Skyrunning: Heeding the Call

5-time Zegama champ Kilian Jornet high on the mountain. Credit: SalernoPhoto.

Last weekend I was standing around in the pouring 45F rain in the town square of Zegama in the Basque Country of northern Spain.  Montana mountain runner Mike Wolfe had just crossed the finish threshold of the Zegama-Aizkorri SkyMarathon in 14th place as the top American and was still visibly amped up about the weather, the course, his race. “I was passing people like crazy on the climbs, and I consider myself comfortable on technical trails, but these guys just go nuts on the downhills.  I’ve never seen people run downhill like that before!”  Hearing that from such an accomplished mountain athlete as Mike helped me realize the true gap that currently exists between long distance mountain races in the U.S. versus those in Europe.

Chatting with Mike at the Zegama finish. Credit: Jordi Saragossa.

With regard to Zegama, and the European Skyracing scene in general, I could riff about any number of topics–the impressive depth of competition at the front of the pack; the festival-like atmosphere at the start and finish lines; the cigarette-smoking, wine-drinking, rabid throngs (we’re talking literally thousands of people) of spectators that line the steep climbs. But as a runner, the thing that really interests me (and, what I think most differentiates it from off-road running in the US)  is the spirit and ethic of Skyrunning that drives race course design.

Here in the US, most people find it hard to conceive of a marathon with more climbing than the venerable Pikes Peak Marathon, which ascends 7800′ in the first half before plummeting back to the finish.  By comparison, Zegama boasts 9000′ of vertical in its traverse of Aizkorri’s four summits, and much of it is on far more technical footing than the relatively shallow and smooth surface of Barr Trail.  (The real challenge at Pikes is the altitude, but the profile and footing are mellow enough as to allow a road runner to excel on race day.)

In Europe, when they refer to “mountain” running, they really mean mountain running. Races start and finish in town centers with climbing to the surrounding summits and getting back to town as quickly as possible–trails or not–being the most essential objective. Courses seem to generally be designed with the intention of taking the most direct lines and tagging the most peaks; this leads to negotiating terrain that can require scrambling and definitely a lot of hands-on-knees, nose-on-the-ground pow-hiking.

Joe Grant grunting up one of the specator-lined steep climbs at Zegama. Credit: SalernoPhoto.

While “Skyrunning” as a formal federation and series of races was officially founded by mountaineer Marino Giacometti and Lauri Van Houten in 1993 (and has continued to develop and evolve as a result of their tireless commitment and passion for mountainsport), many people point to Valerio Bertoglio‘s 1990 Cervinia-to-Matterhorn-summit-and-back speed record of 4:16:26 as a watershed moment in fast mountain travel.  This record-setting outing (breathtakingly documented here) seamlessly combined the disciplines of running and mountaineering and established the town-center-to-summit-and-return ethic that continues to define the sport.  Bruno Brunod’s 1995 breaking of this record by a full hour remains one of the most revered and mind-boggling marks in the world of mountain running.

Bruno Brunod in the '90s.

Giacometti’s formation of the International Skyrunning Federation (ISF, originally known as the Federation for Sport at Altitude) was meant to formalize these types of high-intensity summit efforts by staging races on many of Europe’s highest peaks (Mont Blanc, Monte Rosa) before quickly expanding to events in Colorado, Mexico, and Africa.  Skyrunning separated itself from more traditional trail running by cultivating an ethic of very steep, highly technical routes that didn’t shy away from 3rd and even 4th class scrambling nor extensive snow fields.

As Marino commented to me last week in reference to legendary Colorado mountain runner Matt Carpenter (one of the original Skyrunner athletes, and a multiple-time Skyrunning Series winner in the 1990s): “Matt was a very good runner.”  The unspoken implication here was that the most effective Skyrunner was someone who was not only a runner, but also a mountaineer.  Matt would often lead races to the summit but then be slightly stymied by (and passed on) the radical descents that could easily include fixed ropes and glissading on snow.

