Skyrunning is a sport – and an awesome one at that! As the name implies, it’s running where the earth and sky meet, above the clouds on high-altitude mountain trails and technical ridges.
Isn’t skyrunning the same as trail running you might ask? Yes, but no. Although like trail running, skyrunning involves running off-road, it’s important to understand the difference. Skyrunning differs from other mountain running activities because of its level of technicality. Think of it as a combination of running and alpinism, where the logic is to reach the highest peak from a town or village and return as fast as possible.
A classic skyrace course usually being between 22-66km long. Chains, ridges, rivers, snow, glaciers, high-altitude, grade II climbing difficulty – these are all characteristics of a classic skyrace! Definitely not for the faint-hearted.
Let’s get technical:
To be an official skyrace, you have to meet certain criteria set by the International Skyrunning Federation:
- Running in mountains above 2,000m altitude
- Climbing difficulty does not exceed II° grade
- The incline is over 30%
How it started:
Although this type of technical high-altitude mountain running has actually been around for hundreds of years, it was Italian mountaineer, Marino Giacometti, who made it into a sport discipline in the early 1990s. Together with a group of fellow mountaineers, they began pioneering records and on Mont Blanc and Monte Rosa in the Italian Alps.
How it’s going:
Today, there are more than 200 official skyraces worldwide with around 50,000 participants from 65 countries and that number keeps on rising. There are now more women and young people than ever joining the sport. So much so that the official Skyrunner World Series (explained below) has decided to add a “Youth of the Year” award alongside its overall ranking to celebrate the many new young skyrunners.
The Skyrunner World Series
The Skyrunner World Series is the world’s only official circuit for skyrunning. Every year, the best Skyraces in spectacular locations around the world, from Japan to the Italian Alps, are selected to be in the Skyrunner World Series Calendar. This is known to attract the fastest and most fearless skyrunners. At the end of the season, the top-performing male and female athletes are crowned the best skyrunners in the world.
What type of gear do you need for skyrunning?
With this level of technicality, it’s pretty obvious you can’t just rock up in your average running gear to tackle a skyrace. Almost all skyraces have a mandatory kit list and all of them have a recommended kit list. This includes: running vest/bag, waterproof jacket, GPS, Whistle, life jacket, food, water bottle, shoes with certain grip, etc. For more extreme races and routes, crampons or microspikes are also required for example the Matterhorn Ultraks Extreme in Zermatt where 3% of the race is on a glacier.
Ask any athlete and they will tell you that grip is everything and therefore their shoes are their most important piece of equipment. A skyrunners shoes must help them move fast on all kinds of technical terrain including rocks, mud, scree, snow, forest trails, etc. That’s why, if you see a top skyrunner consistently wearing one pair of shoes, you know that’s a good shoe that’s going to help you move safely in the mountains.
What skills do you need to be a skyrunner?
Being a good skyrunner is about more than just being fast. You need strong legs and lungs for the uphill; skill, technique, and fast reaction times for the downhill; speed for those flattish sections in between; and of course a lot of mountain experience, moving fast on technical terrain.