As the Skyrunning World Championships are well underway in Scotland right now, one woman in particular, Lauri van Houten, will be busy working hard behind the scenes, the place she likes best. As the VP and co-founder of the International Skyrunning Federation (ISF), Lauri has been instrumental in growing the sport of skyrunning over the past 25 years ago.
In this Q&A, Lauri chats about everything skyrunning and explains how it all began with mountaineer and skyrunning founder, Marino Giacometti’s Monte Rosa summit, in 1989.
You’ve been instrumental in growing the sport of skyrunning. Where did it all begin?
I was living in Alagna, a small mountain village in the Italian Alps and was operating a heli-skiing business with my partner on Monte Rosa. I met Marino Giacometti, a mountaineer, in 1989 when he set a record [running] from Genoa to the summit of Monte Rosa. He trained fast and light for his mountaineering exploits and records, so that was the start of this new sports concept – skyrunning – which he invented.
In 1992 I helped Marino organise the first event to the summit of Monte Rosa, 4,500m. Due to high winds, the summit wasn’t reached but we repeated the attempt successfully in 1993. I then fully realised what it meant for someone to race from Alagna to the top of Monte Rosa and back in 4hrs 24 – the first and standing men’s record. The women’s record was equally incredible, 5hs 34 by a local girl. I was astounded that a person could do such a thing and still be standing, talking and smiling – and not have to be scraped up by a spoon!
This was the real start of the sport and, with Fila as main sponsor, we left for New York to meet with the Fila PR team. The following day we landed in Aspen, Colorado to search for a potential race location, Castle Peak, which we organised there and on various summits in the Rockies from 1994 to 1998.
In that first year of activity, we repeated the Monte Rosa race, Mont Blanc, and the first race on the Tibetan plateau. The following years we expanded, adding the Mexican volcanoes, Mount Kenya and other new races in the Alps.
How did the sport of skyrunning grow from there?
In 1995 we saw the need to create a federation to govern the sport so we founded the Federation for Sport at Altitude with ten members. This was transformed into the current International Skyrunning Federation in 2008.
Building up the sport and making it global was a big job but I love every minute of it. From the first ten or so participants in the Monte Rosa race, we now count approximately 50,000 worldwide. The ISF has 43 member countries.
Before the internet it was more fun, as we’d travel to these wonderful mountain locations across the world. It meant usually acclimatising with the team – we had a ‘dream team’ of international runners – and were accompanied by a TV crew (Trans World Sport) a photographer and, on occasions, medical researchers. I always went on the courses, up the mountains, although my top altitude was only nearly 6,000m on Shisha Pangma. I didn’t care about summiting. For me, it’s more about the ‘journey’.
What do you love about the skyrunning world?
The runners who did these races and records fascinate me and it’s always great to meet and get to know them, see them grow and fall in love with the sport. I enjoy their successes and sympathise with their failures. Skyrunning isn’t about prize money or the stadium. The stadium is the mountain. Everyone who practises this sport does it for the love of it, the freedom of running in spectacular places and being pushed by the competition. Of course, we believe in rewarding our champions for their achievements with compulsory prize money at the races and an end of season prize purse.
More than an ‘interest’ in skyrunning, I would call it love. It’s been my life for 25 years.
For those who don’t know, can you explain what skyrunning involves?
The concept is defined as “running in the mountains above 2,000m altitude where the climbing difficulty does not exceed II° grade and the incline is over 30%”. Altitude is another factor. So, it’s about going up and down the mountains, not around them as in trail running. It also differs from trail running in that all our races must be concluded within 16 hours (which is when sleep deprivation kicks in). We don’t believe in running through the night or for days on end. (We have carried out considerable scientific research over the years).
The courses are generally quite technical, including scrambling sections, via ferrata (metal rails/rungs attached to a mountain) etc.and at altitude. As this is clearly not athletics we differentiate from IAAF disciplines under which trail running falls. We are unit members of the UIAA (International Climbing and Mountaineering Association) with whom we share common ground.
Do you have a background in running or mountain sports yourself?
Not running, but I was always very active. I left London and my high heels to live in the mountains where I stayed for 15 years skiing, mostly off-piste, and hiking on the surrounding mountains on the border with Switzerland (Monte Rosa). Mountains and skiing were also my work. I worked for several years in the ski school and then set up a heli-skiing business with my partner who was a guide. We also launched freeride, working mostly with small groups from Norway and Sweden.
