For most of us, jogging around the neighborhood or maybe along a mellow hiking trail is considered running. Then there are the dedicated souls that train in groups and brave the occasional city marathon, pounding pavement and waving as their neighbors cheer them on. There are hardcore triatheletes, barefoot runners and ultrarunners -- and then there's skyrunning.
Skyrunning is literally running up mountains and terrain at high altitudes without stopping. Imagine racing up Everest or Mont Blanc as the air thins, your muscles clench, and instead of pounding pavement you're usually pounding icy terrain, craggy summits or glaciers.
This weekend, the Pikes Peak Marathon in Colorado brings together some of the biggest names in skyrunning. Imagine running at top speed at about 8,000 vertical feet. Uphill, above where most trees even bother to grow. There's thin air, unpredictable weather and rocks and roots waiting to mangle your flesh if you're not careful. It's about the furthest thing from a treadmill you can imagine.
“The races are seriously exhilarating as you pass over real mountain terrain,” says British runner Tom Owens. He was a winner in 2011 of one of the toughest races on the circuit, Sentiero delle Grigne, in Italy, alongside giants of the sport such as Kilian Jornet (on the right in the photo above), three-time winner of the Skyrunner World Series.
“You run across mountain ridges and mountain summits at speed,” explains Owens. “For example, in Sentiero delle Grigne, there are ladders and chains to help you over the most technical areas on the Gringetta mountain ridge. The long, steep descents are a massive buzz -- it's like being a young kid again.”
U.S. runner Dakota Jones (on the left in the above photo), who is in his early 20s, won the 2012 Transvulcania race and ranked third in the Skyrunning World Series Men’s category right behind Jornet and Mike Wolfe (pictured below). When he’s training, Jones says he spends “back-to-back days running in the mountains for six to 12 hours and anywhere from 25-50 miles.”
Jones, who traversed Colorado's Grenadier Range in 10 hours, says “the feeling of being perched hundreds of feet off the ground on a beautiful mountain in the morning sun is incomparable.”
“It’s sincere, no hype. People do it for the love of running -- in the mountains." -Lauri van Houten
Skyrunning didn’t really exist before 1992. Marino Giacometti “invented” a circuit that year in the Italian Alps -- Adamello, Monte Rosa and Mont Blanc -- three of Europe’s highest mountains. The sport took off in Europe first (Italy, Spain and Greece have been paying attention for two decades). It’s just now really catching on with the U.S. and other countries around the globe, though because the action takes place in some of the highest mountain ranges in the world, danger is ever-present.
Ecuadorian Patricio Tisalema attempted to speed climb Mount Everest in one day, and made international news when his almost-record breaking climb ended because his sherpa needed medical attention. (Speed climbing isn’t exactly considered skyrunning by purists -- but Tisalema was traversing a mountain at breakneck speed.
More recently, Jornet and his friend Stéphane Brosse set off to traverse the Mont Blac massif -- it was the start of Journet’s multi-year documentary project “Summits of My Life.” Brosse was killed when a snow cornice collapsed.
It was a mountaineering accident, but “his death has touched all the skyrunning community,” says Lauri van Houten, Executive Director of the International Skyrunning Federation. “Mountains have a strange fascination and people will always continue to ‘conquer’ them -- it's human nature.”
As skyrunning continues to gain ground in the U.S., van Houten sums it up this way: “It’s sincere, no hype. People do it for the love of running -- in the mountains. The prize money isn’t big so it’s not for that. It’s ecological. It’s a pure expression of a natural sport -- running without limits -- where the earth meets sky.”
Follow Red Bull on Twitter for more news and updates.