The Max Vert October Challenge Is Getting Out of Hand

This article originally appeared on Trail Runner

Last year, Eric Klebs entered the Max Vert October challenge with the goal of climbing into outer space.

He achieved his goal of racking up 330,000 feet--the approximate distance from sea level to the edge of the earth's atmosphere--by way of hiking and running trails in the foothills and mountains adjacent to Colorado Springs. A stairway to heaven? Sort of, but he had to go through a lot of leg-burning hell to get there.

The virtual challenge was started in 2020 by the Cirque Series trail running circuit when its events was shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but race organizer Julian Carr has continued it because it has gained a small but very passionate following. It's a self-administered individual event--participants can log their efforts whenever and wherever they want to--framed entirely during the month of October.

Full-Time Chef, Full-On Vert

Amazingly, Klebs accumulated up his big vert total last year despite working full-time as a chef in a local hospital. However, despite his lofty efforts, his effort was only good enough for fifth place.

"Everybody that was ahead of me took the month off from work," he said. "They were all way ahead of me, and everybody that was behind me was way behind me. So I just thought I'd set this arbitrary number of 330,000 feet--because it's the distance to outer space--and I thought that it would be cool to try to hit that by the end of the month. It just kind of snowballed from there."

A triple photo of a man going up and down a mountain
Eric Klebs. (Photo: Courtesy Eric Klebs)

For the 26-year-old Klebs, that snowball continued rolling into 2023. This year, he made the Max Vert October his primary focus. He not only trained doggedly for it, but he also lived a frugal lifestyle so he could take the entire month off of work and maximize his time to gobble up vert on the Manitou Incline--a grueling 0.9-mile staircase ascent that rises 2,000 vertical feet built along a former cogwheel tourist train track up a lower flank of Pikes Peak.

Klebs logged a couple of 12-hour sessions through the night on the Incline, but he wasn't the only one who spent long days and nights on that legendary staircase. In fact, it became an inspiring--and sometimes competitively feisty--scene as more than 50 participants were logging laps on the Incline during October.

'VertOber' Gone Wild

Max Vert October--which many competitors refer to as "VertOber"--has taken on a life of its own since 2020, when Utah athlete Noah Brautigam racked up an impressive 342,213 feet of vertical gain (over 485.8 miles) to win the inaugural challenge and Colorado's Kendra Joseph was the top female competitor with 244,751 feet (over 451.5 miles).

The following year, Colorado's Chris Fisher, who was sixth in 2020, set the bar higher with a world-record 400,264 feet after spending most of his month going up and down Grandeur Peak, a short and steep 8,299-foot mountain in the foothills of Utah's Wasatch Mountains where Brautigam racked up his total. Utah's Monica Valovic also did a lot of laps on that peak and wound up as the top woman that year with 185,386 feet.

Fisher's record was broken by Bulgarian ultrarunner Kaloyan 'Kofe' Peychev in July 2022 when he racked up 409,000 vertical feet in the Balkan Mountains. Then during last year's Max Vert October challenge North Carolina's Reid Woolsey blasted the mark to an astonishing 500,635 vertical feet by going up and down a short, steep trail in the Pisgah National Forest near Asheville in metronomic fashion. But the three other competitors who surpassed the 400,000 mark last year all did it on the Incline, and this year, nine of the top 10 finishers spent most of October repeating laps on the Incline because, as grueling as it sounds, it's one of the most efficient places in the U.S. to gather huge vertical totals.

Klebs tuned up for the month-long vertical odyssey by running the 26.2-mile Pikes Peak Marathon in mid-September, then, once October rolled around, he spent most of his waking hours going up and down the Incline. For the month, he racked up 230 Incline ascents while accumulating a world record-breaking 506,269 feet (or 95 vertical miles) over the course of linear 575.8 miles.

In breaking the 2022 record of Woolsey--who flew out to join Klebs for a few laps on the final weekend--Klebs upped the bar on the quirky vert-accumulating obsessiveness in which a tiny portion of the trail running and mountaineering communities indulge. Several competitors reported days in which they were "Everesting," the notion of accumulating 29,032 feet (the elevation of the top of Mount Everest) in a 24-hour period.

