The essence of Skyrunning is to race the most aesthetic route to the top of a mountain and then back down...
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I am happy to report that Skyrunning in the US is alive and well. The Skyraces I participated in this year hold their own even when compared to the Skyraces I ran in other countries. Whiteface was steep and relentless, The Rut was technical and aesthetic, and Flagstaff was a solid mountain run. I would say if you have done a bit of trail running and are ready to take on the next challenge, now is as good as time as any to sign up for a Skyrace, or heck, sign up for the whole series!
What is Skyrunning, you might ask?
Skyrunning is one of the fast growing styles of running. It is by no means new, the earliest official Skyrunning races happened more than 20 years ago. For one reason or another, runners all over the globe are signing up for these races at record pace. I’ve been fortunate enough to race Skyraces all over the globe, from the Canary Islands, to Norway, end even Hong Kong. These races are often held in incredibly aesthetic locations and the course don’t shy away from difficult and technical terrain. This past season, I shifted gears, stepped down from ultras and set my sights on racing the US Skyrunner Series.
Skyrunning is made up of three disciplines: Vertical Kilometer (VK), Sky, and Ultra. VK’s are an all-out uphill race, generally about 5k in distance and with a full kilometer (3200 feet for those vertically challenged) of ascent. Skyraces are no longer than a marathon, and the Ultras are longer than a marathon. The essence of Skyrunning is to race the most aesthetic route to the top of a mountain, or several, and then back down. The races often include scree, off-trail, or even technical terrain. They sure aren’t the neighborhood 5k.
The US Skyrunner series is made up of five races, three of which count for an overall series standing at the end of the season. Technically, you could race all five races and throw out your two lowest placings for the overall ranking. I chose to race the Whiteface Skyrace in New York, The Rut in Montana, and the series championship at the Flagstaff Skyrace in Arizona. This schedule lined up with a full season schedule for me that included two of the World Skyrunning Extreme Series races in Tromso, Norway and Glencoe, Scotland.
Whiteface Skyrace - New York
Prior to July, I had never raced in the eastern US. Embarrassingly I had flown over that part of the country a dozen or so times headed to Europe to race, so I was curious and a little anxious for my trip to Lake Placid for the season opener. I arrived at the race venue, Whiteface ski resort, the day before my race, and in time to spectate the VK race held the day before. As I spectated, I was able to get a feel for what the Skyrace would entail, as we were slated to ascend the VK course twice during our race the next day. The morning of the Skyrace dawned with a light rain and pleasant temps. I chose my La Sportiva Akasha Mountain Running Shoes for the course because from my preview the day before, I knew it would be both rocky and technical. The Akasha has just the perfect amount of traction and sole grip for technical running on rocks.
From the gun I knew the race was going to be a battle. We topped out, a loose pack of about 8 guys, at the top of our first lap of the VK course just minutes off of the top times from the day before. We tagged the top, and as quick as we ascended, we plunged back to the base. The wheels started to come off a little for me here and I did my best to keep turnover high as I chased the leaders into a slightly mellower middle five mile loop. Keep in mind that in the first 5 miles we had climbed 3300 feet and descended the same. The field had spread out by the time we lapped up the VK course for the second time, but there was still racing going on. I had slipped back a few spots, but managed to gain two on the ascent and maintain that position to the finish. I crossed the line in just under three hours in 4th place. The race was 15 miles and nearly 9000’ of ascent. New York delivered an outstanding mountain running experience!
The Rut Skyrace - Big Sky Resort, Montana
A few months later, I toed the line at The Rut. The Rut is one of my favorite all time races. I have raced the ultra distance there the last three years and I was stoked to race the 25k Skyrace. The field was really deep as the race was also a stop on the World Skyrunning series. Racers from all over the globe were present to test themselves on the Peaks of Big Sky Resort in Montana.
Course knowledge played a role in helping me run well. Also, I raced the VK the day before, which took some of the sting out of my legs for the 25k. The Rut gets into some very technical mountain terrain, and I love that type of running. Like at Whiteface, I chose my La Sportiva Akasha Mountain Running Shoes because they offer a bit more underfoot protection for hammering the technical descents without a significant weight penalty. On the ascent up Lone Peak, to the high point of the course I was able to move up a few places, into about 6th. I would battle back and forth with a couple very talented european runners for the entirety of the course and crossed the finish line in 8th, which ironically was the same position I finished in the VK the day before.
Luke Nelson finishes 8th at The Rut Skyrace at Big Sky Resort in Montana.
Flagstaff Championship Skyrace - Arizona
A few weeks after the Rut, I found myself in Flagstaff, Arizona, prepping for the final race of the series. All of the series contenders were present, and just to make things exciting most of the overall series placings were not set in stone. There would be two race results in one; the race for placing in the overall series and the race of the day. The Flagstaff course had much more “runnable” terrain than the other two races I had done previously so I chose the La Sportiva Helios SR Mountain Running Shoes. The Helios SR is my favorite all around shoe, and worked perfect for the smooth single track at Flagstaff where having the lightest shoe possible made the difference. The course still had plenty of technical terrain and lots of vert where the Helios SR sticky rubber worked perfectly, but it also had several long sections of butter smooth single track.
Flat out speed is not my strongest running skill, and I found myself getting caught and passed during those sections, only to make up ground when it got steep or more technical. The last few miles of the race took us on a very direct line to the top of Snowbowl Ski Area, allowing me to make up a couple of spots and to cross the finish in 5th.
Overall US Skyrunner Series Race Result
My performance throughout the three US Skyraces was just enough to earn me a 3rd place standing for the US Skyrunning series overall.
For those who have never done a Skyrunning race but are thinking about it, I would recommend that you go for it! Skyrunning races are often very challenging and it will take a solid effort to finish them, but on the other hand the races are often the most aesthetic and exciting races around. I would recommend dedicating a portion of training to working on technical uphill and downhill running. These races aren’t your local turkey trot. They are hard, and that is what makes them great!
Luke Nelson Places 3rd in the US Skyrunning Series for 2016.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Luke Nelson is a member of the La Sportiva Mountain Running Team.
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