Amy Donaldson: Runners will Wannabe there for Jer

Published: Monday, Oct. 19 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

Jeremy Kunz saw life as the ultimate team sport.

Whether it was scaling King's Peak, navigating a lonely stretch of trail, or backpacking across the Wind River Mountains, Kunz saw every challenge as an opportunity to bond with someone he loved.

"Jer loved life," said his father, Bart Kunz. "He loved doing things in the outdoors, but it always had to be with somebody. He never went anywhere by himself."

Jer had already booked a trip to the Rim of the Grand Canyon for next year with his parents. Just a few days before his death last weekend, he took his two oldest children — Brinci, 7, and Tobias, 5 — on a backpacking trip. For Toby, it was his first adventure with his father in an environment that some see as a place to find solitude.

Jer, however, found joy in sharing those outdoor experiences with the ones he valued most.

That's why he and his family came to love the Ragnar Relay races so much. The long-distance relays began in Utah seven years ago and have become hugely popular around the country. Jer and his dad formed a team, the Wannabes, after seeing the runners make their way to Park City while they made their way to a wedding during Ragnar's Wasatch Back in 2007. Jer knew about the race because it passed through Kamas, where he and Melinda were raising their three children.

In 2008, each of the 12 runners who made up the Wannabes chose something different to put on their matching shirts. Some said "Wannabe younger;" Others said "Wannabe faster." And then there was "Wannabe at the finish line."

When they ran again in the 2009 race, they all decided to wear the same WISH, "Wannabes are Wasatch Back."

When Jer's mother, Denice Kunz, decided she'd like to join the Wannabes, she was told she'd have to form another team. She recruited even more family members, and Jer and his wife, Melinda, affectionately known as Min, volunteered to run with her squad in the inaugural Las Vegas race last weekend.

They all wore the same saying, "Wannabes are burning up the Valley of Fire."

"He texted me after his first leg," Bart said. "He said, 'Dad, this is so fun.' He'd run a seven-minute-mile pace. He was very committed to doing a good job."

And Jer was committed to being a good teammate.

That's why he was standing on the side of a road in Nevada at 4:35 a.m. Oct. 10. He and Brendan Perry were waiting for their teammate to pass them in the dark. Waiting to give him water, to give him encouragement and to give him the kind of support that transforms those impossible moments into life-altering victories.

Jer's brother-in-law, Cameron Neff, slept in the nearby van that all Ragnar teams rely on to help them navigate the near 200-mile race courses. He awoke to hear Brendan yelling; he awoke to find he'd lost his hiking partner, running buddy and friend to a drunken driving accident. Police arrested a 25-year-old Nevada man for DUI, while hundreds of runners from around the world shared their grief, their condolences and their empathy for the Kunz family.

Runners are notorious for their independence. They run far beyond fatigue in order to defeat the very toughest opponent any of us face — self-doubt — and they take pride in the fact that they do it alone.

But for Jer, there was no alone. A committed runner who logged about 50 miles each week because he loved the sport, loved how it allowed him to life a full, active life, Jer found the philanthropic side of running one of the most attractive aspects.

"He loved to run for things that were team- and people-oriented," he said. "That was basically what drove him. ... He loved people and he loved being around them. He was not a person who thought racing should be a solitary experience."

He was, instead, a person who understood that while were each responsible for running our own race, the affection of other people will make that journey a more joyful, fulfilling and enlightening experience.

"For years and years, even after he started running, I had never run with him," said Bart, who is a lifelong runner. "He kept begging me. Then, three or four years ago, we finally went running. It is a wonderful experience to go running with your son."

It was a five-mile run at a pace that was a little too fast for 55-year-old Bart.

"My glory days are past," he said. "We were running 7:15 miles, and the last half mile, I told him to go ahead and finish. Afterward, he said, 'Wasn't that great dad?' "

Last Monday, Bart went out for another Jer-inspired run. This one was the exact mileage of the leg he was supposed to run in the Ragnar Relay race on Saturday.

"I went out and ran Jeremy's last leg," Bart said. Then he asked the other 11 team members to run their last legs. Ragnar co-founder Dan Hill said when the team submits the times of those final legs, the Wannabes will receive an honorary finish. They've already given them their Valley of Fire medals.

The outpouring of sympathy and grief has come from runners past and present of the Ragnar races. They identify themselves by team name or race and then they extend condolences. Hill said organizers are discussing amongst themselves and racers what they will do to honor Jer in the races next year.

Bart said Min's family is already organizing another Wannabe team and they are discussing running to raise money for Jer and Min's 2-year-old son, Gage, who has PKU, a rare condition in which a baby is born without the ability to break down an amino acid called Phenylalanine.

In the wake of Jer's death, his family is honoring him by finding ways to do what he would have done for them. They may be without his voice, but they are not without his love — and that sustains them.

"All this has done is bring us closer together," Bart said. "We're already preparing for next year's Wasatch Back."

The shirts, once again, will all bear the same wish: "Wannabe running for Jer."

e-mail: adonaldson@desnews.com

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