The Redbull 400

This post is coming in a little late because I'll finish blogging about Lake Powell before I post it, but I wanted to get it all typed out while it's still fresh in my mind. (Said the same thing about my Lake Powell posts that took me two weeks to write.)

I will start from the beginning- the beginning being last September when I first found out about the Redbull 400 race and had every intention to participate, but I couldn't get off work and my cousin was getting married that day.  And I swore on that day last September that nothing was going to stop me from running it in 2016.  Let me take a minute here to explain to you what exactly the Redbull 400 is.  The Redbull 400 is the world's most extreme 400 meter race that has a 200 vertical foot gain as you sprint UP the K120 Olympic Ski Jump in Park City at an elevation of 6,870 feet.  Park City is the only location in the United States where this race is held; there is one in Whistler and the rest are held in Europe, so it's a pretty big deal to have the opportunity to participate in it.  Typing all that out makes it sound pretty extreme, right?  Wait until you're standing at the bottom of the jump looking up; it seems next to impossible.  Also, fun fact: the top of the Park City ski jump is the highest altitude out of all of the other race locations. So- there's that.

Anyway, I forgot about that promise I made to myself to sign up for it this year until last Wednesday when I saw it pop up on my Facebook Events.  I remembered how badly I wanted to do it, but with this whole night shift schedule dictating my life, I wasn't sure if it was something I was going to be able to do.  The page said it started at 9 am on Saturday morning, the 24th of September.  I knew I would be getting off work around 8 am, so I would have to go straight to it without getting any sleep beforehand.  I knew that would effect my performance on every level.  But I also knew I would be extremely disappointed if I didn't do it.  I clicked on the "Buy Tickets" link just to see how much the entry was and what it consisted of when it was all said and done.  One entry cost $50 and it included a t-shirt and food voucher.  I skimmed over the page and realized that there was only one single ticket left for purchase.  I knew at that moment it was mine and I clicked the purchase button to sell out the race.

Now lucky for me, the three days leading up to the race, a storm blew into Utah, the likes of which we haven't seen in a long time.  A tornado touched down (literally my nightmare) right by my brother's work and did a number on a few buildings.  The wind wreaked havoc on all of the trees and fences in it's path, and the rain caused flash floods all over the state.  On top of all of that, it canceled our night work for three nights.  So Friday night, I was able to get a good amount of sleep and show up bright eyed and bushy tailed for the coldest race I've done to date.
We pulled up to the Olympic Park around 9:00 after we stopped for a quick breakfast.  My heat didn't start until 11:30, but I was eager to see the heats before me, you know, so I could really psych myself out.  I was completely caught up in pre-race jitters and began to seriously wonder if I was going to make it up the course.  We got out of the car to be greeted with weather that would make you think it was November.  The mountains around us were capped in snow, and the storm clouds churning in the sky let us know it didn't intend to let up as we trudged through the sleet down to the Redbull tent.  They had heaters set up for us to crowd around a coolers stocked with every flavor of complimentary Redbull.  These were my main focus for the next couple hours until my heat started; Landon and I successfully stockpiled 15 cans of Redbull in our car before it was time for me to line up.
I had three goals going into this race: 1. to have a killer time, 2. to finish the race, and 3. to not come in dead last.  But second to last was totally acceptable.  I was in the 3rd women's heat out of 4, and as I watched the heats before mine some serious self-doubt creeped up on me.  It's pretty normal for pre-race jitters, but this race was so different from anything I had ever done before and the only training I had behind me was that I run every other day.  But I hadn't done any hill or sprint training or anything that would really benefit me for this race, and I was genuinely wondering if I was going to give up the ghost halfway up the jump.  Landon was my voice of reason leading up to the whole thing.  He was very confident in me and gave me pep talks every 20 minutes until it was time for me to give him one last kiss before I went to the starting line.  He told me he would be at the 200 meter mark on the stairs next to the jump and that he would follow me to the top.  (If you look the the right of the jump, you will see the stairs that Landon ran up; he basically did the race with me.  I told him I'm signing him up next year whether he wants to or not.)
We lined up about five minutes before the gunshot went off and I was able to talk with some of the other women while we stretched and jumped in place to try to keep our muscles warm.  Most of the girls I talked to were from out of state and had trained with a team to be there.  I was so impressed with their dedication and again felt like perhaps I was a little out of my league.  But they were so kind and empowering that the self-doubt was kept at bay.  We kept our eyes on the jumbotron on the hillside that counted us down and were off at the sound of the gun shot.  The first 100 meters was across the field and was all flat.  I made sure to pace myself because I didn't want to wear myself out on the easiest part of the race.  Once I was stepped onto the turf of the ski jump, I tried to stay upright for as long as I could, but around the 150 meter mark it was too steep and almost in unison we all dropped to our hands and feet to bear crawl our way up the rest of the jump.
Another obstacle to this race was that the jump was slippery.  The rain and sleet had done us no favors on that front and if the rope netting hadn't been there I really don't think I would have made it to the top.  Even with my brand new running shoes that had all of their tread on them, I was slipping with each step.  I clung to the ropes and pushed onward and upward.  As I neared the 200 meter mark I could hear Landon off to the side cheering me on, and what a welcoming sound his voice was at the halfway mark.  My lungs were on fire and there was sweat dripping off my face that was numb from cold not five minutes before.  At the 250 meter mark, the ski jump leveled out enough for us to run upright  for a small stretch until you crawled up a wooden bridge and onto the steepest stretch of the race.  I had to pause at the bridge to try to catch my breath before I crossed the point of no return.  Landon continued to call out words of encouragement as he trudged up the stairs.  I took one more deep breath as I started up the last stretch.  This was the worst part, not just physically but mentally.  I was in my head pretty bad there at the end.  I couldn't hear as much Landon anymore because the stair were roped off towards the top and he got stuck behind the spectators.  There was a guy, though, right there at the top who was cheering on everyone.  As I approached he zeroed in on me and told me not to quit.  It must have been written on my face that I wanted to stop again to try to catch my breath, but he wasn't about to let that happen.  "You are so close, don't you dare stop now!"  "You only have one more net to climb up!" "You've got this! Push through it, you're almost there!"  Something about having a stranger yell at you to not stop is both terrifying and completely empowering.  Like, yeah! I can do it!  And with his shouts of fortitude I found myself at the platform at the top.  I pulled myself up and rolled onto the mat.  The finish line was about five feet from the edge I just crawled up and over, but I was so totally drained that I literally rolled my body over the line and off the mats to lay on the cold concrete.  My eye were closed as I gasped for air and I felt one of the volunteers pull my timer off my ankle.  I opened my eyes to a lady offering me a cup of water and I took it as I slowly willed myself to sit up and rest against the wall.  The seconds passed and the pain drained out of my legs and the fire in my lungs dissipated.  I watched the women who had been behind me climb over the edge one by one and I could hear the man who cheered me on continuing to shout encouragement to the other athletes.  I smiled because that guy was the real MVP.  One lady crawled onto the mat and barely crossed the finish line before she rolled onto her back with her arms over her face and her breathing labored.  The volunteer who had taken my timer told her she needed to move off the mat and she didn't move, she completely ignored him.  "M'am?" he asked, "You need to move out of the way, please."  Again, she had tuned him out and didn't move a muscle.  He finally walked up to her and gently took one of her wrists to help her move out of the way, but she still didn't make any attempt to move, so he just drug her body off the mats.  I couldn't help but giggle at the whole scene.