As someone who enjoys not only running in the mountains, but also scrambling, climbing, and summiting, the sport of Skyrunning resonates with me quite deeply.  During the late ’90s, I remember seeing short race reports in the back of Runner’s World Magazine that recounted gnarly races on Mexican volcanoes or Colorado peaks.  Matt usually won these, and I knew that one day I wanted to be similarly challenging myself on this kind of terrain.  As a teenager in oxygen-rich Nebraska, I began seeking out the steepest, longest hills I could find, and immediately after high school finally moved to Colorado for college in Colorado Springs, at the foot of Pikes Peak.

It was with these roots of interest that I attended a three-day seminar of Skyrunning on La Palma (location for the Transvulcania 83k Skyrace) last week, leading up to the Zegama Skymarathon.  Marino and Lauri have a bunch of new ideas in the works, and as such thought it appropriate to encourage discussion about the sport amongst many of its most accomplished practitioners.

The most telling shift in the World Skyrunning Series–and maybe the biggest change going forward–already begins this year, with the addition of an Ultra SkyMarathon Series, which includes races of ~50K-85K in length.  Here in the States we like to congratulate ourselves with completions of, say, the Zane Grey 50 miler or the San Juan Solstice 50 miler and proclaim them the “toughest 50 mile races in the world”.  Not so fast. The Ultra Cavalls del Vent in the Pyrenees in September is a new addition to the Skyrunning Series this year whose 53 mile course boasts a quad-busting 20,000′ of vertical ascent.  Half of Hardrock would “only” have 17,000′.

Cavalls del Vent course map.

However, it would be wrong to think that Skyrunning is simply some directive to come up with the most “extreme” or goofily challenging events possible that turn into simple “did-a-thons”.  No, instead, these races are driven by a desire to combine running and mountaineering, and to link together summits and ridgelines in a logical manner.  The course at Cavalls del Vent is a simple loop, tags many a peak, and hooks up a series of local huts.  There are no contrived out and backs, loops, or add-ons to simply fulfill an arbitrary distance.  The race is 84.8km because that’s what it takes to link the huts and complete the loop.  The fact that it’s not some arbitrary, round metric or English number matters not at all.

Instead, the line on the map and on the terrain is inspiring and seductive, and ultimately, this is what I find most alluring about the concept.  Skyraces generally seem to trace routes that I would pick out as a training run, lines that I want to run even without the stimulus of competition, simply for their aesthetic attraction.  In that respect, Skyrunning is heeding the most basic, intuitive, and primal call of the mountains, which is why I run mountains at all.  As a result–especially as trail running is becoming more and more global–I think it’s an approach worth trying to emulate more sincerely here in the States in our own inspiring mountains.

25 thoughts on “Skyrunning: Heeding the Call

  1. Nice write up, thanks. Looks like they brought over the right people to chat about these ideas. It will be cool to see what develops from here.

  2. Would absolutely love to see this type of racing sprout up in the Sierras. Of course the steepness of the mountains would not be as great (except, maybe, for some places on the east side) and the permitting process for competition may be more strict (I have no idea what is required), but this is something we need!! Until the day that I or someone else can set aside the time and resources to organize a race such as this on the West Coast, we will have to settle for magnificent solo (and group) outings amongst the peaks. Thank you for this post! Inspiring! Aesthetics and style in the mountains are (in danger of a pun) a beautiful thing.

  3. Amen!!! Hehe! Completely agree! Done Cavalls in race mode twice, and other times in training mode, its awesome !! Cavalls was actually a round hiking traverse of the Cadi national park before becoming a race.
    We took a picture with u at Zegama, thanks Anton! I believe that u truly embrace the spirit of this sport, get back soon! ;-)
    BTW, at some point u say 54.8km, that should be miles, shouldn’t it?

  4. Extremely good report! Having done Skyraces myself, I could barely finish reading this I got so excited.

    Note that the US and Canada are the only countries in the world that use the term “trail” running … everyone else calls it “mountain” running … for a good reason.

