Want a challenge? Try skyrunning up a mountain in South-East Asia


  • Travel
  • Tuesday, 17 Sep 2019

A file photo showing a herd of elephants in Tanzania, with Mount Kilimanjaro in the background. The world’s best skyrunners can climb up and down this grand mountain in under seven hours! Photo: AP

If trail running isn't interesting or challenging for you, why not try skyrunning? Trail running is where you run on trails through natural areas instead of on roads or footpaths in built-up spaces.

A more official definition would be from the International Trail Running Association: “... trail-running is a pedestrian race open to all, in a natural environment (mountain, desert, forest, plains) 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.”

Skyrunning is kind of like trail running, but on a mountain. It's sometimes called “mountain running”.

The official definition by the International Skyrunning Federation (ISF) is: “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 refers to a moderate scramble, like using your hands every so often to get up and stay up.

Why would anyone run up a mountain? First of all, most people can’t. At least, not when it comes to the sort of mountains in South-East Asia, which tend to have a formidable vertical range (or prominence). Running up these mountains is almost out of the question for many of us.

Yet, it seems that there are more people pushing the extremes of human endurance, as seen in the rise of ultra-marathon running in past years. Also, the number of people that label themselves “vertical athletes” – people who train specifically for climbing and descending – is increasing.

skyrunning
Skyrunning is kind of like trail running, but on a mountain. Filepic

The ISF counts some 200 official races held annually with 50,000 competitors from all over the world, but there are even more “unofficial” races.

So, if your body is a jet engine that’s just waiting to take off, running up a mountain ticks all those boxes. It will test the limits of your body and mind, get you out into nature with a more varied, dynamic and in some ways, primal physical challenge.

It’s better on a trail

There are some advantages to running on trails. The first is obvious – being out in nature is good for the soul. Being amid the trees, animals and landscapes is just uplifting. It makes each run an adventure.

Secondly, there are arguments that it is better for your body overall. Trails are softer and there are more varied places to put your feet, meaning there’s less impact on your legs, fewer toenails lost, and fewer injuries caused by repetitive strain.

Because your feet/ankles/shins/calves/knees/thighs/hips are bracing for something different every step, running on trails becomes a more complete workout. There’s more muscle movement, which then translates to more calories burned and often recovery is faster too.

Trail runners exert their minds more to negotiate where and how to put their feet with each step, so they are less inclined to “zone out”. They stay focused. Many trail runners say that the experience is more natural and think that it is a good mental challenge.

The skyrunning challenge

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

Although most people can ascend a mountain, doing so at a speed faster than a regular 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. The whole experience starts to seem rather insane.

Yet, the best skyrunners are running up and down Mount Kilaminjaro (5,895m) – what is a week-long trek for most people – in under seven hours! In competitive races, like the Indian Creek Fifties in Colorado in the US, 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 though.

How fit do you need to be?

You need to be seriously fit to run up a long trail that has the sort of gradients the ISF are promoting. But there’s really no need to be a superhuman to enjoy skyrunning.

If you pick a 3km segment of a trail with a 500m ascent and tell yourself, “Okay, I’m going to run this”, but then only manage to make it halfway before switching to a “walk-run” mode the rest of the way to the summit, then good on you. Don’t feel defeated or discouraged; it’s still a great effort.

If you’re a first-time mountaineer with more confidence than fitness, check yourself before you wreck yourself. Here are some ways you can – and should – prepare:

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

skyrunning
Elephants in Tanzania, with Mount Kilimanjaro in the background. The world’s best skyrunners can climb up and down this grand mountain in under seven hours. Photo: AP

Is skyrunning fun?

When compared with trail running, skyrunning will generally give runners a more dynamic landscape to engage with, which we feel makes the experience more enjoyable. As you ascend, the landscape – and the flora and fauna along with it – changes.

In South-East Asia, you will invariably begin your ascent in hot and humid jungle, which is where most trail runners will stay. But 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 and 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 your breathing will become heavier as you tire and the air thins even more.

Maybe this sounds uncomfortable, but if you’re in South-East Asia, you’ve ascended above the muggy tropics, above the pollution, and you have a brief window in which you can enjoy some respite from the humidity before plunging back down into the milieu.

Of course, when you get to the summit, you get to claim the ultimate prize: the view. The mountains in South-East Asia really do offer some unique views that it’s really worth all the hard work.

Is this for everyone? Probably not. But if you’re fit and you run, and especially if you love running on trails, you might love skyrunning.


Pete Silvester (pete@summits.com) is the CEO of Summits.com, a website for mountaineering in South-East Asia.


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