Skyrunning has firmly embedded itself into the Australian and New Zealand trail scene via events such as the Hillary and Mt Difficulty in New Zealand and Buller, Buffalo and the new Vertical K happening next weekend in Australia. While these races do an admirable job emulating their bigger-mountain cousins in the northern hemisphere, the epitome – not to mention the origins – of Skyrunning is found in Italy and within the hearts and minds of founders, Lauri van Houten and Marino Giacometti.
Words and images: Ian Corless / Talk Ultra
NOTE: this is an extended excerpt from Edition #18 of Trail Run Mag. For the full article download the edition for FREE at www.trailrunmag.com/magazines.
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 can be stifling. It feels and sounds like a scene in a movie. Cobbled streets, stone arches, a wonderful old square, the chatter of children playing and the smell of freshly brewed cappuccino in the air.
Biella, or should I say, the International Skyrunning Federation HQ (and home of Lauri van Houten and Marino Giacometti) 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 Mt. Mucrone and Camino.
“We moved here as the sports brand Fila were based here. In the 90’s they were a key sponsor for Skyrunning,” says Lauri van Houten, Executive Director for the International Skyrunning Federation.
“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 Marino and Lauri. It’s not a job; it’s a passion that dominates 12+ hours of every day. You will see the dynamic duo at all the Skyrunner World Series races every year. In total, that is 15 events in 3 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 stream of telephone calls, emails, logistical planning and negotiations that make the Skyrunner World Series tick.
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. 25-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.
“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.” Bruno Brunod says.
“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 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 was dubbed 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.”
Midway through the 2014 season, between Ice Trail Tarentaise and Trofeo Kima, I spend time with Lauri and Marino 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.
‘Casina’, Corteno Golgi. Italy.
The ‘Casina’ is a mountain house in Corteno Golgi close to Marino’s birthplace of San Antonio. Spread over two floors it is almost two completely different buildings. Upstairs is all wood, a combination of rustic/ modern and a wonderfully relaxing place that has been heavily influenced by Lauri. Downstairs is the original building, un-touched for years and one that harks back to Marino’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 Marino in a new light. He is at 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 and you are going to be able to spend a couple of days in the mountains with Marino,” says Lauri.
“They are filming a piece on Skyrunning and they want to take Marino back to his childhood, revisit old haunts and film Marino running in the mountains.”
I met Dean Leslie and Greg Fell from The African Attachment 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 turns amazing. The sky is adorned with clouds and as we climb with cameras, Marino runs to the instructions of Kelvin. Looking for ridges and technical lines, Marino 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. Marino 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 Marino’s childhood home. Marino laughs as he recounts boyhood memories.
“I used to go mushroom picking in this area.”
Following him up the trail, Kelvin wants Marino 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 the rewards from the land.
“In the Valle Campo Vecchio I would go skinny dipping in the river.”
Marino 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 provided that ultimate feeling of contentment that one longs for after a day in the mountains. Marino’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. 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 Lauri. “Bruno Brunod was Kilian’s hero. Kilian followed his dreams from the inspiration Bruno provided, Kilian is now the epitome of Skyrunning.”
Kilian first arrived on the scene in 2006 and impressed immediately. He was a natural Skyrunner. As the profile of Kilian has grown, so has Skyrunning. It seems a natural process of evolution of the sport and to that end Marino 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.
…continued. READ THE FULL ARTICLE by downloading you free edition (18) of Trail Run Mag at www.trailrunmag.com/magazines.