SALT LAKE CITY — Bob Wood is back, and if you’re a distance runner, that could be very good news.
Five years ago, Wood stepped down as director of the races the Deseret News hosts every year on July 24th — Pioneer Day in Utah. The newspaper’s sponsorship dates to 1970, when the sole race was a marathon. Later, a 10K was added, then a 5K, then a half-marathon, all of the distances covering the route the Mormon pioneers traversed in 1847 to enter the Salt Lake Valley.
The Deseret News Marathon was the first organized 26.2-mile race ever held in Utah, a pioneer in its own right. When it began in 1970 there were only three other marathons west of Denver. Running long distances was a novelty. Back then, people thought you’d spent too much time in the sun if you started running after breakfast and didn’t finish until it was almost time for lunch.
Turned out we were trendsetters. By the end of the decade, marathons were popping up all over the country, including the St. George Marathon that began in 1977 — a downhill screamer that has grown into the 14th biggest marathon in America.
The running boom was on — and it’s never stopped, especially here in Utah. Consider this stat: Of the 570 marathons in the U.S. today, no less than 30 of them are in Utah, a number far beyond our fair share per capita; and that’s in addition to 5Ks, 10Ks and half-marathons too numerous to count.
Which brings us back to Bob. The reason he retired in 2012 was because the Deseret News turned management of its races over to an independent race director.
The reason he unretired is because the Deseret News races have seen declining numbers for four straight years, and the independent race director decided to call it quits.
It is Bob’s mission to effect a revival.
This is the part where runners might want to perk up.
The way he plans to turn the tide is by lowering the entry fees. Slashing them, actually.
The cost to enter the marathon in 2017 is $60, down from the $95 it cost a year ago. The half-marathon fee is $45, the 10K $30 and the 5K $15. (To register go to deseretnewsclassic.com).
By way of comparison, the St. George Marathon entry fee this year is $90, the Top of Utah Marathon in Logan costs $95, the Ogden Marathon is $109, and the Los Angeles Marathon is $205.
“We’re the dollar store of marathons,” says Bob proudly.
The races, he’s quick to add, will remain unchanged. The marathon will start as usual at the top of Big Mountain and parallel the path the pioneers followed 170 years ago, before the I-80 freeway had been invented. The shorter races will fall in line along the same route.
To help get the word out that the Deseret News races that never left are back, Bob plans to reconvene the race committee that advised him during the nine years (2003-12) he was previously in charge. Among his nonpaid consultants will be his three sons who have followed him into the world of track and field — Seth, who was captain of his high school cross-country team; Sam, who has won two state championships as track coach at Woods Cross High School; and Isaac, the director of operations for the track and field team at BYU.
Bob credits the Deseret News for wanting to keep the races alive out of a commitment to tradition, not profits.
“For a lot of people, the race is Pioneer Day for them,” he says. “It has a special place. But every year, events raise their prices to the point where if you’re a normal family you can’t afford to do it anymore. We’re trying to put our races back to where a family can still afford to do it.
“What we are, what sets us apart, is we’re the Pioneer Day marathon. We’re not only Boston certified, we’re pioneer certified. We’re pioneer tough. That’s our niche. That’s our appeal. If you have an ounce of pioneer blood in you, if you value what pioneers do, you should try to do one of these races at least once in your life.”