Redlining in Chamonix: Skyrunning’s Vertical Kilometer

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“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.

“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.

“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

The Vertical Kilometer, part of the International Skyrunning assortment of trail races, is exactly the opposite of everything I love about trail running. It’s short. It’s brutal. It’s unaccommodating.

And yet… and yet… I love it still. Maybe more than most other trail races, for the black-and-white simplicity of the challenge it offers. Crazy, insane, head-down, gut it out fun. Type 2 fun. If trail running were weight lifting, the vertical kilometer, or VK, would be a 500-pound clean-and-jerk, the lifter’s arms going up in celebration as the weight crashes to earth.

To these VK fundamentals, the Chamonix Skyrunning race adds a hefty dose of drama and excitement almost never found in a trail race, and certainly not back in the States, where trail running still occupies a niche.

Kilian Jornet heads off for his turn at the Chamonix vertical kilometer. Photo courtesy of Morgane Raylat, Mont Blanc Marathon. ©Tiphaine Buccino.

Kilian Jornet heads off for his turn at the Chamonix vertical kilometer. Photo courtesy of Morgane Raylat, Mont Blanc Marathon. © Joana Bouquet.

Beginning in Place de l’Amité, runners are assigned a starting window, and are launched out of a departure tent in 30-second intervals, run through a gauntlet of cheering onlookers and past throngs of partying onlookers who line the course.

It’s quite a scene. In the plaza, the 80-km Skyrunning event was finishing just feet away from the VK start. While I was waiting for my turn, the young and talented Nepalese runner Mira Rai won the women’s race—by 22 minutes, no less. Soft-spoken and modest, a hushed quiet fell over the crowd as she spoke in halting English about her win. Coming from a country devastated in recent months, the juxtaposition wasn’t lost among the onlookers. More than a few had misty eyes.

Back under the VK starting tent, my turn to light up my body’s “Check Lactic Acid” warning lights came soon enough. Red turned to orange on the countdown clock. Standing still, looking out through the starting chute, I thought back two decades ago to the start of ski races. My heart raced. Seconds ticked off the clock. Orange turned to green, and I was off.

The course. (Sometimes, a picture really is worth a thousand words.)

The course. (Sometimes, a picture really is worth a thousand words.)

Unlike other VK’s I’ve run, the Chamonix course had onlookers nearly throughout the route, at every turn. Bells and horns rang out. No matter your time, you heard no shortage of “Bon Courage!” and “Allez-Allez.”

There are no distance markers on a VK course—just simple vertical indicators, every 100 meters. Every five minutes, another ticked by. At 800 meters, the course became more exposed, adding cables, a ladder, and folded rebar “staples” placed in rock, to negotiate the steeper terrain. Two minutes later, just past the top of the Plan Praz téléphérique, amid a cheering throng substantially sweatier and more tired than the one far below, the Chamonix Skyrunning Kilomètre Vertical was over as quickly as it had started.

US trail runner and Salomon team member Max King, finished 16th in 37:52. Writing about his first vertical kilometer, he said, “One of the hardest races I’ve done. Nothing like redlining for 37 minutes!”

Like skiing down a couloir, running up a VK merits inspection before running through it full speed.

Like skiing down a couloir, running up a VK merits inspection before running through it full speed.

Skyrunning races are nothing if not diverse in the challenges they present. I was reminded of that when, still filled with a restless energy from the day’s excitement as the clock headed towards midnight, I finally turned my attention to rest. Crashed at a friend’s hotel room above Allée Payot in the center of Chamonix, I listened as rowdy cheers went up into the night sky from revelers who still occupied restaurant tables along the sidewalk below. Nearly 20 hours in to their races, many 80-km racers were getting the boisterous welcome home they deserved. Suddenly, my quirky little vertical challenge seemed downright leisurely.

“Have I gone mad? I’m afraid so.
You’re entirely Bonkers.
But I will tell you a secret,
All the best people are.”

— Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Mont Blanc Marathon

International Skyrunning

2015 Mont Blanc Marathon Results

Thanks to Chloe Lanthier, Morgane Raylat, Morgan Williams and Alison Eagle for their assistance. Hat tip to Max King for the title. 

One thought on “Redlining in Chamonix: Skyrunning’s Vertical Kilometer

  1. Pingback: The Alternative Chamonix Guidebook: Insider Tips from 17 Experts | Amazon Creek

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