Virtual run takes Icebox Days event intercontinental

Ken Kellar
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

There are only a few days left to finish off your run for the 2021 “Freeze Yer Gizzard Blizzard Run,” and according to the International Falls Chamber of Commerce, the move to a virtual-only event hasn’t been able to dampen the spirits of runners from around the world.

Chamber President Tricia Heibel said that the number of participants for this year’s event, which moved online due to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, has remained strong, with just under 200 participants having registered before the January 16 cutoff date. Heibel said the geographic breakdown of runners was also a surprise.

“We hoped with a virtual race that we’d have a random mix o people from all over the place,” she said.

“We had runners from 20 different states in the U.S., we had runners all around Ontario and some in Manitoba. We have a teacher from Minnesota but who is on assignment for the year in Germany and so ran the race there. And I still don’t know their connection to the race, but we had a couple who ran in West Sussex, England. So we really got a fun international component.”

Traditionally the run has a “Most Travelled” award for the racers who have come to the event from furthest away, and Heibel noted they will be doing an online shout out to create a virtual equivalent this year for those runners.

2021 marks the 41st anniversary of both the annual Icebox Days celebrations the run, and planning for the events generally starts in the summer, giving everyone plenty of time to get things ready to go for the following January. Of course, a global pandemic would throw a wrench into even the best laid plans, and Heibel said that they had to decide pretty early on how to deal with complications arising from the virus and the closed international border.

“While we were in this pandemic I was just waiting and watching to see how things were progressing, what the rules were looking like, and I was seeing this summer that a lot of races like Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, as well as smaller runs like ours, turn to this virtual format,” she explained.

“That was always in the back of my mind, because we traditionally have a large number of Canadian runners who come and join in, not only in the Freeze Yer Gizzard Blizzard Run but a lot of the Icebox Days festivities. I always had a virtual component planned, I felt that even if we could do an in-person run, I wanted to do a virtual event with it so that we could still include those runners within Canada who wanted to participate that way and make the race available to them.”

Heibel noted that as the pandemic continued to worsen, the final decision was made to cancel the in-person event, and the annual Icebox Days festivities, entirely. The virtual event also necessitated a change to how runners actually participate; rather than being in a formal race and having an officiant keep time, individuals were encouraged to time themselves running their distance before the end of the month, and then to submit that time to the committee. Heibel noted it worked out well as running is as much a personal sport as it is a competitive one, with a runner’s own personal best time factoring in with their place in the race.

The Icebox Days festivities are meant to celebrate our frigid northern winters, but Heibel said they’re also just a good opportunity to give people something to do in the cold, dark months of the year. The ongoing pandemic only amplifies the feelings of isolation and depression that can accompany this time of year, making a virtual run that much more important as an opportunity to get out and exercise and enjoy nicer winter days.

“A virtual race just seemed the safest way to provide that opportunity to people, which I was really happy we were able to do” Heibel said.

“I was really pleased with the turnout we had. Admittedly our marketing window wasn’t very long, so the fact that we rounded up as many runners as we did I was very happy about. And we were disappointed at the Chamber that we were unable to do the full Icebox Festival, but totally understand why, we weren’t interested in pursuing something that wasn’t going to be safe.

The “Freeze Yer Gizzard Blizzard Run” might have gone online this year, but Heibel said the organizers still planned out some prizes for participants. For runners who participated on the Canadian side of the border, Heibel said that Lidkea Optometry agreed to be a pick-up location for T-shirts commemorating the event, with delivery of the shirts expected to be completed sometime later this week.