By Jayson Jacoby
Last year's inaugural Hells Canyon Relay wasn't as successful as organizers intended.
But Brian Douglass, president and founder of Smith Rock Race Group LLC, the Bend company that put on the 210-mile event in September 2012, remains optimistic that the Hells Canyon Relay can become an Eastern Oregon version of the famous Hood to Coast Relay on the west side of the Cascades.
"It's the longest relay in the Americas, and the second longest in the world," Douglass said. "That's a tremendous marketing hook."
Trouble is, just 37 teams of runners or walkers entered the first relay, which started at the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center and ended at La Grande's Pioneer Park.
Douglass said he budgeted for 65 teams.
With a registration fee of $1,350 per team (cost is lower for teams whose members walk the course rather than run), revenue was well below the company's projections.
That, combined with legal costs for a pair of ongoing lawsuits related to a different event the company runs,(the Bend Turkey Trot), left Smith Rock Race Group unable to pay all its bills from the 2012 Hells Canyon Relay.
The unpaid invoices total about $45,000, Douglass said.
He's hoping this year's Relay, scheduled for Sept. 20-21, will reverse the company's financial situation.
"We haven't walked away from our commitment or from this event," Douglass said. "We're asking people to be patient with us."
He has created a "jumpstarter" campaign to raise money to run this year's event and to pay off the debt from 2012.
The campaign includes options that pay investors as much as 8 percent annually (for $10,000 or more invested).
Information about the campaign is available by emailing to: email@example.com.
Baker Sanitary Service is among the local vendors that has yet to be paid for its work during the 2012 Hells Canyon Relay.
David Henry, company president, said Baker Sanitary supplied about 42 portable toilets for the event.
Henry said he didn't require Smith Rock Race Group to pay some or all of its bill in advance because the company has experience running other events, including the Cascade Lakes Relay in Central Oregon.
Henry said Hells Canyon Relay organizers haven't asked him to supply portable toilets for this year's event.
He said he would not do so without some advance payment.
Henry, who competes in ultramarathons and other long-distance endurance events, said he thinks the Hells Canyon Relay has potential to grow into a profitable event.
"I'd obviously like to see events in Baker County like this, but it's a tough situation," he said. "We're not close to any population center, but it is a nice, scenic route for a relay."
Douglass has experience in building an event such as the Hells Canyon Relay from scratch.
The Cascade Lakes Relay attracted 62 teams its first year. It grew to 99 teams the second year, then to 150 teams and, last year, the fifth-annual event, to 190.
This year's sixth-annual Cascade Lakes Relay (it's run by a separate company that's also owned by the Douglass family), which took place Aug. 2-3, featured 175 teams of runners, and 25 walking teams, according to a story in The (Bend) Bulletin.
Douglass envisions a similar trend for the Hells Canyon Relay.
Although the Hells Canyon Relay is farther from the Portland area than the Cascade Lakes Relay, the former event is closer to the Boise and Salt Lake City metro areas, Douglass said.
He's also excited about the "elite" course that's available to teams in the Hells Canyon Relay.
That route adds 12 legs to the regular course, bringing the total to 285.6 miles (the elite route starts and ends in La Grande's Pioneer Park).
Only one team did the elite course last year, Douglass said.
The "regular" route of 210.4 miles is challenging in its own right.
Running teams consist of seven to 12 members, each of whom runs at least three legs. The distance of each leg is different, ranging from 2.5 miles to 8.7 miles.
The terrain varies widely, too, including the steep grades of the Wallowa Loop Road between Halfway and Joseph.
In addition to making the Hells Canyon Relay a prime event of its kind in the U.S., Douglass said a top priority is to help local service clubs and other philanthropic organizations.
During last year's relay, for instance, the Summerville School Foundation in Union County raised $8,000 from a "cowpie bingo" event, Douglass said.
"That's an example of what could be done," he said.