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ROLLIN' ON THE RIVER: Grand Forks' 1st inline marathon gets rollin' Saturday

"You know, they say if you're going to be a good salesman, you have to believe in what you sell, and I have never believed in anything enough to sell it as much as I have this," said Laura Jelinek.

Rollin' on the River
Rollin' on the River Inline Marathon logo

"You know, they say if you're going to be a good salesman, you have to believe in what you sell, and I have never believed in anything enough to sell it as much as I have this," said Laura Jelinek.

By "this" she means Grand Forks' first Rollin' on the River Inline Marathon on Saturday, the product of her dream, her labor, the labor of 150 or volunteers and thousands of dollars in money and services from city agencies and businesses.

What's so big about a race?

For Jelinek, a 33-year-old native of Pisek, N.D., it's one woman's lifelong passion for skating on ice and on inline skates. She loves the sport enough to have spent a significant chunk of the last 15 months on the marathon.

For the city, it's another signature event with a potential payoff in sales tax revenues and jobs.

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"With a new event like this you really don't have any idea how it's going to end up," said Julie Rygg, executive director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau. "What really attracted us is it's different. There's no other event like this in North Dakota."

In other words, Grand Forks can own inline marathons in North Dakota the way Fargo owns running marathons. The CVB put $10,000 into the marathon, the city $17,000 and both offered the services of their staff. Private companies also offered help. In the Herald's case, it was $15,000 worth of advertising. Altogether, Jelinek guessed the money and the in-kind support probably amounted to $100,000.

As of Thursday night, 195 racers have signed up though Jelinek thought 250 wasn't out of the question, and racers often bring friends and families along.

The goal

Imagine a citywide event that attracts 10,000 to 15,000 visitors and puts the city on the map as the sort of place you go when you're looking for healthy recreational options. That event is Duluth's Northshore Inline Marathon, a model for the Grand Forks marathon.

The Duluth event started 16 years ago with a group of inline enthusiasts, who followed the same lakeside course used by the older Grandma's Marathon.

The Northshore Inline Marathon came at the height of the inline skating craze and grew rapidly eventually becoming the third biggest such event in the world, according to Gene Shaw, the public relations director with Visit Duluth, the city's convention and visitors bureau.

Even today, with the popularity of inline skating having leveled out long ago, the marathon there is still the biggest in the United States, he said. This year's race on Sept. 17 is expected to attract 3,500 racers and thousands more of their supporters, he said. The typical economic impact, he said, is about $2 million.

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Visit Duluth has been a sponsor since the beginning.

Shaw said the city has been branding itself as a recreational capital. Whether visitors enjoy the outdoors or just want to relax, Duluth is, as the tagline goes, "good for you," he said.

Events like the inline marathon fits neatly into this narrative along with mountain biking trails and this week's dragon boat races.

The Greater Grand Forks CVB is trying to craft a very similar narrative, according to Rygg. But instead of Lake Superior and the surrounding hills, it'll be around the riverside Greenway that straddles Grand Forks and East Grand Forks.

Inspiration

"You have to understand, skating for me started when I was 3 years old skating on the coulee out by my farm," Jelinek said, explaining the emotional hold the sport has on her. "Then I took figure skating lessons. Then I transitioned into Rollerblading in my adult life."

"When I lived in New York City for those eight years," she said, "Rollerblading was my escape. It was how I would get away from all the honking cars, the subway, just the masses of people."

She'd done a couple of inline marathons here and there, including the one in New York City and the one in Winnipeg, also this week, she said.

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Details, details

Every once in a while as she talks, Jelinek would add a line or two to a checklist with hand-drawn squares where the check marks will go. If inline skating to find happiness was the inspiration, checklists like these are the perspiration. There have been a lot of them.

Sweating the details, according to Jelinek, is what made it possible for her to amass the kind of support she's gotten for the marathon. When she gave her first presentation to an audience of mostly Park District, school and city officials, she'd made sure she had all her facts lined up. That meeting eventually got her some of her core volunteers.

By the time they went to the city's special events committee for funding, their preparation made an impression.

"They were extremely thorough," said Gershman, who sits on the committee. "You always have more confidence in people that have done the research, that have done the heavy lifting up front."

Jelinek said it's kind of in the genes.

Her dad Dennis Jelinek was one of the people that started and still organizes the Fordville, N.D., hill climb, she said. Father and daughter now exchange notes about event organizing, she said, and, in fact, it was his idea that Saturday's race start not with the bang of a starter pistol but the boom of a cannon.

He knows a guy who owns one, she said.

An investment

"It was a risk, yet here at the CVB we thought it was a calculated risk," said Rygg, explaining her agency's investment in the marathon.

This sort of investment isn't unusual, according to Gershman. The city has put money into such memorable events as the World Junior Hockey Championship in 2004 and the World Men's Curling Championship in 2008, and the smaller events that made the city's bids for those events possible.

The obvious payoff is sales tax revenue from thousands of visitors in the city's restaurants, hotels and stores. The overtime wages generated for area residents that work at those places have an impact, too.

Branding

But for the CVB, it's also builds up the area's brand, which is like Duluth's effort, involves recreation and athletics. This Saturday, the agency will have a professional photographer on hand to take pictures for a promotional brochure.

Rygg said next year's brochure will have lots of outdoor events, such as various 5k and 10k races, and the city's Greenway, along with sporting events such as hockey at UND.

The Greenway, the system of trails that run along the Red River, is particularly promising if only the CVB can harness it for tourism purposes, she said. Visitors don't always have bicycles or skates with them to enjoy the trails with, she said, and her agency would encourage or groups that offer to rent out equipment. Maybe there's a grant in it for them, she said.

The point is, she said, it adds up to a cohesive image of the Grand Forks area.

Reach Tran at (701) 780-1248; (800) 477-6572, ext. 248; or send email to ttran@gfherald.com .

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