Our man Padraig O’Connor flew the Irish Flag on the RedBull 400 Challenge… And here is how it went down or Up in this case!!!
I stood in the starting area, 75 other competitors beside me of every age and nationality…and all looking a lot fitter then me and like they knew what they were doing, the MC had just announced the 60 second to start countdown, the tannoy blared the slow beeping as the clock ticked down from 60 towards 0….The place was silent in anticipation of the starting gun. I stared at the wall/hill in front of me, and then looked upwards to the tiny hut at the top of the hill in the distance, only 400 meters away but 140 meters higher and it seems like it was miles away. 4500 spectators surrounded the start area and lined the route all the way to the top. My stomach was full of butterflies, I felt nauseous and panic had well and truly set in…how the hell did I end up here, more importantly how the hell can I get out of here, why am I doing this, how the hell did this ever seem like a good idea, do I run fast or slow, what if I fall and slip back down the hill, will I even be able to get up the hill, will I be last, will I be able to walk on the ladder section at the top, will I be able to get back down, can I just sneak out the back of the group and just go home, please let this be over…then bang from the starter gun and off we go!!!!
Since I first saw photos and videos of the RedBull 400 I was fascinated…. In normal circumstances Ski jumpers sail through the air as they speed down the steep slope and then launch in to the air before landing safely/spectacularly at the bottom….but some genius had the idea to organise a race where you went in the other direction…a race with 400meters of lung bursting, leg burning and 140m of elevation, putting calves, quads, lungs, endurance and sanity to the ultimate test.
The Redbull 400 now has 14 events globally but I decided to go to Titisee-Neustadt in Germany and the Hochfirstschanze skijump for several reasons: It’s is a mostly natural course (grass bank on side of the mountain as opposed to some of the other artificial surface courses), it was to be the inaugural ‘World Championships’ so would attract a large entry field and the best in the world, it was relatively easy to get to and also because I wanted to spend a few days in the area dong some other trekking and running. When registration opened in February I was all over it and for the princely sum of €39 I was all signed up! Flights and accommodation were fairly easy to sort out and all that was left now was to train!
How do you train for something like this, Ireland isn’t exactly flush with full size ski jumps so wherever I could find a steep hill I started to use it for training, At home in Kerry I went up Carrauntoohil and ran around Glanageenty, I hit the Mournes and Donard/Binnian/Rocky, Croagh Patrick as part of Gaelforce. On the time constrained days the sand dunes in Mornington or the 101 steps in Drogheda all figured in the training plans!
Arriving in Titisee-Neustadt a few days before the event I decided to go for a little recce and see what was ahead of me…photos don’t convey how steep it really is, it’s like a wall in places, as I went up it for the first time it felt that if you weren’t holding on to the ground with your hands that you might topple over backwards and fall to the bottom! Even on that first attempt at a very slow pace I was sweating by the time I got to the top and the calves were begging me to stop!
Titisee-Neustadt is a quiet area, its part of the Hochschwarzwald, the High Black Forest about 900-1000m above sea level, but there is so much to do if you are in to outdoor pursuits. There is mile after mile of trail through the forests, with plenty of ups and downs and the nearby lake caters for water sports activities. Its easy to hire a bike and explore a bit further to if you wish. It’s a really beautiful part of Germany but its definitely not a party town so if the quiet life isn’t what you are after then there is the option of staying in one of the larger towns or cities and driving the hour or two to Titisee for the event. The few days before the event I went for a few hikes and runs through the woods
The Friday before the race the registration and number collection opened, the Redbull factor had been kicked up a gear and set up for the event was in full swing, big screens were being erected, the start area prepped, the various tents and trucks getting set up….and it was lashing rain, thankfully this was due to pass fairly quickly, Saturday was promised to be a scorcher! I collected my number, race tshirt, backpack, drink vouchers, redbull vouchers, food vouchers, protein and energy bars and nervously signed the waiver. There were almost a 1000 entrants in the mens sections, 200 in the ladies and a further 200 mixed relay team. I was listed in heat 4 of 12, glad not to be first out and hoped that I might learn something from the first 3 heats! There were over 40 countries being represented at this world championship event and as the only Irish participant I would have to carry the Irish Flag in the opening ceremony, surely a once off opportunity for me!
On Saturday morning after a decent nights sleep I headed over to the Hochfirstschanze all raring to go, the only strategy decision I had made at this point was to wear trail runners to get some grip on the steep section. The sun was beaming and the arena way buzzing, hundreds of people in their race tshirts looking a mixture of excited, nervous and panicked! By midday the place was buzzing and the waft of hot dogs and burgers filled the event zone!
