SALT LAKE CITY — For many years, cross country teams from around the state have been piling into buses and heading to Salt Lake to compete in the Wahsatch Rendezvous. On Saturday morning, nearly 700 high school runners met at Cottonwood Park for the 20th edition of the uniquely named and uniquely formatted race.
The history of the event runs back to the early 1990s, and was born on the west side of the valley before evolving into what it is today.
"There was a meet hosted by Kearns High School called Best Man," said Hugh Evans, a former Rendezvous race director and current long distance assistant coach for Utah Valley University. "When their coach retired, the new Kearns coach didn't want to sponsor it. They called Coach (Willie) Cowden and said 'Would you be interested in taking that race over?' " Cowden, the legendary cross country and track coach at Brighton High, did take over the race and directed it the following four seasons before falling ill and asking Evans to step in. During his time in charge, Cowden gave the event its current title, including with it his own lasting touch.
"He, being an English teacher, chose to spell (the title) the way it sounds: Wah-satch," Evans said. "He called it the Wahsatch Rendezvous, and they started it in about 1993. And the race has been running from then until now."
Throughout its 20 years, the race has grown substantially both in the number of athletes participating and in the number of miles driven by schools to get to the event. Attendance on Saturday included 691 runners from 30 schools across all five classifications. Many of the participants came from the Wasatch Front but there were several that drove in from as far away as Dugway, Cedar City and Vernal.
"It's quite a diverse group we have here," said current co-director and Brighton High coach Mike Zufelt. "Some of the teams only have 10 runners and others have 80. It's diverse."
Part of the interest for local teams is the location of the course at Cottonwood Park.
"This is the region course for some of the regions," Zufelt said, "so runners like to come run this mid-season so they can practice for their region meet."
Other participants like the shorter distance.
"It is 2.94 miles, so it's not quite a 5K the way the course runs," said Eileen Struna, race director and Brighton High coach. "We have kept with the traditional course that it was originally. It's a shorter course and some of the kids like that because their times look faster, but it is a tough course."
Much more of the event's popularity, however, is due to the untraditional format it has become known for.
"This race gives the runners the opportunity for everybody to be able to win," Zufelt said, explaining that there are seven different start times for girls and for boys. The seventh-best runner on each team runs in the No. 7 race, the sixth-best runner runs in the No. 6 race, and so on until the top racers from each school compete against each other in the final race. At the end of the day, scores are compiled together to also calculate overall winners.
"It kind of drags the race out and the scoring is a little different than in a regular cross country meet," Evans added, "but the coaches have said they like it because the kids like to race against their peers and it changes their racing strategy."
In Saturday's race, Tomy Gutierrez, a senior at East High, finished first with an overall fastest time of 15:49.1. He was followed by Payson sophomore Dakota Lange (16:05.5), in second place, and Westlake junior Austin Brower (16:16.5), who took third. On the girls side, Cedar City junior Aimee Bryson took first overall with a time of 18:40.0. Second place was Maddie Criscione (18:52.3), a junior at Judge Memorial, and in third place was Abigail Hurst (19:58.6), an East High senior.