US Skyrunning Series Announced; Other National Series In The Works

It’s here. Can you feel it? Skyrunning is coming to America in 2014. Big time.

For the last two years, Skyrunning has incorporated U.S. races into its World Ultra Series, the Speedgoat 50k in 2012 and 2013, and the UROC 100k in 2013. And, just 10 days or so ago, Skyrunning announced its 2014 World Series and three U.S. races are included, the Speedgoat 50k and The Rut 50k in the Ultra World Series and the Lone Peak Vertical Kilometer in the Vertical World Series.

If you’re up on your social media, you’ve probably heard some rumblings about the onset of even more U.S. Skyrunning races. You might have even heard that Ian Sharman has been named the U.S. Skyrunning Series Director. Today, U.S. Skyrunning announces multiple, national-level series for the U.S. which will be divided into the traditional Skyrunning disciplines: Vertical, Sky, and Ultra. What does this all actually mean? Generally speaking, it means that, if you’re from the U.S., you’ll be able to compete in Skyrunning-style races and series on your home turf. No international plane tickets needed. We’ll get to the specifics in a minute.

When asked about how and why Ian Sharman was charged with heading up the U.S. Skyrunning Series, the Executive Director and Vice President of the International Skyrunning Foundation (ISF) (Skyrunning’s governing body), Lauri van Houten, explains,

“Ian has been with us since 2012. He was at the ‘Less Cloud. More Sky’ seminar [after the 2012 Transvulcania] where we presented skyrunning to a new generation and to ultrarunners who were new to the sport. He was really interested and since then was on the ISF Athletes Commission and is now also on our Management Committee as well. It was clear from the beginning that, apart from his status as a top athlete, he knows his stuff; he’s committed; he’s dynamic; he’s serious.

But Skyrunning races in the U.S. aren’t a new phenomenon. In the 1990s, the Fila Skyrunning Circuit did a version of what the Skyrunning World Series are doing today: showing off stellar mountain courses all over the world. The Fila Skyrunning Circuit was organized by the Skyrunning predecessor, the Federation of Sport at Altitude. As part of this, the U.S. Fila SkyMarathon, U.S. Fila Half SkyMarathon, and U.S. Fila Vertical Kilometer took place in the Aspen and Vail areas of Colorado for a number of years. Runners like Matt Carpenter, Danelle Ballengee, Ricardo Mejia, and Corinne Favre were all over the U.S. races in the international Fila Skyrunning Circuit. In the early 2000s, all that went away in the U.S., and Skyrunning lapsed back to its roots in Europe. Says Lauri van Houten, “Those U.S. races grew and counted several hundred participants. When Fila crashed and the sponsorship with it in 2000, no one took over. The concept of investing in trail running, let alone skyrunning, just wasn’t conceivable at the time, so it just died right there and then.”

U.S. Skyrunning Series Races

But now it’s back and, apparently, after a couple of years of experimentation at the World Series level, with a vengeance. When asked about why Skyrunning is back in the U.S. and back in 2014, Lauri van Houten explains,

“Skyrunning never wanted to leave! 2014 because the time is ripe. It’s not a question of ‘re-alignment’ but having RDs that understand the concept, like Mike Foote and Mike Wolfe and Dakota Jones, who have all been to Europe and understand what skyrunning is really about. It’s not just the terrain. It’s the whole spirit and the passion of the organisers and supporters. Speaking to several RDs, there’s unquestionably interest. Runners are looking for more challenges the whole time–look at how popular ultras have become. Add elevation. Magic. It’s not that we ‘want’ the U.S. included; I think the U.S. wants to be included! Ask me the same question this time next year and let’s see where we are!”

According to Ian Sharman, the U.S. series is still in planning stages. As in, it’s happening in 2014, but all of the races within the series aren’t yet finalized. Here’s the current lowdown:
U.S. Skyrunning Ultra Series

U.S. Skyrunning Sky Series

U.S. Skyrunning Vertical Series

  • To Be Confirmed VK, New Hampshire, Unknown date
  • La Maratona Verticale VK, Colorado, August 2
  • Lone Peak VK, Montana, September 12 (also a Skyrunner Ultra World Series race)
  • Flagstaff Endurance Runs VK, Arizona, October 5

Ian Sharman also confirms that entry requirements for individual races will be at the discretion of the race directors, but for most events that will just be a willingness to take on a tough race. Sharman also says that anyone completing one or more races will automatically be part of the series and eligible to score points toward the overall series, the same way that the Skyrunner World Series currently works. (See the scoring rules at the bottom of this page.) Sharman says that each race and will have prize money and that the overall series winners will be monetarily rewarded, as well. Sharman says he doesn’t have any more details on prize money amounts yet.

