Welcome to another week and over the course of the next three days, we’re going to feature the adventures and travels of NSW-based ‘vert’ athlete, James Stewart. James might not be someone the ‘ultra crowd’ is overly familiar with, but he’s made a bit of a name for himself in the concept of ‘tower-climbs’, where the goal is to climb some of Australia’s and indeed, the world’s tallest buildings, as you’ve guessed it, up the stairs in as quick a time as possible.
It’s a case of ‘pure vert’ and James recently spent the European summer doing some of the continent’s most famous vertical k races, including the infamous Red Bull V3, which features over 3,000m of climbing in just 10kms. James has very kindly written a report of his time over in Europe, centring on the V3 challenge, which saw him place in a highly respectable 31st place. As you’ll read further on down, only the top 20% of the field are actually allowed to finish the race!
James also reflects on some of his other races and in the future, we’ll be featuring a bit more from James on some of the great places in Australia to train for the vertical km, as well as what’s required to do well in these types of events.
We’ll be featuring three parts to James’ summer and in part one, James sets the scene for the V3 race, held on the rather oddly-named, Mount Rocciamelone.
“Are you okay? …Are you okay?”
Two concerned spectators hovered over my hyperventilating body, spread-eagled on the craggy summit of Rocciamelone (3,538 m) in Susa, Italy.
Briefly shocked someone was speaking English to me; I gasped in reply, “Water… Water…”
They scurried off, and as I waited, I contemplated rockmelons. Why name this mountain after a delicious watery fruit, my forebrain questioned. Meanwhile, my depleted survival brain quickly interjected to remind me, “I wouldn’t mind one right now.”
Unfortunately, I didn’t see any rockmelons, just a rocky hell, windswept in misty clouds, lurching ominously over an Italian valley some 3,000 meters below. All I could imagine was the name of the mountain was a metaphor to explain what happens to weary climbers who may tumble down the steep mountain as a melon would. Thankfully, the gradient had eased off at 60% during the race, preventing such demise for the athletes taking part.
On most days, there is no life up here on this jagged peak. Today, the top of the mountain was an athletic warzone. The destroyed bodies of some of the most conditioned athletes in the world laid strewn across the summit, pondering their sanity.
On this day, the mountain was not Rocciamelone, but Toro Rosso (Italian for Red Bull). Cans of empty Red Bull dotted the pointed summit, similar to the Tibetan prayer flags on the summit of Everest, held towards the reluctant athletes by an eager race organiser. Most appeared to partake, after all, we still had to get down the mountain and virtually every ounce of energy was spent getting to the top. Unlike some other European vertical races, there was no cable car trip back down the mountain.
August’s Red Bull K3 race involves 11km distance with a brutal 3030 meters of ascent over the final 9km, heralding Europe’s first ever triple vertical kilometer (VK) course. This year was only the second running of the race. Given the short duration of VK races, it was inevitable that new harder courses would emerge to present bigger challenges in this genre of “first one to the top” racing.
A VK is popular race format in Europe, designed to ascend 1,000 vertical meters in the shortest distance possible, serving as the summer season conditioner for ski-mountainers who make up the bulk of the elite VK racers. From the outset, foreigners are at a distinct disadvantage to these athletes who have grown up on steep terrain and trained their techniques to maximise the use of climbing poles.
The world record for a VK is just under 30 minutes, held by Italian La Sportiva pro Urban Zemmer, on the VK course at Fully, Switzerland, one of the steepest in the world with its mere 1.9km distance. Zemmer took up the sport on a doctor’s advice, after an accident that compromised his knee. His ethos is, “When you can go out to run, it means you’re still alive.” Zemmer’s world record is even more impressive when you find out he did it at age 44. Vertical racing brings the veterans back into the mix.
My journey was similar; I shattered the patella cartilage to the bone in my right knee after a collision in a touch football game in 2005. After an operation, I was told it would never be 100% again. Two years later I started running at age 28, but only uphill. I was unable to run downhill without pain for another 5 years, so I would slowly walk or jog downhill. Despite knee issues, running had been my salvation from back pain, after suffering debilitating stress fractures following a lengthy cricket career. Scans in 2014 of my knee stunned my doctor, “Remarkably normal appearing knee given the history of the previous chondroplasty.” I can now run downhill pain-free, if anything, vertical running had healed my knee. I am a big advocate of the paradigm, use it or lose it.
Since then, I have raced two seasons in Europe, once in 2013 and again this year, the first Australian to regularly race on the European vertical circuit. I’ve run more European Skyrunning races than any Australian and I’ve been completely self-funded and unsupported by any sponsors. I’ve worked hard and improved for modest success, still falling well short of the European professionals in this form of racing.
There are plenty of Australian runners who can do better, but haven’t raced these types of races yet. It’s a niche sport because we have limited terrain suitable to VK’s in Australia. Despite those limitations, I have trained intelligently and competed well. I do it because I truly love this sport. Most people don’t really understand why one would do it, but I enjoy it because it provides amazing mountains experiences in a relatively short period. My body will not withstand ultra distance races, and I don’t desire to do them either.