For perspective, runners in the 106-mile Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc race in Chamonix, France, gain about 32,808 vertical feet from start to finish, while the Hardrock 100 race in Colorado has about 33,197 feet of vertical gain.

Type 2 Fun

Breaking down Klebs's prodigious effort, it comes out to an eye-popping average of 16,331 feet (more than three vertical miles) over 18.5 linear miles every day for 31 straight days. That's roughly seven laps on the Incline and about 10-12 hours on his feet every day. (But his actual daily averages are higher than that because he took a few days off during the month.) Twice he did stints of 10 laps and covered about 21,000 feet of vertical in a single day, including one outing in which he started at midnight and continued into the morning well after sunrise to avoid temperatures in the upper 70s.

While that certainly falls into the category of Type 2 fun, it also borders on being ridiculously monotonous.

A group of hikers smile as they climb the Manitou Incline
Max Vert October competitors John Clarke (bottom left), Rick Webb (top left) and Laura Kaplan (bottom right) pause for a moment to wish happy birthday to Allie McLaughlin, the women's speed record holder on the Manitou Incline. (Photo: Peter Maksimow)

"Yeah, it was a little bit of both, for sure," Klebs said. "You kind of get into a rhythm when you're out there. But without the community there, I would've not had much motivation to be there. It was fun having everybody out there trying to get their own goals as well and just also having fun with it. It was really inspiring to have everybody else around me going up and down the Incline."

The Incline was definitely a leg-burning scene in October as 25 of the top 50 competitors logged most of their vert there. Four women surpassed Joseph's 2020 record mark, led by overall runner-up Maria Smead, a Colorado Springs stay-at-home mom who collected 445,804 feet (84.4 vertical miles) on the strength of more than 220 laps on the Incline.

"It was a big month for her," said her husband, Isaac Smead. "She would come home totally exhausted, and I would give her a little bit of leg rubdown and she'd be zonked by like nine or nine-thirty at night. Then at three o'clock in the morning, she's on the Incline again. She was relentless."

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'It Was a Lot Harder Than I Ever Thought it Would Be'

Smead, 46, a triathlete-turned-trail runner who's originally from Argentina, said she only found out about the Max Vert event after she had won her age group in the 13.3-mile Pikes Peak Ascent and finished second among women and fourth overall in the Sangre de Cristo 100K on back-to-back weeks in mid-September.

During one 24-hour stretch in October, Smead did 12 laps up and down the Incline, starting at 3 A.M. on a Saturday morning and finishing at 1:30 A.M. on Sunday morning."The night was perfect," she said. "I wanted to do one more, but I just couldn't. My legs were so tired."

Laura Kaplan, an accomplished mountain athlete from Boulder, started the month on her local trails but also ventured down to the Incline for two and a half weeks, en route to collecting 413,054 feet to finish second among women and fourth overall. She, too, did several all-day stints into the wee hours of the morning.

"It was a lot harder than I ever thought it would be," said Kaplan, 36, who started the competition two weeks after finishing Tor de Geants, a 205-mile ultramarathon in Italy with nearly 79,000 feet of elevation gain. "I definitely did not recover at all from the race, and then I got sick, so it was a tough way to start. But Rick Webb, one of the top participants, encouraged me to go after 400,000 feet so I made that my goal."

John Clarke, a 58-year-old Colorado Springs ultrarunner was third overall (434,023 feet), while Webb, a 34-year-old Manitou Springs trail runner and hiker who finished third in 2022, was third among men and fifth overall (400,449 feet). Noelia Sanchez, 46, of Colorado Springs was third among women and seventh overall (300,272 feet), while Katharine Partridge, also of Colorado Springs, was the fourth woman and eighth overall (274,343 feet).