Inner Workings of the U.S. Skyrunning Series

We wanted to get a feel for some of the cogs in the U.S. Skyrunning wheel. For example, what were the motivations of the players involved in putting the series together and what are the included races like?

Says Ian Sharman on how the series came to be from his perspective:

“I’m the organizer and promoter of the new U.S. Skyrunning Series… I’ve been involved on the Athletes Commission for a while and have a vote on the board. The reason I’m involved is because when I saw some of the races over in Europe, I couldn’t help but be inspired. I love running of all types and Skyrunning offers a slightly more extreme and spectacular style.

“Skyrunning has been around since the 1990s, but in the past year or two it’s really taken off thanks to growth in trail and mountain running, plus the exciting, competitive races they’ve enabled. Stars like Kilian Jornet and a growing cast of international runners have catapulted the sport forward, especially the more extreme and visually stunning races. The ISF approached me at the end of September with the concept of a U.S. Series and I’ve expanded the scope of what they suggested. Initially the idea was to start with just a handful of races but the U.S. has a huge running community so I wanted to include enough events for it to be more than a showcase. Many of the races are completely new, so I’ve been in discussions with many race directors and the response has been incredibly positive–it’s almost like they were waiting for an excuse to create even more spectacular events.
“Over time, these races will get bigger and the local communities will hopefully get behind them more and more to get a little closer to the European style of ‘Tour de France’ atmosphere, but my main priority in the first year is to have races that are authentically in the Skyrunning style, with beautiful, rugged terrain. I want runners and spectators to come away from an event wanting more and finding it as exciting as we all found Transvulcania when we first saw it at an international level in 2012.”

Jamil Coury, a race director for Aravaipa Running, a race-management company, will direct the 2014 Flagstaff Endurance Runs 35 Mile, 22 Mile, and VK as well as the Kendall Mountain Run 12 Mile. Here’s what he has to say on why he and Aravaipa Running are jumping onto the proverbial U.S. Skyrunning trail:

“When Ian [Sharman] asked me about which races might fit the series, I immediately thought of the Kendall Mountain Run in Silverton, Colorado and the Flagstaff Endurance Runs in Flagstaff, Arizona. I have used the motto ‘Run Steep Get High’ for my running in the mountains around Silverton and Flagstaff over the past couple of years and that fits in perfect with the Skyrunning principles.

“The approximately 20k Kendall Mountain Run is something that we took direction of recently, but will be in its 38th year in 2014. It has such an amazing history (originating from a 1908 bar bet to see how fast a miner could run to from town to the top and back) and includes a lot of vertical and a steep scramble at the top of the peak. The views from the 13,066-foot top of Kendall Mountain scream ‘skyrunning’ as you have a 360-degree view of the San Juan Mountains that is breathtaking.

“The Flagstaff Endurance Runs existed the past two years as a 50k and 50 mile that were on par with Zane Grey in terms of difficulty, but we are completely redesigning the courses to better align with Skyrunning principles… We are seeking to add more vertical on lesser-known trails as well as a final climb up and descent down the ski slopes of the Arizona Snowbowl ski resort which will top out at 11,600 feet (permits pending). The races in the past two editions topped out around 9,000 feet.”

