Running takes on new heights

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The new-age bumper sticker is not a political endorsement or some witty joke—it’s more like the number 26.2 or the Ragnar logo.

Americans are running more than ever before. Running USA, a nonprofit organization in the running industry, puts out an annual state of the sport report and found over the past 20 years, the number of U.S. road race finishers has nearly tripled. In 2011, the U.S. reached an all-time record of 13.9 million road-running events.

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The report points to several factors for the high numbers—the challenge of long-distance races, the growth of community 5Ks, the social impact of charity events and the recent spike in popularity of obstacle-course races.

Going the distance

The ultimate challenge of a distance race for most people is the marathon. Because of the altitude runners face, the challenge of completing a marathon is elevated in Utah—literally. Some runners opt to run a half marathon, while others may choose to run relay races of even longer distances split between members of a team.

This year marks 14 years of running for the Top of Utah Marathon held in Cache Valley—attracting over 2,000 participants annually. Race director Bob Henke said a researcher, looking to find what makes the event unique, interviewed runners who had participated in the race at least 10 times.

“Three main things stood out,” Henke said. “One is the course. People really like the course and coming down the canyon. Two is the organization. We take pride in being well organized and prepared and having a good experience for runners. And three is just the support of the community and the people out on the course.”

The seasoned runners may have their reasons for showing up, but many newcomers dream of going home with an award.

“The medals are custom-made medallions that everybody gets,” Henke said. “The trophies are handmade. It’s a steel moose that’s on a piece of wood, basically. People try to get a moose trophy. You hear that comment every year.”

The event also offers runners the option of a half marathon. Half marathon events saw a 16 percent increase from 2010 to 2011—the largest increase among U.S. road race events.

The Ruby Mountain Relay, nearby Elko, Nev., was a relay option for several Utah running teams this year, including one from BYU. The “Home Star Runners” started with bandannas, ponchos and a plastic BB gun and finished the 184-mile course with a time of 25 hours, 34 minutes. They also finished first in the male division.

“We have a Western theme,” Anne Simmons, race director and BYU graduate, said. “We gave out belt buckles for our finisher award, and we gave out cowboy boot trophies.”

The 5K leads the way

The 5K race is the powerhouse and the workhorse when it comes to fueling this running boom. In 2011, almost 40 percent of races in the U.S. were 5Ks, totaling over 5 million events.

It’s not uncommon for a summer Saturday to feature over 20 scheduled races scattered throughout Utah. Many community runs attract the casual runner and invite donations for local causes.

Rachel Hone and her husband, John, were blessed with their son, Ben. After unsuccessful attempts for more children, they’ve turned their efforts toward adopting from Africa. This past summer, they’ve hosted several 5K races in Orem to help raise money for the adoption process.

“I believe with your help, my dreams and the dreams of my son and husband can come true,” Hone said in a blog post.

Several local businesses teamed up to help the Hone family with their charity races. Place finishers received gift cards to Noodle’s & Co. and the Hale Center Theater.

Running with a twist

Following the new fad of running for fun are the obstacle-course races. It’s not enough just to run a distance—now there has to be a new challenge or twist centered around a theme.

The Dirty Dash is just that—dirty. The Utah round of this West Coast obstacle-course race is 5.5 miles and takes place at Soldier Hollow in Midway. There are many different obstacles, but the main theme is mud.

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A similar version of the Dirty Dash is the Devil Dash. The 3.2-mile race in Ogden incorporates obstacles with mud, fire and loud music.

“Devil Dash is an event that runners and spectators will never forget,” Will Newcomer, race director of the Devil Dash said. “An adventurous course with … natural and man-made obstacles themed after the seven deadly sins.”

Utahns have many different choices when it comes to mud running, but that doesn’t mean any of these races are left empty. Most fill up and sell out with early applicants. Other similar races include Tough Mudder, Spartan Race and Man vs. Mud.

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