What an absolutely incredible race course for the Brighton Cirque Series! The Cirque Series is a group of mountain running aces around the West that primarily climb up ski resorts in the summer, highlighted by the steep vertical climbing required in a short distance. And of the three ski resorts that host a Cirque Series race in the summer, I think the Brighton resort has, by far, the most incredible race course & trail of them all. The stats for this race were 3,000 ft of climbing in 6.7miles. It had everything, from ridgeline boulder scrambling, 5 mountain peaks, technical descents, and some service road climbs and descents as well. Not to mention, the entire ridge you run on, sits at a lung busting 10,000 ft in elevation. And my exhausted legs will agree, this race was no walk in the park, but it sure was amazing.
Preparation & Training
The one thing I’ve come to learn about mountain running, that differs drastically from road or trail running, is that “pace” is irrelevant. For example, on a road run or a flatter trail run, you have an idea of a pace you should train to and hold so that you can perform on race day well. But when it comes to training for a race that has you running straight up a black diamond ski run, good luck trying to hold a 10 minute mile. Mountain running, in summary, is all about moving uphill as fast as possible, without having your heart rate beat out of your chest to the point of no recovery. Simply put, unless you’re one of the professionals in the race, you’re going to do a combination of jog, hike, climb, and walk to get up to the top of a mountain. And I don’t know the last time you walked up a steep hill, but pace isn’t the first thing you’re probably thinking about.
With all that background out of the way, this year’s training varied a bit different than when I trained for the Snowbird Cirque Series Race in 2019. That race course was strictly up/down. Run up to the summit then run down, so you didn’t really have to worry about lactic acid build up between consecutive climbs and descents. The Brighton race varied in the sense that it was a steep climb, followed by 5 short climbs and descents, really pushing the lactic threshold its runners. So I did my best by running the rolling hills where I live, rather than dedicated hill work all the time. Most runs were around 3-5 miles with 500-800 vertical feet of rolling climbs. Then on the weekends, my wife Courtney, our dog, and I would run up the ski resorts via the bike/hike trails for more vert and miles, but not very steep. All of this to say, I definitely could have used a bit more hill work, because I was not prepared for how steep and fast this race was going to go.
The day of the race came, and it couldn’t have been more perfect weather. Perfectly sunny, highs in the low 70s, and we secured one of the last parking spots in the lot (because it got full)! After picking up our bibs in the village area, getting our little goodie bags which included fancy socks, Backcountry running hat, Chums, and tons of sports snacks & powders. But we weren’t here for the goodie bag, and we had a race to warm up for and a mountain to climb. So Courtney and I ran around the base area for a little, then did some hill work with my buddy Pete who was also running in the race. But the warm up was quick, and all 500 runners collapsed on the village area, ready for the gun to go off.
The start of the race was a fast sprint along a flat service road, jockeying for position. I quickly came out of the gate, trying to get towards the front of the pack, because I knew my climbing pace would be faster than most, but didn’t want to get stuck in a long line on a singletrack. Attempting to keep up with my buddy Pete, he left me in the dust as the road started to climb up near the Milly Express Chair on the Main Street trail. The pace slowed down from a run, to a jog, to a run/hike, to a full blown hike with some jogging. I definitely was in my right group with the pace, pushing me to my limit of my heart rate that I knew I could sustain for a few hours. But that was only until we reached the Backbone trail.
For about 700feet, you are climbing up a steep boulder field on the edge of a ridgeline. This was absolutely terrifying, and exhilarating! The views as we climbed up were spectacular. Off to the right was Wolverine Cirque and the Twin Lakes below. But the views were minimal, because my head was down as I was leaned over climbing all the boulders using my hands and hoping my feet would stick to the rock as I pushed off the loose blocks. At first, everyone stayed in single file, but then quickly, the groups started to spread out off the route and looked like a bunch of zombies climbing up the wall in World War Z. But the summit to Mt. Millicent, the first of 5, was fantastic! I still had energy, and the cirque that we were about to run around came fully into view, and I was excited!
The Ridge Run
After dropping off the first summit, as I mentioned, there were 4 more to go. And next up, was the snow! Yup, on July 15, there was still snow on the upper elevations, had to trudge across a massive snow field below Mt. Wolverine. Because of the heat of the day, the snow had lost all its consistency, and everything was very slippery. And half the time, I’d step through up to my knees into deeper snow. But luckily, it didn’t last long until we were on the quick descent up to Mt. Tuscarora for the 2nd peak on the ridge!
The descent off MT. Tuscarora was steep and difficult. The trail was dropping down off large boulders, crossing tree roots, and navigating the sandy trail. The toughest part, was the pace. Feeling good, I was trying to keep up with the runners around me, but the pace was right on the edge of what I was comfortable with running at my limit downhill. But eventually we reached the shoulder at Catherine’s Pass where hikers were all hanging out, cheering us on. But throughout this run, the views down to the left of Brighton were outstanding, but the real views were off to the right, of the massive peaks in Little Cottonwood and even Mt. Timp off in the distance.
The rest of the ridge, beyond Sunset Peak, which was the third peak, was tough. At this point, I was beginning to reach my limit. Each climb, I’d push my heart rate up to 170, just trying to hike as fast as possible, keeping up with the group I was in. The hardest part was the transition between the downhill to the uphill, but as we climbed more, the heart rate calmed down a bit. But the downhill, which I usually love, was steeper and looser then I expected. And because it was so steep, going slowly was actually harder than running down as fast as possible. And with that, I was just hoping my legs still had enough strength in them to hold on. I almost gave up after the 4th summit, which the volunteers said would be the last, were wrong, as we had one more climb that almost broke me. Admittedly, when I got to the end of the ridgeline, I realized I barely could remember most of the run because of how exhausted I was.
Descent & Finish
Getting off the ridge, thankfully, there was the second aid station which saved me because I did the run without any water which I realize was a mistake. After a quick water and gatorade, all that was left was the 2.5mile descent down the Pacific Highway Trail. Thankfully, it was a service road, so the grade of the trail was just enough to hold a solid pace, without killing my legs completely. Sadly, I really lost a lot of pace and places on the this descent, as the runners around me had more gas in the tank at the end of the run than I did. I think I lost about 3-4 places during the painful run down the road, but those two miles went by quick. Then I made the last turn, and made the last steep sprint across the finish line with a time of 1hr 48min!
Within the sport division, of 419 runners, I came in 43rd, which I was really, really excited about that effort! Overall, including the professional and expert divisions, I came in 115 place out of 527 runners. Which just goes to show you the gap of a professional athlete that can complete the course in 1hr 6min at a pace of 9:58! But that’s why they are professionals and I am not. And I was satisfied with just coming down to the finishing area and getting a beer with Courtney when she crossed the finish line a little bit after me! Plus they had free ice cream! Overall, the race was incredible. It had it all. From the gnarly scrambling, exhaustive ridgeline, and beautiful scenery throughout. I think this might be the best Cirque Series Race course ever!
Shout to the photographers and volunteers on course!
Hi there, my name is Zachary Kenney and I’m an adventure filmmaker & photographer. My passion is to tell stories that will hopefully motivate you to go live a more adventurous life. Whether that is to experience the view from the summit of a mountain, or wandering through a new town on a road trip. Currently based out of Park City, UT.