BY: GLEB VELIKANOV
Try to imagine yourself running above the clouds, unobstructed by trees or landscape, the wind cooling your skin while the thin air makes your lungs burn, adding a challenging, adrenaline-spiked twist to trail running. Such a sport does exist, with participants competing in races routed through high elevation mountain-terrain, combining trail running and scrambling. The name of it is self-explanatory: skyrunning.
This burly cousin of trail running first appeared in the 1990s, conceived of by European mountaineers seeking to expand their love for the mountains by adding an element of racing to the process of moving up, across and down high-altitude stretches of terrain. Pioneered by mountaineer Marino Giacometti, the first high-altitude trail took place around Mont Blanc and Monte Rosa in the Alps. Since then, the sport has expanded around the globe, with races taking place in the Himalayas, mountains in Africa and North America.
The technical definition of skyrunning is “the extreme sport of mountain running above the elevation of 2,000 metres, where the incline exceeds 30% and climbing difficulty does not exceed 11° grade.” In layman’s terms, this means that while most of the race will transpire across a single track, there will be sections where the participants are expected to bound across rocks like mountain goats, following course markings.
Around thirty countries in the world have national-level sky running series, including the US and Canada. Both North American series completed their inaugural year of competition in 2014 and look forward to expanding upon their success in the future, as part of the International Skyrunning Federation’s efforts to globalize and promote the sport. The Skyrunning World Championships take place every four years at various locations throughout the world, aiming to crown the world’s top athletes, like American runner Matt Carpenter, Spaniard Killian Jornet, Swedish runner Emelie Forsberg, or the Italian Emanuela Brizio. The Skyrunner World Series is an annual championship, where athletes compete in six to eight races from at least five countries, the winner determined through cumulative points earned for finishing each event.
“Skyrunning omits the boring and tedious bits of conventional trail running,” said US Skyrunner Series director Ian Sharman. He explained that currently, there are three categories of skyrunning races: the Vertical Kilometer, or VK, during which competitors gain 1,000 metres of elevation over the distance of five kilometers; the Sky Distance or SkyMarathon races, which feature distances approximately between half-marathon (21.1 km) and marathon (42.2 km); and finally Ultra SkyMarathon, which encompasses all races longer than 50 km. All three categories are featured in the Skyrunning World Series, an annual event that is a tier lower than the World Championships. National Series, like the US and Canadian event line-ups, feature the easiest level of competition, accessible for most amateur athletes.
Sharman elaborated that skyrunning race distances are measured based on landscape features, rather than arbitrary lengths. For instance, if a particular stretch of trail travels over a few peaks, with a natural terminus at 35 km, the race organizers will not extend it to 42.2 km to make it the official “marathon” distance. Instead, such a course falls into the Sky Distance/SkyMarathon category, with the finish line right at 35 km. “Each course makes sense,” added Sharman.
Like most other sports, skyrunning has its marquee events. In the US, the premier races are: The Rut in Bozeman, Montana; The Audi Power of 4 in Aspen, Colorado; and the Flagstaff Skyrace in Arizona. Each event offers all three skyrunning distances, while the longest event in the US is the 68-mile Georgia Death Race.
Canada boasts some interesting races in Quebec, such as the SkyRace, Ultra SkyMarathon and the Vertical Kilometer du Mont Albert, along with the vertical kilometer in North Vancouver and the Squamish 23 km and 50 mile events. Naturally, skyrunning events may take place only in mountainous terrain, making North American race organizers scour through lists of suitable areas. Places like ski resorts and high altitude trail systems—with road access to facilitate aid station placement—fit the bill best. Of course, the organizers approach these endeavours with a high level of responsibility, making certain to obtain all necessary permits and ensuring the events remain safe and fun.
“This is the natural progression of running,” stated Sharman. “Someone who has completed a road marathon may decide to try a trail ultra. An avid Ultrarunner may desire to train for an even tougher event and so on.” The natural progression is an undertaking suitable for anyone interested in endurance pursuits. While the elites like Carpenter, Jornet, Forsberg or Brizio fight for the lead above the clouds, athletes of all fitness levels are given the opportunity to push themselves upwards into a new and exciting sport where, quite literally, the sky is the limit.