Klebs and Smead earned $500 cash prizes for their victories, while each of the top five finishers received On running gear, gift cards, and personalized engraved Yeti water bottles. Klebs and Clarke also won the team competition--competing as the Tasty Freeze Appreciation Society--with 940,292 combined vertical feet.

Klebs primarily covered his laps wearing Saucony Peregrine 12 trail running shoes and a lightweight trail running hydration vest. He bought two pairs of Peregrines for about $60 apiece, one red pair and one blue pair, and mostly ran with one of each. He fueled on all sorts of food--energy gels, sandwiches he made in advance, and even carne asada fries--and just tried to stay in the groove.

"I had much more ambitious plans than what I actually ended up doing," he said. "Before it started, I was like, 'I'm going to do 10 Inclines a day'--about 20,000 feet--which would've put me up to over 600K for the month. Early on I knew that wasn't going to happen, but I'm hoping somebody does that someday. That'd be awesome."

A mountain photo of a steep trail
Manitou Incline cutting up the side of Pikes Peak. (Photo: Getty Images)

End of an Era?

There might not be an opportunity to chase the 600K goal next year in Max Vert October because this year's challenge might have been the last one. The event is based on an honor system tied to the relative accuracy of GPS tracking devices and athletes uploading their efforts from their participant's Strava account.

While that seems pretty straightforward, the attempt to achieve such extraordinary totals through obsessive efforts seems to attract a narcissist mindset that has, at times, led to sideways behavior. Especially on the Incline. ("There should be an entire article on the toxicity of the Incline," said one Colorado Springs trail runner interviewed for this article who preferred to remain anonymous. "It has gotten pretty ugly at times.")

Since it was rebuilt in the early 2000s, the Incline has been a popular test piece among local hikers and runners, as well as a variety of athletes from the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs and off-duty soldiers from nearby Air Force and Army bases. The most dedicated are colloquially known as "Incliners," who hike up and down the route every day or multiple times every day.

A handful of locals have recorded more than 1,000 ascents on the Incline during a calendar year, topped by the astonishing 1,825 laps recorded by 62-year-old hiker Greg Cummings in 2020 on his way to a world-record 3.6 million vertical feet for the year. Brandon Stapanowich holds the record the most laps (22 laps, 44,000 vertical feet) in a 24-hour period, while Wade Gardner has done the fastest 13-lap "Inclinathon" in 10 hours, 34 minutes.

Drama on the Incline

Last spring, Sanchez said she had several aggressive encounters after she racked up 500 Incline ascents over a few months. She accused another local hiker, Chasidey Geissler, the current female record holder on the Incline with 1,222 ascents during a calendar year, of stalking and escalating threats of violence.

Also, another Colorado Springs competitor in the 2021 Max Vert October event subsequently claimed to have broken Fisher's record in an independent month-long vert quest on the Incline with 218 laps in a month, but he was later exposed for trying to boost his stats by copying and pasting old GPX files into Strava and acting as if he did that activity that day.

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"He definitely did big days here and there, but when he wasn't doing anything, he would copy an old big day activity and paste it as a new day," Fisher said. "I found out three or four months later that he was cheating, right before my record was broken legitimately."

This year's Max Vert challenge wasn't without controversy, either. Several competitors who were doing laps on the Incline accused others of cheating and complained to Carr, suggesting that he should disqualify certain participants for unsportsmanlike conduct. Although he was sent video of one particularly aggressive confrontation, he didn't disqualify anyone, mostly because he wasn't there to witness any of it firsthand and had no interest in being a judge and jury over an event that is meant to inspire and celebrate individual efforts.

"Yeah, there was lots of drama in that regard," said Carr, who has considered discontinuing the event. "My response has been that it's an honor system contest. If someone is taking liberties with their activity data, they will always feel horrible about it. If you've been honest with your data, you can feel great about it. All I know is that it's worked great for three of the four years. This year, for whatever reason, the climate of personalities didn't mix at the Incline. But I am not focusing on the drama. I am trusting people's data and accomplishments. None of this drama should take away from Eric or Maria or Laura."

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