The 30-Minute Kilometer? A Look at the Vertical Kilometer Record

[This article, written by Anthony Kay, originally appeared in the Autumn 2011 issue of The Fellrunner, the official magazine of The Fell Runners Association (FRA) from the UK. It appears here with the permission of both the author and the association. We published it to recognize the start of the 2012 International Skyrunning Federation’s (ISF’s) Vertical Kilometer Series at Mt. Elbrus in Russia.]

Never mind the two-hour marathon; who is going to be the first athlete to run a half-hour kilometer? – and when, and where?

I am talking vertical kilometers here. There has been a great surge in popularity of vertical kilometer racing over the past decade, mostly in the Alps, but also in other mountain ranges in Europe and North America. Although some vertical kilometer (VK) races cover as much as 5km horizontally, most courses are in locations where the 1,000 meters of ascent is done as steeply as possible. The VK race at Fully (Switzerland), one of the most prestigious, covers just 1,920 meters of horizontal distance, while the newer race at Le Grand Serre (France), first run in 2010, claims just 1,900 horizontal meters. Another recent addition to the calendar is at Manigod (France), where a series of four races on the same VK course, 3,250 meters long, are held on midweek evenings at two-week intervals during July and August.

Just like British fell races, there is a great variety of terrain, ranging from the grassy slopes of Le Grand Serre to the irregularly stepped path of Chiavenna-Lagunc (Italy) and the abandoned rail track at Fully. Ski poles are used by many competitors, and their use is encouraged by many organizers, although they are banned at a few races where the terrain is considered unsuitable. Many VK events are organized as time trials (“contre la montre”) rather than races, as the courses are often narrow paths.

At the time of writing, the fastest vertical kilometer on record was Swiss runner Emmanuel Vaudan’s 30:56 at Fully in October 2010, taking five seconds off the record, set just three months earlier at Chiavenna-Lagunc by the Italian Martin Dematteis. [Editor’s Note: Manfred Reichegger set a new world record for the Vertical Kilometer: 30:46 at Fully on 22 October 22, 2011.] Other record holders in recent years have included Kilian Jornet, a native of the Pyrenees, and the Italian Marco de Gasperi; both these athletes are definitely in with a chance of breaking the 30 minute barrier, although Jornet has recently been touring the world, breaking records for climbing (and descending) Mt. Olympus (Greece) and Mt. Kilimanjaro (Tanzania) among others. Jornet and Vaudan, along with many of the other leading runners, turn to ski-mountaineering in the winter.

[Editor’s Note: On October 20, 2012, both the men’s and women’s Vertical Kilometer records were broken in Fully, Switzerland. Italy’s Urban Zemmer took 20 seconds off the men’s record in 30:36, while France’s Christel Dewalle took the women’s record down to 36:48. You can read more about these record setting runs here.]

Among the veterans, Serge Garnier seems to be improving with age, winning outright kilometer at Fully at the age of 43 in a time of 32:14 in 2009. Veteran results lists at Fully and elsewhere also often feature a name that will be familiar to older FRA members: Mike Short, one of the dominant figures in British fell running in the 1970s and 1980s, now lives in Switzerland, and posted 35:13 at the age of 56 at Fully in 2004. He won the V60 category at Fully last year in 37:46 – that’s 9 seconds faster than the female VK world record, established by Laetitia Roux at Fully in 2009. Another name to watch among the ladies is Valentina Belotti, current holder of the Chiavenna-Lagunc female record in 38:50.

