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Sandy Journal

Wahsatch Rendezvous differs in cross-country format, attracts teams for more than 30 years

Oct 04, 2021 11:27AM ● By Julie Slama

At the Wahsatch Rendezvous, the unique format has seven varsity races for girls and boys resulting in only a handful of runners in each race, as seen here at this year’s meet. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

When varsity cross-country runners line up for the Wahsatch Rendezvous, it isn’t a sprint out of the mass crowd to jostle for position.

Instead, there are seven varsity boys’ and seven varsity girls’ races with each race commencing every half-hour. The format has each team’s top runners enter the No. 1 race, the No. 2s in the No. 2 race and so on.

“I like it because the format is different,” said Hillcrest High cross-country coach Scott Stucki, who has coordinated the meet the past six years. “If a team is deep, then usually your sixth and seventh runner don’t score and this gives those varsity runners a chance to win a meet and a chance to medal, where they don’t usually do. It forces the runners to rely on themselves than following the pack.”

This year’s Wahsatch Rendezvous was Aug. 28 at the Cottonwood Complex, the same location where the meet originated. The top five varsity runners in each race and the top 20 JV runners each received a medal. The top three teams won trophies for males and females.

While Hillcrest High didn’t win, they have had recent winners. In 2019, Anthony Davies won the No. 1 boys race and in 2018, Zac Hastings won. In 2017, Cat Webster won the girls’ top race. In 2008, the Huskies won the boys’ team race, Stucki said.

Stucki, who has been the Huskies’ head coach since 2014, coached before that alongside John Olsen, who after being head cross-country and track coach was Hillcrest’s athletic director and now is the school’s international baccalaureate director. 

It was Olsen’s uncle, Willie Cowden, who was Brighton High’s cross-country coach for 15 years, established the race and organized it until he died of cancer in 1998 at the age of 52. 

Brighton continued to host the meet until Hillcrest took it over to continue it because Stucki liked the meet format. It’s a format that isn’t commonly seen, but now it has popped up in meets in Montana, Florida and Illinois.

Olsen, who ran the meet as the No. 1 runner for West High in the 1990s, remembered his uncle and aunt running the meet. His aunt, Becky, would have a stopwatch in her hand.

“It was just so different than anything else you did during a season, so it was kind of fun to see how you’d stack up against other No. 1 runners,” he said. “You approached that race differently than the traditional cross-country race. It’s a different challenge; you didn’t want to get left in the dust by every school’s No. 1 runner, so it was sort of this little bit of added pressure.”

Olsen also remembered, both as a runner and a coach, the race lent itself to faster times as racers would set their own paces and with more teammates were watching them, there felt more emphasis to finish in top spots in the race since every placement scored.

“It was a different mindset. When you’re going up against all the No. 1 kids or No. 6s, use this opportunity as a chance to approach the race differently—you’re going to have them in sight the whole time, keep them close. Being in a smaller than typical race, you have a chance to focus in on certain runners that you want to go after,” he said.

Back in his high school days, Olsen would train alongside Brighton High runners in the summer, following his uncle’s workouts—some which high schools continue to use today.

“He instilled this love of running, just the sheer joy of running into his athletes. It wasn’t that get into your face, run faster. You ran for the love of it, for the joy of running and that was what he was about,” Olsen said, adding that it was definitely Cowden who was the No. 1 reason he got into running. “When I think of someone who just loves life, Willie is the first person who comes to my mind.”

Cowden’s wife, Becky, said her husband taught English at Brighton and had a love of language and literature as well as the area. So, when he wanted Brighton to have its own invitational, he drew upon his passions to name it the Wahsatch Rendezvous.

Becky Cowden said her husband named the race after the Native American spelling of Wahsatch, a Ute word for a passageway in the mountains; there also was Shoshone Chief Wahsatch. Although the spelling commonly now is seen without the H, she said that “it’s just neater, more unique.” 

She also said that he used the term rendezvous as it refers to what the area mountain men did. “They got together as a gathering of people and that’s what the race is, a gathering of people from all over the state. It’s just better than calling it the Cottonwood Park race.”

Jeff Arbogast, who was Bingham High’s longtime cross-country coach and now is the school’s golf coach, said his team regularly ran in the Wahsatch Rendezvous that started in the late 1980s.

“It took a couple years to catch on, then the word spread that you got to come do this; it’s a lot of fun,” he said. “It became a meeting ground not only for good teams, but also for a way coaches could do more than get their team on a bus, get them off, run and get them back. There were tactics involved; there’s thinking involved. It was a new take on cross country.”

Arbogast said coaches would use tactics, switching around their runners—which was legal— trying to win the meet.

“Back in the day, the top teams at that time were Viewmont, Mountain View and Bingham; Brighton was tough, but those three schools were nationally ranked in the top 20. There was one point, one year around ’89, ’91, ’92, where all three schools were ranked in the top five in the United States,” he said. “It was quite a battle. Willie had his hands full because we all loved the race because he had come up with that really unique and interesting format.”

Brighton, who always was competitive, won the meet several times after many of the other top runners at those three schools graduated, Arbogast said.

The Wahsatch Rendezvous also attracted teams from throughout the region, including teams from Idaho and Wyoming, he said. 

“Back in the early days, there weren’t as many invitationals, so it got national prominence when these teams ran,” Arbogast said, adding that the field may be of about 30 teams, so the JV race, which was held in traditional meet fashion, would have a mass start of 600 runners. “It was a big deal. The whole park was pretty much buzzing.”