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Discrete Cirque Race Series: Pushing Peaks, Having Fun

Pro skier Julian Carr never thought of himself as a runner, which is why it’s pretty surprising that he founded a series of running races that’s now receiving national attention.

The summertime races of the Discrete Cirque Series take place at world-class ski resorts. They involve a mix of running and hiking to the top of a scenic peak and descending back down to the finish line and into a party scene full of live music, vendor tents, and camaraderie among racers ranging from beginning hikers to trail running pros.

“I love bagging peaks,” says Carr, who used to live next to the trailhead for Utah’s Mount Olympus and made hikes to the top a frequent occurrence, using them as a fun way to stay in shape for ski season during the summer months. “I really fell in love with the sense of accomplishment, the fitness, and I never really thought I fell into the category of a trail runner—I was a peak hiker.”

discrete-peakBackcountry Gearhead Jimmy Elam, left, and Julian Carr, right, taking a quick celebration break at the top of the Discrete Cirque Series Deer Valley course.

These feelings, and the desire to share them with others, is what led Carr to start the Discrete Cirque Series, formerly known as the Peak Series, now in its third year. Each course is typically between seven and ten miles and has between two and four thousand feet of elevation gain. So far, all of the events have taken place in Utah, but new this year, the Series expands into Colorado and Alaska. Carr hopes to bring it to more states in the future.

The first race of the season takes place Saturday, June 24, at Deer Valley Resort in Park City, Utah. Registration is still open; to see course information and to register, click here.


Jimmy and Julian take a lap on the Deer Valley course.

While dreaming up the series, Carr researched similar races were out there. They typically fell into one of two categories: ultramarathon races that ranged from 50k to 100-plus miles or mud runs and other types of obstacle and relay races, which Carr felt were too gimmicky.

What he wanted didn’t really exist: something that split the difference between the standard 5K and the marathon, that included two or three thousand feet of vertical gain, that provided racers with some awesome views, and that appealed to beginners and pros alike.

When Carr did find a race similar to what he envisioned, he found the end of the race dissatisfying. “There were three of four hundred people there, and ours was the only car that backed up, opened the tailgate, had a beer, and cheered people along through the finish line,” he says. “I knew if I did these races there has to be a really cool peak course and an awesome hangout … The key ingredients: bag a fun peak, make sure there’s great music, good food, good drinks, and a really fun atmosphere.”

Carr feels that this atmosphere is largely what might attract a wide range of ability levels to come participate. “I hear ‘I hate running’ all the time,” he says. “I’m that exact person. I’m not really a runner. I really love hiking and the way that these courses are designed, it’s the most direct route up the mountain.”

He says that aside from a few top competitors slowly jogging the entire way to the top, just about everyone hikes at least part of the course, with many hiking the whole way. “That’s what’s really fun about this race,” he says, “we bring out the full spectrum … Whether you’re in first place or middle of the pack, you hit the wall of your fitness and you have to push through it. Everyone summits the same peak, so everyone gets that same sense of satisfaction.” To date, competitors ranging from 12 years old up to 65 have participated.

“I challenge anyone who doesn’t consider themselves a runner to come out and bag a peak and hang out with some of these insanely gifted athletes,” Carr says. “It’s really cool to see everyone on the same course at the same time.”

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Great views are par for the course for every race in the series.

Backcountry is a sponsor of the Cirque Series, so it’s no surprise that Backcountry’s employees are among the competitors. Backcountry Gearhead Jimmy Elam was overall Series Champion last year in the Expert Category.

His favorite part about the series is the energy that the participants bring, even though it’s a relatively new event, and seeing how much it’s grown from year to year. “It makes me want to keep being a part of it and a part of the tradition of the series,” Elam says. “It’s unique. I’ve been running road races and trail races for 20 years now and didn’t do anything like this until a couple of years ago. It’s eye-opening and a total blast to be a part of.”

In training for the race series, Elam veered away from the typical routine of running on flat ground and began to do a lot of steep training runs and hikes. He explained that hiking was perhaps the most beneficial, as once you get steeper than a 15-20% grade, you lose too much energy trying to run it instead of hike it.

For nutrition, he explained that there are aid stations along each route, but it’s best to take in “a solid amount of Skratch Labs or a similar type electrolyte drink before just to jump-start your body—it’s a short race, but it’s high-energy and high-output, so that calls for being prepared,” he said. He also advises taking only snacks that you are used to, that you’ve had during training runs, so that you don’t stress your stomach while you’re in a tired and vulnerable state.

As for gear, Elam focuses on the shoes first, recommending a newer, grippier pair of trail shoes with plenty of tread. “I made the mistake last year of using very old, worn trail shoes, thinking they were the most comfortable shoes I had,” he says. “On those really steep switchbacks, in the beginning, for every two steps I took forward, it was one step backwards. There was a thick layer of dust on the trail, and if you don’t have enough tread, if your shoe’s not digging into the dirt, you’re going to be slipping around on that steep kind of grade.” He says that while many people run in minimalist shoes, this may not be the best option due to the need to step on or over sharp rocks, to hop from rock to rock, and even to do some scrambling at times.

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The underfoot protection and traction provided by trail running shoes is key.

“You want to be light,” he says of necessary gear. “Every extra pound that you’re taking uphill—and you’re climbing 3,000 feet—you’ll feel with every step.” You don’t want to carry more than you have to, but you also don’t want to be stuck in between aid stations without some kind of backup nutrition.

“There are some really sweet ultralight packs, where you can keep 20 ounces of water in the pack, and, say, a GU pack or a small snack,” he says. “Most people are out an hour and a half to three hours. If you’re closer to the two to three hour range, it’s nice to have your own stuff.

For clothing, he advises shorts with pockets so that you can carry a gel packet or a few chews without having to wear a pack. He says that a hat and sunglasses are a must, with glare-reducing polarized lenses being the best bet.

Elam’s advice to someone who is used to paved running who wants to try this for the first time is to start off slow with easy trail runs, progressing into harder and steeper terrain. “You use different muscles, and compared to the kind of monotonous terrain of road runs, you’re going up steep stuff, down steep stuff, around curves. You’re using a lot more stabilizing muscles and a lot more core than you would on the road. So exposing yourself to more rolling hill runs is necessary.”

He recommends a solid month of training to get ready, doing some high peaks, and giving yourself plenty of recovery time after each run. “Be patient,” he says, “and realize that being super sore after these things is not a bad thing; it’s a good thing. You’re getting stronger, you’re building muscles that weren’t developed before.”

“It’s a lot of fun,” he says of why you should give the Cirque Series a try. “And it can be a new way to explore a mountain in the wilderness setting but in a very fun, very high energy event.”

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