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What Is Extreme Skyrunning?

tromos skyrace. photo by kilian jornet

Taking it to the extreme: Runners negotiate knife-edge mountain ridges during last year’s Tromso Skyrace. Photo courtesy of Kilian Jornet.

The sport of skyrunning is all about tough races in high mountains. Early in the sport’s history, the challenge was simple: run up and down a single, high-altitude mountain as fast as possible. Nowadays the challenges are much more varied – and in some cases more extreme.

From its birthplace in the Italian mountain valley of Aosta, skyrunning has blossomed into a popular worldwide sport, with both an international calendar and several countries now hosting their own series of races too. Biggest of all is the International Skyrunning Federation Skyrunner World Series, within which there are now four different disciplines – Sky, Ultra, Vertical and, new for 2016, Extreme. Sky represents the races up to 50k, ultra the races beyond 50k and vertical the one kilometre uphill events…. but what about extreme? Well I guess the clue is in the name!

Fresh for this year, three races, two of which are relatively new to the scene, have been drawn together to form a Skyrunner Extreme Series. All mountain races are tough, but these three really do stand out as being incredibly difficult, each with a map course profile so sharp in ascents and descents that it would make a shark’s jaw full of teeth look relatively tame.

eirik haugsnes inov-8 blog on extreme skyrunning (2)

Related post: Why Tromso Skyrace Is One Of The World’s Best. Photo: Eirik Haugsnes.

A mistake could be the last thing you do

But it’s not just about the killer uphills and leg-trashing downhills, these extreme races also feature knife-edge ridges that need to be carefully – but speedily – negotiated, seemingly never-ending sections of scree or mud and climbing routes where you need competent via ferrata skills, plus an obvious head for heights! So steep, gnarly and technical are some parts of these courses that a mistake could, in the worst-case scenario, be the last thing you do. Excited? Read on. Scared? Perhaps best go to another blog post.

The three races that make up this year’s new Skyrunner Extreme Series are Tromso Skyrace in Norway (August 6), Kima Trophy in Italy (August 28) and Glen Coe Skyline (September 18). Each of these races is between 50k and 55k in length and includes 4,200m to 5,000m of ascent and descent. The winning time for the men is usually around 6-7 hours, with the leading women clocking approximately 7-8 hours. The cut-off time is often set at around 13 hours. Ordinarily 13 hours is a long time for 50k, but that goes to prove just how tough these extreme races are, with not only running and walking skills put to the test but also climbing and in some cases crawling (as in the photo below).

eirik haugsnes inov-8 blog on extreme skyrunning

Related post: Top Tips For Faster Uphill Running. Photo courtesy of Kjetil Robertsen.

A start line atmosphere and intensity like no other

For safety reasons the entry list is capped at 250 participants per race and to get a starting slot you must have documentation to prove you have climbing skills or the necessary experience from a similar event. This isn’t done to exclude anyone but to minimize the risk of a fatal accident on the course. That said; we all know that accidents do happen, so even experience is no guarantee that you will make it to the finish line unscathed. From the moment the starting gun goes off to the moment the finish line is crossed, participants must remain fully focused.

The extraordinary challenges these races pose deliver a start line atmosphere and intensity like no other race. Not only is it the distance and elevation that puts uncertainty into your mind, but you also begin to question whether you are up to the technical challenges that lay ahead. Will I have the nerve and skill to run relaxed over an exposed ridge? Will I manage to get up the category III – IIII climb to the final summit when my legs are shot and the wet rock face is slippery?

These are similar thoughts to those that passed through my mind before the Tromso Skyraces staged in 2014 (its inaugural year), 2015 and 2016. This year race organisers (Kilian Jornet and Emelie Forsberg) even added an extra 10k in length and 450m of elevation to the course!

Taking calculated risks in extreme skyrunning

My preparations for the extreme series involved me spending lots of time in the mountains. Luckily I live in an area where there is an abundance of ridges and steep ascents / descents, so playtime has definitely been fun (see my Instagram video above, shot as I practised for a Fastest Known Time attempt.

I also know that in a race situation I always give a little extra and take the risk level to the maximum of my capacity, especially if competing for a podium place. To my family and friends, I always tell them that I take only calculated risks and comfort them in the knowledge that I’ve been running in the mountains most of my life. Luckily for me, they buy into these and let me go and play! Deep down however I know that I will have to extend my comfort zone to its breaking point if I am to perform as I wish too in these extreme races. But then at the same time it is for this same reason that I love extreme skyrunning.

The best shoes for skyrunning are those with the most grip so I will be wearing my favourites, the new inov-8 X-Talon 225 (see my Instagram video below) or the Mudclaw 300. Both have a really aggressive stud pattern on the outsole. The sticky rubber studs sink into soft terrain and keep me upright on wet rock.

Editor’s Extra: We asked Marino Giacometti, the president of the International Skyrunning Federation, for his thoughts on the new Extreme Skyrunner Series. He said: ” These extreme style races are part of our original DNA back from when we started with epic races on the peaks of Monte Rosa, Mont Blanc, the volcanoes of Mexico and with marathons at an altitude over 4,000m. Now it’s back to the future and time again to show off skyrunning as the sport that does not go around the mountains but onto their peaks, in the most light and fast way possible.” 

Discover more about skyunning, it’s history, races and the new extreme series.

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