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Out There: It’s All Uphill From Here

Ahmet Arslan’s winning time for last Saturday’s Red Bull 400 was 3 minutes and 58 seconds.

Sounds a bit slow for a 400-meter dash, right? You could blame it on the altitude—after all, the starting line of the race was situated at a wind-sucking 6,780 feet above sea level in Park City, Utah.

Or maybe it was due to the fact that the finish line was located at 7,308 feet of altitude. To get from Point A to Point B, athletes had to run up an Olympic ski jump. For the math-averse, that’s 528 feet of climbing in just 400 meters (or, as most of us would call it, “a wall.”)

The Red Bull 400 is not a fast event. It’s not a place to knock out a few easy hill repeats. And it’s definitely not for people with sound decision-making skills. Nothing about sprinting up a ski jump is logical or smart.

In other words: These are my kind of people.

“I’m thinking about signing up for the race, just to see what it’s like,” I told my handlers at Competitor.

“You’re out of your mind,” replied my boss. “I would probably roll back down the hill like those English people chasing the wheel of cheese.”

He was right. It was a dumb idea. I stared at the registration page online for a moment more before closing the window. Instead, my wheel of cheese and I made our way out to the K120 Nordic Ski Jump to spectate.

RELATED: Photos: Red Bull 400 in Park City

Ski jumps are designed for maximum speed going downhill. When you go the opposite direction…well, you get the opposite effect. From the first wave of the Red Bull 400, it became clear this wasn’t your normal hill run. For starters, most hills don’t have ropes attached to keep you from falling backwards. They also don’t have oxygen masks stationed every 100 meters.

“Has anyone needed to use that yet?” I asked an EMT carrying a tank of oxygen to the summit.

“Not yet,” he smiled (did I detect a hint of sadism?). “But give it time.”

As I sat amidst the nervous racers awaiting their wave starts, I struck up a conversation with a girl from Salt Lake City. I was curious as to how she prepared for something like the Red Bull 400. Were there lots of hill repeats? Perhaps some lower-body strength sessions at the gym?

She pursed her lips and shook her head: “Mostly I just prayed a lot.”

“Solid strategy,” I replied before gesturing at the ski jump. “Your wave starts soon. Have you thought about what it might be like to run up that?”

“I‘m trying not to, actually,” she laughed nervously. “Can we talk about something else?”

Ah, denial. I wished her luck and (very slowly) made my way up the staircase leading to the finish line. Along the way, I crossed paths with a guy from Orem, Utah coming down the stairs after finishing second in his heat. His weakened legs visibly vibrated with every step.

“How was it?” I asked.

“F***ing awesome!” he yelled, raising his hand in the air for a high-five. The action was rescinded quickly when he realized holding the handrail was the only thing keeping him upright.

Upon making it to the top, a guy from Kentucky said the race was “brutal.” A track and field athlete from Utah State University described the 400 as “similar pain, just in different muscles” compared to his specialty, the mile. A woman from Park City said it was the hardest—and coolest—thing she had ever done. Most people, though, just moaned while curled into a fetal position.

“All I could think was ‘Shoot me now’” said a competitor from Park City. “About three-quarters of the way up, I wanted to quit so bad, man.”

“So why didn’t you?”

“I was scared to let go of the rope. It’s a long way down.”

And so it went, wave by wave, as the finishers went from vertical to horizontal the second they crossed the finish line. The oxygen masks were put to good use, as were the many puke buckets.

“That sucked,” they moaned.

“I hurt so bad,” they cried.

“I’m totally coming back next year,” they laughed breathlessly.

The most surprising thing about the Red Bull 400 is not that hundreds of people were dumb enough to spend a Saturday morning running up a ski jump like sick billy goats. The most surprising thing is that they loved it. Not one person I talked to said they regretted their decision to enter the race. They were satisfied. Tired, quivering, and puking, but still, very satisfied.

Sometimes, we need to do dumb things. Too often, we let logic override ambition. We convince ourselves we’ll “never be a runner”; that signing up for that race would be crazy; that trying to qualify for Boston is a fool’s dream; that we’d roll down a hill like a wheel of cheese if we tried to run up it. We hide behind “logic” when we really mean “fear”—fear of pain, fear of failure, fear of looking stupid.

Sometimes it’s necessary to tell logic to shut up. Doing a so-called “dumb” thing often requires facing a fear, and that’s actually quite smart. Because these competitors were idiots, they were able to learn their bodies were capable of accomplishing something that defies logic. Running up a ski jump isn’t how “smart” people spend their Saturday mornings, but such people rarely get bragging rights for sleeping in and eating brunch.

That said, if anyone needs me, I’ll be doing hill repeats on the steepest slope I can find in my neighborhood. My kind of people lack sound decision-making skills, and I have every intention of joining them on the starting line next year.


About The Author:

Susan Lacke does 5Ks, Ironman Triathlons and everything in between to justify her love for cupcakes (yes, she eats that many). Susan lives and trains in Salt Lake City, Utah with three animals: A labrador, a cattle dog, and a freakishly tall triathlete husband. She claims to be of sound mind, though this has yet to be substantiated by a medical expert. Follow her on Twitter: @SusanLacke.