SALT LAKE CITY — Mitt Stewart began organizing the Wasatch Trail Run Series nearly a decade ago. What started as five races at Solitude involving a handful of people turned into a weekly series along the Wasatch Front with upwards of 300 racers, even on a Wednesday evening.
The groups of runners would run courses set up at Corner Canyon or Dimple Dell Park during the springtime before moving to the Wasatch Mountain ski resorts in the summer months. It became almost like a small community, with many racers returning for multiple events year-after-year.
The series was set to continue again in 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic created statewide shutdowns in March. Even though some of those restrictions are loosened now, holding the weekly series like in years past was simply out of the question.
"We basically saw the writing on the wall, that there was most likely not going to be a chance to host races," Stewart told KSL.com Monday. "Just this month, we checked our race venues and we couldn’t run … that’s not going to happen this year due to (COVID-19)."
So, race organizers started brainstorming ways to give their regular runners some sort of competition knowing that they wouldn’t be able to stage an event bringing hundreds of people together at the same time. They spotted something on Strava, an app that allows people to track their runs and bike rides, where people could compete in challenges based on a certain mile length. Several marathons adopted similar concepts. People run 26.2 miles on their own designed course and submit their time for the marathon they registered for.
Stewart and other organizers wanted that but in a situation where people run the same course. That’s what led to the creation of Wasatch Epic, a website aimed at allowing competitions to continue by having runners race against each other virtually.
Here’s how it works: A runner registers for a race, which comes with a $30 cost. That runner can then use an app like Strava, Garmin or Alltrails when they run a course selected by Wasatch Epic. When they complete the run, they can then submit their run data from the trail to its website. The site automatically ranks that runner based on all the times submitted to that point. There’s a small cash prize for those with the best times if at least 50 people register for a race.
A new course is selected monthly, and competitors have four weeks to submit their scores for a particular race. The schedule will continue through the fall, with new courses assigned every month. There’s also a point system based on the races every person competes in. At the end of the season, awards will be handed out based on the results of each race.
"It’s giving them that sense of competition that they’re missing but also, at the same time, it’s in an environment where they’re doing it on their own or (with) a couple of people," Stewart said. "So it’s safe, and there’s not the concern of the COVID thing."
The organization got positive feedback from runners when they announced the online endeavor June 3.
"What an awesome idea!!! Looks super fun!" one person wrote on its Facebook page.
The first two races — at Grandeur Peak and Mt. Olympus — are already underway and go through the end of the month. About 70 people have already completed and submitted their times, Stewart said.
It’s not just mountain running; the group also has challenges available for hiking, mountain biking and road biking on various courses. It also plans to add road running soon.
Stewart added that the Wasatch Trail Run Series has added a charitable wing over the years. This year, they’ve already been able to donate $10,000 to local nonprofit organizations. He’s hoping that by making races available to anyone to compete on their own timetable, it may make them more accessible.
In-person races will return as soon as organizers are allowed to hold those events, but that likely won’t happen until at least next year. Even then, race organizers anticipate keeping the virtual format too.
"Part of the allure of WasatchEpic.com is that you can do it on your own time, and you have a month to do it. Even if COVID wasn’t around, that can appeal to people who have families and aren’t able to attend our traditional races; and it appeals to people who like the sense of competition but they don't like it enough to show up at a starting line with a bunch of other people," Stewart said. "The future hasn’t been written, but that’s my goal."