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.