Non-traditional races build Utah running scene

Kelly Jensen is all smiles as she passes her family in one of her marathons. Jensen has competed in 25 marathons and a 50 mile race. (Kelly Jensen)
Kelly Jensen is all smiles as she passes her family in one of her marathons. Jensen has competed in 25 marathons and a 50 mile race. (Kelly Jensen)

As Kelly Jensen passed the 20 mile mark of the St. George Marathon in 1987, she began to doubt herself.

“I didn’t know if I could do it,” Jensen said. “I had only run up to 19 miles at a time before that. But when I made it to 26, I was so proud of myself.”

Jensen, a 52-year-old resident of Springville, has since participated in 24 more marathons and ran in a 50 mile race two years ago.

Jensen is just one of many who have caught the itch of running. Running and racing have increased dramatically in popularity over the years.

“I started running marathons back in the 80s when they basically had to pay to get people to participate,” Jensen said. “The popularity of running was just starting to take hold when I started. It was usually small groups at first, but little by little more and more people started joining.”

Tanner Bell, Steve Hill and Dan Hill started the Ragnar Relay Series at BYU in 2004. The company holds long distance races of approximately 200 miles. Contestants compete in teams of runners who run different portions of the race.

The Ragnar has grown tremendously since its founding.

“We held our first race in 2004 and we had about 262 participants; about 22 teams,” said Ragnar president and co-founder Bell, the President and Co-founder of Ragnar said. “Now on average we host 36 races a year and have about 3,000 participants in a race.”

The group has managed to find success despite starting out with limited resources.

“When we started we had no money, no budget; we basically just had $1,000 that Steve contributed,” Bell said. “In 2005 we entered the entrepreneurship contest at BYU and took second. Over time we were able to get more investors involved and really help the company grow.”

The Ragnar Relay Series started in Utah, but now only hosts two races per year in the state. The company has expanded to hold races all across the country and is looking to host international races in the near future.

A group of BYU graduates started the Color Run, another Utah-based paint racing company, in 2011. The Color Run is known as the “Happiest 5K on the Planet.” Participants begin the race dressed in all white and have colored chalk thrown on them at every kilometer. Massive “color throws” with all of the participants follow the race’s conclusion.

“The idea of The Color Run was to create an event that is more approachable for people who don’t necessarily identify themselves as runners,” said Color Run Vice President of Marketing and Technology Kiley Newbold. “Somebody who has never run a 5K before might not want to go out there and be timed and have to compete, so our race is all about feeling healthy and being happy and competing with yourself.”

The Color Run has also gained popularity since its founding.

“In 2012 we held our first event and it went better than expected,” Newbold said. “We thought we would hold 15 races that first year and we ended up doing 60. The next year we did about 120 in the U.S. and about 50 internationally. This year we will hold about 250 events across the world in places like Italy and South Africa, so it’s been really cool to see it scale and grow like that.”

Newbold also attributed the growth of the running industry to social media.

“We are constantly looking for cool ways to demonstrate who we are to our social networks, and our experiences give us that,” Newbold said.

Companies like The Ragnar Relay Series and The Color Run have been able to gain popularity by changing the dynamic of racing. They each add a different element to make their races more enjoyable for participants than traditional running.

“A lot of people that run want something more than just running,” Bell said. “They want an experience; they want something they can hold onto and show to their friends. The growth of social media has helped things grow, too. People love to have a sense of accomplishment and they love to share it with others.”

David Robinson, a 23-year-old BYU student, recently joined in the running craze and raced in his first marathon in Salt Lake City in April.

“A group of my friends here at school started inviting random friends to start a running group,” Robinson said. “We just started training in the mornings together and ran in the marathon together.”

Generally, the running community enjoys seeing the sport grow in popularity and having new competitors.

“I’m all about sharing the joy of running,” Jensen said. “I think that running can change your life, so I love seeing other people start to run and progress.”

Racing companies enjoy seeing people joining in the activity as well.

“It’s really fun to see people come out with their friends and just have a good time being healthy together,” Newbold said.

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