Blue Ridge Marathon Is More Than a Race

blue ridge marathon roanoke

By Pete Eshelman, director of outdoor branding

Appeared in The Roanoke Times, May 28, 2018


When is a marathon more than just a race?

Answer: When it’s part of an integrated economic development strategy.

April 21 was a beautiful weekend, not only for the runners who participated in the Foot Levelers Blue Ridge Marathon or the music lovers who enjoyed the Wells Fargo Down by Downtown Music Festival, but for the Roanoke region as a whole. The list of benefits the weekend brings to our communities continues to grow.

When the Roanoke Regional Partnership started the Blue Ridge Marathon in 2010, it wasn’t just to have another race. It was created as a “bucket list” event that certainly attracts tourists but more importantly enhances the region’s national image, gives our community something big to be a part of, and shows people there is something special about the beauty and lifestyle of the Roanoke region. Last month, runners from 39 states and 6 countries saw just how special this place is by running America’s Toughest Road Marathon (double marathon, half marathon, relay, 10K).

The race is fulfilling those promises and more. In nine years, there has been a $4.5 million dollar economic impact on the regional economy – that’s money people from outside of the region spend here on hotels, restaurants, retail, attractions, etc. Activity surrounding the Blue Ridge Marathon will support 6.9 jobs in the regional economy over the period of one year. And it has drawn attention far outside the region and outside Virginia from The Weather Channel, ESPN, USA Today, Conde Nast Traveler, Delta Sky Magazine, and Runner’s World.

There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence as well. In the runner’s food tent at the finish line, several people said they’ve run the marathon a few times and are now actively looking for jobs here. One runner told us he’s run the marathon the past two years and is seriously considering moving here because he works remotely and can live anywhere.

The challenge of completing America’s Toughest Road Marathon gets people to come here for the first time, the overall experience gets them to come back, and then the coolness of our community makes them want to put down roots.

“Our daughter just turned one, and while we enjoy Wiliamsburg, we’ve been looking to move to a place where we can have a house, yard, has a good quality of life, and the area has things to do that we enjoy,” said Chris Robertson, of Williamsburg, who has come back to Roanoke for the Blue Ridge Marathon five times. “We love the outdoors and we’re blown away by how much Roanoke has to offer: running, biking, hiking, canoeing/rafting, Smith Mountain Lake or just going for a walk down the trails.”

But there is another aspect of the marathon that many don’t realize – the impact well beyond race day.

This year, the Partnership’s Roanoke Outside Foundation gave $15,000 in marathon proceeds to 18 local nonprofits that volunteered before, during, and after the race. Add it all up and the Roanoke Outside Foundation has donated $185,000 from the marathon to dozens of local organizations including: Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway, Rotary Clubs, Impact, Roanoke Valley SPCA, Junior League, Star City Cycling, high school bands, SARA, FCA, Girls on the Run, Star City Cycling, Hope Worldwide, Slam Duncans, Ghent Grace, Temple Emanuel, and Roanoke Disc Golf Course. These funds help these organizations do great things year-round.

The Blue Ridge Marathon is but one example of leveraging the outdoors to attract people and economic benefit. The Roanoke Regional Partnership created the nonprofit Roanoke Outside Foundation to better connect our economy to the outdoors, create brand building events such as the Blue Ridge Marathon, Down by Downtown, and GO Fest, and improve outdoor infrastructure (this year we will contribute to three more river access projects).

The Blue Ridge Marathon is more than a foot race. And our mountains, rivers and lakes are more than wall paper. They are part of an integrated strategy that can make our economy as big as all outdoors.