What Is Skyrunning? A Guide To Racing The Mountains

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Running a marathon is a feat in itself, but have you ever heard of skyrunning?

Skyrunning is essentially very high alpine mountain running, but with a focus on elevation gain and technicality. 

Killian Jornet is easily the biggest name in the sport. He made a name for himself by running up and down hair-raising steep mountains at record speeds. 

Jornet and his fellow skyrunners practice a sport that pushes their limits in the space where the earth and sky meet.

The International Skyrunning Federation defines the discipline as “running in the mountains above 2,000m altitude where the climbing difficulty does not exceed II° grade and the incline is over 30%”. 

Since the sport’s birth in 1992, there are now 200 official skyrunning races worldwide, with around 50,000 participants, from 65 countries.

In this article we will take a look at,

  • The history of the sport,
  • the distinction between skyrunning and ultrarunning,
  • the sport’s terrain types,
  • the different types of races within the discipline,
  • the types of skyrunning competitions,
  • who exactly these skyrunners are,
  • and finally, some words on the sport from skyrunners themselves.

Ready to take a glimpse into the growing world of sky high running?

Let’s go!

what is skyrunning

The History of Skyrunning

Skyrunning is a somewhat new sport by name. The official sport was founded in 1992 by Italian mountaineer Marino Giacometti.

Giacometti’s aims were to see what people were capable of in altitude and to see how far people could push themselves.

He christened the sport with its tagline ‘Less cloud. More sky.’

In the early ’90s, Giacometti and a handful of fellow mountain climbers began to put on races around Mont Blanc and Monte Rosa in the Italian Alps. 

In 1993 the team got the support of a sponsor, Fila, and Skyrunning took off all around the world. Races began to pop up from Mount Kenya to the North American Rockies, From the Himalayas to the Mexican Volcanoes. 

what is skyrunning

Is Skyrunning the Same As Ultrarunning?

Short answer— no. 

Firstly, technically skyrunning and ultrarunning are defined under different governing bodies.

Ultrarunning is moderated by the International Association of Athletics (IAAF), whilst skyrunning is governed by the International Skyrunning Federation. 

These two standard-defining bodies offer us distinctions between the two disciplines.

One of these distinctions is the fact that ultras can be flat, whilst skyrunning races cannot be. 

Another distinction is that skyrunning races can be shorter than a half marathon, whilst ultras, by definition, are at least the length of a standard marathon. 

what is skyrunning

Skyrunning’s Terrain

With such immense elevation gain statistics, Skyrunning races tend to be run off the beaten track. 

As races are held all over the world and the surface type can vary dramatically. But anything goes really; paths, trail, moraine, rock, and even over snow and glaciers. 

The only terrain limitation is on asphalt. Paved surfaces can only account for up to 15% of the race’s total distance. 

The race terrain is technical.

Skyrunners must be agile and steady on their feet, especially for the downhill segments, where the professionals can gain some serious momentum on the steep gradients. 

The terrain type means that skyrunners must have the right shoe for the course. This generally means opting for a tough trail shoe. 

Sometimes it is even necessary for skyrunners to attach micro-crampons to the bottom of their shoes-quick-fit spikes that you can attach to the bottom of your shoe for added grip. 

what is skyrunning

The 8 Types of Skyrunning Races

Skyrunning is an umbrella term for eight distinct Skyrace disciplines. 

Each of these disciplines are precisely defined by the International Skyrunning Association in terms of distance, elevation gain, and surface type. 

  1. SKY – These are races between 20 km and 49 km in length with a minimum of 1,200m of vertical climb. For this discipline, races that reach over 4,000m of altitude must be over 10 km long. 
  1. SKYULTRA – These are races between 50 km and 99 km in distance with a minimum of 3,000m of vertical climb. The maximum finishing time for Skyultras must be under 16 hours.
  1. VERTICAL – These are uphill only races with 1,000m vertical climb. These types of races cant be longer than 5 km. For a Vertical Skyrace, the minimum average incline must be at least 20%, and 5% of the total distance must be over 33%. That’s ridiculously steep.
  1.   SKYSPEED – These are short and steep skyrunning races with 100 metres or more of vertical climb, and a minimum of 33% incline. 

For reference, the steepest slope which a standard car can climb before it slides down is 35%.

