Is This the Hardest Race In the World?

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Red Bull

Running 400 meters doesn’t seem so bad, right? It’s just one quick lap around a high school track. But if you take that 400-meter route, tilt it to a near-vertical angle, and ratchet it up to a 6,000-foot elevation, it becomes a different ballgame. That’s exactly what you can expect from the Red Bull 400 Championship taking place in Park City, Utah — an epic, lung-busting, calf-destroying race that, depending on who you ask, is the hardest race on Earth. And there’s still time to sign up for this year’s event.

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What You Need to Know

The race itself may be short, but don’t underestimate the level of athleticism required to travel the distance. “I knew the race was going to be tough, but it’s hard to describe what it feels like to have your heart beat in your throat,” says Olympic ski jumper and past Red Bull 400 competitor Sarah Hendrickson. “It’s a new level of exercise that most people don’t push themselves to. Even as a pro athlete, I rarely go that far with my training.”

First, the elevation gets you. The air is thinner at 6,000 feet, so unless you’ve been training at elevation, your body’s already going to have a tougher time delivering the oxygen you need to your muscles.

Then comes the slope. Anyone who’s ever hiked up the side of a mountain knows that walking up a slope is hard, but running up it at race pace is brutal. “I felt great until about halfway up,” Hendrickson says. “Then my heart rate started to catch up — and about 60 meters later, the muscle pain set in.”

If you don’t have the mental toughness to push through the muscle pain, you’re likely to quit or cut your pace to a near crawl, like a few past competitors who took more than 20 minutes to finish the race — the equivalent speed of less than one mile per hour. “It’s such a short race that I kept reminding myself that if I focused on how soon it would be over, the pain would simply be temporary,” Hendrickson said.

Even so, don’t expect to finish the race in a couple minutes. Top-level competitors typically take between four and five minutes to make it to the top — the equivalent of running at three to four miles an hour — a snail’s pace compared to most races, especially a short race like a 400-meter sprint.

Train With High-Intensity Workouts

Unless you have a 400-meter ski slope in your backyard, it’s going to be hard to follow a training regimen that’s easily transferrable to the Red Bull 400 — but it’s not impossible. High-intensity interval training that increases your cardiovascular capacity, like stair running, jump training, and sprint work, can help. The trick is to really push your limits, working as long as you can at the highest intensity possible to help develop your anaerobic capacity and acclimate yourself to high-intensity training. “If you’re rarely in that high heart rate, lactic acid range, it could be, and was for me, a shock to the system,” Hendrickson says. She also adds that she wished she’d gotten her heart rate up higher during her warmup for the race, so it wasn’t such an adjustment come race time.

Plan for Down Time

The other thing to realize about the race is that you may end up running it more than once. Unlike, say, your local 5k, where your race time is your race time, and you place based on a single run, the Red Bull 400 is more like an Olympic running event: How well you do in your initial heat determines whether you advance to the finals.

If you do advance, you need to be prepared to run the whole thing one more time within an hour or two of your initial heat. This is something Hendrickson says is especially hard because you need to eat between heats to refuel, but you don’t want to eat anything too heavy or overly fibrous. It’s a good idea to stick with something small, light, and easy to digest, like half a peanut butter sandwich or a protein bar.

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You’ll Probably Want to Do It Again

Despite the lung-burning, leg-cramping pain she experienced during the 2016 event, Hendrickson immediately signed up to run the race again the following year. For people who like a challenge and need a break from the standard road race, it’s a hard event not to love. “I think it’s a must,” Hendrickson says. “It’s different from the normal races and pushes you to your limit, which is way higher and stronger than you realize!” 

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