Behind the scenes at the Red Bull 400 in Park City, medics help racers recover
The 800 person race turned an observation room into a “small vomitorium”
October 4, 2017
Firefighters or paramedics are required to attend all events over a certain size. Saturday's Red Bull 400, where more than 800 contestants raced up the Utah Olympic Park's ski jump, was certainly deserving of medical staff.
Standing in a small room that looked out over the jump, there were three firefighters from the Park City Fire District, a nursing student earning some practical hours and, spread out over the jump, there were roving UOP patrollers. There was also a small group of kids who were recruited as water boys. The hodge-podge crew had supported the event since it started early that morning, when the first waves of competitors spilled over the top of the jump, exhausted, some in need of medical care.
"We brought 10 small portable bottles, and we are down six," said Patrick Harwood, Park City Fire battalion chief, standing in the makeshift infirmary after the last wave. "A lot of O2 masks, a lot of vomit buckets. It kind of became a small vomitorium in here."
He estimated more than 100 people had stopped into the room for help throughout the day. Some were exhausted and writhed on the ground gasping for air, others had cramps, and some (maybe 30, Harwood said) had puked.
"I'll be the first to admit I had to walk out and get some fresh air," he said. "It was getting pretty ripe in here."
This was Harwood's second year working the event, so he knew what to expect going into it. As contestants finished the race, they were gasping for air. Even the top athletes, like women's champion Megan Foley, a professional triathlete, struggled after the finish and attested to the toughness of the race.
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"The last few meters of the race I was really just hoping to finish," she said. "Your arms and legs feel heavy with lactic acid and aren’t responding in the way you’d hope them to. The crowds are screaming on either side of you, but the loudest noise is your own heaving breath due to the lack of oxygen."
Foley said by the final 50 meters stopping would only prolong the pain, so instead of stopping to catch her breath, she pushed on.
"This event is unlike any other athletic event I’ve competed in," she said. "The closest thing I can compare it to is an all-out 1600-meter run. However, a 1600-meter run doesn’t quite produce the muscle fatigue I experienced during the (Red Bull) 400. Towards the end your legs really just stop working."
Though the post-race conditions feel and look bad, they are mercifully short lived.
"It's about a 15- to 20-minute recovery, then they sit up again and can talk," Harwood said. "Mostly they are so exhausted and so tapped they can't communicate, just because they are fighting for air – starving for air – so they just can't put words together. But after some oxygen, let their heartrate come down, a little rest, they are able to communicate and go on their way."
On the floor, a young man lay on his side, sucking oxygen through a mask, as he had been for 15 minutes.
Harwood tipped his head toward another runner sitting in a chair with a thousand-yard stare just behind the man on the floor. Not so long prior, the man in the chair had been in an oxygen mask, too.
"Like, couldn't say his name, laying on the floor," Harwood said. "I thought we were going to have to take him by ambulance, but he's looking like he's recovered all right."
For all the work the fire and medical crew was doing, Harwood wasn't bashing the event. Several members of his crew have competed over the years. And while he said training, hydrating and spending time at altitude would certainly better prepare the competitors, many of whom had flown in directly from Los Angeles or other towns at sea level, any way you slice it, the race is tough.
"A lot of people are cramping up, but I don't know," he said. "You're going to go hard and fast. I think you just have to suffer."
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