Racing up mountains to reach the skies

A gruelling sport, skyrunnings' sole aim is vertical gain: Be the first to the top of the mountain
Last Updated 11 August 2015, 18:32 IST
One morning in late June, 1,200 runners snaked up the south side of the Chamonix Valley before dawn in southeastern France. They were participating in the Mont Blanc 80 KM, a grueling running race in which participants would cover 50 miles on foot.

The distance, though, might have been the easy part. They would also climb a total of 20,000 feet in ascents over the terrain, dip into Switzerland and cross a glacier before dashing across the finish line – all in less than 24 hours, the race’s time cap. Alex Nichols of the United States went on to win the race in 10 hours, 31 minutes.

The racers are part of the growing sport of skyrunning, an extreme discipline in which runners speed up and down mountains. Over the past 10 years, the Mont Blanc race series, one of the sport’s most iconic events, has seen a 315 per cent increase in participants, from 1,600 racers in 2005 to 6,635 in 2015.

Whereas trail running includes running on trails in any natural setting, skyrunning combines mountaineering and running, and takes place exclusively in the mountains. It is distinguished not so much by its distance (races range from 2 to over 50 miles), but instead by vertical gain and the altitude at which the discipline takes place, almost always at or above 6,500 feet. Skyrunners might run on trails, but they often forge their own routes across meadows and rock fields, or up and over rock faces.

“It can be really hairy,” said Andy Symonds, a 34-year-old professional skyrunner from Britain who finished third in the Mont Blanc race. “You’re on ridges. There can be chains and ladders and via ferratas,” mountain routes preset with cables, bridges and other aids. “To me, trail running is about undulating paths. Skyrunning is about getting to the top of mountains, getting to the sky.”

Skyrunning does not come without its risks. While broken limbs, abrasions and contusions are the most common injuries, there have been seven fatalities in events affiliated with the International Skyrunning Federation (ISF) since 1992: one woman suffered a head injury after falling down a rocky slope; another woman died from hypothermia; and five people have died of heart failure. The federation now recommends that racers are prescreened for any health issues.

While people have long run in the world’s mountains, skyrunning as a sport was first formalised in the Alps in 1992 when Marino Giacometti, an Italian mountaineer and president and co-founder of the ISF, organised the first competition, a race from Courmayeur, Italy, to the summit of 15,780-foot Mont Blanc that featured seven participants.

Today, races take place in 36 countries, and there are approximately 600,000 skyrunners worldwide, including 75,000 entrants in the 2015 Skyrunner World Series and Skyrunner National Series, according to Lauri van Houten, ISF co-founder and executive director. Based on participation in the ISF’s events, most skyrunners – 80 per cent – are male. Participants range in age from 18 to 83, though the majority tend to be 25 to 44 years of age and come from Europe, the United States and Japan.

Skyrunning lacks the mass reach of road running, which has over 29 million regular participants in the United States alone, according to the 2013 Sports and Fitness Industry Association survey, but nonetheless the ISF has managed to attract big-name sponsors, such as the sporting goods manufacturer Salomon.

Van Houten attributes skyrunning’s growth to social media and to a trend of athletes seeking out novel challenges. “People are going away from road running because it’s kind of boring. They’re looking for new challenges; therefore they’re doing longer distances and it’s not enough anymore to do a marathon, so people want to do the 100 miler and then they want to do 100 miles going uphill with altitude,” she said. “The bigger the challenge, the more people are starting to do it now.”

The sport’s no-fuss, pared-down accessibility and opportunity for exploration are also key to its popularity. “It’s really easy – all you need is your shoes, maybe some food and drink, and you go,” said Thor Ludvigsen, a 26-year-old skyrunner from Norway. “There’s so many options, so many trails, so many summits you can go to.”

Others point to something harder to quantify behind the sport’s growth. “I think skyrunning is getting more popular because we live in a society in which we live more and more in the cities. We move less. We are sedentary and, as humans, we are animals. We need to move,” said Kilian Jornet, 27, the 2014 skyrunning world champion and the sport’s most high-profile personality. “We want to go out and go to nature. This sport combines both things.”

The prefect skyrunner

Jornet has played a major part in bringing skyrunning out of obscurity. Born in Sabadell, Spain, Jornet started skyrunning as a boy. His father was the guardian of a mountain hut in the Pyrenees, and Jornet grew up exploring the peaks. At 13, he took part in his first trail running competition, a race between seven mountain huts. Six years later, he won the Skyrunning World Series, becoming the youngest person ever to do so.

Over the past 10 years, Jornet, who now lives in Chamonix, has won more than 80 races and holds several race records. In July, he set a course record at the Mount Marathon race in Seward, Alaska. Five days later, he notched another course record at the Hardrock 100 in Silverton, Colorado, a 100-mile competition with 33,992 feet of total elevation gain.

“He’s a phenom, the embodiment of the perfect skyrunner,” van Houten said.
Jornet is not, however, unbeatable. At the Mont Blanc Vertical KM, a punishing race in which participants ascend 3,281 feet over 2.36 miles up the south side of the Chamonix Valley, Jornet was bested by Saúl Antonio Padua of Colombia, who won with a time of 34 minutes, 34 seconds, beating Jornet’s 2012 course record by two minutes.

Next year, Jornet will attempt the speed record on Mount Everest. He will climb from Tibet, tackling the mountain’s north face. He will do it alone, in one push, and without the help of oxygen or fixed ropes. He will carry little more than an ice ax, a 30-meter rope, food, a jacket, and crampons. Whereas it takes most amateur climbers more than a month to climb the world’s tallest mountain, Jornet estimates it will take him between 24 and 48 hours.

For many, skyrunning sounds hellish; but for Jornet and others like him, there is beauty in motion. “To keep always moving is a really beautiful feeling, I think.”

(Published 11 August 2015, 17:26 IST)

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