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During the month of October, Christopher Fisher, a 26-year-old endurance athlete from Breckenridge, Colorado, set what is very likely a world record for most vertical gain in a month. Over the course of 31 days, he logged 400,246 feet for a virtual race known as Max Vert October.
The feat was a reminder that, while in-person races may have come roaring back this year, the disruptive effect of the pandemic could leave a lasting legacy in the endurance sports world. Even as things slowly return to normal, some of 2020’s loonier experiments in type-two fun might persist. After all, those of us who indulge in this kind of stuff often don’t need much of an excuse—the suffering is the point.
How else to explain the return of Max Vert October? The event was initially created last year by the extreme skier-cum-race director Julian Carr who needed a fallback plan when his Cirque Series of summer mountain races was canceled because of the pandemic. (In addition to requiring that all ascents be made on foot, the rules of Max Vert stipulate that activities must be round-trip, meaning that you can’t run up a mountain and take the gondola down.) Even though the Cirque Series returned this year, Max Vert October came back by popular demand.
In 2020, Noah Brautigam won the inaugural edition by logging 342,213 feet. In surpassing the 400,000 mark, Fisher has thrown down the gauntlet. Fisher says that he spent 228 hours on-trail in the past month, most of it on the same steep section of Grandeur Peak, on the outskirts of Salt Lake City, where Brautigam also did the majority of his running.
“Last year, I did Max Vert here in Colorado and bagged like 26 different peaks, but doing it that way isn’t really as efficient,” Fisher says. This summer, he had initially set his sights on attempting the infamous 60-hour sufferfest known as Nolan’s 14 before a series of minor injuries caused him to shift his focus. Going all in at Max Vert October seemed like an intriguing alternative. What’s more, he’d recently quit his job as a property manager. For all of its downsides, unemployment can be an asset when you are planning on spending seven to ten hours a day running up and down a mountain.
Fisher began his campaign at home in Breckenridge, repeatedly doing a .66-mile loop on nearby Gibson Hill. “It has a pretty steep section where I actually built trail for last year’s Max Vert,” he says. “I spent my first few days on a small, 400-foot section and just lapped that over and over.”
Then an early-season snow storm and a knee injury forced him to take a day off. After seeing a physical therapist for some restorative dry needling, Fisher decided to head west to Salt Lake City to take advantage of Grandeur Peak’s superior “course.” It’s around 2.5 miles from the trailhead to Grandeur’s 8,299-foot peak, with an elevation gain of roughly 3,270 feet. Fisher estimates that he summited around 20 times, but he mostly stuck to a lower section on the mountain for maximum efficiency. At first, he wasn’t sure if his knee would hold up, but eventually he got into a rhythm: Run all day. Go home. Foam roll. Eat. Sleep. Repeat.
What motivates an individual to subject themselves to such prolonged physical and psychological tedium? Fisher says that, for him, joining the Navy a few years after high school was a formative experience. He wanted to become a Navy SEAL, but ultimately ended up dropping out during the grueling trial known as Hell Week. The failure left a scar, prompting Fisher to seek out endurance challenges.
For anyone else who may be similarly inclined, it looks likely that Max Vert October is going to stick around.
Carr is optimistic that the event “could become an annual staple to challenge people’s fitness every fall,” and that “as cliché as it sounds, there is a real sense of community in the event.” He can see the race potentially growing to a point where it attracts more participants than the Cirque Series’ in-person events, which currently draw around 3,000 competitors each year. The goal for next year, Carr says, is to have 500 entrants for Max Vert.
Aside from bragging rights and event swag (which this year included an engraved Yeti water bottle) why would anyone commit to such a mad pursuit? “I look at it as just being able to grow myself mentally,” Fisher says. “I see it as a way to get stronger, so I can do harder things in the future.”
For now, however, the harder things will have to wait. Asked about his plans for the coming weeks, Fisher replied that this is “officially ‘No-Vert November.’”