The Max Vert Challenge Is the Craziest Virtual Race Yet

For residents of Salt Lake City, Utah, Grandeur Peak (8,299 feet) is one of the more accessible summits in the foothills of the Wasatch Range. Just ask Noah Brautigam. So far this month, the 31-year-old geo data analyst has logged over 430 miles and roughly 300,000 feet of elevation gain on foot—an average of over 10,000 feet per day—the vast majority of it on Grandeur. 

Brautigam isn’t doing this because he lost a bet, but because he’s taking part in “Max Vert October,” a month-long virtual competition hosted by the Cirque Series event company, in which participants are challenged to accrue as much elevation as they can between midnight on October 1 and 11:59 pm on the last day of the month. The rules stipulate that all climbing needs to be done on foot, and that only round trip activities count, meaning you can’t sprint up your local ski hill and take the chair lift down. 

Barring a miraculous comeback, Brautigam is almost certain to be crowned the inaugural Max Vert champion. He leads his closest competitor by over 50,000 feet with only two days to go. In addition to being an accomplished ultrarunner, Brautigam also benefits from his topographical expertise: he went to graduate school to get a masters in glaciology, but eventually left the program to work for a company that specialized in trail design. 

“The west face of Grandeur is hyper-efficient for getting vertical,” Brautigam says. “It’s about a true vertical kilometer in just over two miles. It’s so steep. I think it averages a 28 or 29 percent grade for the full climb. So it was just the most effective way to be spending four to six hours out there every day.”

Don’t let anyone tell you that they don’t know how to have fun in Salt Lake City. 

In a normal year, the Cirque Series consists of six in-person mountain races staged during the summer in some of the more prominent ski resorts in the country (e.g. Alta, Snowbird). After initially being postponed by a few months, the 2020 lineup was ultimately canceled due to the pandemic, and founder/race director Julian Carr had to come up with something to salvage the season. In mid-September, he emailed everyone who had ever taken part in a Cirque event (approximately 5,000 people) about his idea for a month-long virtual race. Despite the late notice, there were around 400 people willing to pay the $ 29 entry fee to take part. Along with the requisite finisher’s medal, registered participants received a downloadable race bib and, in a sign of the times, a Cirque Series neck gaiter.

“It’s been very inspiring to see how fast things escalated,” Carr says. “Looking at the leaderboard right now, even 20th place has over 125K of vert. When I put this race on I was, like, ‘I wonder how many people are going to break 100K.’ I think we’re gonna have, like 70 to 80 people do it.” 

Initially, Carr said that he wanted to make the objective of the competition to see who could log the most elevation gain while simultaneously running the fewest miles, but he ultimately decided against it, as the scoring system would have been too obtuse. (Not to mention that flatlanders would have been at even more of a disadvantage; good luck finding a Grandeur Peak equivalent in Florida.) 

As for the requirement that all vertical efforts be round-trip, Carr maintains that the idea is to keep things true to the Cirque Series philosophy. “We’re all about climbing a mountain and, to me, the essence of that is all about starting at the base, getting to the top and coming back down,” he says. “That’s the full experience. The down is just as important as the up—you feel complete after it.”

If that sounds suspiciously like ski bro mythologizing, it’s probably because Carr’s main claim to fame is that he happens to be one of the country’s most notorious extreme skiers—he’s the type of person whose idea of feeling complete involves doing front flips off 200-foot cliffs. Such feats notwithstanding, Carr says that his own virtual event has had a humbling effect.  

“Right now, I’m sitting in around 60th place with 52,000 feet of vert, which means I’m averaging about 2,400 feet a day,” Carr told me earlier this week. “And I’m really proud of that.” 

Carr added that he intends to make Max Vert October a permanent fixture on the Cirque Series calendar, even after regular racing can safely resume. If a last-minute event can bring in hundreds of eager participants, he sees no reason why, in a few years time, the race field couldn’t swell to ten or eleven thousand people. Of course, that’s assuming that mass enthusiasm for virtual racing will persist once it’s no longer the only option.  

For now, Brautigam says that the most gratifying aspect of his insane month was discovering how far he could push his physical limits. “I was fully expecting my body to fail, especially after those first couple of days, but then things started feeling better after a week or so.”

He has also relished the chance to commune with fellow sufferers. When he goes out for his evening sessions, Brautigam says it’s not unusual for him to encounter up to ten other people who are taking part in the same challenge. Sometimes, they will share a few laps and push each other on to do one more. A (socially distanced) pancake party is scheduled to take place at the Grandeur trailhead on the last day of the month.

Despite living in the immediate vicinity of the Grandeur Peak route, Brautigam admits that, in recent weeks, he has made the commute by car. “It’s about five-minute drive from where I live to the trailhead,” Brautigam says. “Typically, when I do Grandeur, I like to ride my bike or run there. But I have not been doing that this month, I’m very ashamed to say.” If you’re not maximizing vert, what’s the point? 

Outside Magazine: Health

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