When the PNC Milwaukee Marathon takes over the city this weekend with thousands of runners competing in five different races, its original creator will not be there.
Former race director Chris Ponteri will be in Minnesota for parents' weekend, to see his son perform in the marching band for the University of Minnesota. And actually, that is a welcome distraction.
Ponteri, the visionary for what was formerly called the PNC Milwaukee Running Festival for two years, left the race this spring after new ownership took over. Unhappy – and running poorly by his standards – Ponteri was in a dark place.
It might not seem like a 51-year-old who can run a Boston Marathon in less than 4 hours had struggles. But when Ponteri was sick and tired of feeling, well, sick and tired, he decided he had to make changes.
"I ran the 2015 Boston Marathon in 3 hours, 14 minutes and was pretty happy with that," Ponteri said. "After that, things just fell apart for me.
"I quit taking care of myself, both mentally and physically. I let the stress of life get the best of me."
While he oversaw the PNC and other local races with his company Longrun Athletics, Ponteri ate whatever he wanted, ran inconsistently, didn't do much cross-training and slept four, five hours a night. He gained 20 pounds, battled one injury after another and sank into a depression.
His Boston Marathon time this April was one of his slowest ever (3:56), and Ponteri felt defeated.
"I knew if I was happier I would take better care of myself – and if I took better care of myself I would be happier," Ponteri said. "The two were connected."
So this spring, Ponteri stepped aside from the PNC Marathon event.
"Leaving my job as race director was actually a very positive thing for my health," Ponteri said. "There was some sadness since I was the founder of the event, but nothing came easy. The obstacles we overcame to even get this thing off the ground were massive; battles with the Common Council, the Badgerland Striders, the churches on the route, Summerfest, the Brewers. I was just one guy from tiny Wind Lake with a dream, and these were established organizations with a lot of clout."
Ponteri's vision was of a scenic, diverse course and numerous route distances that would draw top talent at the marathon level. The PNC event went through growing pains the first two years. The locations changed. Someone tampered with cone markers on the course in 2016, which caused several runners, including the women's champion, to exceed 26.2 miles.
Still the races – the full 26.2 marathon, the 13.1 half, the 10K, 5K and 1 mile – were well organized and a fresh idea for the Milwaukee running scene. The races drew about 4,000 and 3,900 the first two years, but the event itself was not profitable.
"We came in at the wrong time – the first down year in the marathon and half marathon industry in years," Ponteri said. "We were fortunate to find a venture capitalist, Mike Zimmerman, to provide the financing to make it to the second year, and beyond, but it just didn't work out for me. Let's just say they do things a lot differently than I do.
"I feel a great amount of satisfaction that we got this thing off the ground. I knew Milwaukee needed an event like this, like all other world-class cities do."
After walking away from his baby, so to speak, Ponteri created a plan for himself. Core exercises, lifting weights, stretching at least 20 minutes (a must for distance runners), running, walking, cross training, eating five fruits and vegetables a day, drinking 150 ounces of water all became routines. He became mindful. That even included 30-minute breaks from looking at his phone.
Ponteri's nutritional change was probably the biggest. He gets in three servings of fruit at breakfast and two servings of vegetables at lunch.
"My goal wasn't to lose weight even though I have probably lost more than 10 pounds," Ponteri said. "Paying closer attention to what I eat has helped in a few ways. I tend to eat compulsively. Some people can stop at one or two cookies; I will eat eight or nine of them. I started thinking twice about that."
The key, said Ponteri, was taking small steady steps.
"There is that temptation to make a bunch of drastic changes all at once, but by doing it in steps it makes it less daunting. One thing can build off another."
Ponteri also gave up the idea that sleep was a luxury. He turned off his phone and electronics an hour before bed, started reading before bed and drinking less caffeine. His mood and his energy benefited from the rest.
Ponteri ran the DoLittle Marathon in 3:17 back in that heat spell in September. It's an incredible finish time. At 51, his PRs are probably behind him, but clearly he can maintain his elite level of running.
"I look at this as a successful end of this chapter of my comeback story," Ponteri said.
Ponteri is now the executive director of the Adel B. Korkor MD Foundation in Delafield. The mission is to make the world a better place for those suffering from mental illness, and as a way of promoting this, there are plans for Korkor to run a 5k race in all 50 states in 50 days next year.
"I am going to assist with setting these up. It's a wonderful job," Ponteri said.
"I feel like the takeaway from all of this is the connection between physical health and mental health. They go hand in hand. The better you take care of yourself, the happier you are.
"The hard part, however, is making positive and lasting changes. I think part of my increased motivation to do this has to do with getting older. A lot of things crossed my mind, like: Life is short. We need to make every day count.
"You can't count on other people to make you happy; you need to find it from within. As you get older you start to realize that you may not have tomorrow to make changes, you need to make them now."