Trail-running and Skyrunning in Southeast Asia

Why would anyone run up a mountain in Southeast Asia?

May 10, 2019

What is Trial-Running?

Trail-running is running on trails through natural areas instead of on roads or footpaths in build-up areas. 

If you need a more official definition, the International Trail Running Association (ITRA) claims that “trail-running is a pedestrian race open to all, in a natural environment (mountain, desert, forest, plain…) with minimal possible paved or asphalt road (which should not exceed 20% of the total course). The terrain can vary (dirt road, forest trail, single track…) and the route must be properly marked.”

What is Skyrunning?

Skyrunning is trail-running up mountains. Sometimes we call it just “mountain running”.  Given that the way up most mountains is a trail, skyrunning could just be running up a mountain come to think of it.

The “official” definition, as delivered by the International Skyrunning Federation defines skyrunning as “running in the mountains above 2,000m altitude where the climbing difficulty does not exceed II° grade and the incline is over 30%.” Here, a “II° grade” basically refers to a moderate scramble – i.e., using your hands every so often to stay up and get up.

Why would anyone run up a mountain?

Most people can’t. At least, running up the sort of mountains in Southeast Asia, which tend to have a formidable vertical range (or “prominence”), is almost out of the question for 99% of us mere mortals.

Yet, it seems that there are more people pushing the extremes of human endurance, as seen in the rise of ultra-marathon running in last decades. Also, the numbers of people that label themselves “vertical athletes” – people who are training specially 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, but there are even more “unofficial” races up mountains too.

So if your body is a 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 – as well as those boxes that trail-runners need ticked – it will get you out into nature, with a more varied, dynamic, and in some ways primal physical challenge.

If you want to run, it’s better on a trail

Trail runners, as opposed to road/track/treadmill runners, will already be sold on running in the great outdoors, but here are the general advantages:

The first is obvious: 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.

Secondly, there are arguments that its better for your body overall. 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.

Finally, the mentality feels complete too. Road runners zero in and maximising the body’s performance against the road, and can sometimes just zone out. Although a professional road runner will argue that there’s a lot more to it, trail runners are definitely considering more variables in their performance equation, and exerting their minds more to negotiate where and how to put the feet each step. Trail runners report their running experience feeling more natural, even primal, and somehow more complete as a mental challenge.

But skyrunning is even more of a challenge

Adding an extreme vertical dimension brings trail-running to the extremes of what a body can do, perhaps in similar way that extreme distance in ultra-marathon running does.

Although most people can ascend a mountain, doing so at a speed above a walk 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. It all starts to sound rather insane.

Yet, 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, you might have a 3,500m climb over roughly 80km of trail, and the fastest runners would do this in under 10 hours. The thousands of people who do this regularly probably aren’t all insane.

Do you need to be insanely fit to be a skyrunner?

You do need to be seriously fit to run kilometres up a trail with the sort of gradients that the International Skyrunning Federation are promoting. But we at don’t think need to be the sort of superhuman that runs ultras to enjoy sky-running. We also don’t see why you need to be doing “official” skyrunning to enjoy running up a mountain, for that matter.

If you pick a 3 kilometre segment of a trail with a 500 metre ascent and say, “okay – I’m going to run this!”, then you get half way, splutter and pant for a while, then walk-run the rest of the way to the summit… then good on you! You’re a skyrunner to us, and we have words for people who say otherwise.

But if you’re a first time mountaineer and once-a-month pavement-smusher who has more confidence than fitness, then check yourself before you wreck yourself. There are ways you can and should prepare, which we will cover in a seperate post:

  1. Get seriously fit
  2. Invest in the right gear
  3. Prepare properly for your run
  4. Start off nice and slow
  5. Learn some basic rules for safety
  6. Acquire the right attitudes to truly enjoy it

Is Skyrunning more fun than trail-running?

When compared with trail running, we think that skyrunning will generally give the runner a more dynamic landscape to engage with, which we feel makes the trail-running more enjoyable.

As you ascend, the landscape changes, and the flora and fauna along with it. In Southeast Asia, you will invariably begin your ascent in hot and humid jungle, which is where most trail runners will stay. But then as you climb you will progress into cool and misty heights that offer cloud forests and alpine meadows, often with their own endemic ecosystems. Then as you get above the treeline you enter into surreal rocky landscapes that, especially in Indonesia or the Philippines, are topped with otherworldly sights unique to volcanos.

At the summit, the air is thin, clean and cool. Perhaps it’s even cold. It singes your nostrils and lungs with each breath, and you will breathing will become heavier as you tire and the air thins. Maybe this sound uncomfortable, but if you’re in Southeast Asia, you’ve ascended above the muggy tropics, above the pollution, and you have a brief window when you can enjoy some respite from the humidity before plunging back down into the milieu.

Of course, when you get to the summit, no matter who you’re racing against, you get to stop and claim the ultimate prize: the view. We’ve waxed lyrical about the unique views from Southeast Asia’s mountains in other posts, so needless to say, its worth it. Then, when you feel like all the muscles in your body are about to fall off, the descent shows you that there’s a whole other side of your body to set alight.

When you get back to the trailhead, you will feel a strange mix of relief, agony, and a sense of accomplishment and one-ness with nature. You get this from a good trail-run too, but we feel is a notch above when you’ve conquered a mountain, especially in Southeast Asia.

Is this for everyone? Probably not. But if you’re fit, you run, and especially if you trial-run, then you might just love it.

skyrunning trail-running ultras