Colorado Escapist: The Skyrunning Capital of America in Rocky Mountain National Park
Want more from Colorado Escapist host Shawna Henderson? Read on for her experience on the local’s-only climbing routes at Arapahoe Basin and her time on a J24 sailing crew for the Dillon Open Regatta.
Look up in the sky. It’s a bird! No, it’s a plane! Wait — it’s a skyrunner?
In attempts to escape the cold weather and set myself up for a real challenge, I took a short trip north to the beautiful town of Estes Park to explore running in Rocky Mountain National Park, what some consider the Skyrunning Capital of the USA.
Skyrunning is a relatively new extreme sport in the United States; however, athletes in Europe have been doing it since the mid-’90s. It’s believed the sport was started by an Italian mountaineer, Mario Giacometti, who had this crazy idea to grab a few of his climbing friends and race up Mont Blanc in the French Alps. Since then, the sport has continued to soar and is now legit in the U.S. with the creation of a governing body, the International Skyrunning Federation.
But what is it?
Before the trip to Estes Park people would ask me, “What is skyrunning?” Basically, it is running in a high-altitude environment (above 2,000 meters, or roughly 6,600 feet) in harsh, uneven and difficult terrain.
Skyrunning is different than everyday trail running for three big reasons: the ultra-extreme terrain, elevation gain and distance. An efficient skyrunner takes shorter (yet faster) strides than typical runners. They must keep their feet centered and trust quick foot placement on rocky or steep terrain. Developing snappy reaction times, especially when going downhill, is a good technique to learn.
The sport of skyrunning
For a while after Giacometti’s Mont Blanc race, the sport was a free-for-all, with very few rules or regulations. In 2008, the ISF categorized races into three distinct types.
Sky: A race that covers more than 22 kilometers (13.67 miles) but fewer than 50K, with at least 1,300 meters (3,900 feet) of vertical climb.
Ultra: High-alpine races longer than 50K that exceed the vertical climb for sky races.
Vertical: Shorter distances, usually under 5K, with at least 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) of vertical gain.
Why Estes Park?
In Estes Park, I had a chance to catch up with Derek Brooks, a local skyrunner. He mentioned that RMNP, which borders the small mountain town, is becoming a central hub for stateside skyrunning enthusiasts. Every year, Estes hosts the annual U.S. Trail Running Conference, a gathering of local and international runners, race directors and more who call the area their playground.
Crowds? The reality is that most tourists hike less than 0.25 miles into trails at RMNP, Brooks said, so the rest of the trail is yours to enjoy. Welcome to a skyrunner’s paradise with more than 265,000 acres, 60 peaks topping out above 12,000 feet, and 350 miles of breathtaking trails. You are sure to fall in love with every step.
The best part about this area is that it offers a variety of terrain with technical trails, plus a range of elevation gains with easy access to high-altitude training. Brooks loves the challenge that skyrunning offers, along with the hours of personal time that bring a sense of calm. It doesn’t hurt that the views are pretty epic.
Training in the sky
In order to get into the sport, you first need a desire to be outside in the mountains and crave a connection with nature. It’s not always easy: Unlike trail running on backyard trails like Flumes or French Gulch, the elements of high-alpine skyrunning terrain are harsh landscapes, and chances are you’ll encounter rapidly changing temperatures and weather conditions on a single run.
Here are a few keys to begin your journey:
Patience: Like any sport, it is essential to start slowly, and then work your way up to more advanced terrain.
Elevation change: As you make your progression, it is best to begin at lower altitudes, and then slowly increase the distance and elevation gain of your runs.
Change your mindset: Skyrunning is quite different than road running, so you must change your perception of distance and training goals.
But how often should you run to be efficient in a race? The answer is to train on high-altitude terrain with vertical gain at least three days a week. Over time, give your sessions variety and cross-train with biking, alpine touring or another activity for two sessions per week.
Get geared up
I had a chat with Molly Mikita at Vertical Runner, located on Main Street Breckenridge, to talk about the right running gear an athlete needs to excel at skyrunning. She’s an expert who recently completed a marathon at the base of Mount Everest, and as owner of Vertical Runner she gave me tips anyone can use.
Running in the high alpine can be completely different than a road run, Mikita said. She highly recommends appropriate running shoes, with a different type of structure and outsole than road-running shoes. Brands like La Sportiva, Salomon, Montrail and even Reebok make men’s and women’s models specifically for skyrunning.
Hydration is also key due to the long distances and high-alpine environment of a skyrunning rage. Since weather changes quickly, a backpack or hip-pack is essential for carrying water, food (like energy gels) and layers. She recommended a lightweight beanie, gloves and jacket.
Keep in mind: The best skyrunning gear is different for everyone, and the team at Vertical Runner can help you find the right stuff.
Like a superhero
As the runner’s high kicked in at RMNP, I can only explain the experience as surreal. Magical moments happen everyday, but few are as profound as the mixture of 360-degree views and mesmerizing fall colors we found on the trail.
Then, there was the achievement. There is always a sense of accomplishment when you reach the top of any peak, but more than that, I felt peace deep within my core. Skyrunning made me feel like a superhero flying high above the ground far, far below. The cooler high-alpine temperatures energized my body to go further and faster than expected, as my feet jumped from one rock to the next.
If you have a desire to take your running to the next level, I highly recommend making a trip to RMNP, or even the Tenmile Range high above Breckenridge, to spend a day skyrunning in the Colorado mountains.
Shawna Henderson is a multi-sport adventure athlete and founder of AdrenalinEscapes.com, a web-based booking platform to connect active travelers with guides and adventure sports in Colorado. Through her website and writing, Shawna offers insights on new outdoor gear, activities and destinations to fuel your passion.
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