After a couple minutes, I was able to get to my feet.  I still needed to brace myself against the walls and railings as I walked over to the stairs to look for Landon.  He was sitting on the benches about 10 rows down and I braced myself for the task of walking all the way back down those stairs with Bambi legs.  I made eye contact with the random man who cheered me over the finish line and smiled really big and told him thank you.  He told me I did a great job, and it was a really beautiful, genuine moment between two strangers.  I found Landon and he wrapped his arms around me tightly.  He told me he was so proud of me and I beamed at his praise.  He then told me that I finished in 10th place in my heat which came to a complete surprise to me.  Honestly, the entire race my gaze was kept downward and I paid no attention to who I passed or who passed me.  So, to hear that I hadn't come in dead last was great news; I had officially met my three goals I had set that morning.
We got to the bottom of the stairs, and I told Landon I was genuinely impressed that he had ran up those bad boys along side of me.  I said that the only thing harder than what he did was what I did and I think he totally could have done the race.  Next year I really am going to sign him up no matter what he says.  We walked back over to the Redbull tent to see the times that were posted as each athlete crossed the finish line.  My plan was to see what my time was, grab another Redbull or two, and hit up the food trucks with my food voucher they gave me before we headed home.  We waited in front of the TV's for a few minutes while the servers struggled to scroll through the standings.  They finally got them going again and they started in 60th place and continued to show the following finishers.  As I skimmed through the names that flashed on the screen, mine was not among them.  We had heard one of the volunteers say that the top 50 of each category would go to the finals later that afternoon.  Landon kept saying over and over, "You're going to be in the top 50.  There is no way you aren't."  I started to sweat a little with every update of the standings as my name was not among them.  It finally started back at the beginning.  I wasn't in the top 10, I wasn't in the top 20, but boom, my name showed up in 31st place with one more heat to go.  Landon jumped up and down, laughing hysterically and I just stood there trying to get it through my head that I was going to do that again.  "There is still one more heat left." I protested.  "Yeah, but 20 people will have to beat your time to knock you out of the finals!"  Landon laughed.  He was right, statistically speaking I was almost guaranteed a spot.  We watched anxiously as the last women's solo heat took place.  I was next to the monitors as my time came and went and when it updated I had been bumped to 43rd place for the final standings.  I was in the finals.
the moment we found out
Looking back at it all, I'm actually pretty proud of myself.  Coming in 43rd out 160 women on the most extreme 400 meter sprint without any previous training other than my normal exercise routine? That's cool, right?  Well, cool until you're standing at the bottom of that ski jump again.

