The world of the Vertical Kilometer® Race
Written By: Ben Mounsey
I consider myself to be an experienced trail runner, having trained and raced for most of my life. But it wasn’t until a few years ago that I completed my first ever VK (Vertical Kilometer®). In all honesty, it was one of the toughest, most challenging and excruciatingly painful experiences of my entire life. It took me over 41 minutes to complete the 4km route – my lungs were burning, my legs were on fire and I was gasping for breath for the entire duration of the race… but in a strange and very sadistic way, I absolutely loved it!
WHAT IS A VERTICAL KILOMETER®?
A VK is no ordinary race. The rules are simple – run uphill as fast as you possibly can! Every VK is different and unique, but must always include 1000m of climb, in less than 5km of distance.
Such is the popularity of this type of race, there is now even a Vertical Kilometer® World Circuit, with fixtures all over the globe, most commonly held in the mountains of the Alps and Pyranees. There are now even two Vertical Kilometer® races in the UK – the Salomon Mamores VK and the Snowdon VK.
And if 1000m of climbing isn’t enough, there is the Red Bull K3 - a triple VK race, with a continuous leg-crushing ascent of 3000m. However, I wouldn’t recommend tackling this beast until you’ve completed a standard VK first.
THE VERTICAL KILOMETER® WORLD RECORDS
In 2017, Italian Philip Goetsch set a new world record for the VK discipline at the Kilomètre Vertical® de Fully, in Switzerland. At 1.9km and reaching an altitude of 1,500m, he completed the race in an astonishing 28’53”!!!
In 2019, at the Vertical® du Grand Serre, in France, in a superhuman time of 34’01”, Axelle Gachet-Mollaret became the new women’s world record holder for the VK, smashing her own previous WR from 2018. This particular race is famously known as the world’s shortest and steepest VK, with an incredible 1,000m of vertical climb over a distance of just 1.8 km!
BEN MOUNSEY AT THE PIZ-TRI VERTICAL, IN MALONNO. PHOTO CREDIT: JUSTIN BRITTON
WHY YOU SHOULD TRY A VERTICAL KILOMETER®
For anyone reading this and still wanting to try a VK, there are a good number of reasons to sign up and take part. Firstly, they’re an amazing challenge – a race completely different to anything that you’ve ever done before. To run a fast VK, it requires lots of training and maximal effort during the race, from start to finish. But you could always just run (or walk) for fun! They always finish at the top of a mountain and the panoramic views are always incredible. The Piztri Vertical, in Malonno, Italy, even has a mobile bar at the finish, serving Bèpete Bam mountain beer – definitely worth the effort to get to the top! Please remember that at some point you will need to return to the bottom of the mountain and drinking at altitude usually makes the 1000 metre descent more challenging than the uphill race itself.
MY TOP TIPS FOR RUNNING A VERTICAL KILOMETER®
1. PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
Power to weight ratio is the key to VK success. Training your body and legs to climb continuously at pace for 1000m takes serious commitment and effort.
Ideally, the best training is on a VK course or a hill over 1000m. It takes practice to train your body to climb for this length of time and you need to know how to pace your effort. However, if you live in the UK, then obviously you will struggle to find a climb over 1000m, especially if you live in England! In all the VK races I’ve competed in so far, I’ve always felt strong up until around 700m of climb and the last 300m is my ‘death zone’!
It’s best to mix up your training as running up and down too many long mountains all of the time is not always good for the specific demands of a VK. I would recommend regular hill reps, but varying the gradient, distance, terrain and speed, especially as every VK race is different and unique. Leading up to an event, sessions below 60 minutes will help keep you sharp and ready for race day.
KIRSTY HALL COMPETING IN THE SALOMON MAMORES VK. PHOTO CREDIT: JAMES MACKEDDIE
2. POLE POSITION
Most of the top mountain runners use poles for VK races. Poles help to balance your centre of gravity and are advantageous when gradients become much steeper, but only if you know how and when to use them. That said, you don’t have to run with them to compete.
My personal choice are the Leki Micro Trail Running Poles and it’s important to carefully check the size guide so you choose the correct length of pole for your height.
I would recommend trying them if you’re serious about improving your climbing performance, particularly on the steeper VK courses. However, you will need to practice your technique before using them during a race.
3. BUILD YOUR STRENGTH
All the best runners have a super strong core. It’s what drives everything during exercise and is essential when you’re climbing the hills. If you improve your core strength, it will help to improve your technique and ultimately this will have a positive impact on your results. You don’t even need to go to a gym to improve your core strength, as exercises can be done in the comfort and convenience of your own home. Try and challenge yourself to do a certain amount of planks, sit ups, press ups, burpees etc. daily or a few times a week. There are lots of websites that provide good ideas and guidance on core and cross workouts for runners.
The more consistently you train, the easier it gets. US international trail and mountain runner Peter Maksimow, has the perfect daily routine – 15 minutes of planking, 50 pull-ups, along with 160 pushups (2 sets of 80 - wide and narrow stance) and 320 sit-ups/crunches (varying types). His plank record is 2hrs 22min 22sec and he admits to drinking several beers during that time. No matter what he’s doing, or where he is in the world, he will always make sure he completes these exercises – even if it means planking on the floor in an airport!
Most importantly, you need a strong pair of legs for competing in Vertical Kilometer® races. Exercises such as lunges, calf raises, leg press, leg extension, squats and box jumps are all great ways to help improve your leg strength.
4. TREAT YOUR FEET!
Running light=running fast in the world of Vertical Kilometer®.
So, it’s very important to wear and use the right kit – this includes clothing, poles and especially shoes! My top recommendations for trail running shoes are the inov-8 X-Talon G 210 and the La Sportiva VK Boa. Both are incredibly lightweight and have unbeatable grip, making them the perfect choice for uphill racing.
THE PUIG CAMPANA VK, COSTA BLANCA, SPAIN.
5. HAVE FUN!
Choosing and racing a Vertical Kilometer® is tons of fun! There are loads of races to choose from and it will give you a great opportunity to visit somewhere new and exciting.
You don’t always need to race either. Some VK routes, like the 1000m climb to the summit of Puig Campana, in Alicante, Spain, are marked with permanent signs which allow you to have a go at your own leisure, without competing in a race environment.
Visit the official website of Vertical Kilometer® World Circuit to see the official fixtures for next season, or check out this blog on the Trail and Kale website, for some top VK race recommendations.
WARNING: VK’s are very addictive and can seriously improve your health!