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Ironman organizers seeking use of 20-mile stretch of Blue Ridge Parkway

Ironman organizers seeking use of 20-mile stretch of Blue Ridge Parkway

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Keats McGonigal, senior regional director for Ironman (from left); Roanoke Mayor Sherman Lea; Patrice Weiss, chief medical officer with Carilion Clinic; and Landon Howard, president of Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge, sound Ironman starting horns at the July 2019 announcement.

Organizers of the Ironman 70.3 triathlon are seeking approval to close a roughly 20-mile section of the Blue Ridge Parkway for the June race.

The special-use permit requests a full closure of the parkway in both directions from milepost 91 to 112 north of Roanoke for all or a portion of the day. The National Park Service is taking public comments on the proposal.

The plan is to incorporate that stretch of the parkway into the 56-mile cycling portion of the race. The triathlon is expected to attract around 2,500 athletes.

The public can provide comments about the proposed closure for the Roanoke area. The comment period is open through Nov. 22.

Although the Blue Ridge Parkway gets hundreds of requests annually for special uses, it has never considered closing a stretch of the road for an event on the same scale as the Ironman triathlon, said Leesa Brandon, a spokeswoman for the parkway.

“Typically it’s not our practice to do a full two-lane closure of the Blue Ridge Parkway for a special event,” she said.

The parkway was built with motor recreation in mind, Brandon said, but that’s not the only way it can be experienced.

“We recognize across the park service that there are new and different uses and ways people want to enjoy national parks and that makes us interested in considering an event such as this,” she said.

In addition to public input, Brandon said, parkway officials will consider the resource impact and manpower required for the closure. Any costs incurred by the National Park Service would be the responsibility of the event organizers.

Brandon said she did not know when a decision would be made about the proposal.

Keats McGonigal, senior regional director for Ironman, said the organization strives to create unique experiences for athletes they can’t find elsewhere.

“Being able to use the Blue Ridge Parkway from our perspective provides that truly unique experience for the athletes, something that they’re going to remember for the rest of their lives,” he said.

Ironman has worked with the National Park Service on some running events, McGonigal said, but currently there are not any Ironman or Ironman 70.3 triathlons routed through national parks.

Alternate routes are also being planned, he said, should approval to use the parkway not come through.

Ideally, McGonigal said, he’d like to get the route set by the end of the year.

As of last week, some 1,700 people had registered for the Roanoke race scheduled for June 7. Ironman announced this week that the second registration tier had sold out.

McGonigal expects to see a jump in registrations once the bike route is finalized and publicized.

“I think everybody’s anxious to get this bike course locked down, approved so that everybody can plan accordingly,” he said.

Catherine Fox, with Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge, said this is a “critical time” for race organizers.

“I think it’s going to be an opportunity for us to pull the logistics together and I’m looking forward to what we hope will be a positive outcome,” she said.

In addition to finalizing the race route, Fox said, organizers are eager to keep adding race participants and ramp up volunteer recruitment.

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Casey Fabris covers business for The Roanoke Times, where she has been a reporter since 2015. Previously, Casey covered Franklin County. She can be reached at (540) 981-3234 or

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