The Red Bull 400: What It’s Like to Run One of the World’s Steepest Races

Red Bull 400 photo by Magee WalkerYou 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.

Red Bull 400 photo by Magee WalkerThis 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?

Red Bull 400 photo by Magee WalkerTrain­ing, 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.

Red Bull 400 photo by Magee WalkerPre-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.

Red Bull 400 photo by Magee WalkerIt’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.

Red Bull 400 photo by Magee WalkerLad­der 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.

Red Bull 400 photo by Magee WalkerA 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…