Skyrunning, where mountain running meets mountaineering, is a sport on the rise, with more than 200 official skyraces worldwide and 50,000 athletes from 65 countries taking part.
Defined by the International Skyrunning Federation (ISF) as ârunning in the mountains above 2,000m altitude where the difficulty does not exceed grade II and the incline is over 30%â, skyrunning is essentially a race to the top of a mountain summit and back down again â usually via the most direct route.
- Absolute grueller: Discover the world's toughest running races
Where did skyrunning come from?
Although negotiating mountains is a centuries-old practice, the concept of competitive skyrunning as a sport was pioneered by Italian mountaineer Marino Giacometti after he set a speed record from the Italian city of Genoa to the 4,634m summit of Monte Rosa in 1989. In 1992 he launched the Monterosa SkyMarathon and a new genre of sport was born.
Set away from well-worn trails with highly technical ascending and descending that often includes scrambling and moderate grade climbing, itâs perhaps unsurprising that skyrunningâs governing body, the ISF, is a unit member of the UIAA (International Climbing and Mountaineering Association), unlike trail running which is governed by IAAF disciplines.
Today, the best skyrunners in the world fight it out on the mountains for prize money and ranking in the Migu Run Skyrunner World Series â the global circuit for skyrunning. Many skyraces have cut-off times and capped race entries due to their technical nature and, in order to stand on the start line of some of them, proof that you have the mountaineering experience is required.
If youâre fit enough, prepare to be wowed by epic climbs, steep, technical descents and thrilling ridgeline runs, all amid spectacular mountain scenery.
The Monterosa SkyMarathon
Where: Alagna, Italy
Stats: 35km, 3,490m vertical ascent
Monte Rosa is considered the birthplace of skyrunning as a sport â home to the Monterosa SkyMarathon launched by Giacometti 26 years ago with just a handful of runners. Brought back to life in 2018, athletes now compete in pairs, roped together for safety as they negotiate a looped route from the village of Alagna featuring steep pastures, scree, snow-fields, glaciers and crevasses.
Race entries are capped at 200 pairs, crampons are necessary and high altitude mountaineering experience is a must.
Next race: TBC 2020
Where: TromsĂ¸, Norway
Stats: 57km, 4,700m vertical ascent
Deeply technical, this race is the brainchild of husband-and-wife skyrunning royalty, athletes Kilian Jornet and Emelie Forsberg, both known for their technical mastery (youâve probably seen videos of Kilian making perilous ridge running look like a Sunday mooch around the mountains).
A regular fixture on the Migu Run Skyrunner World Series, TromsĂ¸âs route links the mountain summits of Tromsdalstind and Hamperokken via ridgeline running. Rocky climbs and descents feature fixed chain climbing and an incredible, quad-trashing 4700m of elevation gain. Waaah. Bonus points for reindeer spotting on the course.
Next race: August 2020 TBC
Where: Val Masino, Sondrio, Italy
Stats: 52km, 4,200m vertical ascent
A race of legend, Kima is held in high regard by experienced skyrunners the world over for its technical and demanding terrain. Think fixed chains, snow, steep exposed ledges and stony terrain. Not to mention elevation. The route takes in seven mountain passes of over 2,500m â with 4,200m of climbing, youâre almost halfway to Everest.
As Kima only runs once every two years and has a capped race capacity of 250, youâre one of a lucky few if you get to run it. And even luckier if youâre amongst the 30% who finish.
Next race: 30 August 2020
Where: Zegama, Spain
Stats: 42km, 2,700m vertical ascent
Zegama holds almost mythical status in the skyrunning world and brings the crĂ¨me de la crĂ¨me of the worldâs athletes to the quiet Basque town of Zegama every year. A stacked field (Kilian Jornet has won it nine times) and unpredictable weather make this a seriously tough race.
Itâs anyoneâs guess what the weather gods will throw at you (mud, fog, snow or, like this year, intense heat) as you run from the town to summit four of the Basque Autonomous Regionâs highest peaks before enjoying a rocky descent to the finish.
