(IRONWOOD, MI) -- Two Michigan runners powered through aching lungs, crippling quads and stressed-out calves to capture wins at the Red Bull 400 event held Saturday, May 12 for the first time at the iconic Copper Peak ski flying hill north of Ironwood, Mich.
From a field of more than 450 die-hard competitors, Ian Torchia from Marquette, MI (4.47.5) and Ironwood’s own Anna Mooi (7:15.3) emerged victorious in the men’s and women’s finals, respectively. Each received $1,000 in prize money and a trophy.
The weather was perfect, sunny but with temps in the low 60s. Some Ironwood folks snuck in a few practice runs prior to the race, but Mooi said she wasn’t one of them. “I know some local people did, but I refused to because I wanted it to be a surprise. And it was! I really didn’t have any expectations coming in because I knew it would be hard. I didn’t know what time to expect. I didn’t know how it would feel. My goal was to kinda go and do it, finish, and have fun.”
Her lungs bore the brunt of pain in both her first wave and finals, she said. After summiting the grassy hill, runners went up a short ramp to the ski jump. “When I got onto that ramp I was breathing really, really hard, gasping and making it very audible. But again it was short enough race where I feel that I didn’t totally hit a wall like I would do in a long race.” A preferred half marathoner, XC skier and bicyclist, she remembers saying to herself that she could not only make it, but she could win it. “I think once I passed people right before I got to the ramp: ‘I was like, O.K., I’m in first. If I can just push through forward this last 100 meters, I’ve got it.’” She easily bested her wave time of 7:59.
Fellow Michigander Katie Kubont of Marquette finished second in the championship round in 7:19.4. A nutritionist at Aspirus Hospital in Ironwood, Mooi said fellow employees cheered her and other locals to the finish line. Mooi said there were four Ironwood residents in the women’s final, and another 4-5 locals in the men’s final. The 25-year-old is not ruling out returning next year if it’s held at Copper Peak, but body and mind do want some time to think it over, she said.
Hailing from his hometown of Rochester, MN, 22-year-old Torchia said it was hard to focus on winning the race, billed as the world’s steepest 400m. Like many there, Torchia has a background in silent sports. A competitive Nordic skier (he earned first team All-American titles in the 10k freestyle and 20k classic events at the 2016 NCAAs in Steamboat Springs, CO.), he said the challenge was to focus on making progress, rather than thinking about the finish line. “You just leave the thoughts, and you put one foot ahead of the other,” Torchia said. “You’re fighting off the 100-pound bear on your back. I thought the first part (the steep hill) was going to be harder than the jump itself. It was the other way around. The jump was absolutely brutal. The last 50 meters! “The top two guys started slowing down around about three quarters up the landing and I kinda made my move there.” He paused, chuckled and continued: “It’s not really a move. It’s more of a rate of attrition, trying to survive.” As he neared the crest of the hill, he checked on the progress of those he had passed. “I kept looking back ‘cause I was dying and I was hoping they wouldn’t muster up any final sprint because I don’t know if I would have responded.” A December Marquette University graduate, Torchia said he would do the race again. “Absolutely,” he offered, but reined it in a bit, saying it depended on his ski-training schedule this summer. He expects to complete his masters by next year, too.
Matt Lipsey of Harrisburg, Penn., finished second behind Torchia in the championship round in 5:17. A few of the Army’s elite Rangers from Ft. Benning, GA., took on the challenge. At least two were in the middle of their wave going up the hill. Whether any made it to the finals was not immediately known. The Copper Peak event was one of three Red Bull 400 events held that day organized by the energy drink company. Others were in Japan and Finland. The 2018 Red Bull 400 season will see a total of 17 similar events, with the only other United States event later this fall at Park City, Utah. Runners from Wisconsin and Michigan mostly populated the field, but others came from New Jersey, Utah and Alaska.
Reportedly, some 740 hopefuls were put on a waiting list after the 450 slots sold out in short order. The Red Bull 400 is the first international sports competition held at Copper Peak since 1994. The facility was originally built to host ski flying competition. It’s the largest of six artificial ski jump towers in the world. Spectators with camera phones and binoculars lined the fence at the base of the hill to capture the historic event.
The die-hard description isn’t far off the mark: competitors ran only 400 meters, but it was on a 35 degree grade that soared up the ski landing strip and then up the ski ramp itself. Together, they were the equivalent of running the stairs of a 40-story building. In 15 minutes or less. From the starting line, runners sprinted some 55 meters to the face of the 300-foot cliff, which shortly declared dominance over the humans. From their initial upright positions, the 18 waves of 25 runners each were forced to “bear crawl” on hands and feet their way to the top, clinging to the edge of the rope mat as they half-pulled, half-pushed tired legs to the max. They could stand upright again 12 meters or so from the ski ramp, which they had to reach within 10 minutes or exit. Then it was up a short ramp and back to bear crawling to the top. Of the 500 athletes, only a dozen or so surrendered before tackling the ski ramp. One man got oxygen at the transition stage; another had leg cramps so bad that rescue personnel put him on a “long board” and pulled him up to the top of the hill where he exited the race.
The fastest 25 men and women did it all over again for the finals. For a few qualifiers in the final waves, that meant they had less than an hour to recover – physically and mentally. Red Bull says it’s the toughest 400m race on the planet. After Saturday, no one in that field of 450 was disagreeing. Results of top 3 runners in each division: MEN’S 1st – Ian Torchia, 22 (4:47.5) – Marquette, MI 2nd – Matt Lipsey, 27 (5:01.4) – Harrisburg, PA 3rd – Jared Shumate, 19 (5:21.4) – Park City, UT WOMEN’S 1st – Anna Mooi, 25 (7:15.3) – Ironwood, MI 2nd – Katie Kubont, 34 (7:19.4) – Marquette, MI 3rd – Jennifer Chaudoir, 45 (7:25.3) – Green Bay, WI