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Brian Nicholson, Nicholson Photography
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.
The race is special, but it would be a shame if I was still there. I don't think it's my personality to stay in one place forever. You've got to do new things, and hopefully I've got 10 more things to go build. —Dan Hill

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.

“The race is special, but it would be a shame if I was still there,” he said as his team began the last of their legs in Heber City. “I don’t think it’s my personality to stay in one place forever. You’ve got to do new things, and hopefully I’ve got 10 more things to go build.”

Haberkorn responds, “You created something amazing, and you’re going to create something else amazing.”

Hill hopes that’s true, even as he begins to realize he’s already created something else spectacular in his new, wildly successful Electric Run series.

When Haberkorn expresses interest in the new races, Hill tries to articulate the difference between where he’s been and what he’s creating now.

“You would love it, but it couldn’t be more different,” Hill said. “I mean, this is a much more meaningful experience. But there is definitely something to be said for a really approachable fun night. People who’ve never run three miles and we distract them with music and lights, there is something cool there too.”

Haberkorn understands, maybe better than Hill does, why running 3.2 miles might sound intimidating.

“I was 390 pounds and started with a 5K,” he said. “You have to start somewhere. And if that’s what it takes to get someone to say, ‘Hey, maybe I can do this! Maybe I can do another 5K or a half marathon.’ If that’s the place someone starts, that’s important.”

Hill understands that. He values that. In fact, he takes great pride in knowing that the races he helped create have made long-distance running accessible to so many who wouldn’t have considered running a half marathon or marathon before finishing a Ragnar Relay.

But Hill also understands he needed to do something different for himself. His decision to leave was fraught with mixed feelings and left him conflicted after a complicated, emotional split. He has no doubt leaving was the right thing, but he wanted to make peace with walking away from what he fought so hard to create.

After his first leg at Snowbasin Ski Resort Friday night, he likened the experience to a high school reunion.

“In a lot of good and mundane ways, it felt like going back to high school,” he said. “It feels significant when you are there, but once you leave and come back, you kind of feel like you don’t really belong.”

He’d outgrown the place that gave him roots. Creating what he did with Bell at Ragnar gave him the confidence to continue dreaming big, even when everyone else thinks you’re crazy. Which is why he could see night runs lit up with a million watts of electricity that once again transcend traditional road races.

As the sun was sinking on the 10th anniversary celebration that surrounded this year’s Wasatch Back, Hill stood in the last chute of the race waiting to run the final 3-mile leg of his journey. Bell stood just outside the orange barrier, until Hill waved at his friend to join him in the official exchange area. He took the slap-bracelet baton, and the two turned away from the sunset and ran the final three miles alone.

"It would be harder to move on if I didn't have the confidence I do in Tanner," said Hill. "I know he understands the nuances that make Ragnar so special, and I know he has what it takes to maintain what makes it great and take it to new and greater heights."

As they ran together, Bell told Hill what keeps him committed to the company they started.

"On our run, Tanner told me, 'I still have things to do here at Ragnar,’ ” said Hill. "And he's right."

As they entered the stadium at Park City High, they were met by Dan’s S.W.A.T.T. teammates, friends and family members, including Steve Hill, who jogged the final 200 meters with the boys he believed in enough to help them start this beautiful ride.

“Apart from not feeling well, it was perfect,” Dan said. “It was the right team to be on. … One thing I value most in people is authenticity and being self-actualized, and I really liked that about the team.” Then he laughs as he recalls waking from one of his naps and realizing there were no longer hoards of runners on the course with them. He mentioned that the teams had “thinned out” and Martinez responded, “Welcome to team S.W.A.T.T.”

The crowd of thousands had thinned to dozens as the three men crossed the finish line in a small but emotional ceremony in which Ragnar officials met them with flowers, hugs and handshakes.

The three men grinned, arms around each other, medals hanging from their necks as they basked in the magic they had a hand in making.

It was stark contrast to the relief and fatigue they wore 10 years ago when they simply hoped to double the size of that first 22-team race.

The race has changed them as much as it has changed the runners who participate. Like those runners, who often have no idea what they’re in for when they agree to join a team, the founders had only an inkling of what they were creating when they chased that original dream. A decade later, they have a new challenge as they must find ways to separately honor what they built, as well as each other, while imagining new ways to inspire people to live better and love more.

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Email: adonaldson@deseretnews.com