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As a general rule, I don’t like to run. Sure, I do it to supplement the rest of my workout routine, but I wouldn’t call myself a runner. That being said, when I was presented with the opportunity to run a 400-meter race up a ski jump, I just couldn’t pass up the challenge. And as I’d later find, “run” is a curious way to describe what I’d be doing.
When I decided to run the Red Bull 400, I had a pretty good idea of what to expect. After all, it’s a basic concept—run, preposterously, up a giant ramp. I’d seen some ski jumping hills on TV during the winter Olympics. They’re steep, but they’re not impossible-to-scale steep. Or so I naively assumed, before ever setting eyes on one in person.
For this particular edition of the Red Bull 400—there are 17 races this year—the giant ramp in question was a monstrosity in Ironwood, MI, called Copper Peak. While most ski jumps are built into mountains, Copper Peak is basically a 241-foot tall iron tower in the middle of the woods. It’s the biggest artificial ski jump in the world, and the steepest Red Bull 400 event.
Here it is, in all its glory:
Courtesy of Red Bull
Take a look at that thing. At this moment, it is important to make a confession: I am absolutely terrified of heights.
But for some reason—despite the strong possibility that I’d be terrified at the top, and a lingering concern that I’d literally end up in tears because of that height—I thought running the race would be a fun, unique challenge.
With about three months to get ready, I spoke with the brains behind the entire concept, Andreas Berger, who also happens to be a former Olympic sprinter. His advice: You can’t really train for it specifically, because there’s nothing like running a ski jump. But running hills would definitely help, he told me.
Not very encouraging, but helpful nonetheless.
So I made a point to run intervals on the tallest hill in my town a few times a week. I incorporated more stair climbing into my routine. I also ran to boost my cardio base, since my workouts typically veer on the side of straight-up lifting. The last thing I wanted to do was get to the top, pass out from exhaustion, and then wake up staring at the ground hundreds of feet below, since the stairs on this monster of a ski jump are all metal grates. (Because of course they are).
Running up local hills, I tried to tell myself that the course wouldn’t be too bad. At this point, everyone was telling me that the race looked borderline impossible. I had to at least try to tell myself otherwise.
Until the day before the race. Until I saw the course in person.
Most photos of Copper Peak show it from above, surrounded by gorgeous Michigan fall foliage like a mythical beast. In person, both the hill itself and the iron tower looked impossibly huge, and the hill was less of a gradual slope and more of a… wall.
This wasn’t a run, it was a climb.
On the morning we were set to run, I did not feel any better. More than 400 people had come out to run up this massive jump. Even those who weren’t running showed up. (Because hey, what isn’t entertaining about watching a horde of people haul ass up a ski slope?) I gained a new respect for the locals who’d signed up, because they actually knew what they were up against. Had I seen it in person beforehand, I would’ve thought twice about running it.
By the time I stood at the starting line with my group, I was a nauseous ball of nerves. I couldn’t take my eyes off the peak of the hill as the starter counted down from 10, and as the gun went off, my heart was already racing. The race was a paradox of sorts: Not only would the running itself hurt, I was afraid to reach the top. Finishing was barely a consolation. It was merely trading pain for fear.
And that’s saying something, because from beginning to end, this race is hard. I thought it would be possible to run up at least the grassy hill leading up to the ski jump, but no. As soon as I hit the hill, I found myself shoving my hands into the dirt and climbing. (Pro tip: Wear gloves.) Even though netting covered the hill, it was a shock to my shoulders.
By the time I made it to the base of the jump, I decided to take a quick water break before even attempting it. I am not kidding.
Shockingly, my legs felt fine. I thought I’d be feeling it in my quads, glutes, and hamstrings, but I guess my lifting regimen pulled through for me. My lungs, however, were definitely feeling the burn. And aside from the physical, I was completely psyched out by the idea of getting to the top of the tower.
Whatever. Off I went.
Once again, I found myself not running, but climbing. This was especially problematic, because I could see the ground through cracks in the wood for the entirety of the ascent. My solution was to look up, which I had been told multiple times to avoid. And somehow, I (eventually) made it to the top.
As I scrambled across the finish line and stood up, I was shocked—not at my exhaustion, but that I was decidedly not afraid. In fact, as I looked out over the seemingly never-ending Michigan forest, I felt anything but terror. From Lake Superior stretching into the distance to the mountains still holding on to some last bits of snow, the landscape took whatever breath I had to spare.
I casually made my way down the tower, finding my lungs again and confronting the reality that my calves would definitely be sore in the coming days. In the end, the race had lived up to my expectations and then some. And in all honesty, I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
From the welcoming, unbelievably friendly local crowd to the sense of achievement once the race was over, it was a unique and unforgettable experience.
If you think a Red Bull 400 is the sort of race you’d love to take part in, check out this year’s event schedule here.