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Blue Ox is back for more: New races, overall mission for Bemidji’s marathon event

Justin McDowell, Savern, Md., was one of many runners that brought a little humor to the first Blue Ox Marathon in October. He finished sixth overall out of 114 male runners in the marathon. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI — The Blue Ox will be back, with a new focus, new races and a new route.

Registration has opened for Bemidji’s marathon event, which features a number of shorter races as well, as the two-day affair officially becomes an annual occurrence this fall.

While running will, of course, continue to headline the event, the overall mission and goals for the Blue Ox has shifted, becoming more focused on celebrating and promoting active living.

“That’s the big focus for us,” said Phil Knutson, executive director of the Blue Ox Marathon.

Knutson was a member of the planning committee that worked to establish the Blue Ox, which in its inaugural year drew nearly 1,000 runners and walkers in October to races ranging from the full marathon to the 1K kids run.

“It grew easily to becoming more than just an event,” he said.

The group that planned last year’s events needed to create an official nonprofit group, establish governance, form a board and support a mission statement.

“A big focus almost immediately after the race last year was structure,” said Knutson, whose day job is working with the Northwest Minnesota Foundation and has that nonprofit experience. He is one of four key individuals leading efforts to plan this year’s events. Angie Gora, president of the Blue Ox board, is in charge of timing and registration; Jill Bitker, the volunteers; and Chris Bitker, the course.

This year, the event is slated for Friday and Saturday, Oct. 10-11, the second weekend in October, again starting outside the Sanford Center.

The expo

In accordance with the new mission, planners now are looking for ways to further promote active living.

One such idea is to broaden the scope of the vendors expo to include not just companies that manufacture products for long-distance runners, but to include all those who encourage active-living initiatives, such as the local sports clubs.

The expo, which was held only Friday last year but this year is slated to be held both Friday and Saturday, is now pegged the Be Active Expo.

Knutson said the details are still being finalized, but he sees a situation that would allow for nonprofits that fit specific criteria — such as maybe the local soccer clubs or cross-country ski clubs — to apply for a spot at the expo, perhaps not a full booth but still providing table space for representatives with handout materials. Planners would hold some sort of lottery to see who would actually secure a spot.

“It makes the expo more than just the marathoners’ expo,” Knutson said. “It brings all of the active-living community together.

“Hopefully, then, it makes it more valuable for companies, too, to have booths because not only is the running community there, but they have all these other people, all these other active people, there as well.”

For example, if Sports Authority were to have a booth at the expo, that business — relatively new in Bemidji — would not only have a platform through which it could market its running gear, but also its sports equipment.

Last year, the expo featured guest speakers, including runners and a nutritionist, and Knutson said the information they offered would be beneficial for many.

“It needs to be a bigger part (of the whole Blue OX weekend),” he said. “It needs to almost be promoted as its own separate thing because there’s no reason that anybody in the community, even if they’re not into running, couldn’t still go there and get information that would be helpful to them.”

Longer-term, Knutson said organizers hope in future years to reach out and get into schools, perhaps having representatives read books about running or physical fitness and then working with students to create handmade signs that would encourage runners throughout the courses.

“I think it would be fun to get into the schools and do programs with them,” Knutson said.

Kurt Wayne is a development specialist with the Headwaters Regional Development Commission, where he works with active-living and transportation initiatives for the five-county region. Wayne himself is not involved with planning for the Blue Ox, but said he believes the public is becoming more aware and active-living efforts and would embrace events that promote such habits.

“I would say (active living) is something that is spreading a little bit more,” said. “It’s something that the state of Minnesota has focused on more and more in the last five years.”

The runs

Organizers this year are capping total entrants at 1,700 for all the runs.

Last year’s events drew 1,000 runners and walkers, coming from 23 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces.

“I think that surprised everybody,” Knutson said.

This year, Friday’s events include a 1K and a new half-K kids run, both of which will be held in the Sanford Center parking lot. The max for those events is 150 participants.

There also is a 5K run/walk that will leave from and end at the Sanford Center.

Last year, 250 took part in the 5K and this year, Knutson said the cap for the 5K is 550.

The longer races commence Saturday with the half-marathon, the new 26K, and the full marathon.

The 26K is a new race added this year. Unlike the half, which requires bus transportation so that the runners can finish at the Sanford Center like the other races, the 26K will completely circle Lake Bemidji, allowing runners to both start and finish at the event center.

Knutson said the addition of the 26K nearly triggered the discontinuation of the half-marathon, since the two distances aren’t too far apart — a 26K is just over 16 miles while a half marathon is just over 13 — and doesn’t need the additional hassles of a bus, but planners ultimately opted to offer both. The max for both events, total, is 600.

The full marathon will of course be back but there has been an adjustment of the course, as with the half-marathon. Up to 400 runners will be allowed to run the full.

“One of the biggest reasons we had to change (the course) was because of the railroad tracks,” Knutson said. “We crossed the railroad tracks twice for the half and the full last year.”

While the planning committee received word that the railroad companies would in fact stop their trains that day, the confirmation came late in the planning process.

Also, while it didn’t play in a factor in the decision-making, a legal decision that came out around the same time also affirmed the planners’ decision. In 2012, four people were killed and 14 others injured when a parade float was struck by a train in a railroad crossing. Knutson said a recent ruling said the parade organizers were at fault for planning a route that cross the tracks.

The route now has runners heading up the east side of the lake and then jutting off toward Big Bass Lake for about five miles, turning around, coming back, and then finishing the circle around the lake.

“All of them (the routes) will still go through the state park, all of them will go through or pass by the city pats, past the college, past Paul and Babe, along the south side of the lake and back to the Sanford Center,” Knutson said.

About 200 volunteers helped make the first event possible.

“We’re going to need every bit of those 200, plus more,” Knutson said. “It’s a neat position because the runners get psyched up because of the volunteers and love the volunteers and soak it all in, and the volunteers seemed to experience the same thing.”