Apart from skiing (in those days most of the year) and hiking, I also did some rock climbing to 6b. I love the freedom of the mountains and the outdoors. I’m really happy high up. With the skyrunning project I went up most of the mountains, except the Himalayan summits.
Skyrunners are some of the fittest athletes on the planet. Has it been interesting watching the journey and progression of the likes of Kilian Jornet, Mira Rai etc.?
Certainly. I think it’s fair to say both Kilian and Emelie Forsberg built their careers on skyrunning. Kilian was just 18 when he started in 2006. Emelie started in 2012 and immediately flew to the top of the Series and continued – both became Skyrunning World Champions and Skyrunner® World Series champions many times. It’s been wonderful to be able to see new talent and support athletes from different countries and see them grow… Anna Frost, Luis Alberto Hernando, Maite Maiora, Mira Rai, Zaid Ait Malek, Stevie Kremer, Megan Kimmel, Alex Nichols, the Mityaevs… are just a few.
What has been your most memorable skyrunning moment over the last decade?
Phew! That’s a tough one! Probably our Ultra launch in 2012 on La Palma in the Canaries where many of the world’s top runners joined us. We held a seminar to present skyrunning and get their feedback – Kilian was invited of course, but also US runners like Tony Krupicka and Sage Canaday who didn’t know what skyrunning was. When we showed them our film, The Sky’s the Limit, which dates back to ’95 we realised nothing had changed and they loved it!
I will also remember Kilian’s record on the Matterhorn in 2013. We were there to certify it for him as otherwise it would just have been an FKT (fastest known time). We had assisted the previous record-holder, Bruno Brunod, in 1995. Anyway, it’s always emotional at the finish line. It always excites me. We started the Skyrunning Youth Championships two years ago and it’s incredible to see some of the new talent out there. There’s a lot of young runners who want to try skyrunning.
With races all over Europe do you have a favourite skyrunning race?
Monte Rosa because that’s where it began, in my adoptive town, Alagna. Pure skyrunning to 4,500m. We helped many races build up to international level from scratch, like Kima (1995), Dolomites (1996), Limone (2012), Mont Blanc 80K (2013)… Zegama is always special. We were involved there since 2004. Transvulcania is a strong favourite. Epitomising the ‘sea to sky’ concept from the Atlantic Ocean to the top of the island’s highest volcano, the atmosphere is incredible with thousands of people at the finish line. Again, working together, we helped grow the race from 400 to more than 3,000 participants coming to the island.
Is it possible to say which the most challenging race is on the skyrunning calendar?
Races can be challenging for a number of reasons, including a stacked international field making the competition tough. Technically challenging for sure is Kima Trophy for the 7 passes, high altitude, scrambling… Just 30% manage to cross the finish line.
Kilian and Emelie’s specially designed Tromsø SkyRace® in Norway is as technical as they come.
With similar terrain, Scotland is an excellent candidate where we’re currently holding the World Champs. I’m psyched because I’m half Scot and grew up there. I never thought we could pull it off due to the lack of altitude, but the technical stretches sure make up for it!
You have a pretty demanding schedule – what does a typical day look involve?
Good question. I do a full day’s job in the office which starts at 9 and can finish at the same time in the evening. (I used to do more –fortunately, or unfortunately, our apartment is two floors above the office). If and when I can, during the week I fit in a couple of Pilates sessions at lunchtime and ideally a session of horse riding. In the evenings I often go to the nearby park which has a good incline and walk there for about 40 minutes.
What I love about my work is that it’s never boring and includes lots of multi- tasking, dealing with different people and different countries. There is no typical day, every day is different – thankfully!
Since 2016 our commercial circuit (www.skyrunnerworldseries.com) is now managed by a company, so I’m responsible only for communication, media and website content. However, between the Skyrunner World Series and Vertical Kilometer™ World Circuit there are 30 races to cover from May to November. That’s a lot of weekends! Add on the nine races from our skyscraper project, the Vertical World Circuit, and that’s nearly 40… I provide the content for all these sites, issue the press releases for the events and manage the photo editing. I think it amounts to the equivalent of publishing a book every year. Our office also handles requests from races to be on the various calendars, new members, sponsorships and social media. Social media is an extremely important element – our Skyrunning Facebook page now has 110k followers.
Do you travel a lot with your work?
Until recently, yes. We used to attend nearly all the races. Since 2016 there are too many. We also attend some of the VWC events or press conferences so it also means Paris, London, New York, Dubai, Seoul, Hong Kong in the spring and winter.
How many of the skyrunning events do you make it to in person?
