I love getting high. And before any of you jump to conclusions, I’m talking about stair races. I’ve raced the stairwells in all sorts of tall (and very tall) skyscrapers, but this past weekend I got to experience a whole new way to get high – by racing up a ski jump at the Red Bull 400.
This is an absolutely bat-crap crazy event, and it had my stomach in all sorts of knots. The Red Bull 400 is a 400 meter run held at ski jumping facilities all over the world. There are three Red Bull 400s in North America, and two are at Olympic venues in Park City, Utah and Whistler, British Columbia. (Two summers ago, I went to Whistler to compete in this race, but due to act of God, it was cancelled the night before.)
The third North American venue is at Copper Peak, in northwest Michigan, near the small Upper Peninsula town of Ironwood and the Wisconsin border. I had never been so far away without ever leaving the state – it was a 10-hour drive from my home outside Detroit.
Copper Peak is actually a ski flying hill – a different sport than ski jumping – and one of only six ski flying venues on the planet. (The other five are in Europe.) It’s also boasts the largest artificial ski flying structure in the world.
Normally facilities like Copper Peak are used in the winter, but the Red Bull 400 uses them during the non-snowy parts of the year. Normally athletes use them going down, but Red Bull 400 racers use them in the other direction. The objective of the Red Bull 400 is to start at the bottom, and run up to the top. And no, I’m not kidding! First there’s the run up the hill where the skiers land…
…and then there’s the run up the giant man-made ramp that the skiers use to accelerate down. This ramp rises 26 stories above the ground.
All in all, the distance is only a measly, paltry 400 meters – a quarter mile – but in those 400 meters, athletes have to climb the equivalent of a 40-story building. And in strenuously steep conditions that average a 37% grade!
(All these stats are provided by Copper Peak and Red Bull. I’m a little confused by their math, too – the whole race is roughly 40 stories up, but the tower, which is only the last third or so, is 26 stories?)
When I first heard about this race, a few years back, I got goosebumps. It sounded so insanely difficult and, actually, just straight up insane. And that feeling returned, in full force, when I arrived at Copper Peak and saw the venue for the first time. Gulp. What did I sign myself up for?
It wasn’t until I was at the event that I learned about one of the race’s rules. At the base of the ramp, there’s a big inflated Red Bull arch. Athletes need to reach that arch in 10 minutes or less, or they’ll get pulled from the course. DOUBLE GULP!
This was my first time competing, and while I was feeling in shape and strong, I had no idea how easy or hard it would be to make that 10-minute cut-off. Furthermore, you can’t even see the arch from many areas of the base, so I had no way of knowing, during the first few heats, how many people, if any, were getting yanked before finishing. The thought that I might not finish hung in my mind as I prepared for my race. I couldn’t let that happen.
1,000 people were allowed to register for the Red Bull 400 in Copper Peak, and we were broken up into waves of about 40 people, starting every 15 minutes. I was in the 5th heat of the day, starting at 10:45am. A few buddies, Jason, Brenner, and Harish (from left to right in this pic from Brenner’s GoPro), were in that heat, too, and friendly faces always make the seemingly insurmountable more manageable.
My friend Josh, who raced a little later, gave me some advice that I repeated in my head: stay upright on the hill. It’s so steep that you might feel inclined to bear crawl, on all fours. Don’t. It’ll zap your energy, and there will be plenty of time to bear crawl on the ramp.
I was warmed up and stretched out when our heat began, right at 10:45. The first 50 meters or so are pretty flat, and then the incline begins, gradually at the beginning, and soon, the ground is heaving upward at a demonic steepness, nearly halting my momentum.
The ground was soft and muddy, and my feet slid downward on many on my steps, further making forward movement more challenging. I never stopped, and never considered it – I had a 10-minute cut-off time looming.
About 80 meters into the run, the lifeline appeared: a huge cargo net, nearly 200 meters long and a few meters wide, that we could use to help get up the hill.
Climbers climbed up either side of it, using it like a handrail. (There’s a second, shorter cargo net to the left, but that was reserved for staff, photographers, and emergency personnel.)
I ended up to the left of the net, and it was pivotal for me. I clung to Josh’s advice, and stayed upright, and pulling on the net, hand over hand, helped me stay that way. I was in the middle of a big group of guys when I reached the net, and having someone immediately in front and behind me helped my pacing – I moved with the crowd. Every step was tough. I could never look up, because I had footwork to monitor, and when I wasn’t looking down, I was looking at the net.
It was so steep that I felt like I was on the verge of tumbling backwards nearly the entire time, and when my muscles starting aching, and my lungs started crying out in pain (all of which happened very early on), my confidence in my balance further plummeted. I decided early on that I wouldn’t try any competitive maneuvers, like passing. Just staying on the course would be challenge enough.
