Higher than Everest in 24 hours
Turn on a Stairmaster exercise machine for 24 hours and the thing might explode, but set local athlete Eric Sullivan loose on a 24-hour uphill skiing event and world records explode.
On Sunday, February 24, Sullivan set the record for the most human-powered vertical feet in a single day by completing 34 laps of the race course during the 24 Hours of Sunlight uphill ski racing event at Sunlight Resort near Glenwood Springs. That equates to climbing a total of 51,068 feet—comparable to climbing from the base camp of Mt. Everest to the summit two and a half times.
“It was more than I was expecting to do,” Sullivan says. Sullivan was the winner of the men’s soloist category.
Now in its third year, 24 Hours of Sunlight is organized by Real Time Marketing and Sunlight Resort. Sunlight Resort marketing manager Dylan Lewis says, “It’s really one of the premiere endurance events in skiing. We’re getting athletes from all over the world now… The locals love it too, but some do it once and check it off the list of things to do.”
This year, nearly 300 competitors lined up at 11 a.m. on February 23. Lewis says when the gun goes off it’s a 1,502 vertical foot climb to the top of the mountain and the turnaround spot where a warming tent is. Each lap is a ground distance of a mile and a half.
Lewis says the downhill can be difficult, especially at night, but the uphill climb is the most important part. “That’s where you make the money and gain ground on people,” Lewis says.
There are several different categories of competition, including teams, just for fun, masters, and soloists in men’s and women’s classes. Just about any method of human-powered travel is acceptable, including alpine, Telemark and Randonee skis, snowshoes, snowboards, split-boards… or just ski boots.
“Ninety percent of the people were either on Tele skis or some sort of backcountry setup,” Sullivan, who used a semi-lightweight Randonee setup, says.
Of course, 24 Hours of Sunlight is no stranger to world-record-setting performances. The title of most human-powered vertical feet in a single day was formerly held by Crested Butte resident Jimmy Faust, and Canadian Greg Hill, who both competed in the 2006 event and set the record for 32 laps.
Faust says, “It was the first time I had done anything like that… I kind of went into it with minimal expectations.”
During that event, Faust was trailing the leader, Hill, when the two decided they would break the record and immediately stop. “We hit it about hour 23. We did have time to do two more laps, but we were also grateful to be finished and back at the base,” he says.
Lewis says 24 Hours of Sunlight is a unique event in the world of ski racing, and there may not be any other event that can judge an athlete’s climbing endurance in a 24-hour time span. “We may have the world records by default because no one else is doing it,” he says.
Sullivan says he entered the event with the intent of setting a new record. “In the back of my mind I really wanted to break the record. I got second there last year, and coming in this year I learned a lot about what to expect,” Sullivan says. “I did the math—if I average 40-minute laps I will be on pace and beat the record.”
Lewis agrees that pace is everything. “It takes so much. You have to be strong physically, mentally, and have the presence of mind to know what your pace is,” Lewis says. “The key was (Sullivan) just maintained his pace. He wasn’t leading the entire time.”
Greeting the competitors on Saturday was half a foot of snow that had fallen the night before, with some light flurries in the morning, but by the afternoon the sky had cleared. Sullivan says the temperature was just right for extended climbing.
Sullivan says he charged it out of the gate, clocking in at 35 minutes on his first lap, which he says isn’t a wise strategy in a 24-hour race.
He broke a ski on the first and third laps as a result of bumps and chopped up powder. “Recently I’ve been skiing on alpines. (At Sunlight) I forgot I was on the little skis and just snapped them,” Sullivan says. Fortunately he came prepared with two full ski setups. “The downhill was definitely harder this year, just with all the snow and having so many racers going down at the same time on little skis,” Sullivan says.
About 30 laps into the event the announcers gave Sullivan some hope. “I was feeling strong and they started announcing I was on pace to break the world record. That got me hyped up,” he says. “With five hours left, the sun came up—I knew I’d won. I was feeling good and thought, I can’t waste the effort.”
After matching the world record, Sullivan sealed the deal with two extra laps.
Lewis says as long as a competitor starts uphill before 11 a.m. on Sunday, they are allowed to finish one final lap.
Sullivan says he didn’t have a training regiment for 24 Hours of Sunlight, other than the usual array of multi-day adventure racing events he attends as a member of Team Salomon Crested Butte. “A 24-hour ski race seems like a lot, but that’s just the first section of a six-day race. It really changes your perspective on what long is,” he says.
In two weeks Sullivan will be heading to the first ever X-Terra Winter World Championships in Snowbasin, Utah with local racer Brian Smith. But a little rest and relaxing are in order first. “This coming weekend I’ve got off. I’m psyched about that.”