by CARA HASEBI
In 1847, the Mormon pioneers who had been traveling across the country trudged their way into the great Salt Lake Valley for the first time. Their first vision of the valley involved pulling handcarts down Big Mountain, up Little Mountain, down the other side of Little Mountain, through Emigration Canyon, until finally on the last turn they could see the vast desert valley that would be their home. More than 100 years later, folks from all over the country desire to trek through those same mountains over the same blessed ground in memory of the pioneer courage. Or, they simply love to run.
The first Deseret News Marathon was inaugurated in 1970. The course has become known as being “too difficult,” and Haraldsen notes it was the first such organized race west of the Continental Divide. It was originally named the Pioneer marathon, though the Deseret News was the marathon’s largest sponsor from its beginning. The name was eventually changed to reflect the sponsor but it is still held on Pioneer Day (July 24th) every year.
According to a Deseret News article published July 24, 1970, the marathon started out small, with only 73 entrants, all of whom were men. The race gained in popularity and by 1980, more than 1,500 runners entered the race, according to a post-race article in the Deseret News. The popularity of running in Utah and specifically the Deseret News Marathon may be attributed to a national and religious fitness movement.
In 1980, the same year as the record number of Deseret News Marathon race participants, President Jimmy Carter spoke at the first ever Conference on Physical Fitness. Of the 15 priority areas created for national health, Physical Fitness was named as one of them. President Carter was a runner himself; he mentioned at the conference that he often jogged around the White House grounds with his wife. He also mentioned at the conference that the number of Americans who exercised had doubled between 1970 and 1980.
The number of race participants in the Deseret News marathon in that time had increased by a factor of 20. In a November 6, 1978, New York Times article, a spokesperson for the American Medical Association is quoted as saying, “there is unquestionably a greater awareness of the body and preventative medicine than 10 years ago.”
Utah was not absent during the rising national interest in fitness. The leaders of the Mormon Church, headquartered in Salt Lake City, found importance in physical fitness as well. Physical health is a key component in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). An article by an LDS member and marathoner appeared in the official church magazine, the Ensign, in February 1981, detailing directions on how to begin jogging and work up to marathoning. Church members were not the only ones who contributed to the fitness dialog. In February 1979, a church official wrote an article in the Ensign. He noted that every member should practice sound principles of nutrition, physical fitness, and weight control. The article specifically mentioned running marathons as a way to have better physical health. Additionally, Thomas S. Monson, an apostle of the church, spoke officially for the LDS church in a semi-annual conference in April 1982. “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints affirms the continued support of Scouting and will seek to provide leadership which will help boys keep close to their families and close to the Church as they develop the qualities of citizenship and character and fitness which Scouting represents.” (Monson) He mentioned in the same article that scouting is a great way to stay physically fit, and running is an option for boys seeking to pass scouting requirements.
Despite support at the national and local level, participation in the Deseret News Marathon declined gradually until in 2003 organizers made the decision to no longer hold the marathon. Haraldsen writes that the directors announced in March 2003 they would no longer continue holding the marathon each year. With the decline of runners registering for the race there wasn’t enough reason to continue it. There are two primary reasons the race does not attract runners. The course is difficult with its many rolling hills, and the race is not considered “fast.” Also, on July 24th Salt Lake City can hit extremely high temperatures. Doug Robinson of the Deseret News explains it this way: “From its inception, the Deseret News Marathon has been largely the domain of grass-roots runners…. World-class marathoners, able to run only two or three marathons a year anyway, tend to look for fast marathon courses and fast times to promote their careers, and they’re unlikely to get either on a mountainous course at altitude in the heat of July.” Despite the decrease in the number of participants, the Deseret News Marathon received a message from the running community in Utah that it wants the Deseret News Marathon to continue. (Haraldsen, July 2003) Race directors listened to veteran runners’ pleas and decided to carry on with the race.
The growth of the Deseret News Marathon along with national and church health promotion is not purely coincidental. The rise and fall of national and religious physical fitness trends are displayed historically through organized marathon races. Although there are more options when it comes to marathons and the Deseret News course is more difficult to navigate, the Deseret News marathon is now in its 42nd year running — literally.
Cara Hasebi is an avid marathoner, having run the Deseret News Marathon several times. She will be a senior at The University of Utah in Fall 2012, majoring in Mass Communication with a minor in Nutrition.
Tom Brown, “Price Runner Wins ‘News’ 47 Marathon,” Deseret News, July 24, 1970, B5.
Pamela G. Hollie,“Spas Thrive on Diet, Fitness Craze; Profits Mount For Owners,” New York Times, November 6, 1978, 82.
Marvin K. Gardner, “Staying Prepared,” Ensign (February 1979): 24
“Jimmy Carter: National Conference on Physical Fitness and Sports for All Remarks at the Opening Session of the Conference,” February 1, 1980, accessible at The American Presidency Project, ed. Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley.
Lee Benson, “Cabanillas makes it 5 in a Row,” Deseret News, July, 24, 1980, D1.
Scott S. Zimmerman, “Running Away from it All,” Ensign (February 1981).
Thomas S. Monson, “Run, Boy, Run!,” Ensign (October 1982).
Doug Robinson, “DNews Marathon: A Tale of Endurance,” Deseret News, July, 23 1994.
Tom Haraldsen, “July 24 marathon tradition coming to an end,” Deseret News, March 25, 2003.
Tom Haraldsen, “Marathon may get new life,” Deseret News, July 16, 2003.