It doesn’t appear to require a super-steep course for a VK world record. Record-breaking runs seem to alternate between Fully and Chiavenna-Lagunc, with Fully’s gradient of 0.521 contrasting with the much less steep 0.303 at Chiavenna-Lagunc. Steepness may be less important than the terrain; the steps at Chiavenna-Lagunc may be irregular, even awkward, but they probably still help. Runners at races up stairs in skyscrapers often achieve significantly higher ascent rates than in mountain races, admittedly never over anything approaching 1,000 meters vertically. Indeed, the fastest ascent rate that I have found recorded in any mountain race worldwide is the 0.568m/s (853 meters of ascent in 2.9km horizontally in
a time of 25:01) recorded by Sebastian Salas at the 2010 Grouse Grind just outside Vancouver (Canada), a course which has substantial sections of stepped path. Keeping up this ascent rate for another 147 vertical meters would easily get him under the 30-minute barrier for the VK. (Salas also has an “unofficial” time of 23:48 on a slightly shorter version of the Grouse Grind course.) It would be really interesting to bring Salas (a competitive cyclist when he isn’t running) over to Europe to compete in Alpine VK races – or indeed to see what Europe’s mountain elite could do on the Grouse Grind.

All this uphill running is very un-British, of course: we race up, and then back down the hills! There aren’t any downhill vertical kilometer races (to my knowledge); indeed there are very few downhill running races at all. However, I have examined data from these few races and from up-and-down races that give runners’ times at the summit (so that descent times can be calculated). From this, I have concluded that the fastest sustained descent rate ever recorded in any mountain race is 1.365m/s, achieved by Keith Anderson in the 1990 Pen-y-Fan Race, when he descended the 580 vertical meters (in 2,450 meters horizontally) from the summit of Pen-y-Fan to the finish at Cwm Llwch in 7:05. Just to show that this wasn’t a fluke, he did the same descent just 5 seconds slower in 1992. No one else has come anywhere close to this descent rate in any race in which descent times are recorded, but, of course, faster descents may have been achieved but not recorded at other races.

Unlike uphill running, I think fast descent rates do require the gradient to be in the right range. Since my last article in The Fellrunner, I have concluded that the critical gradient for descending is most likely around 0.26, which is close to the figure of 0.237 for the Pen-y- Fan descent. The Tryfan Downhill Dash is too steep: the fastest descent rate there is 1.206m/s (calculated using the Ordnance Survey map (915m spot height at the summit, 306m spot height on the road by Llyn Ogwen) rather than the organizers’ claim of 680m of descent, and ignoring Mike Blake’s legendary 8:00 in 1990 in favor of the 8:25 record in the recent series of races). Scafell Pike has the right gradient, but is probably just too rough. So who is going to be the first to break Keith Anderson’s 21-year-old record, and where?

[Thanks to Neil Shuttleworth for useful leads on Pen-y-Fan and Manigod. Thanks also to the many race organizers who put results on the internet.]

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • If you’ve ever raced a Vertical Kilometer, please describe the experience.
  • When do you think the Vertical Kilometer record will go under half an hour and who will do it? Which Americans would have the best shot at setting the VK record?
  • Any thoughts on the dearth of Vertical Kilometer races in the US? Anyone in the States looking to run one?

There are 41 comments

  1. David T.

    Very cool article. I noticed he indicated that there are VKs in the US but I am not aware of them. Could you list a few?

    David T.

    1. Anonymous

      Here in Utah we have the west face of Grandeur Peak, its just over 1k and I've heard that some fast folks have run it pretty quick…

      1. Run Junkie

        The Baldy Hill Climb in Sun Valley climbs just under a kilo vert (3,140 vert ft; 0.96 vert k) over 3k distance. Men's record is around 34/35 minutes. Women's 41 minutes. A true trip in the pain cave, start to finish.

      2. Bryon Powell

        How quick? Also, where would one start a Grandeur FKT? Is it from the parking lot? Alternately, if one's going for vertical K, any sense of whether one could start at the dirt road before you really start to climb? That first section really slows vertical climb, especially with the reroute all the way out towards I-80.

        Having done my own "slow" hard Grandeurs in the past, it seems like a good, but not ideal vertical K with a couple flat ridges, a dip or two, some rocks (admittedly, very limited), and brush that would negate trekking poles. Still, was thinking of pointing Kilian in that direction when he's in town this summer.

          1. Bryon Powell

            Here's his US race schedule:

            Western States

            Speedgoat 50k (after a trip back to Europe)

            Pike Peak Marathon

            I don't know anything about his specific travel plans here in the States.