Jenn Shelton - Kendall Mountain Run

Jenn Shelton running the Kendall Mountain Run. Photo: Ray Dileo

Mike Foote is Co-Race Director with Mike Wolfe for The Rut 50k, which took place for the first time at Big Sky Ski Resort in Montana this year. Next year, Mike Foote and Mike Wolfe will direct The Rut 50k again as well as the Lone Peak VK. The following are some thoughts from him on why they’ve chosen to join both the Skyrunning World Series and U.S. Skyrunning Series:

“Ever since the idea for The Rut came about two years ago, our goal was to have the event be a ‘Skyrunning-style’ race. We were inspired by many of the courses that had the Skyrunning stamp of approval in Europe and we wanted to bring a similar ethos and environment back to Montana and the U.S. We share similar values and philosophy with the ISF in regards to the sport of mountain running. We wanted to create an event that embraced and celebrated some severe and technical terrain. In addition, we are excited, long term, to grow the event into a weekend festival for all, while also developing the competitive end of the race. With those shared goals, our partnership with ISF fell in to place.

“The 50k fits the specifications of a Sky Ultra. The entire course falls between 7,500 and 11,166 feet in elevation and will have close to 10,000 feet of vertical gain. I don’t think there is another footrace in Montana that is higher in altitude. Also, we designed the course to integrate sections of extremely technical terrain in a harsh, alpine environment. We have been fortunate to work with Big Sky Resort on private property and we have been allowed more latitude while designing the course due to this, which I love. The day after the event this year I was scrambling up scree slopes and along knife edge ridges searching for more of this terrain to integrate into the 2014 edition of The Rut 50k. We are committed to creating a course which is truly unique and challenging.

“Will The Rut lose its character and quirky Montana vibe we tried hard to instill in the event in its first year? This was something we addressed early on in our conversations with the ISF. There were many e-mails discussing what control, if any, the organizer loses of their event, if they sign on with Skyrunning. We share similar goals with Skyrunning for The Rut and I believe our partnership will help the event without sacrificing the character we have worked hard to establish.  Montana pride is strong right now, and the energy is high to share that pride with so many folks from out of state and country. If anything, our partnership may be a catalyst for even more over-the-top, goofy, Montana-style additions to the race. (Camo race shirts anyone?)”

Here’s a video put together on the 2013 The Rut 50k:

Willy Syndram, the RD of the Cruel Jewel 56 mile, which joins the 2014 U.S. Skyrunning Ultra Series, says:

“When I was approached by Ian about joining the U.S. Skyrunnning Series I was shocked, mostly because Skyrunning focuses on tough races at high elevations. Then it hit me, people were starting to take notice of how tough my little race really was! On the East Coast we may not have the high elevations, but we do have some tough, rugged mountains. The Cruel Jewel, with its 17,000 feet of climbing, will make you see East Coast trail racing in a whole new light, and hopefully inspire you to run a few more East Coast races.”

James Varner operates race-management company Rainshadow Running. He directs Angels Staircase 60k and 35k, which will respectively be in the U.S. Ultra and Sky Series:

“I’m pretty excited for the new U.S. Skyrunning Series. The U.S. has some pretty gnarly races and it’s cool to see someone wanting to bring a bunch of them together into one series. Ian has been coming to our Gorge Waterfalls race the last couple of years and so he had a good idea of what our races are about. And then I think it was the Angels Staircase Race Report titled ‘The Never-Ending Climb’ by Jacqueline Windh in one of the recent issues of UltraRunning magazine that caught his attention and provoked him to get in touch with me. Angels Staircase 60k and 35k are the highest-altitude races in the Northwest and, with 11,000 feet of gain for the 60k and 6,000 feet for the 35k, they also have the ‘boatload’ of elevation gain that Skyrunning requires. We also discussed including our Yakima Skyline Rim 50k and 25k which has 10,000 feet and 5,000 feet of gain respectively but in the end they didn’t make the cut because the mountains the races are on aren’t high enough.

“I see being part of Skyrunning as a big benefit to the runners who do the races. Sure the average runners aren’t going to win any prize money or anything like that but every finisher will have some serious street cred. They’ll be able to say, ‘these are the hardest races in the country and I finished them!’ It also gives the runner who is more tough than fast their moment in the sun. And for the folks who like to see a real battle at the front of the race, the increased attention and glory will bring a higher and deeper level of competitive runners to each race, so that’ll be fun for fans to see.”

