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?