Blue Ridge Marathon Becoming Part of Roanoke’s Business Plan

by Gene Marrano

Created in part to attract runners to the Roanoke Valley from other parts of the country, the recent second annual Blue Ridge Marathon did just that – participants came from 37 states and Germany.

In addition to the Blue Ridge Marathon, a criterium bike race in downtown Roanoke, a “Bike Fest” at the Civic Center and dozens of musical acts around the city made for an entertaining if somewhat soggy day. Most of the activities moved to various indoor locations downtown because of the rain.

Race director Ronnie Angell said that despite the rain that fell on April 16, the event did what it was designed to do: it helped put Roanoke on the map as a destination for marathon races, in what he called “America’s Toughest Road Marathon.” That’s a title Roanoke is playfully sparring over with the City of Tucson, AZ, where the Mount Lemmon Marathon also treks up a mountain.

A number of national racing publications covered the Blue Ridge Marathon this year, media reporting that was almost nonexistent in 2010 according to Angell. “That should definitely help us out more next year. We’re looking forward to seeing what they [publish] and what type of a return we get on that.”

Race co-chair Pete Eshelman, also the Director of Outdoor branding for the Regional Partnership, said the Down By Downtown music festival and a climbing wall that had to be scrapped due to the bad weather would have “capped the day off, but all things considered… the feedback has been incredible.” Many of the runners were impressed by the amount of support from volunteers along the course – almost 400 race marshals helped keep racers on track.

The Blue Ridge Marathon has already attracted interest from outside parties that may consider Roanoke for a business location – one prospect Eshelman helped squire around town the day after the marathon wanted to see the racecourse on their tour. Their business involves an outdoor culture said Eshelman. “The marathon was of great interest to them.”

A main goal of the race is attracting runners and those who seek healthy lifestyles, for feeling that could lead some of the visitors to look around, perhaps considering the Roanoke Valley for their family or business – at least for a vacation..

After two years Eshelman sees evidence that the marathon is having an impact business-wise. At least two families that he knows of came back to the area last year for vacations, specifically because they had been here for the first marathon. Running Times magazine covered this year’s race. “It has the byproduct of tourism and local economic impact. Ultimately the reason that I’m involved is to help get Roanoke noticed outside of the area. It’s paying off in different ways.”

Eshelman was also happy to see a good turnout for the bike race that followed, including wall-to-wall spectators at one point: “it was really cool.” A large cash prize helped attract teams to the Roanoke criterium, including professional riders from overseas. Eshelman had encouraged Stratton Delaney, the bike race organizer, to hold the race on the same day as the marathon.

Angell also hopes to see other events like the bike race return in some form in 2011. “I think it’s a great mix… just the buzz about fitness and the competitive nature of the two events on the same day [created] nothing but good energy.” He agrees with Pete Eshelman on the principal mission for the Blue Ridge Marathon: “we definitely did what we intended to do with this marathon – making it a destination event bringing people to the Roanoke Valley,” said Angell.

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