Keith Johnson, Deseret Morning News
A runner heads into the aid station in East Canyon near the 40-mile mark of the Wasatch 100 in last year's distance endurance race.

It started as a whim. Six friends, who also happened to be runners, were looking for a new challenge when they decided to run 100 miles.

"They didn't have maps or anything else. They just said, 'Let's run 100 miles.' Two of them finished," said Wasatch 100 race director John Grobben as he and his more than 200 volunteers gear up for the 27th Annual Wasatch 100 endurance run, in which about 225 runners will try to navigate 100 miles of Utah's backcountry in 36 hours or less.

The six friends weren't attempting a feat that had never been done before. At the time, there were two other organized 100-mile races, one in California, that offered athletes the chance to test their endurance like no marathon ever could. It just hadn't been done in Utah.

The next year, they made it more official under the direction of one of those runners, Steve Baugh.

"I've started it a lot more than I've finished it," said Baugh, who is a member of the race committee. "I finished it twice."

The Wasatch 100 is the second-oldest 100-mile race in the country, and the last race in which runners can finish to earn Ultra Running Magazine's Grand Slam. This year 29 runners signed up to finish all four of the oldest 100-mile races, including the Wasatch 100.

This year, just 12 people remain eligible as more than half were unable to finish one or more of the other three races. One of those is a Utah man, Andy Knight.

"I have no doubt he'll finish the Wasatch 100, and it will be neat to see him earn that Grand Slam," said Baugh, who oversees that aspect of this year's race. "The last three years we have had at least one Utahn earn the Grand Slam."

The 225 runners who congregate in Wilderness Mountain Park this Saturday at 5 a.m. will have many reasons for wanting to tour the central Wasatch Mountains on foot.

The course begins in Kaysville at East Mountain Wilderness Park and makes its way to the Homestead Resort in Midway. The course has varied over the years, but essentially, runners will traverse the mountains, through rugged, rocky areas and city streets and trails, all while gaining a cumulative elevation of 26,882, as well as enduring a cumulative loss of about 26,000 feet throughout the course.

The weather will range from 80 degrees to low 40s. The changing temperatures and terrain make the Wasatch 100 one of the toughest.

"Most other 100-mile races cut off at 30 hours," said Grobben. "We would only have 25 percent finish if we did that. This race is a lot more rugged and primitive."

As ultra marathons and endurance contests of all kinds increase in popularity, the Wasatch 100 organizers actually turn runners away to keep the race a more moderate size.

"We don't want to start more than 225 or so runners," Grobben said. "That's the number we feel we can manage, and still give the runners individual attention."

Baugh said there are many reasons to run the race and just as many reasons runners can't finish. Most commonly, the problems arise from dehydration issues that make runners sick in the changing temperatures and altitudes. Some find it difficult to figure out just what and when they should eat as they navigate the mountains.

"We weigh them three times during the race," said Grobben. "If they lose over 7 percent of their body mass, then we make them eat and drink until they gain some back."

He said if runners eat and drink as they should during the 100 miles, they shouldn't lose much weight at all. There are 15 checkpoints where food and water are provided, but many runners have support crews that look after them as well.

"It's possible for someone to run it without any support," said Grobben. "We check on them quite a bit."

Because the race is small, Grobben and Baugh said the runners and volunteers get to know each other and the atmosphere is very friendly and caring.

"It's just a really fun weekend," Grobben said.

As for why these athletes want to push themselves to do this race, Grobben said a runner answered that question about 20 years ago at about mile 14.

"He said, 'There aren't any more grizzly bears left to kill,"' Grobben said. "For some people, it appeals to something missing in their lives, if they're stuck in an office all day."

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Baugh knows first-hand why the runners are willing to risk injury, illness and not finishing for a chance at the feeling that comes with completing the challenge.

"It's the same reason people climb Everest," he said. "One of the highest highs I've ever had was the second time I finished the race. I decided to enter the night before, and I just had a perfect day, where I felt good all day. I was high for an entire week after that. I've never had that kind of high in my life."

"It's just that you're out slogging for so long, and there are so many variables that can take you out of it ... It's really an adventure ... It's just a fun thing to do."