Last year, I made it to Transvulcania, Madeira, Comapedrosa, Royal, Ultraks, Glen Coe, Limone and with the VWC, Dubai, New York, Seoul, Hong Kong. This year much less. Now we have a team onsite at all the events so my presence isn’t necessary, although was directly involved in this year in Transvulcania, Monte Rosa and Kima. We have the World Champs now in Scotland. We’ll close the season in Hong Kong in December with the VWC finals.
Have you seen a rise in the number of competitors in skyrunning over the last few years?
Yes, it’s becoming more and more popular. Remember that most of the events are capped for safety and environmental reasons, being on mountains, and strict vetting is applied. Some of the more extreme ones, like Kima, can take only 300 competitors. As races like these have become icons, we get well over a thousand requests. A rough calculation worldwide in recognised races is around 50,000 participants. Not bad considering there were just seven participants in the first race!
What is it do you think people love about skyrunning?
Being in the mountains, spectacular views, the air…. nature. The challenge of racing up and down a mountain pushing your own limits and being challenged by the rest of the field. The sport has become very competitive now. After road running, then trail running, skyrunning is the next level and young people want that – apart from running on Mars, there’s nothing more challenging. It’s cool. It’s sexy.
Who do you think of as the ultimate skyrunning athletes?
That’s easy. Kilian Jornet is a phenomenon. Not only his super-human running/climbing skills but his mindset. Needless to say, also his companion, Emelie Forsberg who shot to fame in a single year winning the Series in 2012. They’ve both been multiple times Skyrunning World Champs.
It’s been great to see Jonathan Albon, an obstacle racing world champion, become a skyrunning Series champion.Discovering the incredibly strong new talent from Norway and Sweden has been an inspiration. The new American runners like Hillary Gerardi are showing they can handle the European races and crush the competition. Then there’s Ragna Debats who’s been topping the rankings the last two years. Let’s remember she’s from the flatlands of Holland, although she lives in Catalonia. Strangely [perhaps], many Brits consistently excel in skyrunning. Way back, Rob Jebb and Angela Mudge became world champs… Today, there’s Tom Owens, Andy Symonds, Holly Page – they’re as tough as they come and they don’t have the Alps on their doorstep. Evidently, no-nonsense, tough, muddy fellrunning produces excellent skyrunners!
Do you live in the mountains? And are you pretty active in the mountains?
For the last 20 years I’ve lived in Biella, a town between Milan and Turin at the foot of the Alps. In 20 minutes you can get to 3,000m peaks, climb, hike, ski. The Aosta valley is half an hour away. Chamonix is a 1hr 40 drive so the location is pretty strategic for mountain activities. Before, I lived for 15 years in Alagna in a 17thcentury chalet with no road. Paradise.
I skied my knees away so had to give that up. I took up horse riding after that when I moved to Biella (and then owned my own horse). Twenty years ago, I crossed the Alps via the Theodule Pass on an amazing Arab stallion with two companions on horseback – from Cervinia to Zermatt and back in two days. Crazy, but it’s actually a world record… never to be repeated! I’ve become pretty sedentary due to work load and I’m feeling the negative impact on my health. I’m working to change that now. Moving and being outdoors is too important to me.
The Skyrunning World Championships are taking place now in Scotland. What should we expect?
Apart from possibly some rain: fabulous courses, wild mountains, great organisation and, of course, the best athletes! Apart from past world champions and top ranked runners, we’re expecting competitors from more than 40 countries – so super-excited!
Have you any exciting plans on the horizon for the ISF/skyrunning?
Given our very rich commercial calendar our plan is not to expand the international races in numbers, but introduce some new races. We want to develop the sport on a national level in countries where it already exists. Of course, we all do want to reach new countries and to reintroduce some ‘back to the roots’ extreme races for which there is always demand. The core of skyrunning will always be the Alps where the sport was born and the terrain is perfect.
This year, we re-launched the first race to the summit of Monte Rosa for its 25-year anniversary with the Monte Rosa SkyMarathon. I’m glad to say it was a resounding success with Emelie Forsberg and Kilian Jornet participating as well. The race will now be annual.
The ISF has a number of new projects and unrealised older ones just waiting to take off. We’re working on it! I like to think “Less cloud. More sky” – my philosophy for now… and the future.
You can find out more about skyrunning by visiting www.skyrunning.com and by following the official social media channels: www.facebook.com/skyrunningofficial, www.twitter.com/skyrunning_com and www.instagram.com/skyrunning.