But then I started seeing guys start to falter all around me. One guy let go of the net and started to bear crawl up the hill, and he slowed down immensely. The guy in front of me started slowing down, too, and while I was certainly hurting, I was not ready to slow down. Dozens and dozens of stair races have prepared me well to push through extraordinary levels of pain and discomfort.
I spied an area a few feet ahead where the net was bunched together, and made the split-second decision to take one giant step laterally, and switch from the left side of the net to the right. It was a risk – if I didn’t make it all the way across, my foot could land in the net and quickly get tangled, and I’d surely lose a lot of time breaking free. But my long legs served me well, and soon I was moving up the right side, and passing the guy who used to be ahead of me. Although every part of my body would have disagreed, I suddenly felt very powerful.
The course is marked with signs every 50 meters, although I didn’t notice a single one during the race. The top of the hill is shortly after the 250-meter sign, so around 220 meters or so, I caught up with a guy on the right side of the net who was really struggling. My confidence at this point was skyhigh, so I let go of the net, stepped out to the side, and used everything I had to pass him. I pressed my hands against my thighs, instead of against the ground, and noticed the ground was leveling out. I could make it to the ramp with returning to the net!
I glanced at my watch as I climbed the white ramp to the arch, and it was approaching 8:30, so I beat the cut-off time by roughly 90 seconds. Hot damn!
But there was still a long ways to go. At least there was no more muddy, slippery ground – the rest of the course was wood.
The wood had horizontal rails, so it was like a giant ladder. At first I stayed upright, stepping from rail to rail. Then it got steeper, so I pulled myself along the left-hand wall for a short little while. But using the wall like that was against the rules (which I didn’t know), and when a volunteer told me that, I stepped into the middle of the ramp, dropped down, and started my bear crawl.
It was very steep by this point, but at least it was consistent. I got into a nice rhythm using my hands and feet, and chugged along. The gaps between the planks of wood were small – less than an inch – but I could see the ground getting smaller and smaller as I climbed higher.
Then, over my shoulder, I heard a familiar voice. It was my friend Jason, yelling at me. “Go David! Catch that guy!” Jason is one of my fastest friends, so I knew he was already finished and on his way down. (I later learned that he won our heat, and that did not surprise me at all.) But I was focused on my hand and foot work, and wasn’t looking up, so I had no idea where other racers were, or how much I had left. But I knew Jason could see something I couldn’t, so I took his suggestion, and turned on the heat.
Every fiber of every muscle hurt. Badly. I might have been wincing under my breath, or even audibly. I saw a couple guys up ahead, and soon, they were behind me – I did as Jason had instructed, and it felt incredible. I also saw the shadow from the Red Bull sign, and I knew the finish line was coming up.
The next voice I heard was a volunteer, telling me that the exit was on the right. There’s a narrow chute – barely wider than a person – and that’s how you get off the ramp. I angled myself towards the chute, crossed the timing mats at the finish line, and stood up. It was over. I had done it.
I didn’t want to be standing. I wanted to lie down. But there was no room.
I stumbled down the chute and leaned against the rail. The view was jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Mile after mile of forest, with Lake Superior stretching to the horizon in the distance.
The view down to the ground was something else, too.
I took a few long deep breaths from an oxygen mask, provided by a paramedic, and then sat down on a step. My heart was still racing, and my entire body trembling with fatigue, but what overcame me was the pride.
I got hooked on stair racing largely because of a feeling: this swirl of pain and exhaustion, coupled with an intense sense of accomplishment, that comes after completing a ridiculously grueling objective. That feeling, after the Red Bull 400, felt so fresh and new again, and I think I could’ve cried had I not sweated every drop of liquid from my body. This was a different sort of event, one that was even more challenging than a stairwell, and I had conquered it.
After a few minutes, I started down the ramp. I could choose between the stairs and an elevator, and I chose the stairs. I’d been in elevators plenty of times – I wanted to enjoy this view! At the base of the ramp, I picked up my finishers medal, and it’s a beauty.
I rode the chairlift to the base, and watched, from the chair I shared with a new friend named Meghan, a new heat of racers climb the hill.
I finished the Red Bull 400 at Copper Peak in 12 minutes, 39 seconds! It took me less than 13 minutes to get up that hill and ramp to the finish line. Proud doesn’t begin to express how I feel about that.
- I finished in 484th place overall, out of 686. (A total of 69 people were pulled from the course for not reaching the cut-off time, so I beat all of them, too.)
- Among men, I finished in 355th place, out of 464.
- In my wave, I finished 26th out of 33. (Three guys got pulled from the course, so, really, I finished 26th out of 36.)
- This was my 18th race of 2019 – almost halfway to my goal!
I love proving to myself that I am capable of extraordinary things. The Red Bull 400 is truly extraordinary.
And me? I’m much, much more than just capable.
Keep it up, David!
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