Sunday, August 19, 2007

Why we do it

Next week we will present our fourth Ragnar Relay of 2007, and eighth overall. We may add another event or two in 2008, and more in 2009, including, if all goes well, the Big Island. This has gone faster than I imagined, and it has been satisfying to see something I dreamed about for so long become a reality.

I intend to keep a log of next weekend's event - the Ragnar Relay Great River. Before that, however, it seems like a good time to step back and take a look at why we do it and how it got to this point.

For me, it all started somewhere around 1985. I had resumed running devotedly for three or four years, and had friends planning to run the Wasatch 100. I couldn't imagine doing that event myself, but as a matter of interest told my dad about it. He then told me of a relay running from Mt. Hood to the Oregon Coast in which some of his friends at the office competed. I was immediately intrigued. The idea of sharing the burden and experience of a long distance with friends captured my imagination. A year or two later, driving from Sunriver to Portland after a family reunion, I noticed signs in Gresham welcoming Hood to Coast participants. Wanting to see what the race was like, I drove to Portland's west side, and saw volunteers dismantling an exchange. They seemed purposeful, engaged. I wanted to be involved.

I came home and wrote a letter to Bob Foote, Hood to Coast founder, suggesting that he consider presenting a similar event in Utah. I suggested Bear Lake to Park City via Evanston (Wyo.) and the Mirror Lake Highway. To my surprise, a few days later Bob gave me a call. He had a friend who had been trying to talk him into starting a race in Utah. He proposed we do it together. That I hadn't expected, but it got me thinking. A few weeks later - Black Monday, October 19, 1987, to be exact - I visited Bob at his office.

Bob was bursting with enthusiasm. The Hood to Coast was only six years old and already it had well over 500 teams. Bob was still a practicing architect, but he told me he found himself increasingly devoting his thoughts and any free time to the race. He had hopes of building a national relay series, but his Georgia event hadn't gone as well as expected, and he wondered if an openness to adventure was a part of the culture of the Pacific Northwest that was lacking elsewhere. Having grown up in Oregon, I knew that Mt. Hood and the Coast were magnets whose pull was irresistable to Portlanders. Maybe that was the secret. Whatever the secret, there was no mistaking Bob's passion for the race. He talked about the intensity of the experience, and the devotion of the participants. He obviously loved everything about the event. He repeated his offer to partner with me, and I returned to Utah to try to figure out how I could do it.

Not long after I talked to Bob personal trajedy struck when our young son Tyler was killed in an accident. That sad experience and its aftermath put everything on hold, but over the years I talked to various friends about partnering on an event, and imagined multiple routes. The concept of a course that I thought would work began to take shape when I bought property in Ogden Valley and learned that there is a dirt road connecting that valley with Cache Valley. (The photo above is an image of Ogden Valley on race day 2007.) That road was the missing link connecting Logan to Park City - almost the entire back of the Wasatch Range. Still, on my own, the task seemed too overwhelming and the idea remained nothing more than an idea until my son Dan and his friend and neighbor Tanner Bell decided they liked the idea and wanted to pursue it.

Dan and Tanner had already shown me they could do things I would have never seriously considered. In high school, they founded a volleyball club, discovered it was hard to find volleyball gear, and persuaded Tanner's dad Corey and me to finance their establishment of a small retail outlet where they could sell what had been so difficult to find. On one summer vacation to the Oregon Coast - where Tanner accompanied our family so he and Dan could participate in a beach volleyball tournament - I observed with astonishment as Tanner, no more than 17, called volleyball gear manufacturers around the country to set up wholesale accounts. In the end, I ended up with a basement full of volleyballs, knee pads and shorts and lost my investment, but Dan and Tanner got an education.

A few years later, on a beautiful September day, Dan, Tanner and I drove most of what would become the route of the Wasatch Back Relay. We all loved the course. We marvelled at its variety and beauty. As the route exceeds 5000 feet throughout and includes difficult climbs through mountain passes, we weren't sure whether many runners would want to try it, and, if they did, whether any would come back. But we were willing to risk it and began making plans for a race. Our first thought was to have 2 or 3 teams of friends and family do a test run in August of 2003. That fell apart, however, and I thought that, finally, my dream had died.

