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The Journal Gazette

  • Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette Illinois residents Janel Kraus, left, and Steve Riportella run in this year's Indiana Trail Run 100 at Chain O' Lakes State Park.

Thursday, June 15, 2017 1:00 am

Big races draw out-of-state runners to area

April ultra sees greatest percentage of visitors

AUBREE REICHEL | The Journal Gazette

If there's one thing the northeast Indiana region does well in hosting high-level running races, it's the sense of community surrounding each event.

The Fort4Fitness Fall Festival has established itself as a staple for many area runners since 2008 when it had 4-mile and half-marathon distance options.

The 2016 edition featured a USATF-certified marathon, making it a qualifier for races like the Boston and New York City marathons.

“I think the No. 1 thing that we hear from people who reach out to us afterward is because we have support along the route,” Fort4Fitness' Carrie Reeb said. “The amenities we provide, water stations, the neighborhoods that come out and cheer and give participants, they go out and buy things. I think those kinds of things that we hear the most about, the community support.”

Despite the popularity of the Fort4Fitness events, no studies have been done to gauge local economic impact but the information is qualitative.

“We got some feedback with some out-of-state people, 'I always said that if there was a marathon in Fort Wayne, I would go and I went and tried it out,' ” Reeb said. “We got a lot of feedback that people … had concerns about the looped course. People were worried about that and they realized they get the support and cheering along the way.”

In the 2016 Fall Festival, 35 states were represented, but Indiana made up 92.6 percent of the total field of participants with 8,275 coming from the Hoosier state out of 8,937 registrants.

By percentage, the race that brings in the most out-of-area participants is the Indiana Trail 100 races at Chain O' Lakes State Park near Albion. The event had 50-mile, 100-kilometer and 100-mile distances.

In this year's race, which took place April 29 and 30, Indiana was the most represented state with 168 out of 373 total registrants, leaving 205 runners coming in from outside the area.

“I think there's a couple different theories as to why people come to our event,” race director Mike Pfefferkorn said. “We're very active on a weekly basis. A lot of these 100-mile events, you don't see anything posted on their site for seven to eight months. I think that helps keep everything in everyone's mind that we're out there, doing stuff. That's helpful.

“It also goes back to word of mouth; we've had a lot of participants from a lot of different states. They go on and pass along good things. The fact that we've had runners from 30 different states helps support that theory.”

From the race's inception five years ago, Pfefferkorn has used social media to promote the race. It's part of a bigger series, the Midwest Super Slam, which consists of five 100-mile races around the Midwest, but that brought in only about 15 people to this year's event.

The biggest benefit, Pfefferkorn said, is being a Western States Endurance Run qualifier. The 100-mile finishers can submit entries to a lottery system for the prestigious event held every year between Squaw Valley and Auburn in Northern California.

Locally, the effect is spread out among Albion, Columbia City, Kendallville and the park itself.

“Albion's population is 2,300 people, so on race day, when you count everyone up, you're talking about 1,000 people you're bringing,” Pfefferkorn said. “It's crazy when you think about that, certainly recognize the financial impact it brings and Columbia City and Kendallville get some of that, as well. I've been stopped by several people in Albion thanking us for having an event there and all the good things that come along with it and the impact it provides Albion.”

The state park's 18 family cabins were fully booked the weekend of the race and 80 of its 400 campsites on a weekend that would not otherwise get overnight visitors, Chain O' Lakes park Manager Sam Boggs said.

“That time of year, that weekend would not normally be a busy weekend,” but it becomes a busy weekend, Boggs said. “Over the course of the year, I see more and more runners all the time using the park and as far as the IT100, they're our BFF, they're our best friend. Mike and his group put on an event to give back to the park.”

Downtown Columbia City also benefits from the Veterans Marathon, held the second Saturday of November.

The 2016 race had 125 marathon finishers, 233 half-marathon finishers and 160 5K finishers. Many are from the region, but others take advantage of the timing, the relatively low cost and the USATF certified course.

“I feel like when (husband) Gary (Bird) was race directing, he would take calls personally from the runners who had questions,” JoAnn Bird said. “We took in a lot of calls after Chicago. … A lot of people would come from southern Michigan and northern Indiana because it made it an easy proximity and get qualified.”

Bird is the owner of Run Around Screen Printing located less than a block from the starting line in downtown Columbia City. The local businesses have responded to the popularity of local events.

“The downtown business association, it's a group of four or five small-business owners, and they have made a huge improvement in the downtown area in the last 18 months because they see these events like Veterans (Marathon) and bringing people in from out of town and seeing the possibilities,” Bird said. “They have pushed to get the storefronts full, helps with marketing, outside the core of the building to make it attractive. I feel like that group totally recognizes the possibilities of having these events.”

areichel@jg.net