Although I was standing there listening to the clock countdown when the starting gun went off I jumped a little and then felt the rush as 75 people dashed by me. I quickly joined them in sprinting towards the bottom of the hill and as we hit the sharp incline I was well towards the back of the field. I dropped to my hands and the bear crawl position and gritted my teeth for the next 150m of climbing. Going at a nice steady pace I found myself going past more and more people who after their initial sprint had started to run out of steam. You can hear the sound of the crowd roaring during this time but its almost a blur, the focus is on not falling or slipping back down and on moving forward, its all about moving forward, doesn’t matter how slow once you are moving forward. At the top of the steepest bit I glanced around for the first time and saw that there were only a handful of people in front of me at this stage. With 150m to go the slope levels off for about 50m before the transition once more to the sharp incline final steep 100m climb to the starting hut at the top. The last 100m to the hut is very tough, you practically have to hold the rails at the side to move forward, the ground is part concrete and part loose soil on top of concrete so the trail runners were very slippy…at this point the lactic acid in the legs has built up and with every step your legs are screaming at you, your lungs are burning too and the higher altitude elevates this somewhat. The track/ladder for the last 100m is narrow, only 3m wide and both sides are lined with people all leaning over the side rail and shout, taking photos and roaring encouragement…no matter how much pain the legs and lungs are in stopping now isn’t an option…pride is at stake! 20m from the top when you look up you can see the welcoming hands of the helpers who will drag you over the top and on the to the recovery mat. It’s empty the tank at this stage and everything is left out there as I make the final lunge toward the outstretch hands and flop on to the mat inside the starting hut…adrenaline is oozing from every pore at this point, I roll off the mat and exit the hut to join the others who have just come on the same journey as me. Of the 75 who started my heat I finish in 11th position, very happy with that but thinking that I could have made up a few places in the middle section, never happy! The legs are like jelly after it and so I join some of the spectators at the side rails and should and roar encouragement at the next heat before beginning the long trek back down to the start area and event zone…where the event is run like clockwork and ever the slowest person is made to feel like a world class athlete! Qualifying for the semi-finals is set at 7minutes, my time of 5:40 in my heat put me well in side that so I’ll be getting another run!
After the preliminary men’s heats the official opening happens and is a ceremonious affair, the Irish flag gets a big cheer when I bring it in to the centre of the start zone and the banter is good with the Italian and Iraqi representatives either side of me, they have also qualified for the semi-final we discuss tactics and strategy, or rather the pain and suffering which we now have to do all over again!
While we waited for the semi-final the rest of the competition got underway, the ladies semi-finals, the mixed relays, the firefighters in full scuba gear…A touch of envy crept in as the eliminated participants were now starting to tuck in to the bbq and truck load of food available and the beer tent was getting decidedly busier! For me I had to make do with an energy bar and I sampled a can of Redbull, the Erdinger would have to wait a bit longer!
As my semi-final approached the nerves started to kick in big time again…I figured that by qualifying for the semis that all the runners would be of equal or better ability than myself and I wasn’t sure that the legs would hold out a second and probably faster time up the slope. And so the butterflies retuned to the stomach and brought all their friends with them! I was listed in semi-final 1, along with the regular Joe soaps like myself there were several elite runners in the competition, most notably Ahmet Arslan (6 time European mountain running champion and who has won 14 of the 15 RedBull 400 events he has entered), and Anton Palzer (German and World mountain skiing champion). After quick few words with Anton, who reckons an easy steady pace is the way to go…although he also said that slapping your legs makes them stronger so maybe I’ll reserve judgement on his advice…the 60 second countdown clock began and the nerves were completely shot again. As the gun went the dash to the hill was more frantic before and again I hit the slope well back the field…the nerves subsided a bit and the legs were working well as I went up the steep first section. Again a steady pace seemed to work best and I zig zagged my way past people only looking up once when a rock which had been loosened by a competitor up ahead flew past my face a little too close for comfort so I adjusted my course and continued on. My plan had been to hit the top of steep section one in good position and then try and make up some ground on the flatter section and then burn what was left of the fuel on the 100m ascent to the finish hut. Unfortunately there wasn’t a whole lot of energy in the legs when I hit the flatter section so I held my position as I made my way towards the hut. Collapsing on the finish mat after the second run the legs were shaking and again the lungs were screaming, walking back down to the event zone the legs were like jelly. It was an unbelievable buzz and feeling at the top, you are on a high, both through lack of oxygen and for the sense of accomplishment…takes ages to wipe the smile off your face!! I finished in 15th position out of the 75 in the semi-final so wasn’t sure if that was enough to make it through to the final…part of me wanted to make it through but a small part of me didn’t know if I could make it up that hill again! The second run was a little faster than the first time…5:34minutes (Anton and Ahmed clocking just over 4minutes!!) and when all the results were in the final qualifying time was 5:27…so I missed out on the final by a few seconds. I had mixed feelings on this, I would have loved to be part of the final and was raging that I missed out on it but I had finished inside top 100 and learned some valuable lessons in the process…and now I could relax, have some food and a beer and enjoy the rest of the event (Ahmet Arslan won the final in a blistering 3:31 minutes).
Deciding to go to Titisee-Neustadt for the Redbull 400 was a great decision, brilliant event, although its short there is still an element of strategy involved, competitors from all over the world and is very well organised and run. You go through every emotion on it and looking back non it you want to just do it over and over again. Getting there was easy, Basel, Stuttgart and Zurich airports are all very close and its only an hour and a half on train from any of those. Accommodation was very easy to find and very reasonably priced and if you like the great outdoors then you’ll love the area. I’m looking forward to next year, already got a few travelling companions who want to do it, hope to put the experience from this year to good use and break the 5 minutes mark next year…and maybe give the elites a run for it!