Skyrunning is all about altitude, ascent and lung-busting endurance, Ian Corless goes to Skyrunning’s HQ to find out more and takes in a race with some of the sport’s greats 

Words & Pictures: Ian Corless

A trickle of piano noise from the local music school weaves its way through open window shutters left ajar to allow some breeze, the heat of the day is stifling. Cobbled streets, stone arches, a wonderful old square, the chatter of children playing and the smell of freshly brewed cappuccino in the air. It feels and sounds like a scene in a movie.

Biella, or should I say, the International Skyrunning Federation (ISF) HQ (and home of Lauri van Houten and Marino Giacometti its directors/organisers) is atop a hill in a walled village close to the Aosta valley, just over an hour from Chamonix and in close proximity to Monte Rosa and the Matterhorn.

It seems the perfect location for the home of pure mountain running. Biella lies in the foothills of the Alps in the Bo mountain range near Mount Mucrone and Camino.

“We moved here as the sports brand Fila were based here. In the 90s they were a key sponsor for Skyrunning,” says van Houten.

“When Fila folded, we were left with a dilemma; should we stay or should we go? Stay we did and it feels natural and relaxed to be here now.”

Mountains dominate the life of van Houten and Giacometti. It’s not a job; it’s a passion that dominates 12 plus hours of every day.

You will see the dynamic duo at all the Skyrunner World Series races every year. In total, that’s 15 events in three disciplines, VK (Vertical kilometre), SKY and ULTRA. But these worldwide events are just the visible face of what the ISF does.

Behind the scenes it’s a frenetic highly pressured scene of telephone calls, emails, logistical planning and negotiations that make the Skyrunner World Series tick.

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It’s a scenario far removed from 1989 when Giacometti set a record running from the village of Alagna to the summit of Monte Rosa.

Twenty-five years of mountain running and today, iconic names such as Bruno Brunod and Fabio Meraldi are once again being talked about in the same breath as Kilian Jornet.

Bruno Brunod says: “Older generations were already Skyrunners. My grandfather crossed the mountains working for example.

‘We’ as Skyrunners added more speed but in essence it has always been the same thing, Skyrunners have always existed. What I liked was going quickly to the summit. I felt the same when I was a kid in the pastures, I always ran up and down the summits that surrounded me. It is something I felt inside, something I liked.”

In 2012, Skyrunning went through something of a revival. After careful and strategic planning, the ISF launched the new Sky Ultra Marathon Series with Transvulcania La Palma and a seminar, Less Cloud, More Sky.

The sport moved up a notch and became something that runners all over the world aspired to. It’s been called the “the next big thing” but as Giacometti explains: “There is nothing new in Skyrunning. It is just now that everyone is catching up with our vision from so many years ago.”

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Midway through the 2014 season, between Ice Trail Tarentaise and Trofeo Kima, I spend time with van Houten and Giamcometti at their home in the mountains (the “Casina”) Corteno Golgi to get an inside look at what makes this couple tick and how the calendar and its logistics fall into place.

The Casina is close to Giacometti’s birthplace of San Antonio. Spread over two floors it is almost two completely different buildings.

Upstairs is all wood, a combination of rustic and modern – it’s a wonderfully relaxing place that has been heavily influenced by van Houten.

Downstairs is the original building, un-touched for years and one that harks back to Giacometti’s past. The garage is a Skyrunning museum of ice axes, helmets, shoes, race bibs, clothing, videos and old slides.

Surrounded by green fields and mountains on either side I suddenly see Giacometti in a new light. He is home! He points at peaks and explains his childhood; his passions and I suddenly feel very honoured and privileged.

“The African Attachment (TAA) arrive tomorrow Ian and you are going to be able to spend a couple of days in the mountains with Marino,” says van Houten.

“They are filming a piece on Skyrunning and they want to take Marino back to his childhood, revisit old haunts and film him running in the mountains.”

I had met Dean Leslie and Greg Fell from TAA at Transvulcania La Palma back in 2012 and since then we have kept in-touch and often crossed paths at races all over the world. I am excited at the guys arriving and the opportunity to work alongside them and shoot stills, a real perk of the job.

Photographer Kelvin Trautman is directing the film and although I haven’t met him before, we soon hit it off and I realise what is in store – two awesome days in the mountains.

The evening is amazing. The sky is adorned with clouds and as we climb with cameras, Giacometti runs to the instructions of Trautman.