I'm kidding.  It was still cool.

I got to talk to a few ladies there while we were waiting and they had been training with a coach and team out in L.A. for this race.  Another chica I met had been in the Marines for 11 years and now goes around the country doing Ultra marathons and hard core endurance races and had flown from Boston to do this race.  To be surrounded by women of this caliber was beyond empowering and it opened my eyes a little bit more to what I am capable of.

When Landon and I were driving into Park City that morning, I told him that in the email it referred to all of us who were participating in the race as "athletes."  Then I said that I had never in my life, even in the last two years, identified as an athlete.  Landon asked me what I identified as then, and I responded, "I don't know- just some idiot who runs around!"  And while I stand by that, in the moments leading up to the final race when I was surrounded by what I would 100% label as athletes, it was the first moment in my life that I thought, maybe I AM an athlete.  And a realization like that can be a little earth shattering.  You've all been with me on this journey. You all have witnessed the substantial amount of weight I have lost and how I have slowly learned about bettering my health via diet and exercise.  You all know where I started.  So you all must have at least a slight understanding of what this kind of re-branding feels like.  The thing about it is that it's been so gradual that it really was just this last Saturday that I finally realized that I wasn't just some idiot who runs around, I'm an athletic idiot who runs around.  And that's so awesome to me.  I hope I don't sound like I'm bragging; it's actually very humbling to me.  But like, it's okay to be proud of yourself in these moments, right? It's a really awesome thing to feel good about your body and its accomplishments; self-love is harder to get than any trophy, medal, or muscle.  And while I can't say that I love my body 100% of the time, the opposite is true actually, I find myself in these moments more and more lately where I'm like, hell yeah, Whit! And feeling really great about my progress and my accomplishments.  Making it to the finals of the Redbull 400 was one of those moments.

I told myself and the ladies around me that this was the victory lap.  I was just going to have fun with it and not try to kill myself over it, because I definitely wasn't going to win.  I still had my three original goals in my mind: 1. to have a killer time, 2. to finish the race, and 3. to not come in dead last as the announcer counted down to the gun shot.

The course was a lot muddier the second time around; after all the heats throughout the day, it had been through the ringer and this made the ski jump even slipperier.  I paced myself even more, trying not to wear myself out right off the get go.  Again, I kept my vision fixated right in front of me except for the split second when I looked up at the ski jump as we were approaching the bottom and boy was that staggering.  I immediately cast my gaze back to the ground and focused on taking it one step at a time as I bear crawled my way up.  I paid no attention to the women around me and only listened for Landon's voice cheering me on as he ran up the stairs alongside me again.  As I reached the bridge in the middle, I had to stop again.  It's like I have to remind my lungs how to breathe at that point.  Landon was behind the plexi-glass yelling to push through the pain, and I'll be honest, hearing that while you're feeling like that?  Kinda makes you want to push them off the ski jump.  But I also needed to hear it, and ultimately he was the reason I was able to push through it.  Because y'all, that last stretch up the ramp is so brutal not just physically, but also mentally.  But also- physically. For real, dogs.
When I finally got to the top, I rolled my body over the finish line and onto the concrete again.  This time though, my legs sort of seized up.  I kept trying to straighten them out and what I felt was the weirdest sort of cramping I'd ever experienced.  It wasn't a painful cramp, exactly.  It was more immobilizing with a hint of soreness.  It was weird and I just laid on the ground and laughed through it.

Eventually, I was able to stand up (though I'm pretty sure I really did look like Bambi on ice) and walk over to get some water.  My legs were so shaky that this time around, Landon and I opted for the chair lift ride down over the stairs.  When we approached the landing at the bottom, I was genuinely curious if my legs were going to support me when we stood up.  They did, but shakily so.  The final standings were posted and I improved my time by 17 seconds!  Honestly, I was just as shocked by that as I was by making it into the finals.   
Landon gave me a huge hug and beamed like a proud parent; it was really sweet, actually.  He told me I had done amazing and was so proud that I accomplished all three of my goals not once, but twice.  We left pretty much right after since it was almost 4 PM and we had a lot of homework to do and I had to go into work in just a few hours.  Also, my feet were soaked and frozen and I was looking forward to a hot shower when we got home.  All in all, it was a crazy day, and one that really put my progress and abilities into perspective.  I learned a lot about myself, and I think when that happens, it's a success no matter what.

And that was it.  That was the Redbull 400.  One of the craziest races I've ever done.  I have big plans to actually train for it next year and see what kind of magic I can work with a little practice under my belt.

If any of you want to join me... :)
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