Ragnar hits home
For northbound drivers left scratching their heads behind a crawling cavalcade at The Canyons on Saturday, let there be no more mystery: That was the Ragnar Relay Wasatch Back, and it’s getting to be a big honking deal.
The seventh annual race funneled more than 13,000 runners and roughly 2,000 decked-out vans down S.R. 224 to Snyderville, where local food vendors, a black Elvis, and themed bands like "Highway 89" received exhausted athletes who had braved a jagged journey from Logan to Park City.
A Ragnar team consists of 12 members, with two vehicles supporting six runners apiece on 36 individual "legs." Beginning Friday night in Logan and ending throughout the day (from 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.) at The Canyons, the course took outdoor enthusiasts through the hills of Cache Valley, up Avon Pass, down through Ogden Valley and traversing across mountains until the final ascent of Guardsman Pass. After the steep descent to the Canyons, onlookers could almost feel the pain in the anguished anchor legs’ shins.
"Because of the way the course lays out, a more serious runner can take a 2,000-foot climb while a novice runner can cover the four-mile flat," said Chris Infurchia, CEO of the Ragnar Series. "That’s what makes it interesting, that I can run with someone who’s way more advanced than me, but we can both accomplish the same goal."
The first-ever Ragnar race finished on Main Street in Park City, but soaring registration led to concerns about congestion, and Quinn’s Junction served as an alternate last year. Seeking a location with a tad more festive atmosphere, race organizers settled on The Canyons for 2010.
"Generally, when you have a facility like this where you’re used to hosting events, you’ve got the things you need," Infurchia said. "There’s water here. The service, the supplies, it’s all kind of here, as opposed to trying to truck it in."
Named after a ninth-century Danish and Swedish king with an insatiable appetite for conquest, the relay racing series began in Utah and has since expanded to 12 other locations around the U.S. Most races feature between 200 and 400 entrants, but the Wasatch Back remains the largest this year’s reached a cap of 1,050 teams. That’s 400 more than last year, and Infurchia said he’s not sure the event can accommodate more teams without altering its current format.
The 188-mile overnight race was started in 2004 by Utahns Dan Hill and Tanner Bell, fulfilling a decades-old vision of Hill’s father, Steve. The Ragnars are modeled loosely after the popular "Hood to Coast" overnight relay, which stretches 197 miles from Mt. Hood to Seaside, Oregon, and have gained momentum rapidly.
"The problem is we have so many people who want to come in, we need to form more teams," said Ron Peterson of "The Bald and the Beautiful" – a team of neighbors from North Ogden in its fifth year at the Wasatch Back. "Everyone wants to do it."
Teams either provided three or more full-time volunteers or paid a registration fee that benefited the American Cancer Society. More than 100 of the race’s participants hailed from Park City, and many from the local area took part to honor former Oakley resident Jeremy Kunz, who was struck and killed by a drunk driver during a Ragnar event in Las Vegas last year.
Kunz’s wife Melinda gathered family and friends in Oakley on Friday night to light S.R. 32 with orange glow sticks – honoring both Jeremy’s favorite color and, coincidentally, the Ragnar brand. Melinda and Jeremy’s family members formed two separate teams for the race, and the teams were given the honor of leading off in Logan after the first and second registrants graciously surrendered their spots (the Ragnar start is staggered to avoid mass congestion).
"It was pretty emotional," Infurchia said. "They’re a great family. The community has supported them and they continue to support Ragnar."
Infurchia admitted there are inherent dangers in any race with so many runners, but said this year’s Wasatch Back had no major incidents. With an increased emphasis on hydration and cooler temperatures, he said dehydration was not the recurrent issue that it was in 2009. Infurchia estimated that a few people vomited from flu and a handful were treated for fatigue or blisters.
"To put 13,000 runners through a 200-mile course in this kind of terrain and come away with that as your injuries, we’re doing pretty good," he said.
Cones and fencing steered runners safely through major exchanges, and all entrants were given bright vests to wear at night and educated about safe running distances from cars. LED lights and headlamps or flashlights were also required, creating the effect, Infurchia said, of lines of cars in traffic.
