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Off and running: Turnout for Bemidji marathon exceeds expectations

Dennis Bartz, one of the key organizers of this weekend’s Bemidji Blue Ox Marathon, explains how the starting line will work on the south side of the Sanford Center. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI — Dennis Bartz is always on the go.

The retired teacher and cross country and track coach in the Bemidji School District enjoys having projects to keep him on the move, and when a group of Bemidji runners was looking into the possibility of organizing a marathon, Bartz’ name came to the forefront.

"I know how much effort it takes to host a marathon, and initially I said no," Bartz said. "I told them I wouldn’t do it alone. But when other people stepped in to help out, the marathon became a possibility. And when we called our first community meeting about 16 months ago and 25 people showed up, I knew we could do it."

What was only a concept 30 months ago will become a reality this weekend as the Bemidji community will welcome more than 900 runners for various Bemidji Blue Ox Marathon races.

The celebration begins noon Friday with the vendor expo inside the Sanford Center and will conclude 1:30 p.m. Saturday with the awards ceremony.

The actual races include Friday’s 1K kids fun run at 4:30 p.m. and the 5K run at 5 p.m.

Saturday’s agenda features the 26.2-mile marathon at 9 a.m. and the half-marathon 20 minutes later.

All of the races will begin and end at the Sanford Center.

"It has been an amazing turnaround from concept to event," Bartz admitted. "When we began to plan for the races, I was thinking that 500 people would be a good turnout. But, as of Wednesday morning, we had 880 people registered. And I wouldn’t be surprised if we reached 1,000 by Saturday."

The list of participants features many runners with Bemidji ties but the community will also be welcoming a large contingent of first-time visitors.

"I’m not surprised by the turnout," Bartz said. "Bemidji has become a destination city. Twenty years ago people left Bemidji to do things, but now people come to the city because the whole town has become a hub."

The area community will reap the benefits of that hub status as hundreds of visitors will cram into the hotels, restaurants and watering holes.

"I had a group of Canadians call Tuesday night saying they couldn’t find a place to stay because all the hotels were filled," Bartz said. "If you go online now looking for a room you are being directed to Walker and to Blackduck. There are no rooms left in town."

The Bemidji running community will be well represented this weekend, as roughly 400 residents are registered for the various events. Another 250 runners hail from other Minnesota communities.

Participants also represent 22 other states plus Manitoba and Ontario.

The manpower required to handle an event of this magnitude is enormous, and the Blue Ox Marathon organizers have assembled more than 200 volunteers for the various duties.

"Their jobs will be to make sure everything runs smoothly," Bartz said. "We have qualified people to cover all aspects of the event and we are utilizing their individual skills.

"Our goal is to make sure that everybody has a great experience and we are doing everything possible to make sure that happens."

Blue Ox Marathon

Event Schedule


Noon-8 p.m.: Blue Ox Marathon Expo, Sanford Center (inside Gate 4)

Noon-8 p.m.: Packet pickup and volunteer check-in

Noon-4 p.m.: 1K kids run and 5-K run registration

2:30 p.m.-7 p.m.: Speakers and presenters, Sanford Center

4:30 p.m.: Start of kids 1K fun run, Sanford Center (outside Gate 4)

5 p.m.: Start of 5K run/walk, Sanford Center (outside Gate 4)

5:45 p.m.: 5-K run/walk awards ceremony


7:30 a.m.-8:30 a.m.: Last minute packet pickup

9 a.m.: Start of marathon, Sanford Center (outside Gate 1)

9:20 a.m.: Start of half-marathon, Sanford Center (outside Gate 1)

12:30 p.m.: Half-marathon awards ceremony

1:30 p.m.: Marathon awards ceremony

Pat Miller

Pat Miller is the sports editor at the Pioneer.

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