  5. Clearly I’m living on the wrong continent. My favorite “runs” are always exploratory link-ups of one sort or another. I wish there were more emphasis on this in the US. Not that our ultras aren’t somewhat approximate in their distances, but still. Nicely written. I’m putting these on my list.

  6. Great article! It was exciting following you guys when you were out there and being virtually exposed to this new (to me) ‘style’ of racing/running/climbing/etc… However, it is pretty similar to what I enjoy doing here in RMNP. I love putting together loops and routes that no one typically does… climbing hallet or longs from my front door… that just appeals to me in an entirely different way than the traditional arbitrary race distances and routes here in the states. Very cool and I’d love it if this style of racing was more prevalent here…

  7. Another interesting European category is British fell running, which has a very rich history in Northern Britain as described in the book Feet in the Clouds. Mind boggling near vertical decents on scree by whatever route you have the nerve to follow!

  8. Very nice post Anton. My grand father was born in Zegama and Aizkorri it’s incredible I hope you enjoyed your visit.
    In this post you write Mike Wolf said “I’ve never seen people run downhill like that before!”, one week ago talking with an ultra racer we were talking about this, in this kind of races the faster you can run downhill will make you win the race.
    I apreciate the humility that all the american racers show us in last 2 weeks en Spain (Transvulcania and Zegama).
    I hope we will see you running again soon.
    Thanks

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  10. Nice article, thanks Anton. I was interested to see your comment about the downhill speed of European runners. Coming from the British fell running scene (where, by the way, they’ve been using the village to summit and back style of racing for the best part of 200 years) I’d always thought the ‘continentals’ were a bit shy of downhill running. Fell runners just throw themselves down the quickest route off the hill ( see http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=1OsL6brYV-I ) . If you’re interested in the history of this stuff then check out Richard Askwith’s “Feet in the Clouds” book. All the best for the rest of the season.

  11. Nice write up Anton. We are ones of your fans and we live close to Cavalls del Vent area, so if you want to come to train here, just notice us!!!
    Thanks for your article!

  12. hey anton

    thanks for the report on the euro scene and specifically what skyrunning has done for the sport and all the cool stuff they’ve got planned. i for one would like to try running some of their races.

    one thing i’ve noticed from your report (and from geoff roes’s recent post in irunfar: http://www.irunfar.com/2012/05/the-roar-of-the-crowd.html) is a tendency to overlook similar races here in the u.s. it’s understandable since you’ve just spent a couple weeks there and the events here don’t always get tons of publicity like the euro races with their deep pocketed sponsors. and since this country is so large and there are so many races to choose from every weekend most u.s. races don’t get very large numbers of runners. But tough and scenic mountain races do exist here.

    here’s a quick list off the top of my head of races that could be what you’re looking for that already exist:

    mount marathon 3.5m alaska 3,000ft of gain
    angels staircase 60k washington 10,000ft of gain
    yakima skyline rim 50k washington 10,000ft of gain
    old gabe 50k montana 11,000ft of gain
    kendall mountain 13m colorado 4000ft of gain
    kat’cina mosa 100k utah 16,000ft of gain
    MMD 50k new hampshire 13,000ft of gain
    The EPIC 50k colorado 14,400ft of gain (in hibernation for now)
    beast of big creek 12.5m washington 5000+ ft of gain
    speedgoat 50k utah 12,000+ ft of gain
    chuckanut mountain 30k washington 5200ft of gain (not to be confused w/ chuckanut 50k)

    and there would be even more for folks to choose from if it weren’t for some silly forest service rules. and i’m sure there are lots of others that i don’t even know about or have forgotten about.

    anyhow i think the venues are there it’s just up to the runners to show up. you said a gap “currently exists between long distance mountain races in the U.S. versus those in Europe” i would argue that it’s not for a lack of “mountain races” but because the top mountain runners in this country aren’t (in significant numbers) going to the toughest mountain races. instead they go to leadville, western, north face 50m, uroc, miwok, white river, etc.

    thanks again tony for the report and for creating the discussion and i look forward to seeing you at the best mountain race in the world, hardrock 100, this summer.

    • Really good Comments, especially listing some interesting races.

