Most races end with medals, snack bags, and photo opps. The Red Bull 400 ends with oxygen masks and a team of volunteers ready to catch careening participants.
“It felt like I had a weight on my chest,” Anna Mooi, the women’s winner of the recent Ironwood, Michigan, edition of the Red Bull 400, tells SELF of the excruciating moments after her victory. She grabbed an outstretched hand, took several deep inhales from an oxygen mask, threw her arms over the railing, and stood above the massive ski ramp she’d somehow just conquered in a little more than seven minutes. “It was very surreal.”
The Red Bull 400 is just a quarter-mile long, but it’s nothing short of brutal.
Participants ascend 40 stories in 400 meters in what is arguably the world’s toughest shortest race.
There are 17 editions of this tough-as-hell event at ski resorts around the world, and the inaugural Ironwood outpost, hosted this year on May 12 at Copper Peak, marks one of three in North America. Cooper Peak is the largest artificial ski jump in the U.S.—and it’s also the steepest ramp of all Red Bull 400 races.
Here’s a video to give you a taste of the torture—er, race course:
About 450 brave souls attempted the race in Ironwood, and Mooi, a local resident, had to complete the course twice in one day in order to clinch first place.
The competition featured 18 preliminary heats, each with 25 racers. The fastest 25 men and women, including Mooi, then advanced to a final men’s and final women’s race, held later that same day.
All races began with a brief—very brief—run, which despite being just 10 to 20 meters long, was “quite a bit challenging” for Mooi, thanks to a lingering IT band injury. Then the climbing began.
Mooi and her competitors literally clawed their way up the first half of the course with the help of a cargo net. “This was really handy,” says Mooi of the light blue netting. “You could use more upper-body strength and save your legs for the second half,” which involved beleaguered bear crawls up a wooden incline with 2×2 boards nailed crossways serving as steps. She, and many other racers, wore workman’s gloves to prevent splinters and also make the rope grabs more comfortable.
As she ascended the wooden ramp as quickly as her arms and legs would allow, “my goal was to keep going and keep looking forward,” says Mooi. “And that’s what I did.”
Both times, her lungs had a different idea.
“The thing that hurt the worst for me—more than leg cramps—was my lungs,” says Mooi. “I don’t have asthma and have always thought my lung capacity was good, but I developed a cough [from the lack of oxygen] that really carried through for the whole day.”
As for the second go-around: “I was dreading it,” says Mooi. “I really didn’t want to do it a second time. All of us [in the final heat] were like, We have to do this again?!”
Luckily, she had about four and a half hours in between the attempts, during which she foam rolled, stretched, “ran around a little bit,” and napped. “It was very unlike me to nap, but I needed it,” says Mooi.
And when it came time to race again, Mooi overcame her fear and dug deep. “I’m pretty competitive,” says Moi, who was in fifth place at the mid-way mark. The course then flattened out for a small portion before the wooden ramp began, and that’s when Mooi made a move. “I knew that if I wanted to be first, I had to make it to the ramp first and I was somehow able to go around everyone.”
Toward the very end, as her lungs burned and she gasped for air, the throngs of cheering onlookers and promise of $ 1,000 in prize money incentivized her to keep pushing. She finished in 7 minutes and 15 seconds, which was 45 seconds faster than her prelim time. “Even though I was dreading it, the second time felt easier,” says Mooi.
It took about three or four minutes post-finish to fully catch her breath, says Mooi, and another whole day before she could inhale deeply again. “It was like a tickle was trapped in my chest,” she says.
Mooi prepped for this intense challenge with lots of weight training and cross-training.
A former competitive swimmer, Mooi started running and cross-country skiing for fitness three years ago when she moved to Ironwood. “I also like to bike, hike, backpack, and canoe,” she says. “I’m very active to begin with, and pretty much never follow a strict training plan of any sort. I’m all about cross-training.”
This year, her cross-training involved cross-country skiing and long-distance running. Mooi was planning to run a marathon—until she strained her IT band. The injury was bad for her running (she dropped out of the marathon), but “good for Red Bull,” says Mooi, because she then spent more time doing activities that better prepared her for the challenge, like biking, hiking, and stair-stepping. About a month before the race, she began a once-a-week, intense lower-body weight training sequence, which consisted of a 5- to 6-set circuit of deadlifts, squats, and leg presses, with 6 to 8 reps of each move in every set.
The one thing she didn’t do: train on the mountain itself. “I wanted it to be a surprise,” says Mooi. And besides, “how do you even prepare for something like that?” she adds. “It’s such a different race.”
Her post-victory celebrations were decidedly low-key.
She called her family to share the news and though she doesn’t drink beer, she went to a local brewery to hang with friends. The next day, with relatively few aches and pains, she tackled a 13-mile hike, the longest she’s done all year.
So what’s next for this badass athlete? “Well, I have to defend my title,” Mooi says with a laugh. “Give me a little time and I would be ready for it again.” Somehow, we have a hunch that Mooi won’t need much time at all.