You know what’s nuts? Ski jumping: careening down a 38% slope and picking up enough speed to literally send you soaring through the air is not for the faint of heart, no doubt about it.
But running up a ski jump—clawing your way up the steep incline until your calves seize and you feel as though you are about to vomit out your lungs—is a whole other level of insanity.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Red Bull 400: a series of races that take place at ski jumping venues around the world (in 14 different countries, at last count), where glutton-for-punishment types shell out their hard-earned cash for the opportunity to clamber up a ski jump in the company of like-minded adrenaline junkies.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m not making fun of these slightly off-kilter adventurers. In fact, I count myself among the proud (and slightly weird) community of people who have completed a Red Bull 400 race.
This is what it’s like:
Registering: “It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time!”
Like all of life’s great adventures, the idea to sign up for the Red Bull 400 in Whistler, British Columbia came on a whim. While on vacation, I decided to sign up for both the Red Bull 400 and my first marathon. Compared to the prospect of running a marathon, the Red Bull 400 seemed easy: the “400” refers to the length of the course in meters (that’s 1,312 feet, for non-metric folk). How hard can it really be to run such a short race?
Training, or Lack Thereof
I had incredible training plans for the Red Bull 400. I was going to run stairs. I was going to run up a (regular) ski hill. I was going to get into the best shape of my life—except the race itself took place a mere two weeks after I impulsively signed up for it, which did not allow much time for execution.
While I’m sure stair running and hill sprints would have improved my time, my actual training consisted of a few runs on flat roads. The winner the year I ran the course was a mountain biker, not a runner, so pedalling some steep up-trails just might be the trick to getting in Red Bull 400 shape.
Pre-Race (Possibly Red Bull-induced) Jitters
Registration fees for such a short race certainly aren’t cheap, but the on-site package pick up process was as smooth as it gets and there were buckets of free Red Bull for anyone who needed an extra boost of energy. The swag bag included an official race t‑shirt. Unless most other races, where it is often seen as gauche to wear the race shirt until you’ve completed the run, this is a mandatory uniform for the Red Bull 400.
Most of us have never seen a ski jump in real life; we generally only really see them on TV once every four years when the Winter Olympics roll around. In real life, a ski jump is really, really big. Suddenly, I felt nervous—but that might have been the taurine speaking.
Waves of Nausea, Waves of Runners
To avoid total chaos, runners are split into waves—which manages the number of racers on the ski jump at one time. There were men’s waves and women’s waves, and we all waited around until our respective waves were called. I corralled myself with a group of women by the inflatable Red Bull start sign as we watched the wave ahead of us move like ants up the ski jump.
It’s Go Time: The Art of Pacing Oneself
Of the 400 meter course, the first 100 or so meters (330ish feet) took place on a flat, grassy surface leading up to the base of the jump. My observations of the previous waves, along with some start-line chatter, lead to me to believe that it would NOT be a good idea to sprint this flat bit. As with most running races, going out too strong just leads to an early crash, and in this race, the course just gets steeper and harder.
Four Limbs Are Better than Two
Once the ascent began, it was hard to determine the most efficient way to tackle the steep, grassy hill. I started by running standing upright, taking quick, short steps, but I quickly switched into what can only be described as a bear crawl, climbing up the hill using both hands and feet. I found this to be much more efficient than relying on my feet alone.
Ladder Climbing (I Thought This Was a Running Race?!)
The final part of the course took place on a wooden and metal structure—the steepest section of all. What my competitors and I were doing for this part of the course cannot be described as running. We were, essentially, climbing up a ladder, placing our hands and feet on wooden slats and doing our best to ignore our burning lungs and trembling legs. Hand, foot, hand, foot—the less you thought about it, the less it hurt.
The Great Collapse
The finish line took place in the little hut where ski jumpers usually hang out as they prepare to jump. Conveniently, the race organizers had laid out a large squishy mat in this hut, where each competitor seemed to crumble upon reaching the top (myself included). We were a sight for sore eyes, lying like corpses on the mat, but with legs that wouldn’t stop twitching. It took a few minutes to regain any control over my legs. When I did, there was a volunteer to help me get back onto my feet.
A Long, Long Way Back Down
You know the saying: what goes up must come down. Unfortunately, the only way to get back down to the start line area was to walk down what appeared to be a set of one million stairs. Luckily, this part wasn’t a race, and there were bleacher seats at the top so you could watch other poor souls wheeze their way to the finish line while regaining your strength.
The eventual walk down was slow and deliberate. Amazingly, I did not witness anyone face plant on the way down.
… and Again
This was just the first round. The fastest finishers of each heat proceeded to another round, and the fastest among that one got to run it one more time before the ultimate winner was crowned. Happily, I came in around the middle of the pack, so I got to enjoy my complimentary hamburger lunch knowing that I wouldn’t need to tackle the ski jump again. For one year, anyway…