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.
Josh Taylor, a 22 year-old, fair-skinned, slightly built Alaskan mountain runner with a warm smile and piercing blue eyes thought he was prepared for the expected. The expected? The challenge to race to the top of a VK (vertical kilometer) race at almost 3000 meters above sea level in the small mountainous European country of Andorra.
And then, two days later, run a 24 km skyrace. The skyrace included repeating most of the VK course followed by a heart-pounding run over several mountain peaks, finished off by a punishing steep downhill over loose gravel and scree. One miscalculation, one step a hair too long, too short, too high or low could end with sprained ankles and bloody appendages. Add to this, record temperatures over 100 degrees that the mountains of Europe has rarely seen, the young Alaskan whose native surroundings rarely see temperatures above 70 degrees would be tested.
Josh Taylor was selected to race at the Youth Skyrunning World Championships as part of the US team. He knew the races would be fiendishly difficult but he was prepared. He ran to the tops of the mountains at high altitude near his home in Wasilla, Alaska. At the encouragement of US Skyrunning coach Ryan Kerrigan, he spent hours in a sauna at a local health club to prepare for the heat. He also entered several competitive races on the Alaska mountain runners racing circuit including races at Mt Alyeska, the Matanusla Challenge, and the famous Mt. Marathon.
These races are extremely challenging. Challenges stimulate growth and build resilience. They lay a solid foundation for success later in life. Challenges are life’s way of making sure that we truly desire the things we want to achieve. They help produce inner fortitude. Josh knew this and so did his teammates Sophie, Naia, Finn and Beñyat as they came together as Team USA and were ready to face the challenge of the mountain and the skilled Skyrunners from mountainous countries all over the world.
Many of the European athletes received much more help in their race preparation than the Americans did. Some received professional coaching, a team uniform, financial support from their national governments and the emotional support that develops when athletes train together. For the most part, all of the young American athletes trained in isolation in different parts of the country.
Challenges in life are best met while working with others and drawing on their support. The challenge of putting a man on the moon required the astronauts to work together but for every astronaut in space there were hundreds of scientists on the ground supporting them. As the English poet, John Donne said, “We are not islands unto ourselves”. We live in communities and we flourish best, not as isolated individuals, but as people embedded in supportive communities. Facing challenges forces us to work together.
The greater the challenge, the more support we need. This is not only true in space travel but also in skyrunning. The challenges of running up a mountain at very steep lung-burning altitude and racing downhill as fast as one can go on loose rock and scree requires support. Nowhere is this better exemplified than at the finish line of a European VK race. The presence of a splash of the colors of racing singlets and international flags and the shouts of encouragement of young runners of all nations, races and backgrounds is exhilarating for the runners and pushes them over the top. Often they will collapse in the arms of a competitor that they may have been battling just minutes before on one of the many steep climbs!
This is Skyrunning!
There is no sport like it in the world. Athletes are all racing to that blue flag at the summit together. Not as individuals but together as representatives of all nations, religions and creeds. This is the human race at its finest. This “esprit de corps” is only seen in primates and man. As Jane Goodall would say, this gives us “ a reason for hope.”
Josh was well prepared to face all of the challenges that Mother Nature was going to throw at him during the VK and the skyrace. However, he was not prepared for the challenges of international travel. Alaska is 10 time zones from Andorra. It requires 3 flight layovers, dealing with changes in diet, climate, culture, language and remaining healthy during a worldwide pandemic on crowded airplanes and airport terminals. “What the heck, he had to fly over the North Pole to get here,” remarked assistant coach John Kerrigan
Josh also suffers from Celiac disease (an allergy to gluten.) This nutritional anomaly can normally be controlled but became more serious upon his arrival in Arinsal, Andorra. All of Josh’s luggage including his nutritional supplements to help control his gluten allergy never made on his final flight from Geneva to Barcelona!
“We are all in this together,” said coach Ryan Kerrigan. “Let’s support Josh as best we can.” The other four Americans loaned Josh articles of clothing, shared energy supplements and their emotional support. Aricell Mayers, the Mexican-American mother of team member Sophie Mayers, volunteered to use her linguistic skills to help. Most Andorrans speak Spanish in addition to their native Catalan. Aricell, a native of Guadalupe Mexico traveled to the nearest Andorran city located two bus trips away. She communicated in Spanish with several pharmacists and retrieved Josh’s much-needed dietary supplements.
Ariceli’s kindness and support were not limited to members of Team USA. In the absence of a coach, the members of the Peruvian and Bolivian Skyrunning teams who adopted Aricelli as their team Mom.
It was a great example of teamwork. Parents, coaches and fellow team members all working together to support Josh. And it paid off for the Alaskan. Despite scorching temperatures, lost luggage, travel through ten time zones, nutritional challenges and unfamiliarity with the culture, language and terrain, Josh had impressive results. He finished top 15 in the Vertical Kilometer (VK) and in the top 20 in the skyrace. His 13th place in the VK was the best ever finish by an American U23 runner at this championship.
Josh and his team leader, Ryan Kerrigan was quite pleased with Josh’s race results. “Could you imagine what he could do, if he lived over here for a month or two before racing?” remarked Kerrigan, a Vermont native who is considering a move to Italy.
After several days of rest and relaxation in Barcelona, Josh’s challenges continued. His trip on the German carrier, Lufthansa was canceled due to a strike, his luggage remained in Geneva and he had no way to get home. Josh was last seen wearing a pair of worn trail running shoes, carrying a small backpack with a few borrowed belongings wandering the beaches and small cafes in Barcelona. He hoped someday to return to Wasilla, Alaska.
Josh Taylor returned home safely to Wasilla on July 31, 2022, four days after his cancelled flight.