I have evolved into a mountain runner from a scrambler; a scrambler from a hiker; and into a hiker from a precocious kid set loose in the wilderness. Though relatively few have heard of mountain running, the idea usually suggests sprinting up a craggy summit and racing back down again as fast as possible. Although this is occasionally the case, mountain running is often a more casual affair that might include a long subalpine traverse on buff singletrack or a lazy jog up a tame, local summit. But if you ask me what characterizes the coolest, most exciting form of mountain running, I would have to say it is summed up by “Skyrunning” — and Skyrunning is characterized by curiosity, the same kind that comes naturally to a precocious kid.
Although Skyrunning is now a brand name for a particularly alpine style of mountain racing born in Europe, its genesis and central concept is simple. Looking up at a great mountain (the bigger, the better) from down in the valley or the center of town, one asks: How fast can I reach the summit and return here again? What is the most aesthetic line I can draw? How can I exalt the majesty of this mountain through the motions of my body? How can I merge myself in this movement so that no movement exists, no mountain and no me? Skyrunning is birthed from the collision of big mountains, alpine trail running skills and a huge heap of curiosity.
In Skyrunning, the town or valley is as important as the mountain summit — it provides context and contrast. The epic thing about Skyrunning isn’t just the alpine running, it’s how the remote, bleak and brash quality of the alpine is bookended between the comforts of civilization within a matter of hours. Kilian’s FKTs on the Matterhorn or Mont Blanc wouldn’t be what they are without his starts or triumphant returns to Cervinia or Chamonix. When I returned to my car at Moraine Lake parking lot after summiting Temple (a trip that takes most people all day) and it wasn’t 10am yet, I cried.
Skyrunning is about creativity and aesthetic, about exploring not just what’s obvious, but what the mountains have to offer. Skyrunning differs from mountain trail running at the outset as it doesn’t concern itself with preexisting trails but naturally occurring routes chosen for their own value, often to achieve a balance between technicality and runnability. Gazing at a map or at mountain ranges for a few hours will cause a complacent mountain runner to start dreaming of circumambulating; entraining; zigzagging; traversing; crossing over the top, then back again; scrambling shit never intended to be climbed in sneakers and short shorts; and last but not least, blasting up and down a mountain in as fast and direct a manner as possible, that’s Skyrunning too.
Lastly, Skyrunning is about alpine character. Skyrunning is defined as inclined running above 2000m but that doesn’t mean jogging up a dirt road in Leadville, CO. Skyrunning is about steep, technical singletrack; ridge running; scree skiing; snowfields; ridge running; hands-on-rock scrambling; via ferrata; boulder-hopping; and definitely lots of ridge running. Many forested trails will take you up to and beyond 2000m, but to me, it isn’t Skyrunning until I burst out above treeline and race across some ridge where the earth meets the sky.
I once saw Skyrunning as the Olympics (or better yet, the X-Games) of this grueling niche sport I happened to fall in love with, with races in exotic locations, in majestic landscapes, which I would never be a part of. Now the Skyrunning Federation exists in Canada, I have already run Canadian Skyrunning events and am presently registered to participate in a Skyrunning race in an exotic location, in a majestic landscape, which typifies its genre entirely. All of this is much for me to be proud and grateful for but this is not what Skyrunning means to me. Skyrunning isn’t about a particular organization or brand, as much as I love what that organization does, and it isn’t about a particular race series in any location in particular. Skyrunning is grassroots, DIY. Skyrunning is about curiosity and discovery. Skyrunning is about some dirtbag kid in short shorts and sneakers looking up at the mountains asking, “How much? How fast? How far?”
I’m proud to be able to call myself a mountain runner, but on my greatest days, I am a Skyrunner.