Nervous Again: Going Downhill Fast at the Inov-8 Descent Race+
A 96-second plunge off the world’s most dangerous ski slope in running shoes revives race feelings I thought I’d outgrown.
On the eve of the Inov-8 Descent Race+ I was fortunate enough to catch up with an old friend who I hadn’t seen in many years, Tobias Mews, a Brit who now lives in France. Tobias is an adventurer who has raced some of the world’s most grueling and exotic events. He now has a young family and our conversation drifted to how life changes and, especially, the pandemic, have provided new perspectives and reshuffled priorities, including our views on racing.
We commiserated on how we had both lost some of our desire to pin on a race number, due to the fact that we no longer experienced pre-race jitters. After three-plus decades of racing, we just weren’t getting pre-race butterflies. And, yet, we both admitted that we didn’t feel that way about the next day’s event. Although it arguably would be the shortest event of our running careers, we were both excited and intimidated.
The distance, you see, is secondary to the slope. Held at Kitzbuehel, Austria’s famous ski resort, the Descent+ takes place on the Hahnenkamm, touted as the most dangerous downhill ski course in the world. The run is held the same manner as downhill ski races, running through gates in big “S” curves down an insanely steep slope.
The 350-meter course drops 200 meters, with as much as 85% grade in places, with soft, grassy ground underfoot that I found frightening not only for its incline but also because of the uncertain footing, which is pocked and rutted out by cows that graze on these Austrian ski slopes — and leave cow paddies, for good measure.
A Race Designed for a Shoe
The Descent Race was born four years ago, the brainchild of Britta Sendlhofer, Inov-8’s Marketing Manager for Germany and Austria and a crucial player for the brand’s sales and marketing team. Britta grew up in Austria and, when tasked with the challenge of introducing potential customers to the British shoes and their fell running prowess, she knew just the place to stage a Continental version of the challenges posed by the British Isle fells with their grassy off-trail routes and steep, soft footing.
Having run the English fells and previewed the Descent Race+ course, I agreed with her that the Austrian slopes were an ideal way to showcase a shoe with exceptional traction and proprioceptive feedback for precision placement and immediate response that allows for uncompromising agility. That’s how they’re marketing the new Mudclaw G 260 V2, which would be available to demo on race day. Lucky me.
And the shoe appeared up to the hype, with an astonishing lug depth of 8mm on its Graphine-enhanced rubber outsole, a bomb-proof shank plate, and essentially a flexible upper above that. The cleat-like Mudclaw seemed perfect to handle both the soft, muddy (remember the cow patties) conditions, the gnarly tufts of ground and the steep slopes of the Descent Race+. The immediate underfoot feedback and reliable traction were ultimate confidence builders when facing 85% grades that would otherwise be the stuff of nightmares.
About that “+” on the name: This was the first year that featured two-person relay teams competing in both down and up legs. In the past, the Descent was just a descent.
The first runner — that would be me — would do the downhill leg and then the uphill runner — my friend Brian Metzler, who (mistakenly?) thought he was getting the easier role — would ascend, albeit straight up the slope and not through the ski gates. Ascending runners’ start time would be based on the team’s descent finishing time — the fastest time would depart first, then each subsequent runner based on how far behind the downhill runner finished — so the first across the finish line at the start house at top would be the victor of their respective category.
Going Downhill Fast
On Saturday, October 2, we took the gondola up to the top of the mountain. The views of the sawtooth-like Kaiser Mountains from the start house were breathtaking. In the house, I examined the plaque emblazoned with the best times on the Hannekem ski course. Ski times for the entire run, which covers two miles, have dropped from 3:53.1 in 1937 to 1:51.58 in 1997.
Speaking of dropping, the start also provides a view of the precipitous plunge I’d have to take just to begin my first few steps into the race course. Standing at the start gate, a couple of meters of air separating me from what for skiers would be a snow-covered slope. But now I was looking at a rubberized landing mat and a sandpaper-covered wooden plank covering a service road before reaching the muddy and grassy first steps on natural earth.
With such aggressively-treaded shoes, the prospect of catching a toe on the mat and falling on the skin-tearing plank, seemed all-too probable and gave me the willies. I contemplated sitting down and gently sliding off the ledge. But, knowing it was all being watched and documented with still and video cameras gave me enough Kodak courage to hold my breath, throw myself into thin air, and launch out of the gate. And I stayed upright.
That first plunge ended up being a preview for the full downhill portion of the Descent Race+ — a controlled fall with ankle roll management. After getting going, the first quarter of the course was somewhat runnable, but then the decline and footing got more serious and I found my gait go from run to trot to skip. I could hear Britta’s earlier advice, “don’t forget to breathe.” As I approached the infamous precipitous drop named “Mausefalle” (Mouse Trap), known for throwing skiers into the air during the Hahnenkamm downhill, I came to and realized I was almost halfway done.
The fastest runners completed the downhill leg in just over a minute, the rest of us, lacking the turn-over, ankle strength or simple hutzpah, played it safe and took a couple, or more, minutes. Before my turn, I witnessed some incredible falls and rolls, and a few racers, like those in the infamous Gloucester cheese roll, wove tumbling into part of their descent repertoire and seemed no worse for the wear. I was not one of them, being happy to have kept the Graphine side down and remained upright throughout. That said, a few days later my knee swelled as a memento of the speedy effort.
What Goes Down …
Whereas the Descent’s down leg was all about reaction time, foot placement and the measured entropy of jumping down varying, soft and differently-spaced stair steps, the “+” part of the race was a straight-up suffer-fest to push one’s body to and through the anaerobic threshold, V02max and beyond. The first part of the climb was the steepest, although the finish likely felt that way to most, given the lack of oxygen they were suffering by the end.
After a speedy ascent to ascend to the Mouse Trap halfway point — less than a minute for the fastest runners, you could see the lactic acid kick in and, from there up, only increase through the final ascent up to the starthaus. Runners fell into survival mode, waiting to make their passing move just before the last punch to get on the rubber mat, grab the knotted rope and hoist their bodies grunting up across the finish line, where everyone lay gasping for air, regaining the color in their cheeks. And, as a true friend, I felt Brian’s pain while thoroughly enjoying the fact that I had chosen the downhill.
My total time running was 136 seconds, but the Descent Race+ did what longer races have failed to do for a while: scare me, raise my awareness, compel my focus, and reward me with gratitude that I survived. Afterward, Tobias and I agreed that the Ascent+ was the perfect race revival. The fact that it was Oktoberfest season didn’t hurt.