  1. STAIR CLIMBING / VERTICAL RUNNING –  These are vertical races with an incline of over 45% (!). The minimum amount of vertical climbing for these events is 100 meters. 
  1. SKYBIKE – It’s not all running. SKYBIKE events are duathlons which consist of a road or mountain bike race plus a vertical kilometre running, or any other skyrunning competition. 
  1. SKYRAID – These are skyrunning team races over long distances. SKYRAID’s combine running with other sports, such as cycling, climbing, or skiing. 
  1. SKYSNOW – These races are at least 70% on snow. During a SKYSNOW race, competitors must use race-approved micro-crampons . 

SKYSNOW races can be divided into two disciplines. 

  1. Vertical – These are races under 5km in distance with a minimum of 15% incline.
  1. Classic – These races cover at least 9 km of distance. They have a minimum total incline of 3%, and there must be sections of over 10%. 
what is skyrunning

Skyrunning Competitions

And where do athletes go to compete in skyrunning races? 

Well, there are 11 official skyrunning competitions held worldwide.

The most famous of these is the Skyrunner World Series which was introduced in 2004.

The Skyrunner World Series

The 2021 Skyrunner World Series features 13 races, in 11 countries, spanning three continents. 

For each race in the World Series, the top 20 finishers of each gender group are awarded points. Then, at the end of the season, the overall winner for each gender category is calculated based on the athlete’s top four point results.

Other Skyrunning Competitions

Aside from the Skyrunning World Series, there are a handful of other events ranging from world championships to continental competitions, to national events.

what is skyrunning

The Skyrunning World Championships features three skyrunning disciplines; VERTICAL, SKY, and SKYULTRA. 

The Skyrunning Continental Championships offers runners the chance to compete against fellow athletes from the same continent. Here, individual continental medals are awarded from each skyrunning discipline.

The Skyrunner National Series takes place in 12 countries and over three continents. These races give athletes the chance to compete nationally before moving up to international competitions.

Who Are Skyrunners?

Put simply, skyrunners are people who like to run in the mountains, where the earth touches the sky.

Contrary to what you may have thought, you don’t have to be an elite sponsored athlete to take part in skyrunning competitions.

In fact, anyone can sign up to take part in the Skyrunner World Series races through the individual race websites.

This is an awesome opportunity for passionate mountain runners to race alongside the pros!

Although, for your own sake, to consider entering one of these races you do need to be in pretty good physical shape and be confident on tricky terrain.

It is important to be self aware and to know your own limitations- to enter these races you need to sign danger of death waiver!

what is skyrunning

Skyrunners on Skyrunning

What draws people to the sport? And what compels them to keep at it? Here are some quotes from the skyrunners themselves which can give us an insight into the discipline.

I run in the mountains because it gives me a freedom that I can’t feel anywhere else“— Professional Skyrunner Luke Nelson

It’s pretty gnarly and pretty brutal, but it’s a lot of fun“—  Professional Skyrunner Max King

It’s so fascinating to see the limits of where you can go. It’s so interesting to push yourself“— Professional Skyrunner Emelie Forsberg

Somewhere between the bottom of the climb and the summit is the answer to the mystery of why we climb.” — Mountaineer Greg Child

This is my passion. I love nature and the mountains. When I run I am able to switch off from everyday life.”— Madeira Skyrace 2019 winner Maria Koller

what is skyrunning

I think you can experience no greater sense of freedom than what you feel when you run on a ridge that seems to hang in the air.

It’s like running along the edge of the blade of a sword, taking care not to fall over one side as you accelerate with every step to leave the blade and the danger behind, though at the same time you don’t want it to ever end.

There is danger, but you can think only of flying, of giving your legs the freedom to go faster and faster, letting your body dance as it keeps its balance.

It doesn’t matter when or where—you could be descending the ridge on the Bosses of Mont Blanc, the ridges on the Olla de Núria or Carlit—that feeling of freedom never changes.”― Professional Skyrunner Kilian Jornetquote from his book Run or Die

More on Skyrunning

Skyrunning piqued your interest? Here’s some more where that came from…

To Read

Professional Swedish skyrunner Emelie Forsburg has written a great book on skyrunning; 

Sky Runner: finding strength, happiness and balance in your running

The book is full of mountain wisdom and tells the story of a life spent honing the skyrunning lifestyle. 

To Watch

And if reading isn’t for you, check out Salomon’s skyrunning documentary:

To Listen To

The Body & Mind Coach interviewed skyrunner Seana Forbes in this podcast. They talk all things training, preparation, and the lifestyle of a skyrunner.

Photo of author
Maria Andrews is a runner, adventure lover, and UESCA certified Ultramarathon Coach. When she's not running around the woods or plotting adventures, she's spending time with her nearest and dearest, cooking up a storm, or working on Marathon Handbook's sister website, yogajala.com :)

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