the ...

“I guess I just had other things on my mind,” I say.

“Yeah,” Meredith says. “Me too.”

In 16 hours, Meredith will wake, wave goodbye, and then leave the campground to begin the 450-mile drive to Indiana for final preparations for her father’s funeral. Two days later we’ll join her, though only after she lugs all that emotional baggage herself.

“We’ll figure out the shoes,” I promise. “For now, let’s just try to have a nice time, huh?”

It seems worth a shot. And so, shortly after breaking camp, we race toward the water — all three kids splish-splashing along the edge of the pine-lined lake, where shoes are hardly required.

Later that night I start the fire with ease, the result of all the things I didn’t forget: kindling, dry wood, and a long-range butane lighter. Yet despite my perfect fire-building preparations, it appears as if I may have forgotten the hot dog roasting fork.

I sweat, though not due to my proximity to the flames.

“So where’s the roasting fork?” Meredith asks.

“Well,” I say, taking a philosophical approach, “can we ever really know where anything is?”

Meredith throws up her hands.

“First the shoes, then the roasting fork, what next?”

“The ketchup and mustard!” my son chimes from his place beside the open cooler. “He forgot those too!”

“And the bug spray,” adds my oldest daughter.

“I got this!” I shout. “Everything’s under control.”

Reaching for the car keys, I drive to the nearby town of Augusta. Ahead of me, I spot the answer to most of my problems: the local dollar store.

I enter through the automatic doors, where a female employee in her 20s says, “Can I help ...”

“Baby shoes,” I beg, throwing myself at her mercy. “I need baby shoes. And a hot dog roasting fork. And ketchup. And mustard. And bug spray. And probably a lot of things I don’t even know I forgot yet.”

“Um ... okay,” the woman says, “well we’ve got some shoes over here ...”

In the end, we find everything but the roasting fork. Better still, on the way to the register, I grab some peace offering moon pies for the kids.

“Anything else?” the woman asks.

My eyes fall to the assortment of helium balloons floating near the store’s front corner.

“And one of those,” I say.

“Any one in particular?”

I study my options: Happy Birthday, You’re a Star, Congratulations ...

“One ‘I Love You,’ balloon,” I say.

Fifteen minutes later, I pull into the camp site to find the rest of the family thoroughly enjoying roasted hotdogs.

“Well, what happened here?” I ask, surprised by their sudden change in mood and self-sufficiency.

“We found a stick,” my son says. “And we just stuck the hotdog right on the end of it!”

“You found a stick in a forest?” I ask. “Well, if that’s not the craziest thing ...”

“That’s not all we found,” Meredith says. Sheepishly, she holds up a pair of tiny pink shoes.

My jaw hits the pine needles.

“Where did you ...”

“They were buried in some bag,” she shrugs.

“Shoes,” the baby confirms. “Shoes!”

“An abundance of shoes!” I agree.

Bypassing the children, Meredith walks toward the trunk of the car and offers me a quick hug.

“I probably owe you an apology,” she says.

“I probably owe you one,” I reply. “But since they don’t make ‘I’m Sorry,’ balloons, you’ll have to settle for this one.”

She laugh-snorts when I hand it to her, then ties it to the picnic table.

Thirteen years into marriage, there are plenty of things we no longer say. The shorthand says it all: a look, a sigh, a snort, a sniffle, a smile.

But that night, there are still messages to convey that extend beyond the space of a balloon. As the fire burns low and the kids ease toward sleep, I say, “Hey, why don’t you take the kayak for a quick spin?”

“Well,” Meredith says, eyeing the lake. “I guess I could.”

“Do it.”

Needing no further prompting, her silhouette descends toward the water. She slides into the plastic seat, reaches for the paddle, then slips from the safety of the shoreline. Having grown bored with the fire, the kids, dog, and I circle the rim of that lake to watch.

In the distance, the kids see nothing more than their mom bobbing about in the water. What I see is a woman who, for what seems the first time in a decade, treats herself to 10 quiet minutes. Ten quiet minutes which, with startlingly accuracy, the children interrupt with a little impromptu caterwauling.

“Hey kids!” Meredith shouts, her voice carrying across the water. “Shouldn’t you be sleeping?”

“No!” shout the oldest two.

“Shoes!” shouts the baby.

Moments later, I walk to the water’s edge to help her pull the kayak ashore.

“Your turn,” Meredith says, handing me the paddle.

“You sure?” I ask. “Even though I forgot like ... everything?”

Smiling, she gives both me and the kayak a push.

For 10 minutes, I take my turn paddling into the dark.

But I don’t make it halfway across the lake before I hear the echo of our children’s playful screams. From the sound of things, someone has stolen somebody else’s moon pie.

“Where’d you put it?”

“I didn’t put it anywhere!”

“Shoes! Shoes! Shoes!”

I sigh, close my eyes to the starry night, and listen to what sounds like music.

Man accused of helping son after slayings of 4 in Minnesota

MENOMONIE (AP) — The father of a man charged with killing four people in Minnesota and hiding their bodies in an SUV abandoned in Wisconsin is accused of helping his son after the slayings.

Darren Osborne, who also uses the last name McWright, was charged Wednesday with aiding and abetting an offender. He is being held in Ramsey County on $2 million bail. Osborne has not yet been assigned a public defender who could speak on his behalf.

Osborne’s son, Antoine Suggs, 38, of Scottsdale, Arizona, is accused of fatally shooting four people in St. Paul on Sept. 12. Later that day, a farmer found their bodies in a Mercedes-Benz SUV abandoned in a field of tall corn in the Town of Sheridan, Wisconsin, some 60 miles (97 kilometers) east of St. Paul.

According to the criminal complaint filed against Osborne, he followed his son in another SUV as Suggs drove the Mercedes-Benz with the bodies to Dunn County, Wisconsin.

Osborne then drove his son back to Minnesota, the complaint says.

Osborne is also charged in Dunn County, Wisconsin, with four felony counts of party to hiding a corpse.

Suggs allegedly told his father he “snapped and shot a couple of people,” according to a criminal complaint filed against him.

Suggs surrendered on Sept. 17 in Arizona and is charged with four counts of second-degree murder in the deaths of Matthew Pettus, 26, and half-sister Jasmine Sturm, 30, her boyfriend, 35-year-old Loyace Foreman III, all of St. Paul; and 30-year-old Nitosha Flug-Presley of Stillwater, a close friend of Sturm’s.

Flug-Presley’s aunt told authorities that her niece had a “thing” with Suggs and he would fly in from Arizona to see her.

Osborne told investigators he didn’t know there were bodies in the Mercedes when they drove to Wisconsin, but the complaint appears to dispute that.

Osborne “approached and stood at the Mercedes-Benz’s open passenger window next to (Flug-Presley’s) hunched over body while in the gas station parking lot,” not far from the cornfield, according to the complaint.