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Uphill Battle

A closer look at what it takes to conquer the daunting Red Bull 400

Mike Shaw embodies the athletic spirit and perseverance associated with Red Bull's extreme sporting events.

The former freestyle skier, who once had aspirations of competing in the X-Games or Winter Olympics, took part in his first Red Bull 400 race last summer in Whistler. He didn't win the event. He didn't even place among the top half of finishers. The only thing he's certain of is that he didn't finish in last place.

But even if he had, simply finishing this unique and daunting race is an accomplishment in itself, especially for someone who suffered a spinal cord injury that threatened his livelihood and tested his resolve just five years prior.

"When you step over the finish line at (Red Bull) 400, it's such a gratifying feeling," says Shaw, reflecting on the 2018 event. "If I can do this, what else can I do?

"But then you see people puking at the finish line and you're like, well, I don't know."

First World Championships Outside of Europe

The race Shaw refers to is a 400-metre vertical sprint at a thigh-burning 37-degree incline up the ski jump at Whistler Olympic Park. Red Bull has hosted the event in Whistler in three of the past four years, but this year's race holds the distinction of being the first ever World Championships to take place outside of Europe.

The event's distinct setting and format has attracted athletes from a range of disciplines, such as triathlon, cycling, and speed skating, who will travel to the resort for the July 13 event. Erik Ressell, a 19-year-old speed skater from Norway, will look to defend his world championship and improve on his time of three minutes, 16.16 seconds (3:16.16) recorded during last year's World Championships in Austria. Andrea Mayr, an Austrian doctor, will also travel to Whistler in hopes of securing her second consecutive title on the women's side.

And, despite the race being a showcase of elite athleticism, it's open to anybody looking to test their mettle.

"We've had some people do it in 20 minutes and pretty much walk up it," explains a Red Bull spokesperson. "It's like running a marathon. If it's on your bucket list, you can check it off. You can be a Red Bull athlete for a day."

That isn't to suggest you can peel yourself from the couch and mosey on down to Whistler Olympic Park to compete in the event without proper preparation. While the course is about the equivalent of four soccer fields in distance, and might only require between 600 and 800 steps, its drastic 140-metre elevation gain is enough to increase one's heart rate beyond 200 beats per minute.

"A lot of people say, 'I can run 400 metres; it doesn't take long,' but at that steepness it's very, very tough," the Red Bull spokesperson adds.

The Red Bull 400 originated in Austria in 2011 and has expanded in each subsequent year. It's now part of a global circuit that includes 20 World Championship-qualifying events in Russia, Japan, Poland, and the United States, among other countries. Moreover, this year's circuit features three new events in Czech Republic, Kazakhstan, and South Korea.

Winning the race requires a mix of speed, endurance, strength, mental fortitude, and strategy. The latter aspect is particularly important as there are qualifying heats to determine the top 20 athletes who will compete in the final race for the title of global champion. Some athletes who qualified for last year's final race declined to participate due to being so exhausted, according to Red Bull.

Those looking to compete in a more recreational capacity can sign up as part of a four-person relay team in which each participant completes 100-metre segments of the uphill race. While this sounds a lot more mana geable, Red Bull doesn't recommend signing up for both the individual and relay races.

"I've had some people register and ask me if they could register for the relay and (individual) run and I'm like, 'You're not going to make it,'" a spokesperson says.

Mike Shaw: Overcoming Obstacles and Being Grateful

Had the Red Bull 400 existed six years ago, Shaw might have been a favorite to win the men's race. He played other sports, but lived for freestyle skiing and, even after suffering two broken ankles in years prior, was still involved in competitive skiing in a coaching capacity.

Shaw moved to Whistler in 2010 and was soon after hired to serve as head coach of the British Columbia Freestyle Ski Team. Two years later, he was coaching young skiers from all over the country who shared his aspirations of competing on the international stage.

In December 2013, during some downtime following a training session at a World Cup competition in Colorado, Shaw joined the athletes he was coaching for a fun afternoon on the slopes at Keystone Mountain. He recalls attempting to perform a routine 720. It was a trick he had performed hundreds of times, but something went wrong on this day. The biography on his website notes he suffered a "scorpion-like" crash.

As Shaw explains, he landed in soft snow and was pitched forward on his face with his feet extending toward the back of his head. All the pressure went to his neck, bending his head back so far that it broke the C6 vertebrae of his cervical spine.

Some might block out or be unable to recall such a life-altering event, but Shaw remembers it vividly.

"I hadn't even stopped falling and I was like, 'Oh my God, no," he recalls.

That wasn't all he thought about during and in the immediate moments after the crash.

"I was like, 'Shit I just ruined my parents' retirement. What am I going to do?' My life had always been like 90 per cent skiing up until that point and 10 per cent everything else. That was the devastating part."

Almost instantly, Shaw's thoughts turned to his former ski coach, Josh Dueck, who had become paralyzed nearly 10 years prior and won a silver medal in the men's slalom sit-ski event at the 2010 Winter Paralympics.