To my surprise, a few months later, in about January of 2004, Dan told me he and Tanner had started working on a race book and building a website. They showed me their early drafts and I was impressed. We settled on the June weekend closest to summer solstice for the race date, thinking the more daylight the better. Dan and Tanner presented me with the outline of a partnership. They were ready to give it a try. We set the goal of recruiting 20 teams. I called Lee Benson, Deseret News columnist and old friend, and asked whether he would consider a piece about the race. He agreed. With that, barely three months before our scheduled race date, we launched the website and were on our way.

Twenty two teams ran that first year. We started the race at Hardware Ranch, 17 miles up Blacksmith Fork Canyon south of Logan. My parents checked runners in at the start, my brother Ron enlisted Nike's support in providing t-shirts, and much of my extended family, including Ron, came to help. After we announced our first group of teams and finally sent them off, Tanner and I hugged each other and wiped away tears. It was a great moment, and unforgettable. The Wasatch Back has grown each year - to 315 teams this June. Participation in each of our other events is ahead of the pace set by the Wasatch Back

Three weeks ago we concluded the first running of the Ragnar Relay Northwest Passage. The Monday after, I flew to Portland and had lunch with Bob Foote. We had seen each other two or three times during the 20 years since our first meeting. But this was the first time we had talked at any length since then. I updated Bob on our four events, describing the progress of each. He was extremely gracious, congratulating me on what we had accomplished to date, and told me he thought the proliferation of new events was good for everyone, and in particular the Hood to Coast, which he figured most relay enthusiasts would eventually want to run. He recounted his experiences building the Hood to Coast to the largest relay event in the world. With undiminished enthusiasm he described his attention to the smallest detail. He told me of some of his plans, which included his daughter succeeding him as director of the face. I can't but admire his accomplishment, and at the same time feel gratitude that he invented a sport that has brought joy to a lot of people.

As we were walking to his car after lunch, Bob told me what he considered the essential ingredient to the success of the Hood to Coast - passion. He told me he always expected his daughter would attend an Ivy League business school. When she graduated from college, however, all she wanted to do was work on the race. She was born the year after its founding, and had grown up with it. She had told him she loves the race so much she would work on it for free. Recognizing a chip of the old block, he signed her up.

I've given a quick overview of how we got to where we are, but haven't yet answered the question of why we do it. Bob provided the answer. Passion. We do it because we love it. I have loved relays since I first learned what they were. I love watching them - in events ranging from high school dual meets to the Olympics. I loved participating in them. My best moments in high school were running relays, including an unforgettable distance medley relay at Haywood Field at the University of Oregon before the Oregon-Oregon State dual meet that our team won at the tape. I've organized and run with multiple Hood to Coast teams and enjoyed them all. Now injuries prevent me from running, but I get the same thrill helping with our events as I did running myself.

From our first Wasatch Back Relay, to the recent Ragnar Relay Northwest Passage, comments from our runners have been overwhelmingly positive. The enthusiasm of the twenty two teams who pioneered the Wasatch Back convinced us the event could grow and be successful if we worked hard, took care of the details, and improved every year. So far that has proven to be true. As a native Oregonian, I find magic in Mt. Hood and the Oregon Coast. But, as we have learned, those locations are not essential to a great relay experience. We have seen that experience repeated in the Wasatch mountains, the bluffs of the upper Mississippi River, the Sonoran Desert and the isles of Puget Sound.

For many of us, happiness is elusive and we are poor predictors of where we will find it. But if anything consistently produces happiness it is this: working with others to push ourselves to our limits. Overnight relays create that experience. They require hard work, planning, cooperation and endurance. My wife Tauni (pictured in orange with her 2007 Wasatch Back team above) told me recently that relays have been her salvation. Training for and participating in them has kept her fit and bonded her with friends. We have heard countless similar stories. We see runners perform physically at a level beyond what many of them thought possible. More impressively, we see runners encourage and care for, not only their teammates, but their fellow competitors. We have had volunteers who work many events tell us that our runners routinely show courtesy and gratitude that they rarely see at other types of running events. Whatever the reason, time and again at our relays we have observed people at their best. And so, we keep at it. We are thankful that runners keep coming. I look forward to many more Ragnar Relays, and I hope Dan and Tanner continue to present them long after I am gone.

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