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Fun Run’s return a welcome, familiar sight

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by Tom Coombe

Echo editor

In the mid-1990s, Ely’s winter calendar was nowhere near as active as it is now.

The once huge All-American Sled Dog races had gone away, the Ely Winter Festival was in its infancy and built largely around a cross-country ski race, and current attractions such as winter camping and sled dog vacations weren’t yet in vogue. Winters were especially long it seemed.

In an effort to spice things up and stimulate the winter economy in this neck of the woods, a handful of movers and shakers in Ely, Babbitt and Tower came together to form an event.

They had a helping hand from the Minnesota Vikings, who were looking for a location to hold a snowmobile event and raise money for the Vikings Children’s Fund. Born was the Minnesota Vikings Arctic Blast.

The concept was simple and brilliant. Current and former Vikings players would ride on snowmobiles to checkpoints between the participating towns, where they’d sign autographs and mingle with participating snowmobilers and those who took part by car.   Participants would pay a fee and enter into drawings for assorted prizes and the Vikings would generate both goodwill and money to help kids.

The early days were magical, at times comical, and clearly beneficial to Ely, Babbitt and Tower, and eventually Cook and Hoyt Lakes as well.

The Vikings would arrive in town on Thursday for a series of events that culminated with Saturday’s ride and a wrap-up party that night, most often at Fortune Bay.

There were big names, including retired coach Bud Grant, and recognizable ones from the Vikings roster at the time and years past.  Chuck Foreman, Carl Eller, Bob Lurtsema, Jim Marshall, Joe Senser, Matt Birk, Jeff Christy, Joey Browner, Dave Huffman, Chris Doleman, Ed McDaniel, Greg DeLong, Bill Brown and Ted Brown are just a few that come to mind.  It helped as well that at the time, the Vikings’ mascot was Ragnar, also known as Elyite Joe Juranitch.

It was a massive undertaking for a local committee, with the snowmobile ride just part of the festivities. The early days included pancake feeds, at least one year with kids’ games put on by Ely Community Resource on a closed-off city avenue, and one memorable kickoff party at Timber Hall in Embarrass.

There’s no doubt the Vikings’ crew came to town for some fun and the initial years included more than a few nights when they bellied up at Ely establishments or played blackjack side-by-side with fans at Fortune Bay.

One organizer recalled a few snafus on the trails as well, particularly one time when the legendary Grant turned a corner two swiftly and fell off his sled, along with the Vikings cheerleader who accompanied him.

The Vikings soon would move on, taking the event and their personnel to larger venues and towns for similar events.

But in the Ely area, event organizers weren’t deterred and they knew they had started a good thing.

Ragnar was still with the Vikings back then, and he was successful in bringing a few players up for the new incarnations of the snowmobile event.

The Winter Blast Celebrity Ride was christened in 2000, mixing a few football players with B-list names including Erik Estrada, Cathy Lee Crosby, baseball’s Vida Blue and Robert Hayes, the pilot from the classic film Airplane.

More than 20 years have gone by, but the memory of a late night in the Grand Ely Lodge’s Bears Den, eating burgers and appetizers while the pilot from Airplane played pool nearby is something that won’t ever be forgotten.

The celebrities were soon scrapped from the event in a budget-driven move and the evolution of what had become a prime winter attraction continued.

For awhile it was called the Ragnar Run and soon became simply the Fun Run.

Not as complex or activity-filled as the first Arctic Blasts, the Fun Run became simply that: a day of fun and prizes.

Organizers in three communities - Ely, Babbitt and Tower - came together to put on an event to benefit snowmobile clubs in each town and help them maintain their trails.

Since the mid-2000s, the Fun Run has involved checkpoints in each town, with snowmobilers and those driving by car going from place to place to register and increase their chance to win hundreds and hundreds of prizes, donated by a core group of event sponsors who step up every winter.

Core group seems to define the Fun Run.  Those working behind-the-scenes to put on the event are a family of sorts, with key principals relying on an extended circle of family and friends to do everything from collect registrations and man the checkpoints, to turning Fortune Bay’s ballroom into a prize factory for the wrap-up event.

There’s a “same time, next year” feel to the Fun Run, not only with those who put it on to those who participate.

While not quite as big as when the Vikings involved seven communities and attracted a record 1,500 participants, the Fun Run has carved its own niche and has regularly topped the 1,000-mark for participants in recent years.

For much of its history, I’ve had a good view of the crowd from the stage and podium while reading hundreds of names of those who collect Fun Run prizes.

Through the years, many of the names have been the same, and many of the faces in the audience at venues as varied as the former Babbitt Junction - the one that burned down in the early 2000s - to Fortune Bay’s ballroom.

The Fun Run has, without a doubt, become a staple on the winter calendar of hundreds of people, many from the participating towns and others from St. Michael, Cambridge, the Twin Cities and beyond who make their annual February pilgrimage to the North Country.

Like nearly every other event in the United States, Covid-19 took its toll on the Fun Run.

In 2021, the event was scrapped while masks were still mandated indoors and the state still had draconian attendance restrictions on everything from hockey games to social functions.

A year later, those were gone, but the 2022 event also was postponed with attendance limits still in place at Fortune Bay.

Those are now gone and Fun Run boosters got the “all clear” for 2023.

There was a bit of an old-home feeling on Saturday, both as participants drove and snowmobiled to the Grand Ely Lodge, Babbitt’s Fish Tales and Benchwarmers in Tower, and showed up by the hundreds that night at Fortune Bay.

The room was jam-packed when it came my turn, which involved reading the names of about 500 prize winners.

Smiles abounded as participants walked off with a year’s supply of toilet paper, gift cards to local businesses or this year’s oddity: spanking spoons.

A bit later in the show all of the kids in attendance left with prize packages including cereal and a host of goodies, and pick-a-prize winners selected between massive TVs, ticket packages, sports memorabilia and more.

The Fun Run clearly serves as a marker of time, and my view of the audience last weekend was missing a familiar face.   Bonnie Zupancich, one of the Fun Run’s most loyal participants and the mother of longtime organizer Jim Zupancich Jr., was absent from her usual front row center position.  She passed away a little more than a year ago, but her memory lived on at this year’s Fun Run with a major prize donated in her memory.

The ballroom emptied shortly before 11 Saturday night but a couple hours later, long after many of the participants ventured next door to the casino or to their rooms, a few organizers remained in the otherwise empty room, sitting in a circle, laughing, telling stories and relaxing after another major and successful endeavor.

See you next year.

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