Rocciamelone is a unique mountain because its terrain allows a direct route up the mountain for the entire 3,000 meters ascent as it soars above the valley below. There are taller mountains in Europe, but none seemingly offer the running access afforded by this mountain. Almost half of the K3 course involves off-piste scrambling, but overall it is a very safe course by European standards. Often, a VK course ignores established mountain paths, finding the most direct route to the summit allowing athletes to choose their own adventure up the mountain.
While other trails wind up the mountain, the direct line up reaches gradients as high as 60% on its majestic alpine grass wall before tapering to 40% gradients nearing its rocky summit. On this grass wall, running is impossible, and crawling on all fours quickly overtakes power hiking as the preferred technique. The entire 9km, 3,030m climbing section of the K3 averages 30% gradient.
The race begins as the athletes weave out of the Italian town Susa (pop. 6,700) at altitude 503m, 50km west of the city of Turin. The Susa Valley is an important hub connecting several roads from southern France to Italy; the French border is nearby. Incredibly, for such an extreme mountain race, the first 2km of the Red Bull K3 race is flat road pavement. This is due to the European tradition of starting races adjacent to the spiritual center of town; the runners began next to the Cathedral Saint Giusto.
Under a police car escort, and an ovation from the local community, the runners weave through a maze of cobbled streets, across the busy highway and towards the mountain. Running fast on road tarmac before a big climb is far from ideal when you are wearing grippy minimalist shoes and have trained the legs for vertical power, not flat speed. However, this just adds to the appeal of this race. It is akin to the traditional Rugby League State of Origin softening up period during the first ten minutes when the athletes bash themselves with high-intensity collisions before settling into the more sustainable arm wrestle. The forward pack surviving this period better often goes on to dominate field position and score the opening points, taking command of the game. Track position is often vital in the few VK races that feature a mass start, rather than the more common time-trial format.
The softening up period matters, because the race clock in the Red Bull K3—for all the runners—inexplicitly does not start until the first runner reaches the base of the climb, 2km into the race. There are no timing chips, the time starts for every runner when the first runner crosses this mark, so if you are way back in the distance during those first 2km, you lose time before the race even begins. At the very least, it spreads the field thin before hitting the narrow track up the mountain.
As we maneuvered through town, the top runners appeared to hold effortlessly back to prevent running into the back of the police escort. This allowed me to maintain pace with the leaders; I was thankful. Despite the regulated pace, there was considerable jocking for position at the front just before we hit the goat track up the mountain. The first 2km averaged 3:48km/pace, my heart rate was pushing near the limit I had set for myself, but I wanted to be near the front as the climb began. Just shy of 8 minutes in, we had already covered 20% of the course distance.
The other quirk of this race is only the top 20% participants—70 of the approximately 350-400 in the men’s field—are allowed to finish the race to the top of the mountain. At the penultimate checkpoint; Rifugio Ca’ d’Asti (2,850m), some 700 vertical meters short of the summit, those outside the top 20% are stopped. Additionally, only 80% of the race field were allowed through the first checkpoint at Trucco (1,670m), 1,200m of ascent into the race. These runners are still acknowledged on the supplementary race results noting the times to each checkpoint. If you do not make the cutoff, there is no one stopping you from continuing without your race bib; simply your time to the summit will not be recognized, and the race organisers are no longer responsible for your safety.
I believe the purpose of these checkpoints discourages people from entering this race who are not up to the challenge and might not be able to get down the mountain in a timely and safe manner. Those people are stopped well before they hit the windswept exposed slopes. After all, this is a mountain that might take upwards of 8-10+ hours for a regular fit hiker just to reach the summit. Unlike the first running of the K3, we were blessed with warm sunny skies.
Ultimately, this is a race designed for the best. Many people can attempt this race, but it takes a strong, fit athlete to be an actual finisher of the Red Bull K3. There is no prize, no medal, no token, other than your personal satisfaction. Every single finisher knows the suffering required to make it; the pain brings with it humility. Even if you finish, you know the mountain still won. Please do not attempt this race if it is your first vertical race in Europe.
The question is why do it? In the famous words of the Mt Everest climbers, “because it’s there!” While ultra distance racing has taken off as a true challenge of stamina and endurance for runners, the Red Bull K3 stands alone as the ultra version of short distance vertical racing.
As Kilian Jornet has shown in his record-breaking ascents of epic mountains, the K3 is a way for people to experience this in a safer organized way. Running to the summit of a mountain is a simple concept drawing me to this niche sport seven years earlier. Unlike running on flat or undulating terrain, where you might just give up whenever it feels too hard, ascending a mountain presents you with one objective, keep going until the summit is achieved. This is the mindset that keeps me going in these races.
Join us tomorrow for part two of James’ adventures.