      Regarding comparisons: I don’t know of everything in Europe or here, but from what I do know there is a real difference: the Skyraces start on main street in a beautiful alpine village, then simply crank to the top of a mountain then come back down again … The Dolomites race has a 5,600′ drop in a bit over 6 miles! Kendall can sort of match that, but not sure of anything else in North America.

  13. I respectively dis-agree with many of the comments here that advocate running up and down mountains in the shortest route possible. In the western US, the land (especially) above tree-line is extremely fragile and once damaged, will never return to it’s natural state. I strongly believe in LNT (leave no trace) wilderness ethics and it’s great that the NPS and USFS actually enforce protecting these areas. I think that preserving our wild lands to the best of our abilities is a far more important goal that designing runs, race courses that are more “fun” or challenging for our own entertainment. I am personally thankful that in the US that we do have these areas that are still relatively pristine and not marred by tons of foot traffic and centuries of inhabitants. And for anybody who says “well I don’t step on tundra” and/or “it’s no big deal – they have done it in Europe for 200 years” – Visit some of our summits and see how we’ve (we = human runners hikers and climbers) have already (and forever) altered our playgrounds. And think about future generations who will just witness even more erosion as the years pass. And if you’re still not persuaded, I say to you – move to Europe.

    • I agree with your comment, I know that’s the case in Colorado. I spend a lot of time back East(MD, VA, NC) and things are so fertile there that it would be ok to run “off-piste”, as it were. But the steepest mountains here in the US seem to be in the West, and have very fragile ecological systems. Which is another reason there are very limited fields in some of the races; to lessen the impact.

    • I suggest you go to the Alps and do some running. The terrain is not “ruined” even after 300 years of travel. The hut system is a true asset, the trails are much steeper on average than in the western US, and many more “users” are out there (and that is a good thing). Having spent weeks at a time in the Alps over the years it is clearly evident to me that the trail system there has much to offer and much that ought be adopted here in the US.

      The alpine ethic in Europe is really what Anton is speaking to and there is no such broadly accepted thing currently in the US. We should be well served to have such an ethic… and not make our mountains “museum pieces”.

  14. Thanks for bringing this perspective back home and sharing it. The skyraces i’ve done in Europe remain some of the most memorable running events i’ve ever participated in, despite the fact that they weren’t my most successful. Like Mike Wolfe, i had always thought i was a reasonably good downhill runner until i ran my first Skyrace!
    The organizers have tried to cultivate the skyrunning ethos in America over the years but have never gained much traction. Maybe it’s owed to the difference in mountain ethics (right or wrong) as others have already commented on, or maybe it’s the overwhelmingly egalitarian nature of our trail running scene. But i hope some of this positive exposure will lead to a greater rate of adoption/participation in the years to come.

  15. I would love to see that sort of racing here. We have different challenges in setting up a race like that, but I’m sure it could be done somewhere. Great job on the write-up.

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  18. Mount Marathon, run every 4th of July in Seward, AK, starts in town and winds it way up, and down 3,022 feet mountain. The best are the ones who throw themselves down the mountain. There are also many runs here in Alaska that qualify as, “mountain races” but not enough that go down the mountain for the finish. Too many cross-country skier athletes that crush the uphill crowd, but the downhill… who knows though Kikkan Randall, World Champion X-country skier for 2012, did win last years Mount Marathon.

  19. Hi Anton!
    Greetings from Spain.

    Nice and interesting article you wrote here, no doubt. As you mention Cavalls del Vent kind of comparing it with the Hardrock (at least with half of it), I hope you guys come some time to taste one of the races in the Andorra Ultratrail. When looking for real mountain extreme running, technical stuff and so on, I can assure you Andorra is not easily beaten right now.

    The Mitic is the short one with 112 kms (69,5 miles) and +9.700m (+31.824 ft).
    For the big thing, La Ronda dels Cims: 170 kms (105,6 miles) and +13.000 mts (+42.650 ft).

    Hope we get to see you in Cavalls on september, some Koalas will surely be there also ;)

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