Technical Races in the Pyrenees – Skyrunning Appeals to U.S. Youth Athletes

Written by John Kerrigan, team leader, US Skyrunning Team. The American Trail Running Association is a longtime member of ISF and supporter of Skyrunning in the USA.

The US Youth Skyrunning Team concluded two days of Competition at the 2022 Youth Skyrunning World Championships on Mount Comapedrosa, Andorra the weekend of July 22nd. US Youth Skyrunning coach Ryan Kerrigan was quite pleased with the efforts of his five athletes saying, “We may be small in number but we have huge potential.” The 2022 US Youth Skyrunning Team was the smallest since the USA entered the first Youth Skyrunning World Championships in this very same venue in 2017.

In spite of this, youth Skyrunning in the United States is continuing to gain the interest of young off-road runners, “We are discovering pockets of youth mountain junkies in the most remote places,” said Kerrigan.

Josh Taylor, Benyat Froemming, Finn Tower Pierce, Naia Tower Pierce,  Sophie Mayers. Photo: John Kerrigan.

Alaska is one of those pockets skyrunners. In the last few years Alaskan runners have led the U.S. team with this year having 40% of the team comprised of young Alaskans. Sophie Mayers of Anchorage and Josh Taylor of Wasilla represented the “Great Land” and despite the record setting temperatures in the Pyrenees the natives of “Seward’s Icebox” performed well.

Josh Taylor had the highest finish ever accomplished by a U.S. U23 skyrunner with his 13th place finish in the Vertical Kilometer (VK) which was just short of spectacular, especially considering the 90+ degree temperatures. “When I saw him hanging with the Swiss runners at the halfway mark of the VK, I knew he was having a great race.” Said assistant coach John Kerrigan.

Skyrunning is unique and there are two disciplines in the Youth Skyrunning World Championships; A short, steep vertical kilometer (VK) and a longer up and down Skyrace. The VK is a race straight up the mountain for 1000 vertical meters. The Skyrace usually includes the VK plus another 10 – 20 km of course along high alpine ridges. In youth world championships, the races must go over 2000 meters above sea level and are usually well above tree line. It literally looks like the runners have dropped from the sky. Hence the name Skyrunning.

Beñat Froemming. Photo: iancorless.com.

Unlike most trail races in the United States, there are almost never any man-made trails on European skyrunning courses and no switchbacks. Skyrunning takes place over natural terrain that has not been improved by man. “It is rock solid mountain running in the raw environment of nature. It is cooler than mountain running races,” says Naia Tower-Pierce a nineteen year-old runner from Vermont. Naia is a four-time member of the U.S. Youth Skyrunning Team

The VK is steep, usually at lung-burning altitudes above 2000 meters, which makes it virtually impossible to run upright for the entire distance. Vermont native Hillary Gerardi who has had several podium finishes on the on the World Skyrunning circuit calls it “skycrawling.” Hillary finished 4th at the 2018 Ultra Skymarathon (Madeira, Portugal), 2nd at the 2017 Mont Blanc Vertical Kilometer (Chamonix, France) and 2nd at the 2017 Dolomites Skyrace (Italy).

Since 2017 the Youth Skyrunning World Championships have taken place in either Andorra or Italy. Several members of the U.S. team have ties to Europe which reduces their travel expenses. Finn and Naia Tower-Pierce do most of there training at the base of Mount Blanc near Chamonix where they live part of the year. Beñat Froemming, a member of the 2022 U.S. Youth Skyrunning Team is presently studying at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Beñat is a dual-citizen and grew up in the small Pyrenees mountain town of Idiazab, Spain.

Sophie Mayers. Photo: iancorless.com.

“The fact that several of our athletes were already in Europe and are familiar with the European culture, (Finn, Naia and Beñat are multi-lingual) when the team arrived in Andorra played to their advantage” said Ryan Kerrigan. Finn and Beñat placed in the top half of their respective categories in both the VK and Skyrace. “I think that in the future we will continue to attract, American mountain runners that have moved or live part time in Europe.” continued Ryan. Ryan himself is also considering a move to the Italian Alps in 2023.

Despite the small U.S. team, the 2022 U.S. Youth Skyrunning Team performed extremely well. Three of their five runners finished in the top 50% and the team finished a solid 15th out of 30 international teams and all 5 have indicated that they will return for the 2023 World Championships in Italy.

“These 5 athletes have gained valuable experience and will be the core of a solid 2023 team. With the continued growth of American runners living in Europe and the addition of American runners living in mountains of the U.S. (Alaska and Vermont) where Skyrunning is becoming part of the culture we will continue to have a formidable presence on the world stage.” Said the U.S. coach Ryan Kerrigan.

Finn Tower-Pierce. Photo: iancoreless.com.

“In many places of the U.S. one can see mountains. In certain areas of the country we are lucky enough to live in them. Youth runners that have mountains right out their back door have been most successful. We know there are youth runners living in the Sierras, Wasatch, Rockies, Chugiak’s, Black Hills the Green and the White Mountains that know nothing of Skyrunning. With a greater presence of a variety of youth mountain runners from the U.S. we will continue to grow our youth program,” said assistant coach John Kerrigan.

The US is full of true Skyrunning terrain, though it’s difficult for race directors to achieve the necessary permitting or insurance for events, a few events do manage to do so but the advent of FKTs and Strava also creates an outlet and measuring stick for more competitive Skyrunners.

The 2023 Youth Skyrunning World Championships will take place in Italy in late July. If you are interested in running where there are no ceilings contact Ryan Kerrigan (rnkerrigan@gmail.com) or visit our website www.skyrunningus.com

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