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Half marathon: A birthday celebration for Jeremy Kunz

KAMAS — What a drunk driver stole from the Kunz family was massive, irreplaceable and heartbreaking.

What they've done in the wake of losing Jeremy Kunz two years ago is flat out inspiring.

They will tell you that they are just passing onto the world, what Jer gave them — a love of the outdoors, of people and, maybe most especially, of running.

While many see running as a solitary sport, Jer saw it as a way to connect with other people. That is one of the reasons he fell in love with the Ragnar Relays.

"Jer loved running and he loved the Ragnars," said his wife, Melinda Kunz. "He wasn't about the races. He was about being around people (who were) doing amazing things with their bodies. He was about pushing himself to his limits. Running was a great thing for us."

It was Jer who convinced 11 relatives, including his wife, Melinda, that they wanted to run the Ragnar Relay's Wasatch Back in 2008.

"The race came through Kamas, and he just fell in love with the idea of doing it," said Melinda. "He tried to talk me into it, and I just said, 'There is no way I'm ever going to run a race like that. That is insane."

A year later Jer was driving with several family members to his younger sister's wedding when he saw the runners again. He spent the ride — and part of the reception — recruiting members of his family for what would become "The Wannabes."

He called his wife and told her he'd managed to put together a team that included her. She had a year to train.

"He has a way of talking people into things they normally wouldn't have done," Melinda said laughing. "He just got everybody else excited and then he called me."

The Wannabes ran Wasatch Back in 2008 and 2009, and when Jer's mom, Denice Kunz wanted to join the fun, they put together a team for the Las Vegas Ragnar in October of 2009. It was during that race — at about 4:35 a.m. — that Jer was standing on the side of a road, waiting to give a teammate water, when a drunk driver hit and killed the 33-year-old father of three.

His family immediately set about honoring Jer's life by embracing the things he loved. And an interesting thing happened. Running, or more accurately runners, returned that love — even those who'd never met him.

Family members who'd never run formed second and third versions of the Wannabes. Melinda's family formed the "Don't really Wannabes" and took to the road to express their love for Jer.

"They used to laugh at Jer and I when we'd have to leave our family reunion to go run," she said. "They thought that was hilarious."

Runners who might not have known Jer personally seemed to understand his passion.

"We had so many people just coming up to us, expressing their condolences and saying super nice things about us. They said they appreciate that we are still out there and still doing the races, and that we're inspiring them by doing that."

There were also teams that ran in Jer's honor in both the Wasatch Back and Las Vegas Ragnars. The Wannabes purpose became singular in that they all "Wannabe running for Jer."

"It was so great for my children to see so many people caring about them and their dad," said Melinda.

When the family discussed ways to celebrate the life of Jeremy Kunz, it didn't take them long to settle on a tribute. On July 9 — just three days before what would have been his 35th birthday — the Kunz family will host the Star Valley Half Marathon.

"(Denice) wanted something that would help us share Jer's memory with others," said Melinda.

Star Valley (Wyoming) is where Jer grew up before graduating from Utah State and settling in Kamas with Melinda.

"It's a beautiful place," Melinda said. "And Star Valley doesn't have a half marathon."

Since announcing the race ( ), she has heard from many people who plan to participate in it.

It seems that even Jer's memory can convince non-runners to take up the sport.

"We are allowing people to walk it as well," she said, adding that the community support has been tremendous and there will be a raffle that includes an Icon treadmill and a Wasatch Back Relay team. "Even if you think you're not a runner, come and give it a go."

She admits her husband would likely be embarrassed by the attention. But, she adds, "He would be thrilled at how close we've gotten as a family, and he would love seeing people who normally wouldn't ever think about doing a half marathon give it a try. He would really enjoy that."

And just like Jer's life, it will be more about the affection than the running.

"We are hoping it's going to be a huge, huge party," Min said. "We're hoping everyone has a great time, and that they are just enjoying life. Just like Jer did. He really was bigger than life."

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