Bellingham Traverse, a five-leg relay race, was founded in 2001, to raise awareness of salmon’s importance to our environment, while also encouraging people to get outside and have fun. Photos by Brandon Sawaya

By Sherri Huleatt

Washington is known for its stunning outdoor adventures. And when it comes to outdoor races, Whatcom County is leaps and bounds ahead. According to Todd Elsworth, Co-Executive Director of Recreation Northwest, when comparing our community’s races to other similar-sized communities, “We blow them away.”

During 2017, Whatcom County hosted 132 outdoor-recreation events (nearly one every 2 1/2 days, on average), drawing more than 34,000 participants. Big-ticket races, like Ski to Sea and the Bellingham Bay Marathon, draw thousands of participants each year, about half from outside the county. Compound that with the thousands of onlookers along the routes and waiting expectantly at the finish line (while, of course, sipping a locally crafted beer), along with race day prepping—which includes buying running shoes, gym memberships, physical therapy, etc.—and the economic impact touches everything from gas stations, to breweries, to outdoor apparel suppliers, to hotels, and beyond.

Lance Romo, the Recreation Director for Bellingham Parks and Recreation, described it this way: An athletic shoe costs an average of $100. If 430 people participate in the Bellingham Traverse, that’s $43,000 represented just in running shoes, many a pair of which have been purchased locally. And runners also spend beaucouop bucks on apparel and equipment (backpacks, water bottles, et al). Add to that any equipment, fuel, coffee, theatres, food, and hotel rooms purchased by race participants, and you’re talking a considerable revenue stream.

Go one step further, and multiply this by Whatcom County’s more than 100 outdoor races, and you’ll get a pretty hefty chunk of change going straight into the local economy. According to a 2015 study by Earth Economics, outdoor recreation contributes $585 million annually to Whatcom County’s economy and supports 6,502 jobs (about 7% of the county’s non-farm jobs).

Ski to Sea, the county’s largest race, draws about 2,500 participants, with more than half traveling from more than 50 miles away. According to Anna Rankin, Whatcom Events’ Race Director, Ski to Sea also attracts about 20,000 spectators each year, with an estimated 25%-30% coming from outside the community.

Tour de Whatcom, a 22- to 100-mile cycling event, drew 750 participants in 2017—up about 15% over 2016—and more than half came from outside Whatcom County. “I think these races greatly impact the economy of Whatcom County,” Rankin said.  “While people are here for these events, they’re paying for hotels, meals, and shopping. They often have families, a support team, friends, etc., with them who also are supporting the economy.”

The real impact from these races doesn’t happen on race day, though, it’s what happens afterward. According to Elsworth, outdoor races act as one of the best commercials for Whatcom County life, giving spectators and participants just enough of a taste of county attractions to make them want to come back. “These races aren’t just a day of play,” Elsworth said. “They’re a magnet to bring them back.”

He said local race planners work together to cement Whatcom County as the recreational capital of the Northwest, so in the short term, the races are about having fun and getting people outside; in the long term, this abundance of events is about increasing tourism and, in some cases, getting people to move here.

“I know participants who’ve packed up and moved here right after the race,” said Amy Trowbridge, Marketing Director for Mt. Baker Ski Area and Mt. Baker’s Legendary Banked Slalom Race. Established in 1985, the slalom race is the world’s longest-running snowboard event and draws 400 participants, more than half from all over the world, and about 1,000 spectators a year.

People use the event to piggyback for company retreats, family reunions, and annual vacations, booking up hotels months in advance all along the Highway 542 corridor. “After coming here, how can you not fall in love with this place?” Trowbridge said.

Outdoor races have a three-fold effect on the local economy: (1.) Prepping, which involves purchasing outdoor apparel, gym memberships, etc.; (2.) Race day itself, which draws thousands of spectators who fill hotels and restaurants, and (3.) The onslaught of tourists who come back to the county after sampling its many outdoor wonders.

Ski to Sea is Whatcom County’s largest race, a team relay on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend that draws about 2,500 participants and 20,000 spectators a year. It features eight team members in seven race legs: cross country ski, downhill ski/snowboard, running, road bike, canoe (doubles), cyclocross bike, and sea kayak. The first one, billed as “the original adventure race,” took place 45 years ago.

New this year: Racers can participate in as many as three legs on race day, either for one team or for multiple teams. Teams will have a minimum of three racers and a maximum of eight. The Race course runs through six towns in Whatcom County—Glacier, Maple Falls, Kendall, Everson, Lynden, and Ferndale—and ends at Marine Park in the Fairhaven district of Bellingham.

Registration is now open for 2018:

BIG RACES By the Numbers

Ski to Sea (Relay with 7 legs)
2,500 Participants
(50%-60% from out of county)
20,000 Spectators

Bellingham Bay Marathon
2,500 Participants
(60% from out of county)
5,000 Spectators

Tour de Whatcom (Cycling)
750 Participants
(50%-60% from out of county)
100-300 Spectators

Bellingham Traverse
(Relay with 5 legs)
450 Participants
(20% from out of county)
100-300 Spectators

Legendary Mt. Baker
Banked Slalom (Snowboarding)
400 Participants
(50% from out of county)
1,000 Spectators



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