Whether Andrea Larson is dashing through the wilderness in a 100-mile foot race or cranking out miles on a fat-tire bike, she’s far more concerned about hydration and navigation than about economic development.
Lately, the latter is precisely what fuels her.
Larson became the executive director of the Ironbull extreme sports nonprofit in April and immediately had to hit the ground running to help the new 501(c)3 non-profit corporation organize the first of its events in October. It was all aimed at putting the Wausau region on the map not just for elite outdoor athletes yearning for fresh air and adrenaline, but for anyone aspiring to relocate to a place that values outdoor recreation.
The idea for Ironbull came from Bill Bertram, a former executive with Wausau Electric/Regal Beloit, who approached the Woodson YMCA about expanding its existing triathlon to include “extreme/ultra” distances.
Discussions began to encompass other types of events, and the concept found its way into the Wausau Region Chamber of Commerce economic development plan. There was a load of economic potential and Larson had just joined a small team of fellow outdooradventure enthusiasts dedicated to making it all happen. Easy, right?
“I was fairly nervous,” she said. “None of us here had organized a run before.”
As a native of the nearby city of Marathon, it may seem fated that Larson would lead such an effort, but nothing came easily in putting it all together.
“We got a call the week of the run that Thomas Street would not be open and that we’d have to re-route,” she said.
The former walk-on three-sport athlete from Michigan Tech had done hundreds of races, “but I never really paid attention to this part of it. Moving forward, now I’m paying attention.”
As a chemical engineer who worked years in research and development, however, Larson found that the data points of such an undertaking were right in her wheelhouse. They showed, among other things, that net migration of people to a community that invested in and promoted outdoor recreation increased by a net rate of more than 30 per 1,000. That raises eyebrows of local employers, and for an area that’s still well below 3 percent unemployment, finding ways to attract and retain workers can itself feel pretty extreme.
To get it all on the road, there were the logistics of mapping out routes for the 50-kilometer (31-mile) run and 140-mile bike race. Then, getting in touch with local and county law enforcement about closing roadways, and then working with more than a dozen municipalities for permits.
That’s where someone like Bertram comes in, with a long career of organization and administration.
“I was in Holland for seven years,” he said, “and they’re very collaborative between government and business. So, when I came back in August 2016, I wanted to get involved in economic development. I met with the city of Wausau, Marathon County, MCDEVCO …”
Bertram, who credited a lifelong passion for parks, joined the board of the Wausau & Marathon County Parks Foundation, one of six local foundations that support Ironbull.
So, the Ironbull Ultra Trail 15K/50K went off on Oct. 5, and the Red Granite Grinder followed on Oct. 19 with its 80- and 140-mile routes. They run drew nearly 150 entrants, though cold, rainy weather hampered some of that turnout, and the bike race drew just more than 100. Larson feels it’s realistic to expect those numbers to double next year.
It’s not just athletes they’re hoping to draw. Larson was clear about leaving plenty of room in the field for local businesses. Among the nonprofit’s dozens of sponsors and supporters, one such example of hand-in-hand partnership is with Wausau Area Events. The Ironbull Ultra Trail was scheduled to end at the 400 Block, where Wausau Area Events was holding its Harvest Fest. Weather forced that indoors, but the wheels of ideas had begun churning, and Ironbull is hoping to pick up where that left off.