'I Wanted to Try a New Form of Running, So I Raced 400m Up a Disused Ski Jump in Slovakia'

Mike Christensen
·8-min read

From Men's Health

Longer ago than I care to remember, I bragged to a girl that I preferred running up hills rather than down them. At the time, I was training for my first London Marathon while living in Exeter, where I had an endless supply of both gradients and rubbish chat-up lines.

It’s a small mercy that youthful remarks of this kind rarely come back to haunt you. However, in my case, the girl to whom I was bragging is now my wife. When Men’s Health calls to hand me my first assignment as the Adventurist – a 400m sprint up a disused ski jump in Slovakia – she is thrilled and only too happy to remind me of my preference for running upward. I am less enthusiastic.

Austrians Andreas Berger and his wife, Monika, are to blame for my imminent ordeal. One summer a decade ago, they were driving home from the south-eastern city of Graz through the Austrian Alps when they passed a snowless ski-jumping hill. Berger mused out loud, “Do you think it’s possible to run up that thing?”

To which his wife replied, “I don’t know. Let’s try!” And the rest, as they say, is extreme sports history.“We managed, but we found it… tricky,” they conceded to me. Berger estimated the distance to be about 400m, which is considered to be the toughest sprint discipline on an athletics track. A three-minute presentation to Red Bull later, the Red Bull 400 was born.

The beauty (read: horror) of the Red Bull 400 is the false sense of security that the number 400 inspires in you. What’s the worst that can happen in 400m, after all? Berger tells me en route to the start line, “It’s possible to run up, for more or less everybody.”

As we arrive at the bottom of Štrbské Pleso’s thoroughly intimidating slope – a full 95m below the finish line – it becomes painfully apparent to me that a 95m ascent in 400m might actually not be for everyone. As I stand waiting at the start line in the idyllic sunshine, I can’t help but think how perverse my supposed preference for running uphill in my youth really was. Ordinarily, I don’t suffer from nerves. But I feel woefully unprepared and a bit sick. I steel my mind with the knowledge that it will be over in no time.

Nutritionally, there’s no need to carb load; it’s not an endurance race, so a banana and an energy drink at breakfast are ample fuel. It’s dry underfoot, so my trusty pair of trail runners should have more than enough grip to get me to the top. Physically, I’m in good shape… but a quick glance down at the ol’ Garmin confirms that my heart rate is having a moment (30bpm above resting) as my brain processes the pain that I am inevitably about to endure. I am also aware that I can feel my quads and hamstrings tightening at the mere prospect of taking on such an obscene incline.

Antisocial Climber

Before I go into the most painful self-induced five minutes of my life, I want to clarify why I enjoy running uphill. I enjoy the challenge of keeping my arms and legs pumping, my cadence and breathing consistent, my core stable and my posture aligned, driving myself to a summit at pace. It always feels good to reach the top. If you’ve ever powered up an incline with a bounce in your step, you’ll know what I’m talking about. It makes you feel unstoppable.

Fast-forward five minutes and eight seconds, and I’m exhausted on the floor with fifth place to my name and a medal around my neck. At no point did my reasons for preferring uphill runs help me as I climbed to this grossly uncomfortable point. Nothing could have prepared me for the deep, burning sensation running all down the back of my legs, as lactic acid giddily feasts on my shell-shocked thighs and calves. I have never gasped for oxygen like this, and I’m still gulping it in for a good 10 minutes afterwards. My back and shoulders seize up, which is new. It strikes me, too, that I had never stopped mid-race for a breather but, faced with the reality of a 155bpm heart rate and thighs full of napalm, taking a little break was inevitable.

The first 100m is breezy, a light saunter towards the real test. Shortly before the race, Berger counselled me to conserve my energy – he said I should try not to see this as a chance
to sprint ahead and gain a lead of a couple of strides, as it would only hinder my attempts at the next 100m.

Photo credit: Filip Nagy
Photo credit: Filip Nagy

Pretty soon, I see his point. Just like that, the gradient greets me at close to a 90° angle. My vain attempts to pump my legs or arms quickly descend into bear crawling. So, I decide that my best bet is to submit and clamber on all fours. I feel far from unstoppable. Nonetheless, I put my head down and try, desperately, to get into some sort of rhythm. For
the moment, the sharp acid burn in my tiring legs and my ragged breathing are all I know.

Come 300m, we’re granted a short respite (where ski jumpers would take off), and everyone starts running again. Then it all comes down to a potent cocktail of determination, adrenalin and Red Bull to make it through the final 80m.

By the time I approach the end, any illusion I had of making a sprint finish has been dispelled. I gratefully collapse over the line. It’s all I can do to roll myself out of the way to make space on the ground for the people finishing just behind me.

Legs of Stone

Twenty minutes later, my legs are like jelly. (The next day, they’re more like rocks, and two days after the race, they are the most sore they have ever been.) After catching my breath, I am reminded the hard way that what goes up does indeed have to come down. You likely know the torture of going down a flight of stairs after a heavy legs day, so you can imagine the sheer torture that was navigating the descent.

Looking back up from the bottom, the lactate increasingly flooding my body with stiffness, I can’t help but feel satisfied. You don’t have to go to such an extreme to experience the elation of reaching the top of a hill on a run, nor should you have to feel so sore for days afterwards that putting on your trainers again is an impossibility. It was hard, yes, and the pain in your legs floods your senses. But for me, it was worth it.

Crawling up that ski slope in Austria, I could hear my muscles screaming. I could taste each agonising metre. But somehow, after all of it, I think I actually still prefer running uphill – though I’m no longer one to brag.

The Red Bull 400 Workout

If you’ve just read up on the Red Bull 400 and are strangely compelled to give one a go, then understand this much: this isn’t running, it’s extreme running. And the clue is in the title, but it is short distance (400 metres) not an endurance race, so your training should reflect that. The new king of Red Bull 400, Slovakian Jakub Šiarnik, has these words of wisdom when it comes to his preparation for a unique event like this.

“I’d say it is more climbing so my preparation for this kind of event is more about cycling on a very hard gear where my cadence is very low maybe 50RPM,” says Šiarnik. “And I am pushing, I am using my strength for five sets of five minutes every other day. I think it's more effective training than running, for the steepest part. I am also a ski mountaineer so I climb mountains during the winter, which are always steeper than 40 degrees. This is something similar to climbing Red Bull 400’s jumping hill.”

For the majority of us, who don’t have the luxury of a mountain (or disused ski jump), we’ve teamed up with personal trainer George Pearse of Fresh.Fit.Live, who will put together a training plan specific to every Adventure we take on. For this one, squat jumps with pulses, landmine squats with anti-rotation, bear crawls and battle ropes are the order of the month, not to mention some hill sprints in your local park (we had Greenwich Park at our disposal).

Here’s the training plan we stuck to, which is a surefire way of getting Red Bull 400 ready. Aim for three or four rounds with two minutes of rest in between each round.

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