Amy Donaldson: Ragnar founder finally reaps what he's sown

Published: Sunday, June 23 2013 10:15 p.m. MDT

Co-founders of the Ragnar Relay Series, Tanner Bell, Dan Hill and Dan's father Steve complete the last 100 yards of the last leg of the Ragnar Relay Wasatch Back race in Park City Saturday, June 22, 2013. The founders hadn't participated in the signature race in Utah until this year when Hill completed it for the first time.

Brian Nicholson, Nicholson Photography

PARK CITY — Exhausted and sick, Dan Hill could barely bring himself to get in and out of the heavily decorated van to run the race he helped create.

Surrounding him in that goofy-looking vehicle were people he’d met just a few hours earlier who did what Ragnar Relay teammates do during the two-day, nearly 200-mile race. They offered him food, peppered him with encouragement and let him sleep when and where he could.

One of the three co-founders of the race, Hill didn’t know them, didn’t know their stories, wasn’t aware of their struggles or even their reasons for driving 14 hours from California to run the Wasatch Back, the event that spawned the Ragnar Relay series a decade ago.

He didn’t know until the final hours of the race that Mike Haberkorn weighed 390 pounds before he started walking with the team’s captain and his best friend, Tracey Martinez. She was sidelined with blood clots a few years ago, when she found the Ragnar Relays and signed them up for a race in Southern California.

Suddenly a couple of speed walkers, who were inspired by the abilities of elite runners, felt they belonged among even the most talented athletes who also enjoyed competing in the relays.

They convinced Haberkorn’s sister-in-law, Teri O’Neal, to participate in her very first organized race of any kind in the Las Vegas Ragnar Relay. Her daughter, Brenna, listened to the war stories and jumped in the next time they needed a runner.

And Carolyn Wittman, a 30-year-old mother of two and Haberkorn’s step-daughter, joined the crew in 2011 because she had an SUV, and once again, they were short a runner.

“I was a stay-at-home mom and very overweight,” she said. “And after seeing Mike and Tracey and Teri and Brenna, I started. … I’ve lost 80 pounds since I started running, and all I do is plan trips based on running. I’ve gotten more healthy and I found a passion for life again. Running has made a huge difference in my life, and Ragnar is a huge part of that.”

So team Sprinters Walkers and Trash Talkers (S.W.A.T.T.) was thrilled to welcome one of the founders onto their team, even if he didn’t understand at first the significance of his participation in their journey.

He was, after all, on his own journey — one that returned the 32-year-old Farmington man to the race series he left a year and a half ago. Hill started the Wasatch Back with his father, Steve Hill, and one of his best friends from high school, Tanner Bell. While it was Steve Hill who yearned for years of creating a long-distance relay like Oregon’s Hood to Coast, it was Dan and Tanner who made it a reality.

The race, and the series born from Wasatch Back, became unexpectedly magical for them as runners shared story after story of how their participation changed, inspired and transformed them.

“You really feel like you’re on God’s errand,” Dan said of organizing the races, even as he acknowledges that may sound like hyperbole, especially to those who’ve never experienced the races.

Ragnar has always been difficult to put into words. It was a dream that became an energy and has now evolved into a culture. It belongs to those who run it, maybe more so than those who plan it.

Participants stretch their budgets to sign up, they plan family reunions and vacations around the races, and they etch tattoos of the company’s logo onto their bodies to express their affection for the experience.

It was rewarding work to stage races that helped people change their lives for the better while it brought them closer to friends and family. It was a gut-wrenching, heart-breaking decision to leave. But it was also time.

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