Before long, Shaw was transported to a Denver hospital and presented the option of undergoing a posterior cervical laminectomy, which involved spinal fusion via two titanium rods and 10 screws. The operating doctor told him he had a zero-per-cent chance of walking again without the surgery and a 50-per-cent chance with it. It was an easy decision.

Although he was injured doing the sport he loves, Shaw also credits freestyle skiing for being a major help in his recovery. Falling down and having to pick yourself back up again is a recurring element of the sport, and one that fosters resiliency that can be applied to other aspects of life—and resiliency Shaw has showed in spades. Less than four months after the crash, he walked out of the hospital, and two weeks after that, he went skiing in an adaptive sit-ski at Revelstoke Mountain. A year after the crash, surrounded by his closest friends and supporters, he went skiing in Whistler.

Shaw has continued to achieve important milestones in his recovery, none of which, he says, have been as challenging as the Red Bull 400. Despite the challenge, however, he is genuinely grateful for Red Bull bringing the event to Whistler.

"I'm not as physically active as I used to be, so I lose it really fast. I have to keep working at it. And that's why Red Bull 400, to me, is the ultimate challenge. It's like, 'God damn it, if your legs can handle that 400-metre hill, they can handle almost any day in the life.'

"And the cool part is that it gives me that motivation to get after it. I know I've got Red Bull 400 coming, so I better get my butt to the gym," he adds, before extending a sincere apology for postponing our original interview for that very reason.

In recent years, Shaw has led fundraising efforts for Wings for Life, a non-profit supporting spinal cord research, and founded HeadStartPro, an organization that helps athletes improve performance and prevent injuries. In 2017, he delivered a TEDx talk on healing through grief in front of more than 2,000 people in Vancouver's Stanley Park.

"I've never been more nervous," he says of the talk. "It was more nerve-racking than any freestyle skiing I've ever done. I was in the back, in the green room, about to puke. I felt nauseous."

However, using visualization techniques, he was able to mentally prepare himself for the task at hand, just as he had done throughout his career in skiing, during his recovery, and later in the Red Bull 400.

"That was my X-Games," adds Shaw.

UBC Track Athlete Set on Defending Her Title

While this year's Red Bull 400 in Whistler will attract more accomplished athletes than any other year, it won't feature defending men's champion Kieran Lumb, who conquered the hill in 3:50.14 last year and finished fifth at the World Championships in Austria. The University of British Columbia (UBC) Thunderbirds track and field athlete is unable to compete due to his training and competition schedule, but his teammate and last year's surprise winner on the women's side, Robyn Mildren, hopes to prove last year was no fluke.

"I'm definitely feeling a little bit more pressure this year," says Mildren.

But that doesn't mean she's going to do anything differently than she did last year, when she competed in the Canadian Track & Field Championships in Ottawa and participated in a road race the week of Red Bull 400. That said, she's still training between 90 minutes and three hours per day for track, all while pursuing a PhD in neurophysiology at UBC.

"What really gets affected is stress levels and recovery time, particularly if you do a super hard workout in the morning and then you're in the lab collecting data all day. You don't really get to take a nap like professional athletes or plan everything you're going to be able to eat," she says of her chock-a-block schedule.

Mildren tried to train specifically for the 2018 World Championships in Austria, but found it challenging because "it's hard to mimic the conditions of the Red Bull 400." She finished in ninth place, a result she in part attributed to her strategy of simply trying to survive rather than pushing herself to a potential injury while running uphill in the pouring rain. One competitor, as she recalled, had to be airlifted from the Paul-Ausserleitner-Schanze ski jumping hill.

"I don't want to say I threw in the towel, but I definitely changed priorities to surviving and not getting hurt to giving it everything I had," she says with a laugh.

Mildren's experience speaks to the difficulty of actually trying to win the race in a diverse field consisting of premier athletes. The average Joe can complete the race at his or her own pace, but doing so in under five minutes is an accomplishment that only top contenders can hope to achieve.

"It's hard to compare to anything else," says Mildren. "I have never finished a race and not been able to stand until I did Red Bull 400. You get over the line, collapse on the mat, and your legs just can't support you.

"It's only four or five minutes, but 100 metres in and your legs and Achilles are just screaming at you."

She characterizes the event as one with a lot of energy and sound. It's particularly palpable when ascending the hill.

"Then you're at the top and you're in the most pain you've ever been in in your life," she adds.

Heading into last year's event, experienced Ironman competitor and triathlete Rachel McBride was considered the favourite, given the fact she had set a Whistler course record in 2016. Mildren admits she might have benefited slightly from flying under the radar last year, but knows that won't be the case in 2019. She will also face stiff competition from Mexican Red Bull distance runner Alex Roudayna as well as other world-class athletes who specialize in different sporting disciplines.

Mildren, who is qualified to speak on the physical advantages of athletes in various sports given her kinesiology background, acknowledges that cyclists have the advantage of being so flexed at the hip, but notes that they, along with triathletes, do more volume than runners. While it's not lost on her that she and Lumb, both distance runners, won last year's event, Mildren believes that speed skaters and cross-country skiers might be best suited for the event due to muscle mass distribution.

"But, to be perfectly honest, nobody is ideally suited for the Red Bull 400," she says.