I’m going to try to keep this blog Squamish-centric, but occasionally, something Whistler-y might sneak in. This is one of those occasions.
Let’s rewind to a few weeks ago: I was on vacation and snacking on saltwater taffy when I came across this post on running the Red Bull 400. Despite the post’s warnings (“#2 – 400 Meters Is Really Far”), I thought to myself, “How hard can it really be?”. Before I knew it, I was on the official website, signing myself up.
For the uninitiated, the Red Bull 400 is a race up on Olympic ski jump course. The “400” refers to the number of meters from the start line to the finish. The incline is about 37 degrees, and the Whistler course is said to be the steepest in the world (other iterations of the race are held in various locations throughout the world, mainly in Europe).
I meant to train. I really did. I had visions of drills consisting of 10 minutes straight of mountain climbers. I made plans to run from the Upper Village to the base of Solar Coaster. But alas, none of it happened. I’ve been running a lot, but it’s all been flat and on roads — not perfect, but it would have to do.
I showed up to the Whistler Olympic Park on Saturday morning (parking is free and shuttles are available from the Village, by the way) and made my way to the check-in tent, where I exchanged a signed waiver for a bag of goodies: a black North Face t-shirt stamped with the Red Bull 400 logo (this had to be worn for the race), a North Face water bottle, a Red Bull 400 branded Buff, a can of Red Bull, some coupons, and a magazine. I took a lap of the grounds, which consisted of an athlete tent stocked with water and fruit, plenty of booths hosted by sponsors, and coolers full of free Red Bull scattered throughout. I sat in the sun until about 10:15, when all the athletes were corralled into the starting area for some debriefing, a warm up hosted by a trainer from The Core, and a group photo.
Before I knew it, the first heat was lined up at the start and rearing to go. I was assigned to heat #4, so I enjoyed the show for the first two heats. After the third heat started their ascent, I joined the other ladies in heat #4 by the puffy Red Bull arch over the start line. I chatted with another competitor, whose boyfriend had competed in the first heat. She reported that his legs were still shaking 15 minutes after he’d finished, and that his #1 tip was to keep a steady pace.
I kept in mind as the race began. The first 100 meters of the race is actually a flat section across grass — this is where many racers are tempted to sprint ahead, but I stuck around near the back, trying to pace myself.
The next section consists of a grassy hill. Hill might be an understatement — I overheard a guy describing it as a wall, which is probably more fitting. My goal was to stay light on my toes and to take short, quick steps as I ran up this section.
Rather quickly, I realized I wouldn’t really be doing much actual running. Instead, I focused on what can only be called a “quick climb”. It didn’t take long before I started using my hands to sort of pull myself along. I found I was actually able to move quite a bit faster on all fours.
By now, I had a good and steady pace going — I was trying to match the music blaring out on the loudspeakers (the same Fatboy Slim song that I performed my first dance recital to, incidentally). I had stuck to the right side of the course, where the slower runners/climbers were supposed to hang out, but I found myself passing other competitors and having to zigzag around them. I probably should have started out in the middle of the course, but oh well.
I remember passing the 200 meter sign, which is roughly halfway up the first hilly section. I felt like I still had a lot of gas in my tank, so I continued on with my pace. Except for the moment when I saw the sign, I never knew exactly where I was, because I never looked up — I just stared directly ahead of me.
Eventually, the hill curved into a flat section: this is where the course leads into the wooded “ladder” section, which is where the ski jumpers actually ski down to gain speed (the grassy part is where they fly over). I stopped for a couple of breaths before continuing up the wooden ramp. I spent the first 30 seconds or so upright, then I passed a girl using her hands and decided to try that method. It felt easier, and I feel into a rhythm of hand-foot-hand-foot. Spectators were cheering, which was just enough to give me the energy I needed to make it to the top.
Once you cross the finish at the hut at the top, there is a big pillow/cushion thing, with gym mats in an area off to the side. Other girls were slumped on the gym mats in various states of exhaustion, and I joined them right away. Although I’d felt pretty strong going up, everything caught up to me once I hit the top. My calves started screaming and my lungs were on fire, so I sat down for a few minutes before heading out to watch the next heat.
Heat #5 was pretty stacked and included the champion from last year’s event (the first in Whistler). After watching him place first, I headed down the hundreds upon hundreds of stairs — no easy feat when your legs are quaking rather aggressively.
Athletes are rewarded for their hard work with a free lunch, so I grabbed a burger and watched the action until I trusted my legs enough to maneuver the pedals of my car.
Finally, I checked my time online: 7 minutes and 51 seconds, which put me 45 out of a field of 102 women. Middle of the pack? I’ll take it — and maybe next year, I’ll run a few hills before I attempt the course again.