The locals, who line the steep summit route, Tour de France style, screaming, cheering and pushing athletes on, make the atmosphere unbeatable. A truly iconic race.
Next race: TBC 2020
Where: La Palma, Canary Islands
Stats: 74km, 4,350m vertical ascent
One of the most iconic races on the skyrunning circuit, Transvulcania takes place on the island of La Palma where competitors assemble at dawn by the Fuencaliente lighthouse, head torches glowing in the darkness.
Less technical and more runnable than many skyraces on this list, the route winds its way up the slope of the volcano, taking runners above the clouds to Roque de los Muchachos, the highest point on the island, before descending and covering a smaller climb to the finish.
Pine forest, volcanic sand and jagged volcanic rock all make an appearance, as do the passionate locals who line the streets and climbs to loudly support the runners over the race weekend.
Next race: 9 May 2020
Matterhorn Ultraks Extreme
Where: Zermatt, Switzerland
Stats: 25km, 2,800m vertical ascent
Described as being the most technical race of the Migu Run Skyrunner World Series, the Matterhorn Ultraks Extreme is new for 2019 and was designed by world-renowned mountaineer and triple Vertical Kilometer champion, Martin Anthamatten.
Given Anthamattenâs background, itâs no surprise that some climbing experience is required, along with crampons â some 3% of the race is over a glacier, so theyâre compulsory. With a start directly under the Matterhorn in the beautiful pedestrianised town of Zermatt and 25% of the course at altitudes above 3,000m, itâs breathtaking in every way.
Next race: TBC 2020
Where: Kinlochleven, Scotland
Stats: 55km, 4,800m vertical ascent
The UK might not have the Alpine altitude of European races, but what we lack in height is made up for in technicality and terrain. The Scottish mountains play host to the Glencoe Skyline which organisers describe as featuring âsoaring ridges, exposed traverses and precipitous dropsâ â along with nearly 5,000m of lung-busting vertical climb!
Scrambling your thing? This oneâs for you. The course includes grade III scrambling (moderate graded rock climb) across Curved Ridge and a full traverse of the spectacular Aonach Eagach ridge, exposed Grade II scrambling included.
Next race: September 2020
Where: Pasturo, Italy
Stats: 27km, 2,650m vertical ascent
Short and brutal, this new addition to the Migu Run Skyrunner World Series sees athletes ascend from the Italian town of Pasturo and cover 2,650m of uphill in just over 10 miles (ouch!), reaching an eye-wateringly steep maximum gradient of 74.9%.
A sharp uphill fixed rope and via ferrata climb takes you to the summit, which is lined with cheering spectators. You better be sure-footed for the very steep, technical and rocky descent to the finish line. Expect quads of jelly by the time you reach the finish in Pasturo.
Next race: TBC 2020
Yading Skyrace, China
Where: Yading, China
Stats: 32km, 2,819m vertical ascent
Starting at around 3,100m above sea level before dropping down and climbing up to an altitude of 4,700m, this race from the Migu Run Skyrunner World Series will have you battling for oxygen. To say itâs relentlessly uphill is no understatement; of the 32km route, 26.5km is spent ascending.
Thankfully, you have the beauty of Chinaâs Sichuan Mountains to distract you as you run up single tracks beside glacier-fed rivers and climb alpine forests towards the prayer flag-strewn summit of the Col. Then itâs âjustâ one peak left to climb and a 2km descent.
Next race: TBC 2020
Mt Awa Skyrace
Where: SanjĹ, Japan
Stats: 33km, 2,400m vertical ascent
Pack your snow spikes, weâre off to summit Mt Awagatake! A break from the European race scene, Mt Awa Skyrace is billed as âthe most technical skyrace in Japanâ by the Migu Run Skyrunner World Series. The race has a rapid start which takes you from the cherry blossom-filled start line along 5km of fast, flat road running before you ascend through forests up to sharp, snowy ridges offering stunning views of the surrounding Japanese Alps. Expect some snow scrambling and fixed chain assistance on the climb up.
Next race: 19 April 2020
Main image credit: iancorless.com