OGDEN — It may be a bitter, below 10 degrees outside, but the popularity of a particular marathon training series in Ogden has never been hotter.

The event is currently called the Winter Racing Circuit, a series of five races, from five to 30 kilometers, designed to help runners prepare for the Ogden Marathon in May.

Saturday will mark the first race, and the hills of Ogden will indeed be alive with activity. More than 1,000 pavement pounding feet to be exact. And of the 550 who have registered, 500 are taking on the whole series.

And hills there are. According to race director John Wojciechowski, this isn't your normal P.R. (personal record) grabbing race experience. "Many race directors look for P.R. courses. We went the opposite direction," he said. "We wanted to create a course people would remember, and in the end, it makes you a more well-rounded runner and better prepared to handle the Ogden Marathon."

Despite his best efforts to inform racers of the steep conditions, posting elevation and mileage maps, Wojciechowski was once accosted by a very irate runner at the end of a race for choosing such a difficult course. Needless to say, he didn't complete the series … at least until the following year.

His wife, Kristin, talks about numerous experiences after the marathon in May when runners thank them for providing the series because of the success they had at the marathon distance.

Not only are there brutal hills to climb, but by its very nature as a winter series, runners are threatened with unpredictable weather, bringing potentially slick conditions, low visibility, sub-freezing temperatures, and what he describes at that "holy crap" factor that could keep the weak in spirit on a well-heated treadmill.

Alternatively, for those not too interested in running to win, or sprinting the hills, there exists another motivator.

According to Shae Bitton, who has run most years since the beginning, the series offers a unique social experience because you see the same runners at each race. "The series provides a great way to meet other running groups. It's competitive, but I love the social aspects," she said.

Although she does admit it's nice to compare times from one race to the next, the real fun is getting to know other runners and sharing stories with them.

Since it's inception in 2002 as the Winter Training Series, consisting of only three races, (5k, 10k and 15k), the circuit has gone through many changes and evolved into a popular pastime for runners within and outside the Ogden area.

In 2003, a half-marathon was added and in '05, the name was changed to the Northern Utah Training Series, creating an acronym that amply describes its participants: NUTS.

The Wojciechowskis, who also own Striders Running store in Layton, bought the series in 2007, increased the race count to five and created what it is today. "The whole thing was set up to support the Ogden Marathon. Spring marathons are tough because the bulk of your training is done in the dead of winter," said John Wojciechowski. "It's a good way to get a group of people out on the icy roads."

He adds that the series, and the difficulty levels, attract people from all over the state. Prior to 2007, "(the hills) were one of Ogden's well-kept secrets. Some of the nation's best runners train on these same hills." he said.

Longtime runner Thom Khules, who has run in every series since its inception shares the sentiment by offering this advice: "If you don't start training early, all of a sudden you are doing a very tough ten-miler," he said. "It fits in with the fact that it's a training series, not your fastest races."

This year the calendar of events takes place as follows, with the first three beginning at the Dee Events Center at Weber State University, and the following two leaving from the Red Moose Lodge in Eden:

5K - Feb. 5, 8 a.m.

10K - Feb. 19, 8 a.m.

10-miler March 12, 8 a.m.

Half-Marathon April 2, 8 a.m.

30K (18.64 miles) April 23, 7:30am

Wojciechowski will quickly deflect much of the credit for the success of the series onto his sponsors, which include, among others, the Red Moose Lodge and McKay-Dee Hosptial Center's Calton Harrison Orthopedic Clinic. Oh, and don't forget Rooster's Restaurant, which, by the way, provides an unbeatable post-race breakfast following one of the races.

Regardless of who deserves credit, the Winter Racing Circuit has proven to produce fast, well-prepared marathon participants and continues to grow, despite being held in the dead of winter — where in Utah, anything can happen.

For more information, visit www.stridersrunning.com

e-mail: bnicholson@desnews.com