Wasatch Back, nation's biggest relay race, starts today in Logan

Jun 20 2013 - 3:12pm

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Runners cross the Trappers Loop section of the Wasatch Back Relay Race in 2012.
Runners cross the Trappers Loop section of the Wasatch Back Relay Race in 2012.

KAYSVILLE -- Ten years ago, two college roommates brought a dream to fruition by organizing the first overnight relay race held in Utah with about 260 runners.

Little did they know that a decade later, the race would be the largest of its kind in the United States and attract more than 17,500 participants from around the world.

The popular and ever-growing Ragnar Relay Wasatch Back race, which begins in Logan and winds 198.3 miles through the eastern side of the Wasatch Mountains en route to the finish line in Park City, kicks off its 10th anniversary today with 500 teams that will run all day, through the night, and into Friday. On Friday, 1,000 teams will run the same route and finish on Saturday.

There are two team types in the race. Regular teams have 12 people running three of 36 legs each, while ultra teams have six people running six legs each. Vans transport team members from one exchange point to another.

Wasatch Back, which has grown into the largest relay race in the nation, is the brainchild of lifelong friends Tanner Bell and Dan Hill, who grew up across the street from each other in Farmington and went to college at BYU together.

Hill's father, Steve Hill, ran a relay in Oregon in the mid-1980s and talked for years about starting a similar event in Utah, but never got around to organizing it. However, he inspired his son and Bell to create a race, and the first one was held in 2004.

"In that first year, we had no marketing budget. It was just a grassroots effort," Bell said. "But even though it was small, when we reached the finish line, there was a vibe about it. We knew we were on to something, so we said 'let's do this again next year.' "

So they did, and in 2005, registration numbers quadrupled, and participation has grown every year. Since the first race, more than 200,000 people have run in the Wasatch Back and other events organized by Kaysville-based Ragnar Events.

"We didn't anticipate this kind of growth," Bell said. "Before the first one, we didn't even know if we would do it a second year, so it has totally exceeded our expectations."

Wasatch Back has become such an institution in Utah that Gov. Gary Herbert recently declared a state holiday for the event. From now on, the fourth Saturday in June will be known as Utah Ragnar Day.

"For the past ten years, Ragnar Relay Series has brought hundreds of thousands of people to Utah to experience the beauty of our state, contribute to our economy, and create positive impact in our communities," Herbert said in a news release. "This declaration is a testament to the founders and organizers of Ragnar Relays for their vision and commitment to bring such memorable events to Utah."

The race has traditionally been a two-day event, but was expanded to three days this year in order to accommodate more runners.

The success of Wasatch Back spawned the Ragnar Relay Series, which has grown to 15 races spanning the country from Cape Cod, Mass. to Huntington Beach, Calif. Last week, the series held its first international race in Ontario, Canada, with the finish line at Niagara Falls.

"Our philosophy is incredible races in incredible places," Bell said. "We only do Ragnar events in the most scenic venues."

Capitalizing on the trail running craze, Ragnar started a trail relay series this year with six races. The format for the trail events is different in that there are three trail loops converging at a central staging area, or "camp." Teams consist of eight or four runners, with each team member running all three loops.

There have already been trail events in West Virginia and at Zion Ponderosa Ranch near Zion National Park, and in August, the trail series will come to Snowbasin. Regular registration for the Snowbasin event ends on June 28, with late registration running through July.

Bell, who has ran in many Ragnar events himself over the years, said the best thing about relay races is the team aspect.

"Running can be a very selfish sport, all about personal records," he said. "Ragnar sort of flips that on its head. It's more about 'how can I help my teammates?' It's really magical that way."

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