An Introduction to The Sport of Skyrunning.
Imagine running extreme vertical ascents, often above the clouds, in some of the major mountain ranges around the world.
While the official sport of skyrunning is relatively new, the art of navigating high altitude regions has been carried out among civilizations for thousands of years. The Incan Empire once stretched nearly the entire length of the Andes Mountains and communication across the entire empire was achieved by runners. Utilizing relay stations, runners would navigate the vast network of roads passing the correspondence from one runner to the next. Much like an ancient pony express, these runners were able to cover hundreds of miles each day.
If you’re not easily deterred, continue reading as it only goes UP from here.
The Modern Sport of Skyrunning
What is skyrunning? Skyrunning is a racing event of various distances (usually between 20-100km) that takes place at elevations greater than 2,000 meters above sea level, and with average incline grades exceeding 6%.
Here is language pulled directly from the ISF Rules page: https://www.skyrunning.com/rules/
“The discipline of mountain running up to or exceeding 2,000m where the minimum average incline is 6% over the total distance and at least 5% of the total distance must have an incline of 30%. The climbing difficulty must not exceed II° grade* (*UIAA). Poles, crampons and hands may be used to aid progress. Technical gloves and other equipment may be compulsory for some races.”
In the early 1990s, mountaineer Marino Giacometti, along with a few other climbers, began trying to set records for navigating courses in the Italian Alps. In 1993, with sponsorship from Italian born footwear company Fila, the sport of skyrunning was catapulted onto the world’s stage with a series of races across the globe. In 1995, Giacometti founded the Federation for Sport at Altitude (FSA) to help govern the rapidly growing sport. In 2008, the International Skyrunning Federation (ISF) took the helm and today the sport boasts some 200 races globally with participants numbering roughly 50,000.
How To Get Started
Footwear is the foundation of any running event. This is especially true in skyrunning. A technical trail running shoe is essential as it will get you from start to finish and provide protection from a variety of conditions likely experienced along the route.
Additionally, other gear often used among skyrunners include a small hydration pack for carrying a supply of water and nutrition. The pack is also a great way to stash other required gear and additional items needed dependent on region and anticipated weather on race day.
Basically, skyrunning gear is almost the same as trail running gear.
Let’s face it, most of us don’t reside where the mountains form our backyards. Therefore we are relegated to seeking out training opportunities that can mimic the altitude. Whether you live at sea level or in a large urban area, there are still opportunities to train.
While ideally it is advantageous to run in similar environments to event venues, it’s possible to train for events regardless of your geographic location. It’s essential to prepare your body for the burn your legs will feel ascending and descending these course routes.
Train with your race-day pack as it is essential to be intimately familiar with the feel of the pack and use ahead of toeing the line. The same goes for footwear of course.
Training routines that incorporate heavy elevation gain and loss will be crucial, and if you can train at higher elevations, that will of course help with your acclimation and ability to deal with high elevation.
The ISF regulates all sanctioned events across the globe. And while there are set rules, here are a few that might set it apart from other races.
- All competitors must wear and/or carry all mandatory clothing and equipment required by the race organization.
- Depending on the race location, additional gear and equipment may also be required to supplement the mandatory gear list.
- The use of poles is subject to the race organizer.
- Competitors must pass through all checkpoints as this determines ranking and is also a safety protocol.
- There are only 2 categories in official ISF competitions: men and women (18 years and older).
- Penalties will be assessed for infractions ranging from littering along the route, failure to pass through mandatory checkpoints, unsportsmanlike conduct, receiving outside assistance, failure to carry all required gear, and not following race course directions and signage.
Events (Near and Far)
According to the International Skyrunning Federation (ISF), the sport of skyrunning typically has roughly 200 races worldwide with approximately 50,000 participants across these events. Though considered a niche sport, skyrunning has been growing from year-to-year in popularIty.
Additionally, there is a new program called #MYSKYRACE that offers existing athletes and newcomers an opportunity to experience their potential in a given race (ahead of the race).
The International Skyrunning Federation (ISF)
The ISF is the governing body for this extreme sport. The organization oversees the regulation, promotion and development of skyrunning. Of the more than 200 events, there are events in 18 countries with participants coming from more than 60 countries.
What are you waiting for, you’ve made it this far. Click on any of the links in this article to sign up for your first event.
Clay Abney is freelance writer living in the wild and wonderful state of West Virginia, where he spends his days trail running, mountain biking, hiking, and working when the mood strikes. At 50, (the new 30), he still competes in multi-day adventure races, loves abusing gear, and traveling to remote off the grid locations around the globe.