PARK CITY — Ultramarathon legend Scott Jurek might not have known much about the Ragnar Relay's Wasatch Back when he agreed to join Team Clif BarBarbarian in this weekend's race. But he knows quite a lot about his sport's unpredictable and transformative magic.
“I really liked the idea of bringing people together,” said Jurek, who's won nearly three dozen major titles and set 16 course records in 20 years of running the world’s toughest — and longest — courses. “And I really liked that it wasn’t their normal thing.”
In other words, the fact that he was the only self-described runner on the team made the experience even more intriguing. In addition to Clif Bar founder and owner Gary Erickson, Jurek’s teammates included professional rock climbers Timmy O’Neill and Alex Honnold and free skier Caroline Gleich.
“Employees from Clif, other athletes, it was an opportunity to hang out in an unusual way,” Jurek said. “And it’s doing something that bonded us together.”
Normally running 20.8 miles wouldn’t be much of a challenge for the man who’s won almost every major ultramarathon in the country, including Badwater and the Western States 100. But Jurek, who is also known for showing up at races unannounced and helping support other runners, said a person doesn’t have to run 100 miles to find life-altering moments in the sport.
“I knew it was still going to be tough,” he said of the race’s format, which asks runners to run three different legs, hours apart, in a 12-person relay format. “Any time you stop running, wait for a few hours, and then go hard for another 7 miles, and then stop again, it’s hard.”
And it isn’t just the mileage — or the physical toll — that matters most for the more than 13,000 Ragnar participants.
“Running is an experience that people can learn more about themselves in all formats,” he said. “You can do that in a 5K, you can do that in a marathon, you can do that in an ultramarathon, and you can do that in a relay race like this. It’s not about making it the toughest or most difficult or something that only you get to experience. It’s about bringing people together to have that experience.”
It’s something, O’Neill said, he’d never even heard of until Clif employees asked him to join this weekend’s fun.
“I never even knew these (races) existed,” he said. “What’s interesting is that I’m not a runner, but I could see myself becoming a runner as a result of this race, wanting to improve my ability as a runner, wanting to come back and do this again, which I’m sure I will.”
He moved between edifying and inspiring moments peppered with sheer agony and suffering.
“The one story I would tell to embody my experience in this race would be the leg on my 45th birthday in the morning (on Saturday), when the clouds are above us and they’re lighting up with pink and it’s incredibly beautiful and I’m running past people, and I put my hand out, and they give me some skin, and I give them some skin, and it was really beautiful and then I had a really wicked dry heave.”
He doesn’t wait for the listeners to stop laughing before he explains why the mixture of pain and joy is so alluring.
“I’ll start really high and then I’ll remember how bad it was and then I’ll forget how bad it was, and I’ll only remember the good,” he said. “They call that Type 2 fun.”
He said his actual favorite moment came when Ragnar co-founder Tanner Bell, who drove for the team in his first Wasatch Back experience as a participant, were talking as they drove through the Ogden valley as everyone else slept.
Unlike Jurek, who has always found inspiration, transformation and peace in running, O’Neill said he has never been seduced by the sport because it’s not risky enough. The risk factor in free climbing requires complete attention to each moment, while running allows participants more freedom to drift mentally.
“You can almost be more free to look at your surroundings, and what was really cool about that is that this is such a big race and it’s difficult for everybody,” he said. “This is voluntary challenge, elective suffering. The only reason we do it is because it brings us to beautiful places and it’s difficult. And that’s enough.”
He said if the race, which was won by BYU’s cross-country team, has a “greater calling” it “might be to have a good time.”
“What’s interesting was to see how many different body shapes are out here, how many different ages and people you don’t really expect who are out here doing this 200-mile relay and they’re so into it,” O’Neill said. “It’s really cool to see grandmoms and grandkids, people sleeping in cars and at schools. It’s like elective disaster management.”
He said the culture created within teams is transcendent and creates a greater “cohesion around the entire event,” he said. “What you’re left with when you break these people apart and they go home is the faith in humanity.”
And, Jurek said, every participant learns the lessons of a sport that teaches, above all else, to expect the unexpected.
“I knew, because I’ve been running for 20 years, that things happen,” Jurek said. “There are always going to be changes in the weather, running at night, not sleeping, not getting to the aid stations, exchanges or any other elements. There is always the unexpected and unknown and you have to learn to deal with that. This is all about dealing with elements that you are never going to be prepared for. That’s probably the biggest thing (I’ll take away). That and experience all the different people out there, and seeing others revel in their experiences and also helping (each other) through difficulties.”
As O’Neill and Jurek responded to media interviews in the team's uniform of a plastic-horned helmet and corresponding clothing, O’Neill said the silliness only adds to the entire Wasatch Back experience. “Whenever you can break into spontaneous dance with strangers,” O’Neill said, “your life is exponentially better.”
Complete results from this weekend’s race will be available early next week at ragnarrelay.com.
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