  2. guest

    The Monitou Incline record in Colorado Springs is 16:42 over a 2000 foot gain (6570-8590)which suggests the vertical K could easily go under 30 minutes.

    1. David T.

      I think "easily" may be poor word choice considering the talent that have attempted and failed to go under 30 min. Perhaps "likely" is a better word.

      1. guest

        If you had a motivated athlete capable of 27 minute 10,000m or equivalent on a course closer to sea level, you would see the time go well under 30.

        1. Alex from New Haven

          Let's remember that only 2 Americans and only 30 humans in history have ever gone <27 for 10k. :) And they would have to do significant specific training. I actually think a Max King or Ben True might do well.

  3. Frank

    Obviously, if the top kenyans tried they would break it fairly fast. This is in no comparison to breaking the 2 hour barrier on a marathon.

    1. Joel Aaron

      ??? Presumably they'd have to spend some decent time building the leg strength. Running fast up long stretches of steep grades is a highly specialized effort. One they've probably never done.

      1. Frank

        Africans are known for sweeping victories in uphill races all over europe. Do they train specifically for this? No. Imagine if they did. And the best ones never run uphill, its only the ones not making it on the track.

      2. Bryon Powell

        Aside from building specialized leg strength, anyone going for the record would be well advised to build upper body strength for cranking with the poles. Of the five guys mentioned in the current record paragraph, at least three are or have been top level ski mountaineers. That means a good portion of the year the main focus of their athletic output is climbing steep pitches with poles.

  4. Kristin Z.

    i would LOOVVEE a vertical K series! is there one in Vail? I'm not sure the distances involved but there is a hill climb contest up at Mt Alyeska in Girdwood, AK in the summer similar to what an above commentor mentioned–you get up as fast as you can, ski lift down, repeat for x hours.

  5. John Prater

    "the fastest sustained descent rate ever recorded in any mountain race is 1.365m/s"

    It appears that the fastest descent rates at Mount Marathon are higher than that. For example, a 10:18 descent of 921 meters is 1.49 m/s. The race claims 3022 feet (921 m) of ascent. 3022 appears to be the high point of the race, though, with the start between 40 and 80 feet and the finish a bit lower than the start. So, the descent is maybe a bit less than 3022? Regardless, it seems that the fastest descent rates at Mount Marathon exceed those listed in the article.

    1. Matias Saari

      Mount Marathon lists the start at 30 feet, so with a summit of 3,022 feet the climb is 2,992 feet (or 911 meters).

      Alaskamountainrunners.org lists up/down times for the last several years (and faster times are known but not officially verifiable).

      Trond Flagstad descended in 10:18 in 2008, while Eric Strabel took 10:25 in 2011; Flagstad had the advantage of sliding on his butt down a large snow field off the top while Strabel had no snow, just scree. The snow (in typical years) and deep scree are what enable such a fast descent, though a technical creek bed followed by about a kilometer of pavement slow the descent down considerably. Nevertheless, both Flagstad (1.47 meters per second) and Strabel (1.457 m/s) descended faster than the "record" offered by the author.

      Though Mount Marathon is not quite a vertical K, the fastest ascent on record is Sam Hill's 32:40 in 2009. Were it not for the road approach to the mountain (which gains minimal elevation and takes about 3:15), this time would not be too far off from the equivalent of a 30-minute Vertical K.

  6. j.xander

    The Alaska Mountain Runners put on a series of hill climbs that range between the Mount Marathon of 3022' (as stated above) to the 3400'. Mount Marathon is the only "mountain race" that races back down.

    Kal's Knoya Ridge Run = 4.4k distance with 1036m elevation gain.

    Robert Spur Memorial = 4.8k distance with 1036m elevation gain.

    – record on this run is 38:25

    There are about three others near Anchorage of similar distance and gain. They are a blast to run.

    The difference here is that we actually start at or just near sea level. No altitude to deal with.

  7. Frank

    Its hilarious how you underestimate the kenyans. You'll see, if it this ever becomes a sport with big prizes for the winner they will sweep in and take it all. Just pure stubborness and naivity can hold someone back from understanding this.