A video from the 2013 Angels Staircase races:

Skyrunning National-Level Series Expansions All Over the World

What’s happening in the U.S. in 2014 has been and is happening elsewhere, too. Prior to 2014, there have been 27 national-level Skyrunning associations. In some cases, like Italy, national-level races and series are, at this point, old hat. And, in other cases, the associations support maybe just one Skyrunning race in country. But next year, Skyrunning is expanding into other countries with national-level series. Says Lauri van Houten,

“Skyrunning has always been global since the start but not on a big scale of course. The vision has always been global– altitude permitting. Italy, the birthplace of skyrunning, counts over 120 affiliated races and more than 90 skyrunning associations, including a national circuit and national championships. We wanted to replicate the successful format of the Skyrunner World Series on a national level… The people coordinating the Series are not always the same as those running the National Association, but mostly the two go hand in hand. In most cases, they are people from marketing and media, in others from sport.”

Lauri van Houten says that Skyrunning intends to make a full announcement on the national-level series expansion into other countries at the beginning of 2014. In the meantime, we hear that talks/brainstorms are in the works for national-level series in the following countries next year (We also note the series organizers where we know who they are.):

A U.S. Skyrunning Team?

Ruminations, ruminations. The Skyrunning World Championships takes place every four years and the next one is scheduled for a three-race event in Chamonix at the end of June 2014, including the Mont Blanc 80k, the Mont Blanc Marathon, and the Mont Blanc Vertical K. Rumor has it that the U.S. is going to send its own Skyrunning team. According to Ian Sharman, “The U.S. will have strong representation from several of the big name ultra and trail runners who aren’t into 100 milers (yet). The runners haven’t been finalized yet but the top ranked U.S. athletes in the Skyrunning rankings are almost all going.”

Editorial Thoughts (from Bryon and Meghan)

  • In the U.S., national-level trail running series have been well-represented by the La Sportiva Mountain Cup for shorter distances and the Montrail Ultra Cup for ultra distances. The stakes for these series have been prize money and, in the Montrail Ultra Cup’s case, entry into the Western States 100. The competition for these series (as opposed to their individual races) has been present but generally not too deep. Why? It’s cost prohibitive to travel to races and the prize money for podium places in the series might allow a runner to recoup little more than his or her costs barring strong support from their sponsor. In the past, even a $25,000 cash purse has been insufficient incentive to draw deep, series-wide competition.
  • Since 2008, the La Sportiva Mountain Cup has been a national, mountain-running series. While there are no strict parameters for race inclusion, at least three and possibly more of the 10 scheduled races in 2014 likely fit Skyrunning criteria. Are the Mountain Cup and U.S. SkyMarathon Series races going to spread the competition? Or, will they provide additional, complimentary platforms for shorter-distance trail runners to garner additional recognition and support?
  • Is the Skyrunning concept being shoehorned into U.S. geography and trail running culture? Most of us like to run off road on a variety of surfaces. However, not many of us have access to training on the Skyrunning-style terrain. While the Skyrunning concept might seem cool because we watch America’s (and the world’s) highest-level runners race and run on that terrain, it might not be applicable for the rest of us. Alternately, there are undoubtedly American trail runners who do run in this terrain and additional ones smitten with the concept. Why not give them a forum to race and play?
  • Relatedly, is introducing the Skyrunning concept compatible with the American wilderness ethos? Yes, many trail runners visit wild places on foot. However, that dispersed use does not have the same effect as hundreds of runners traversing a race’s terrain on race day. Not to mention increased concentration of auxiliary use in training, marking, etc. An explosion of Skyrunning-style running outside of the racing environment in the U.S. could potentially have effects on a much larger set of time and terrain.
  • Some details still need to be ironed out before we have a full picture of what the series is. Regardless, the concept is exciting.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What U.S. Skyrunning race looks most appealing to you?
  • What do you think about the concept of Skyrunning expanding its model to a national-level circuit in addition to including U.S. races in their World Series circuit?
  • And, is such interconnected, global circuitry the future of trail running? What are your thoughts?

In light of challenges during previous, recent discussions related to the tour/circuit phenomenon, we add a note here calling for civility in the discussion in the comments section of this article. Feel welcome to debate, agree, and disagree, but please do so respectfully. Thank you!

Meghan Hicks

is the Managing Editor of iRunFar and the author of 'Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running.' The converted road runner finished her first trail ultramarathon in 2006 and loves using running to visit the world's wildest places.