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My Experience Witnessing The Most Insane 400-Meter Race In The World

A 2017 Red Bull 400 race. Photo courtesy of Lone Pine / Shutterstock.com

Want A Challenge? Try Running 400 Meters Uphill.

Last Saturday, I witnessed one of the most impressive feats of athletic effort I have ever seen. Red Bull invited me to come experience what they billed as “the most exhausting race on Earth.” I was a bit baffled because the distance was listed as 400 meters. A quarter mile. How could this be such an arduous race? Oh, dear readers, how very naïve I was. I didn’t know about this race series, which started seven years ago, until I was invited to attend its third running at the Olympic Park in Park City, Utah. After witnessing it firsthand, I am totally in awe of how much the human body can achieve.

The Red Bull 400 is a worldwide summertime series of races that take place at ski jumps in North America, Europe and Asia. The concept is simple: sprint 400 meters up a ski jump, and the first one to reach the top wins. What isn’t even the slightest bit simple is the layout of the course. The steepness of a ski jump is what helps generate speed and lift for skiers as they race down the slope. So imagine how that principle works in reverse, when a person attempts to run UP said ski jump. It creates an intense sprint scenario for runners that requires an incredible amount of strength and endurance to summit what is equal to one lap around the track. The toll that effort takes on even elite athletes is evident in the numerous blue buckets that line the course, ready for those who involuntarily offer up their stomach contents along the route. The Park City course has a starting elevation of 6,870 feet, with 528 feet (161 meters) of elevation gain over the span of the race. A total of 820 racers braved a wet and chilly day of racing, with a series of men’s and women’s heats taking place all day before the finals, as well as a coed relay race.

The field comprised elite athletes from a variety of disciplines, including Olympic swimmers Katie Hoff, Ed Moses and Ryan Lochte, CrossFit champion Colleen Fotsch, parkour athlete Sarah Mudallal and Olympic ski jumper Sarah Hendrickson, as well as scores of brave and fit amateur athletes up for an incredibly unique fitness challenge. What was particularity fascinating about this race was that being a great runner didn’t guarantee anything. The design of the course means that no one can really train for it (who has an Olympic-standard ski jump in their backyard?), so much of your success on the day comes down to a combination of overall functional fitness and mental toughness. I spoke with the top three finalists in the women’s race, and I was in absolute awe of their grit, determination and overall badassery in crushing this race—not once, but twice—to reach the podium.

“I found out about this race a year ago: I had a friend who was helping run it and figured I might as well try it,” said first place finisher and triathlete Megan Foley. “After I forgot about the pain, I ended up back here and decided to do it again!”

“It was really challenging, having to do it twice,” said third place finisher Emma Garrard. “It’s less than 6 minutes each time, so you have to go all out, but you also have to pace yourself.”

For Liz Stephen, a Park City-based athlete with the Park City Running Company team who placed second, the race’s short distance offers a unique opportunity to diversify her training. “It really changes it up to only focus for 5 minutes at a time, rather than an hour and a half,” Stephens said. “It’s a fun way to get some hard, hard training in and test yourself with the competition.”

“It’s so different,” Foley said of the course. “It’s definitely a full-body [workout]: you’re using your arms and legs for the majority of the race, so it definitely gets your heart pumping.”

I’m inspired by all of the athletes at the Red Bull 400, and I can’t wait to join them in 2018! Time to start working on my quads and calves, stat!

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