Ring Das Bell: Running the Broken Arrow Skyrace

Andy Wacker ringing the cow bell at Broken Arrow Skyrace's finish line
PC: @howiesternphoto

Mountain Running in Olympic Valley

The best kept secret of ski resorts is that their best month may be June. Though the skiing is over, the snow is melting and wildflowers are starting to bloom on lush green meadows.

It's this time of year that brings those who would rather run up the mountain than take the chair lift and ski down. I am one of those people.

Palisades Tahoe in Olympic Valley, California, is the perfect example of where their off-season is my on-season, hosting the Broken Arrow Skyrace each year in June.

People getting ready for the Broken Arrow Race in Squaw Valley

For a race that only started in 2016, Broken Arrow has grown to become one of the best trail races in America. Specifically, it boasts a deep field of elite runners vying for spots on team USA and a large prize purse. The marquee events include a vertical kilometer (VK), 52k and 26k.

I’ll be running the VK and the 26k.

What's a VK race?

VKs are uphill running races that climb 1000 meters in elevation, typically over about 5k. This year, the top man and woman in the Broken Arrow VK will be selected to represent the US in the World Mountain & Trail Running Championships (WMTRC) on November 4-6, 2022, in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

The 26k will also act as the first of four races in the Salomon Golden Trail US/Canada National Series. The 52k will be a selection race for the USATF Mountain Running Team competing in the 80k at the WMTRC in Thailand.

Alpine Culture in the USA

Broken Arrow brings something special to trail running in the US: Alpine culture. What I mean is difficult to explain unless you have been to trail races in the Alps. In short, its screaming fans, like that of the Tour de France, steep singletrack and cow bells. Broken Arrow has it all, with spectators hiking up to line the high point on the course, beautiful trails through pine forests, and a cow bell nearly the size of your college dorm’s mini fridge.

Andy and his wife standing under the cowbell at the finish line
PC: @petermaksimow

Trail running in the USA has traditionally favored long ultramarathon races like the Western States 100 mile race that starts one week later in Olympic Valley, but I have always preferred short, sub-ultra trail races.

Shorter trail races have a rich history in Europe, where the idea is pretty simple: start in a mountain village, run up the local peak and then race back down. In shorter mountain trail races, every second counts, making the ascents lung busting and the descents treacherous.

Andy Wacker holding his race award
PC: @petermaksimow

In last year’s Broken Arrow 26k, I placed 3rd, a mere 28 seconds behind the winner, and you better believe I was leaping down the rocky trail, arms flailing for balance, intently focused on my competitors.

VKs are amazing races, but are often hard to find in the US. This is partly because there aren’t many steep enough and tall enough climbs. Ski areas like Vail and Aspen might have the elevation change, but even then it's hard to find a trail that climbs roughly 1000 feet per mile! If you haven’t run on a trail that steep, it’s like going up the Empire State Building three times in a row.

Our Chamonix

So, it’s special that Broken Arrow holds a VK race each year. What makes it even more exciting is that the course follows a ridge overlooking Lake Tahoe, and throws in a metal ladder bolted to a rock wall to help you gain the last few hundred feet. If that's not enough, you might be running on snow.

The finish line at Broken Arrow Skyrace, with the Olympic logo displayed

The first Winter Olympic Games were held in Chamonix, France in 1924. Chamonix is still known for skiing, but it is bar none one of the best places to trail run in the world. It’s no coincidence that Olympic Valley held the 1960 Olympic Winter Games. Olympic Valley might be our Chamonix, at least when it comes to Broken Arrow, where you start in the village made of carved and painted dark wooden beams and you finish by ringing an enormous cowbell.

Andy jumping up to ring the cowbell because he finished the race
PC: @howiesternphoto

About the Author

Andy is a professional trail runner living in Boulder, Colorado with his wife, Karley and their Italian greyhound, Fig. He has represented the USA 15 times, placing 2nd in 2015 and 3rd in 2014 in the world at the Long Distance Mountain Running Championships. When he isn’t running he enjoys teaching math and science