Running Like a Viking: The Story Behind Ragnar Relays – SportsLogos.Net News

Running Like a Viking: The Story Behind Ragnar Relays


Ragnar_Relay_Series_LogoIf you’ve been hearing the word “Ragnar” a lot recently, it’s either because you’ve been watching the History Channel’s TV show “Vikings,” which details the exploits of Norse legend Ragnar Lothbrok, or you’re friends with one of those insufferable jerks who can’t stop talking about running. I happen to be one of those insufferable jerks, and have been inflicting upon anyone who will listen an account of my most recent Ragnar Relay Series running experience.

Ragnar relays are running events in which teams of insane people in spandex and/or crazy costumes take turns running all day, then through the night, and then into the next day until they are delirious with fatigue and more pungent than a fast-food dumpster. I have participated in two Ragnars, one a 200-mile, point-to-point road event beginning in San Francisco and going through Napa Valley, and the other a 120-mile Trail Ragnar in California’s Tahoe National Forest, in which runners all do the same three loops, starting, handing off the baton (actually a belt with a sensor on it), and finishing at the same point near a tent village where teams camp during the event.

The original Ragnar
Ragnar Lothbrok

There are just shy of 40 Ragnar events now, including a recently announced return to Canada, the Ragnar Niagara. If the others are like the two I’ve done, the events are filled with people wondering where the name came from and just what the distinctive logo represents. In the case of the name, the consensus is that the event is named for the Norse legend, and that consensus is wrong.

The Ragnar Relay Series was founded in 2004 by two friends just out of college at BYU, Tanner Bell and Dan Hill, along with Dan’s father Steve Hill. The inspiration came from Steve, who had run a road relay in Oregon and dreamed of creating a similar event in Utah.

“For years, he never quite got around to it,” said Tanner Bell, who is now the company’s president. “He was a successful attorney, and had kids, just never quite had the time to do it. But he talked about it for years, and his son and I grew up hearing about this idea.”

In order, as Tanner puts it, to avoid getting real jobs, he and Dan took it upon themselves to create the Wasatch Back Relay in Utah. As they were plotting the course of the race, they intended to start in the town of Logan and finish in Provo, but geography got in the way—a canyon leading into Provo made the logistics impossible.

“We were like okay, we need 30 more miles, where are we going to go from here?” Bell said. “And we looked up this gigantic hill that’s essentially the back side of Deer Valley Ski Resort—it’s not a hill, it’s a mountain.”

Guardsman Pass
Guardsman Pass

After wavering on whether the hill was too challenging, Tanner and Dan decided to include it in the route and build the challenging stretch of the course into the race’s brand.

“We said, you know what, this is hard, but it’s also epic,” Bell said. “This would be kind of the crowning achievement of the race.”

So they decided that the two legs going up Guardsman Pass into the ski resort would get special treatment. While 34 of the 36 legs on the course would just be identified by numbers, these two legs would have the honor of carrying special names. The first leg going up the pass would be called the “You’ve Got to Be Kidding Me!” leg, and the second would carry the designation, the “Ragnar Leg.”

Again, that name had nothing to do with the legendary ninth-century Viking king, ruler, and plunderer—at least not initially.

“The reason we called it the Ragnar is because Steve, growing up … he actually happened to know two boys named Ragnar at different times in his life,” Bell said, “and they were both kind of rough, tough, burly guys. So we always kind of took to the saying of calling rough, tough burly people Ragnars.”

Wasatch Back in Utah, where the name Ragnar was born
The 2016 Wasatch Back Ragnar in Utah

For two years, the name Ragnar only applied to this one leg in the Wasatch Back Relay, but when the race’s founders looked to expand to other locations, an overarching brand was in order. They turned to the Salt Lake City-based marketing firm the Summit Group, which immediately saw the potential in the name Ragnar.

“They said, why don’t you call it Ragnar?” Bell said “If the hardest thing on the course is called Ragnar, why don’t you call it Ragnar? That would be amazing.”

The company’s founders, however, balked at the idea at first. “We were like, ehhh,” Bell said. “We want this race, you know it is a challenging event, but we don’t want it to be perceived as too challenging.”

They spent three months searching for a new name—at one point deciding on the milquetoast designation Backroad Relay Series before having to abandon it because it was already trademarked and they could not gain permission to use it. (“At the time, we were mad,” Bell said, “but today, I’m infinitely grateful to that organization.”)

They finally revisited the name Ragnar and realized that it was the perfect fit.

“As we started doing research on Ragnar,” Bell said, “we realized that it was more than just these two people that Steve knew growing up, it happened to be this sort of legend of Norse mythology.”

Ragnar Lothbrok, as envisioned by the History Channel
Ragnar Lothbrok, as envisioned by the History Channel

And the legend, if interpreted a certain way, is just right when applied to the physically and mentally challenging running event.

“Ragnar was this conqueror, this wanderer, wild man, and adventurer,” Bell said. “We realized that the whole sort of persona of Ragnar fit the spirit of the race. It’s this overnight, adventuring, wandering, conquering sort of event.”

Of course, anyone who has read up on their Norse history (or has seen the show Vikings) knows that the name Ragnar is not all puppy dogs and ice cream. “In full disclosure, we romanticize the history of Ragnar quite a bit,” Bell said. “Ragnar is like this Viking plunderer. So he’s not a great dude, but we choose to romanticize that and make our own history on that.”

ragnar_relay_logo2The logo itself, which is the source of much conversation, took six months to create. It features a forwards and backwards R (for Ragnar Relay) and, if you look carefully, it represents a warrior’s mask, with eye holes, a face plate, and a nose plate. As with any abstraction, though, it can be seen in other ways.

“You know, some people think it’s a butterfly,” Bell said.


While the name has its roots in the rough-and-tumble, burly childhood friends of one of the event’s founders, and has expanded to incorporate the legend of a ruthless Viking, the brand embraces a more whimsical, lighthearted approach. While runners are struggling through challenging trails, they’re treated to branded signs that say things like “It’s all down hill from here. Just kidding. There’s a huge incline ahead,” “Watch for bears. Just Kidding. (Kind of),” or, simply, “Motivational Sign.”


Ragnar-TattooPerhaps because Ragnar races are intense experiences (and in the case of Trail Ragnars, in-tents experiences), many participants seem to have a strong loyalty to the brand. The logo is everywhere at the races—not just on official signage provided by the organization, but on gear that runners purchase, on runners’ skin in the form of temporary tattoos, incorporated into team logos on T-shirts, and even drawn by hand on signs, banners, and team vans.

In the end, it’s a distinct, unique mark, with an interesting backstory, and that’s almost always a recipe for success.