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You’re in a van with a dozen people. You haven’t slept for 24 hours. Everyone around you is nursing injuries to their knees, ankles or shins. You eat in the van, you rest in the van, you use hand sanitizer and wipes to “shower” in the van. And the van smells really, really bad. Every few hours you jump out and run four to eight miles.
What is it that would convince you to pay nearly $150 to be crammed in a vehicle next to a dozen sweaty people? There’s only one answer: Ragnar.
The Ragnar races have become the largest overnight relay series events in the world. It all started in Utah in 2004 with the Wasatch Back Relay that spanned nearly 190 miles, from Logan to Park City. Steve Hill, Dan Hill and Tanner Bell co-founded that first event, but never anticipated the sensation created by the popularity of the relay.
Named after a Scandinavian king from the ninth century, Ragnar represents being fearless, free-spirited and wild, and the relay has developed a semi-cult following where participants dress up in creative costumes, trick out their vehicles and create friendships with fellow adventurers with bragging rights that continue past the finish line. A Ragnar car decal and T-shirt have become badges of kick-butt-level toughness in the racing world.
“We have a core demographic,” Bell says. “We initially appealed to the traditional runner but we’ve really branched out. The beauty of Ragnar is that, with a little training, anyone can run in it. Running is usually a solitary sport, but we turn that on its head. You’re cheering your team on or encouraging a teammate at 2 a.m. It’s an incredible team experience.”
Bell admits he wasn’t much of a runner when Ragnar first started. It just wasn’t something he did. But being part of a team got him running more and training harder because he knew other people were depending on him.
He sees that scenario play out repeatedly as friends recruit co-workers, family members or even virtual acquaintances on Facebook to become Ragnar teammates. It’s often a trial by fire as runners join teams, sometimes made up of complete strangers. But after sharing an overcrowded van for 200 miles, the adventure forges long-lasting bonds.
Although participant demographics skew toward women in their 30s, people at any skill level or age can compete, from ultra-marathoners to beginning 5K runners. With each leg lasting three to eight miles, racers determine how much effort they can put toward accomplishing the goal.
Rochelle Bartschi is the operations manager at Kearns Oquirrh Park Fitness Center and a three-time veteran of Ragnar. She had no idea what to expect during her first event, but she followed the suggested training schedule on the Ragnar website, occasionally joining her team for morning runs.
After preparing for five months, she was ready to Ragnar. By the time the race started, Bartschi was suffering from knee pain due to overtraining and she hadn’t quite learned how to fuel her body to keep it working through the grueling relay. During her first event, her team ended up 26 miles behind the rest of the groups—and one team member got lost. But that only stoked her desire to try harder the next year.
“It’s not just running one leg. You have three legs of either eight miles, or three to four miles. You run and then you’re sitting in a van for hours until your next turn,” she says. “People need to take into consideration how much work it is. It is extremely hard. You’re all loving it, or maybe hating it, but you’re all doing this amazing thing together.”
After her third Ragnar relay, Bartschi knew what to expect physically, mentally and emotionally. She had learned how to eat right, avoid sleep deprivation and how to train consistently and cautiously.
“Crossing the finish line was a big deal to me,” she says. “I don’t like to give up on something. I made a lot of great memories. But it smells really bad.”
Picking up Speed
As the popularity of Ragnar grew, expansion became a blessing and a challenge. Bell knew it would be easy to let quality and safety slip if corrections weren’t made to accommodate more events—not just in Utah, but across the country.
Bell says he completely underestimated how big the market would be. Just as the relay series tests limits and encourages racers to find their inner wild, Ragnar organizers knew they needed strong partnerships and constant adjustments in order for the event to grow. In doing so, they went from a small group of people to a company with 50 employees.
Ragnar partnered with companies like Dolphin Capital Group, a private equity firm in Utah, and brought Clif Bar in as an investor.