Ironwood, Mich. – This was the first running race I’ve been in where organizers offered you a barf bag and an oxygen mask at the finish line.
But the Red Bull 400 was no ordinary race.
From the name, you can probably guess the event was created by the same energy drink company that dreamed up spectacles like Crashed Ice and Flugtag.
But instead of sending competitors plunging off a towering platform on ice skates or homemade flying machines, the Red Bull 400 was a contest to see who could sprint the fastest up to the top of a ski jump tower.
The event was May 12 at Copper Peak in Ironwood, a town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Copper Peak actually was built to be a “ski flying” facility, which is like ski jumping, only bigger.
The Copper Peak tower, which hosted international competitions from 1970 to 1994, is the only ski flying hill in the Western Hemisphere and the largest artificial ski jump in the world.
Running from the bottom of the hill to the top of the tower makes it the world’s steepest 400-meter race, according to Red Bull. Competitors would face a 37-degree incline, climbing nearly 500 feet, or about 40 stories, over the course of a quarter mile.
Runners normally dread running uphill. There is a reason why a crucial segment of the Boston Marathon is called Heartbreak Hill.
Yet there are probably a couple dozen running races scattered across the country that are all uphill, grueling challenges to see who can get to the top the fastest.
I’ve done a couple of them: the 13-mile Pikes Peak Ascent in Colorado and the 7-mile Mount Washington Road Race in New Hampshire.
Up the peak
These uphill grinds can have a peculiar charm. If the weather’s nice, you’re rewarded with a magnificent view at the top — which includes watching all the poor devils behind you gasping their way to the finish line.
Red Bull had no shortage of takers for the first uphill race at Copper Peak. About 450 people signed up, with more than 700 on a waiting list.
The competitors included an eclectic mix of Olympic athletes, ultramarathoners, obstacle course racers, CrossFit devotees and U.S. Army Rangers from Fort Benning, Ga.
And there was Ironwood resident Gary Engstrom. Engstrom, 71, has done more than 200 marathons. His heart stopped and he had to be shocked back to life after he had a heart attack at the finish of a cross-country ski race last year. But he said that wasn’t going to stop him from racing up the ski hill in his hometown.
“I love challenges,” Engstrom said. “I’m not ready to cash it in.”
The race was run in heats of 25 competitors at a time, with spectators using binoculars to follow runners inching their way high up the peak.
Many runners wore gloves to better grip the enormous cargo nets draped over the hill and to protect against splinters when crawling up the wooden tower ramp. Runners were told to shout a warning if they kicked a rock loose so fellow competitors below could get out of the way.
Engstrom said he sneaked onto the hill several times to practice. A key part of my training was running up the stairs to my office.
Running in a heat reserved for media members, my heart was redlining well before the halfway point. At one point, I let go of the cargo net and slid backward about 10 feet.
Struggling up the wooden tower ramp, I could see the ground far below through the gaps between the boards. It’s the sort of thing that could give you vertigo if you didn’t think you were going to die anyway.
Nearing the finish, someone shouted “Only 70 more steps!” It wasn’t that reassuring. Every step was like doing a squat lunge, and you had already done hundreds of them.
When I finally crossed the finish line, I accepted the offer of the oxygen mask, but I still couldn’t stop panting. My throat would be sore for hours afterward from all the gasping. The view, though, including Lake Superior in the distance, was amazing.
I finished second in the media heat, beaten by an editor at Runner’s World magazine.
My time of 7 minutes, 16 seconds was about 2 ½ minutes off the winning time by Ian Torchia of Marquette, Mich. Anna Mooi of Ironwood won the women’s title.
My time was good enough to put me within the top 25 of the male competitors in preliminary heats. That would’ve gotten me into the final heat to vie for the championship, but the organizers weren’t letting reporters into the finals.
That suited me fine. I didn’t want to do it again.