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Looking for ridges and technical lines, Giacometti embraces the challenge and is arguably having the most fun he has had in ages.

Days don’t get much better than this… at the summit of Monte Padrio the light is incredible and as the sun disappears for the day we are rewarded with a colour palette of orange, red and gold. Giacometti is in silhouette on the Skyline and I realise I am in a moment, a moment that I won’t ever forget. The following day starts early with a short drive and we are suddenly looking at Giacometti’s childhood home.

He laughs as he recounts boyhood memories: “I used to go mushroom picking in this area.” Following him up the trail, Trautman wants Giacometti to go back 50 years to those mischievous days as a boy. Immediately Marino finds a mushroom, he removes his Buff and ties a knot in one end to create a cloth bag. Moving left to right on the trail, the bag slowly fills with treasures from the land.

“In the Valle Campo Vecchio I would go skinny dipping in the river.” Giacometti may well have regretted this sentence as just an hour later he was running along grass banks barefoot and then submerging himself in the ice cold river water from the mountains.

The warmth of the log burner in the Casina provides that ultimate feeling of contentment that one longs for after a day in the mountains. Giacometti’s body was aching, his legs heavy from the repeated running but beneath a tired façade I knew he had had a good day.

“We have plans for some very exciting races at high altitude that will be very technical in future years,” say Giacometti adding, “2012 was an important stepping-stone. Less Cloud. More Sky was an important phase in the development of Skyrunning. One thing that was apparent is the desire from runners for technical and high altitude sport. So, here we are following our heritage for a new era.”

I wondered was it a happy coincidence that the revival of Skyrunning coincided with the rise of Kilian Jornet? “It is no coincidence!”

says van Houten. “Bruno Brunod was Kilian’s hero. Kilian followed his dreams from the inspiration Bruno provided, Kilian is now the epitome of Skyrunning.”

Jornet first arrived on the scene in 2006 and he impressed immediately. He was a natural Skyrunner. As the profile of Jornet has grown, so has Skyrunning. It seems a natural process of evolution of the sport and to that end

Giacometti confirmed his plans for the future: “We need to expand, to grow and introduce Skyrunning to a new audience. We will go back to our roots moving forward. We would love to do a race from Cervinia or Chamonix to the summit of Mont-Blanc but this is not for everyone!”

As the day comes to an end, final preparations are made for Trofeo Kima – Kima as it is affectionately known – is a shining beacon that personifies Skyrunning.

Trofeo Kima, Italay 2014

Top Swedish skyrunner Emelie Forsberg looked into the lens of the TAA camera, smiled in a way that only Forsberg can, and with a nervous and infectious giggle whispered the words, “Two years ago in my first year of racing I was fortunate to race at Trofeo Kima. I looked at this course and thought; really, you can run a race on this?”

I too had found my first Kima experience equally mesmerising. My breath had been taken away by the drama and severity of the course.

I had never seen anything quite like it and the impact was profound. Hopping from one section of the course to another via helicopter added some serious icing to the Kima cake.

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A vertical wall of rock and suddenly a flash of red and white. Kilian Jornet appears, hand-over-hand as he descends via chains and then flies past us with a wave as though running a 5-kilometre race. He looks so incredibly relaxed.

Kasie Enman is the first lady and this provides some confusion. Forsberg had had a convincing lead; what had happened? Finally, Forsberg arrives fifth and in tears but running like a demon. It turns out she had gone off course and lost almost an hour. Trying to claw back time she takes risks….. fourth place, third place and then second, was it possible to take back victory?

Unfortunately, no. Enman held on to a convincing lead and the records will show that the American was the 2014 Kima ladies champion. In the male race, Jornet had the race of his life and in doing so broke his own course record.

Fabio Meraldi makes an appearance at the awards later in the day, and like a long lost son is embraced into the arms and hearts of the Skyrunning throng. “I remember the feeling, like a drug, feeling this moving energy! I still get goose-bumps just talking about it.”

The party atmosphere continues and minutes after the award ceremony, clouds turn from grey to black and a warning clap of thunder alerts everyone that a change is coming. The heavens open and rain falls from the sky like a series of rods rammed toward earth. It’s a biblical storm and we all

look at each other and simultaneously shake our heads. Van Houten relays our thoughts:

“Wow, thank God this rain and storm did not arrive during the race.” Another race over, another successful event but there is no rest. This evening a glass of red and a nice meal but tomorrow it’ll be back to the grind. Another race is only weeks away and the process will repeat itself.

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