Skyrunning is essentially running up mountains. If you’re part of this growing cadre of people who eats marathons for breakfast, lunge-walks to work, squats at your desk all day, and sleeps in a plank position, then Skyrunning might be what you’ve been missing in your weekends.
Unfathomably, it’s a real thing that many people do. It even has an official international body – the International Skyrunning Federation (ISF) – which organises races all over the world. The numbers of people that label themselves “vertical athletes” – people who are training especially for climbing and descending – is on the rise. The International Skyrunning Federation (ISF) counts some 200 races annually with 50,000 competitors from 65 countries. Unofficial organisations organise many more.
Despite not being all that high, mountains can actually have a formidable vertical range in Southeast Asia. We also have the heat and humidity. So running up a mountain is to push yourself to the extremes of what a human body can do. Yet, there are now a skyrunning events most months, and they’re growing in attendance and frequency.
Why would anybody want to run up a mountain?
1. Mountains offer the best of the outdoors in Southeast Asia
Trail runners, as opposed to road/track/treadmill runners, will already be sold on running in the great outdoors. Being in out in nature is so good for the soul. Being amidst the trees, animals, and landscapes is just uplifting. It makes each run an adventure. Being away from the cars and people and noises of the city allows the quiet and solitude to open spaces in your mind to explore as well.
As you ascend, the landscape changes, and along with the flora and fauna. In Southeast Asia, you will invariably begin your ascent in hot and humid jungle and progress into cool and misty heights, often with their own endemic ecosystems. If you get above the treeline, you enter surreal rocky landscapes that can be topped with all sorts of volcanic happenings. At the summit, where the air is thin, clean, and cold your nostrils and lungs are singed with each breath. You have a brief respite from the humidity to enjoy the views before plunging back down into the humidity and pollution.
2. Mountain trails offer a better workout
Trails are softer and more varied places to put your feet, meaning less impact on all the bits of your legs, and less toenails lost or other injuries caused by repetitive strain (such as patellar tendinitis and IT band syndrome). Because your feet/ankles/shins/calves/knees/thighs/hips are they’re bracing for something different every step, it’s a more complete workout of more muscles burning more calories, often with faster recovery.
The mental workout feels more complete too – rather than zeroing in and maximising the body’s performance against the road, trail runners are considering more variables, and exerting their minds more to negotiate where and how to put the feet each step.
3. Skyrunning can offer a more intense workout
Adding the extreme vertical dimension to a long trail run brings you to the extremes of what a body can do. All fit people can ascend a mountain, but doing it at speed is borderline impossible. As you get higher, the burning of your muscles will then combine with the thinning of the air and the freezing of the lungs. The best skyrunners are running up and down Kilaminjaro (5,895m) – what is a week-long trek for most people – in under 7 hours. In competitive races, such as the Indian Creek Fifties race in Colorado, USA, might have a 3,500m climb over roughly 80km of trail, and the fastest runners would do this in under 10 hours. So if your body is a freeking jet engine just waiting to take off, running up a mountain is ticks all those boxes that ultra-athletes need ticked – it will test the limits of your body and mind.
How to get into skyrunning
Although you do need to be seriously fit, you don’t need to be such a superhuman to enjoy sky-running. If you are pushing yourself by doing a half-marathon, you’re probably just a sky-hiker like the rest of us.
If you can comfortably do a marathon, then becoming a skyrunner is within reach. Start by Incorporating additional exercises into your schedule to train the right muscles before hitting the trail. Particularly, build up those ankle and foot muscles, ligaments, and tendons to prevent injury when your surfaces become uneven. Hammer those thighs for the ascents, but don’t forget your knees for the descents. Then find as many trails as you can where the surfaces are uneven, and start running them slowly to get used to the additional physical and mental strain. Take the corners slowly, give way to people coming down, and let people pass.
Then invest in the right gear. Get the right shoes for trails – trail runners will have more support around the ankle, a harder sole, and a deeper lug. There are sky-running shoes too, which better protect the toes from hitting the steps in front, has a more rigid arch, and a more cushioned heel. Then it’s about having the right layering for the cold when you get higher – leggings, light windbreaker, and a way to carry your own nourishment such as a camel pack or hydration vest.
Then go hunting trails and – when you’re ready for it – competitions. Strava’s heat map is a good place to find hidden gems. Summits.com will post all the skyrunning events we can find too, official or otherwise.