For a kid who didn’t grow up running, Randy Whorton sure has made a career -- and a life -- out of it. Entering his 4th year as Director of Wild Trails, and his 54th year on earth, he continues to make big plans that revolve around our thirst for adventure.
Randy was born and raised outside of Boulder, CO, and was immediately thrust into the outdoors. “I basically had the Flatirons as a backyard,” he says. “I remember coming face to face with a bear.”
His parents were substituting backpacking trips for more “normal” (expensive) vacations when Randy was just 6. His first big trip came at 8 years old, and though it may have dissuaded his younger sister from pursuing a life in the outdoors, it sticks in Randy’s memory.
What followed was a young adulthood spent outdoors: more backpacking trips; climbing Fourteeners with his father; farming; rock climbing. “I’m sure they would have had me drugged up if I was a kid these days,” he says. He even played every high school sport available.
It wasn’t until his last summer of high school that Randy started running. His father needed to take better care of himself, so they joined the “100 Mile Club,” logging 100 miles over the summer of 1979. Though Randy “hated it” at first, they stuck with it. The next spring, his father ran his first marathon. In the fall, they ran one together.
His father even ventured into ultramarathons first, running a 50-mile race from Laramie to Cheyenne. It wasn’t the most technical of trails, but being off-road hooked them both. “We would do one or two road marathons a year, but the trails were what we had close to our house,” Randy says.
At CU-Boulder, Randy continued his athletic career on the diving team. He also dabbled as a semi-pro triathlete. At the Ironman World Championship in Kona in 1983 -- the first time he’d ever seen the ocean -- he faced brutal wind and hallucinations during the marathon and finished about 300th out of 1200. “Swimming and cycling were better sports for me,” he readily admits.
When CU-Boulder dropped diving because of budget, Randy received a letter from his high school coach about an All-American high-dive traveling team. On a whim, Randy left college and spent four years as a professional high diver on 80- to 110-foot platforms in England, Belgium, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Spain and others. “Oh, I played with baby Bengal tigers; I helped birth a baby dolphin,” he says. “It was really an amazing experience.”
He also kept up with triathlon -- especially cycling, which was a vibrant community in those countries. But it was when Randy moved back to Colorado to finish school that things got interesting.
He met Kris, who became a great friend and running partner. She was married, which didn’t faze Randy -- who nonchalantly says she was not a love interest. When her marriage ended, though, they turned their temporary running arrangement into a deeper bond.
“We did our first 50-miler together in the late ‘80s,” Randy says, “and we’ve both done over 100 races of 26.2 miles or longer.”
On their quest for more adventure, they ran into roadblocks: “I was seeing it everywhere. There were so many beautiful places to run, but no races,” Randy says. “There were no races in Boulder. They [didn’t] want any competition.”
Luckily, Randy was recruited to the Southeast where he and Kris temporarily settled in Huntsville, Alabama. “We fell in love with this part of the country. We were thinking three to five years and then we’d go back West somewhere,” he says. “But the quality of life in a rainforest far outweighs that of a desert. There are lots of natural features that exist here that don’t exist out West.”
Their next few years were busy. They moved to Chattanooga; Randy lost his passion for big business and started a small online consignment shop; Kris taught at UTC; Randy started a sustainability-focused landscaping business.
Randy also made an observation. In Huntsville, road runners and trail runners had all been part of the same scene. Not so in Chattanooga. While the track club was active, many runners had misgivings about the “dangers” of trails.
So Randy took an idea to Matt Sims, the creator of the River Gorge and StumpJump races, for an organization that could organize trail races, maintain the trails and spread positive knowledge about them. They also brought Chad Wamack, a local athlete, into the discussion. “There was [no maintenance] that we could see, and we said ‘We have to change that,’” Randy says.
The three of them took their project to Dawson Wheeler, founder of Rock/Creek, and R/C employee Mark McKnight. They loved the concept -- and Wild Trails suddenly became very real. They originally received about $2,000 of seed money from Rock/Creek; since then, Dawson and Mark have found plenty of sponsorship and opportunities to keep building momentum.
The organization had been in existence for a year before Randy asked himself, 'What’s next?' With his landscaping business (and the rest of the economy) in the tank, he surprised himself again. “I never really thought about taking over Wild Trails, but it just kind of landed and worked out,” he says.
Before Wild Trails came along, Rock/Creek had just two races. The next six were started by Wild Trails. Now, the Salomon Rock/Creek Race Series is “the most successful race series in America, and having the 100-miler sent it over the edge,” Randy says. “And we have the best volunteers in the country, hands-down.”
But Wild Trails does more than direct races: The organization is now going after youth development -- with some competitive aspects, but especially to get kids into the woods and bust the myths that even plagued Chattanooga’s adults until a decade ago.
By the way, Chattanooga (astoundingly) was recently named the 8th worst city for the overall health of its citizens. Randy wants to tackle that too -- but in his words, “it’s a tough nut to crack.”
Perhaps Wild Trails’ next adventures -- including stand-up paddleboarding, rock climbing and “urban” trail racing -- will appeal to some of the holdouts. “No matter how bad off you are, you can survive a certain level of activity,” Randy believes.
Now it’s his job to make those activities safe, accessible and fun for Chattanoogans. So far, he’s been successful -- and there’s no reason to expect any less.