That image was fresh on the minds of many on Saturday, with cars backing up from The Canyons to Kimball Junction on account of the teams’ support vehicles racing to meet final-leg runners for a shared sprint through the finish. Many failed to reach the top in time, and lone racers were left searching for their teammates amidst a muddled crowd.
"It was a little bit chaotic," said Evan Romrell, a fifth-year member of Salt Lake City’s "Ragnasty" team, who fondly remembered the 2006 race. "Small is great, you get to finish on Main Street, everybody’s together the whole time. We could do our own thing at exchanges. Now there’s a multitude of rules and it’s hard to even get to the finish."
With 188 miles behind them, teams revealed a broad assortment of inspirations before catching the Cabriolet lift back to the parking lot. Some ran for charities, some for family. Many of the runners cited an inability to pass up any two-legged challenge; others seemed to derive more satisfaction from the sheer irony of their appearance in such a behemoth test.
Few teams made any effort at seriousness in coining their names (see runnercard.com/runner/data/1825/2793/Result/2010_Wasatch_Back_Relay.htm for a complete list and a good chuckle), and the more fervent revelers displayed costumes and outfits – or lack thereof.
A "Where’s Waldo?" team clad in red and white stripes stood out amongst the color clusters at the finish area, which resembled an Olympic ceremony. A Wasatch Front-area team dubbed "We Arrrrr Pirates" – following a prescient, seafaring dream from its team captain – bore the slogan "Out Chasin’ Booty," while a Davis boys’ track team shirtless in camouflage shorts and paint dug down for an inconspicuous fourth-place result in the Open Men division.
Among many making the sacrifice for a good cause, the "TransformNOW Scholarship Fund" team raised more than $10,000 for a physical fitness fund at Riverton High School, while family members of deceased BYU track luminary Clarence "Robbie" Robison commemorated his birthday (June 18) with the "Robbie’s Relay" team.
Not every cause was totally selfless, however. One team, "Running to get Shane a date," shamelessly promoted one of its runners with a headshot and corresponding website for those wanting to get to know him better.
The race marked an annual reunion for the Werner family, which assembled from St. George, Boise, San Francisco, Seattle and American Fork to form the fourth-year "Bonehead Team," so named "because every man on the team is an alpha male who thinks they know the right way to go, all the time."
The family whose men countered, "We don’t think we know " – first started running together at the St. George Marathon and now makes a yearly rite of the inaugural Ragnar event. They were awarded Best Decorated vehicle for the third year running for their station wagon weighed down by a rooftop cooler that fed drinking tubes for all riders, a giant wooly mammoth head complete with a squirt-gun mouth, and lit fire torches.
"That’s the biggest thing, is that we maintain this whole union with our family of getting this thing together – not only with the shirts, the contraptions – and it just brings us together," said Todd Werner. "We’re separated all over the country, and for one time in the year, we come together. It’s a bonding experience."
NordicTrack was the event’s primary sponsor and won both men’s and women’s races with professional teams. At the finish, a NordicTrack "iFit" virtual team pounded away on a treadmill that used Google Maps to mirror the pitch of the actual course.
NordicTrack’s men’s elite team won the open race in 18:26:56.6, edging out "26.2 Running Company A" team and "Weber State Alumni" – the only other squads to complete the course in less than 20 hours. The NordicTrack women crossed the inflatable orange finish arch in 23:02:10.8, while "Full Nelson" won the Coed Open division in 22:47:07.5.
For many, like the Nibley-based "Snail’s Pace" team, just crossing the line was achievement enough.
"We decided that we might not be the fastest, we’re definitely not the slowest, but if you’ve ever seen a snail, no matter what, it always gets where it’s going," said team member Ty Lewis.
Infurchia said the best thing about the Ragnar is its accessibility. Virtually anybody in relatively good health is capable of pulling three legs if he or she can find the right teammates, he said.
"Running a marathon is exciting, but not everyone can do it," said Infurchia, who said he wasn’t much of a runner before taking charge of the corporation. "This event, with a little bit of training, is approachable. If you run 5Ks, you can run this event."
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Somewhere about the 35-foot level of the Flagstaff Mine, and moments after he called his friends above for light, the old ladder Paul Parmalee was descending gave way with a crash, and he plunged into the darkness to his death.