What Is Skyrunning, Anyway?

Here's a glimpse into the rising sport of skyrunning.

Running Through The Skies

If you haven’t heard of Kilian Jornet, perhaps your understanding of competitive running is on a ground level. And no, that’s not an insult—it’s a very literal conclusion. See, Jornet has made a name for himself by running up—and down—massive mountains at record speed. Jornet and his mile-high competitors are called skyrunners and, as the name implies, they crave the kind of altitude that freezes the lungs and burns the muscles. They run where the earth touches the sky.

Skyrunning is a relatively new phenomenon by name. The International Skyrunning Federation was only recently founded in 1992. According to the federation website, the official definition of the sport is, “running in the mountains above 2,000m altitude where the climbing difficulty does not exceed II° grade and the incline is over 30%.” To put it simply: Skyrunners run up mountains that are incredibly steep but do not require technical rock climbing. The idea might seem crazy, but this European sport has gained traction in more than 65 countries, including the U.S.

The recent “Indian Creek Fifties” race, hosted by Skyrunner USA, boasted 12,000 feet of elevation gain over 50 miles in the backcountry of Colorado. The overall winner finished in roughly nine hours, and the first female came through about two and a half hours later. This relatively small gap supports what science already suggests: When it comes to ultrarunning, the gender gap is shrinking. Women are getting more involved and are breaking through barriers at faster rates than their male counterparts. Ultrarunning may be the next frontier for female distance runners.

That begs the question: Is “skyrunning” synonymous with “ultrarunning?” The answer is a little complex. The sport of skyrunning includes seven disciplines. The tamest of the disciplines, termed “sky,” offers races of roughly 12 to 30 miles with minimal elevation gain. The other disciplines vary in distance and elevation gain. But any skyrunning competition is guaranteed to offer calf-crippling climbs.

Though ultrarunning often provides the same level of rigor, it is under the umbrella of the International Association of Athletics (IAAF), while the sport of skyrunning is defined and regulated by the International Skyrunning Federation. These two standard-defining organizations create important distinctions between the two disciplines, such as that ultras can be flat but skyrunning races cannot, and skyrunning races can be shorter than a half-marathon distance while ultras are by definition much longer.

So how does one get involved with skyrunning? For starters, you don’t have to be a record-breaking elite athlete to participate. You do, however, need to be in seriously good physical shape. And if you are up for the challenge, there is a beautiful view that rewards those who run up into the skies.