    Also, comparing this to breaking two hours on a marathon, which is significantly harder is pure idiotic.

    1. Ryan Stormo

      Frank, I think you may be underestimating the difference between a road marathon and the type of "run" that is being discussed here. It would be just as naive of me to say that Jamaican sprinters could easily break the 30min VK.

  8. Jesper

    I ran (or rather walked) the vertical kilometre in Fully, Switzerland in October and I must say i´m really impressed by the guys in the top 10 in that race. They are climbing machines, never stopping. As for americans who would probably do great in a VK race I would have to say Jared Campbell is really impressive. Look up West slabs of Olympus on you tube and you will know what I mean! Greetings from Sweden and thank you Bryon for all the great work on irunfar!

  9. Brett

    Top search return on Manitou Incline is a 2008 NYTs article that says the record is 16:42 by a triathlete named Fretta.

  10. Anthony Kay

    Thank you to j.xander, Matias Saari and John Prater for this information. I had no idea that there was mountain running in Alaska when I wrote the original article. I have now visited the Alaska Mountain Runners website, and discovered that some of their race routes outdo the worst British ones for roughness and danger!

    I have written an article with a statistical analysis of uphill and downhill race records, which I am hoping to get published in Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports. It's probably too late for the data from the Alaskan races to get into it, but I am planning another article examining relative uphill and downhill times for individual runners, and the Mount Marathon results lists should give me lots of useful data for that.

  11. Graham

    The VK is a great concept. A couple of thoughts though. Surely using poles is quite an advantage so shouldn't there be a best time for using poles AND a best time for a 'non-pole' ascent.

    Also, the climbing style not dissimilar to a cycling action so I'd love to see someone like a top cycling time-trialist give it a go (not that they ever would). I reckon they'd be better suited to it than Kenyan 10k runners as mentioned below. Feel free to counter this theory! :)

    1. Anthony Kay

      I think you are right about cyclists doing well on uphill running: as mentioned in my original article, Sebastian Salas, who appears to hold the record for the fastest uphill vertical pace in any mountain race, is a professional cyclist.

      1. Graham

        Anthony, did you get your article published in JQAS that you mentioned above? I'd be really interested in reading it if it's accessible somewhere online. I like to crunch numbers as well as crunching scree!

        I'm particularly interested in the fastest downhill mile (horizontal mile that is). I haven't found too much online about it other than a few claims of 3mins 20-something, but surely the helping hand of gravity can carry top runners along a little quicker than that???

  12. Anthony Kay

    The article has been published in JQAS, but it is only available online if you subscribe to the journal. However, it is also available from me: just email me at [email protected], and I will send it to you.

    I have done a lot of searching, and I am fairly sure that the 3:24 by Craig Wheeler at Meltham, England, in 1993 is still the fastest recorded downhill mile. Before that, Mike Boit managed 3:28 at the Queen Street Mile in Auckland, NZ. From my JQAS article you will see that the gradients of these races are fairly close to my estimate for the optimal gradient for covering horizontal distance as fast as possible.

  13. MtnRnRwanabe

    I would be curious what Max King's time would be, though I think there're differences between fast on flats and fast on the steeps. And at this level it'd be curious to see if this would play out.

    At grad school I looked into modeling running, got really interested in watts(I was doing triathlons alot back then). An interesting study, reported on polar's website some years back was, in cycling, sprinter's produce the highest watts but when normalized by body weight the mountain climber's blew sprinters away.

    I've always been curious about measuring watts in runners.

    I've been dreaming, in a pipe, about a trail running festival at Bolton Valley in VT and it just occurred to me(and I verified it) that if you had an event starting at the bottom of the access road and finishing on the middle peak(Vista) it'd be just about 1km vert(and around 5 miles horizontal, but hey its new england right?)

    1. Bryon Powell

      Max, was the mountain running world champ in an up and down year and didn't make the US team in an up-only qualifier the next year. Max's XC and steeplechase background favor him on variable terrain.

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