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Utah Business

Inside The Fitness Culture That Created Ragnar

How Utah’s community approach to a one-person sport gave rise to a growing local industry

When Doug Padilla started running in junior high, he didn’t seem destined for a career in athletics. He mostly ran for the fun of it—he had friends on the team, and his coach encouraged him to participate, if only to compete against himself. But when he moved to Utah to attend BYU, he wasn’t fast enough to make the cross country team.

He kept training anyway, and two years later, he finally made the roster. He continued whittling away at his race times, eventually going pro. He made the US National Team in 1984, and again in 1988. He raced on every continent except Antarctica and Australia. 

In June of 1996, he was out on a training run when he was hit by a car.

Padilla sustained severe injuries, and it was clear, he says, that his running career was over. But while he was still recovering, one of his former teammates from BYU, a computer programmer, got talking with him about an idea they’d once had during a race. “When you finished the race, you would sit around and wait for someone to figure out the results, and it took a long time,” Padilla says. “We were having conversations—the way technology is today, we ought to be able to collect someone’s time, and by the time they get to the finish line we should be able to hand them a card with their results on it.”

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You may not have heard Padilla’s name, but odds are that if you’ve run a race in Utah, you’ve been timed by the company he founded in 1997, Runner Card. Padilla was among the first in a wave of Utahns who turned their passion for one of the state’s most well-known obsessions—running—into some of the sport’s fastest-growing brands. Event-based race companies like Revel and Ragnar? Founded in Utah. Altra’s revolutionary zero-drop running shoes? Invented at Runner’s Corner in Orem. Top-of-the-line NordicTrack treadmills and ellipticals? Headquartered in Logan, Utah.

The founders of these companies say it’s no coincidence that so many of the industry’s up-and-coming brands call Utah home. While Utah isn’t the most competitive state for running, a tight-knit community of professional and recreational athletes, combined with the state’s entrepreneurial inclinations, has fostered the growth of dozens of unique companies.

Designing the perfect running shoe

Oregon, Colorado, and Arizona are consistently ranked in the top three states for running as a sport. But Utah is close behind in a sort of second-tier of national contenders, and it has some unique advantages that allow it to maintain that status. Debbie Perry, who runs  Salt Lake Running Company with her husband, believes Utah’s natural environment encourages residents to get out and enjoy the outdoors. 

Perry, like Padilla, started running young and came to Utah to compete at the collegiate level. She met her husband in college, but instead of becoming pro athletes, the pair fell in love with Utah’s natural scenery and active, independent culture—and decided to stay and start what has become one of the most influential, locally-owned running stores in the state.

Yet, while running is, at its core, a solo sport, Utah athletes take a more collaborative approach. Local running clubs actively support novices looking to get their feet wet, and the state has a “full-spectrum” of coaches, nutritionists, and other experts ready to help runners thrive. “The other aspect that seems significant is, I think, we’re fairly entrepreneurial as a state,” Padilla says. “There are a lot of people in Utah who are looking for a way to do something better.”

Golden Harper, founder of Altra Running, was one of those people. His parents ran Runner’s Corner in Orem, where Harper would get his first job at age nine—just one year before he would run his first marathon and set a new age group record.

Working at the store, Harper says, “the only education you get is from companies that sell you products, which is kind of messed up.” Customers would come in complaining of injuries, and Harper had no idea how to solve their problems. So he left to study biomechanics in college, where he learned that everything he’d ever told his customers was wrong.

“Virtually, all running shoes completely violate all the laws of biomechanics, and 99 percent of running shoes cause running injuries,” he says. “Every single shoe in my store caused people to run wrong.”

He returned home determined to make a change. Initially, he tried making minor modifications to mass-produced shoes, and he had some success—customers reported fewer injuries. But after trying—and failing—to convince major shoe brands to try something new, he realized he was going to have to take things into his own hands.

He made his first prototype using his home toaster oven to cut apart and rebuild a mass-produced shoe—removing the built-up heel and replacing it with an even, flat piece of foam padding. Word spread like wildfire.

“I had about two dozen pairs made for the staff of our running store,” Harper recalls, “and somehow they found their way to a customer’s feet. He told a friend, and it got out of control. We sold a thousand pairs of zero-drop shoes out of the store that year.

“So we took a road trip to Portland, Oregon [to meet with a shoe manufacturer], and the next thing we knew we were a million dollars in debt,” laughs Harper. 

Growing up in Utah, Harper says, made starting a business seem just as accessible as any other career. But his Utah roots gave him other advantages as well—his first investor was the founder of Utah-based multi-level marketing firm, XanGo. And the local running scene, Harper says, was quick to convert to the gospel of zero-drop running.

“The running community in Utah was super, super accepting of this new concept, and that’s fairly unique,” Harper says. “As we’ve traveled the country, not everywhere is like Utah where people are open to try new things all the time. Being in a place where people were willing to try a new thing and tell their friends caused it to blow up in the course of a year, pretty much exclusively by word-of-mouth.”

Designing a better running race

Community support and word-of-mouth advertising also played a critical role in the development of what may be the most widely recognized Utah-based running brand: Ragnar.

Tanner Bell, one of the experiential race company’s cofounders, wasn’t actually a fan of running when he started Ragnar. But he did go to BYU, and his friends were runners, so the connections were there. His outside perspective, he says, allowed him to create something that to this day remains relatively unique among racing series.

“We came from a beginner or non-runner perspective, so we were able to create something that appealed to both demographics,” he says. “I think that was the real magic—Utah is, in general, a fitness place, so we always say you don’t have to be a runner to run Ragnar. All it takes is a bit of training.”

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Bell and his friends had already attempted to start an athletic apparel company when they conceived the idea for Ragnar—a multi-day, extreme long-distance race with a relay option to make the event more accessible to beginners.

The first event, in which runners raced from Logan to Park City, was small as running events go, with just 262 participants. “But when we got to the finish line,” Bell says, “we knew something special had happened.” An energy among the runners suggested the event had staying power. The following year, the race quadrupled in size, attracting a thousand participants, and then three thousand participants the following year.

The rate of growth suggested such events could work in other locations, and Bell’s hunch proved scalable: today Ragnar hosts 40 events per year in six countries including Spain, Australia, and South Africa.

But Bell doesn’t believe the company could have started in another state. “Utah was an accelerator for our success,” he says, because of the “tight-knit communities, and the ability of those communities to spread word-of-mouth.”

Emma Penrod is a journalist based in rural Utah who covers science, technology, business and environmental health. She writes a weekly water politics newsletter at pactio.us/host/emma-penrod and Tweets about the latest science and industry news @EmaPen. When she's not writing, reading or researching, she's hunting sagebrush-scented air fresheners.

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