The definition of “Vertical Kilometer” is simple: a thousand meter drop on the shortest distance possible to perform against the clock.
Yves Jeannotat, sports journalist and specialist in athletics
The Vertical Kilometer in Fully, Switzerland is the shortest yet fastest vertical kilometer in the world. It is the first race of sorts in the European ski mountaineering calendar and organized by the local ski mountaineering team, Team La Trace.
Racers from all over the alps show up to showcase what is to come for the new season. Ten of these vertical races exist in France, Italy and Switzerland with the Fully race being perhaps the steepest holding an average grade of over 60% - poles are a necessity. Having heard about this race last year I decided I wanted to go over and give it a try and kickstart my training regime. Coming off a three week climbing vacation (post is coming, BB is operating on a time space continuum and going backwards in blog post time this month) I was certainly was not prepared for what I experienced, but what an awesome event to be a part of - some amazingly talented athletes. For more info on how to train for events such as this, click here (will need translation) for Team La Trace’s training information.
The stunningly beautiful course is located near Martigny, Switzerland, in the sunny Rhone Valley. The event starts in a vineyard at the Belle Usine in Fully at 500 meters. The course follows an old railway track that was formerly used for hauling the grape harvest and continues up to Garettes at 1500 meters - the actual flat distance covered being 1920 meters. A panoramic view of the alps and the orchards and vineyards of valley awaits all who brave the crazy event.
As it is a narrow track (the cut in the trees can be seen from all across the valley) the race is conducted as a time trail, with each racer getting a specific departure time about 10-15 seconds apart, the first racer departing at 8:40. The faster your estimated time, the later you compete. I requested and early start time as I needed to be somewhere later in the day. While this was nice as no one was on course, it was a little lonely and not as motivational. Later in the day racers waited at the top and lined the course cheering the best of the best on as they ran, not hiked up the steep grade.
I entered the start area and lined up (bibs in descending order). On the command to depart, I ran at controlled pace, really having no idea what to expect. The first half was more gradual, each 100 meters marked by a small white sign. After about 400 meters the course left the vineyards of Euloz, running through a dusty tunnel and entered the forest. After 500 meters I looked up and realized the course went way vertical. I could see the white 100m signs above taunting me, an optical illusion making them appear closer together. My legs and I both thought “whoa” at the same time. 600 meters marked a small aid station andI gratefully grabbed some water. About 800 meters up I regretted wearing a long sleeve shirt in spite of the thick frost on my car that morning. I switched my Buff from my head to my wrist to help with the sweat. Leaning hard on my poles I fell into a pattern, planting the poles way out front, hiking a few steps and replanting my poles using my arms as much as possible. I could feel the lactic acid (major burnage) building up and occasionally looked up to navigate the breaks in the rungs on the track.
900 meters up I saw the road crossing the track where the announcers and and a few spectators had set up camp and cheered us on. A young boy was lower on course and called out each number to the announcer above. He was pretty talented with the microphone I thought to myself as he yelled my bib number. The emcee would identify the racer on the start-list and then loudly call each name yelling “Bravo”, or “Allez” - or whatever cheer the racer’s nationality dictated. Mistakenly I thought it was the finish - no dice. Racers hiked up onto the road and then finished the last 50 meters or so to the summit.
Dripping with sweat while hanging over my poles, my friend, photographer and cheerleader Gen handed me some water and listened while I ranted about never doing it again. I recovered for a minute or so and we walked down to the aid station and grabbed some food while watching the remaining racers file up the mountain. They got faster and faster towards the end of the morning and I realized the race was indeed a precursor of what was to come for the ski mountaineering season. I got a little nervous, these people were ready to roll! Time to get down to business, I was inspired for the new season.
Laticia Roux broke the women’s record by 14 seconds and completed the course in 37.55. Serge Garnier won for the men in a time of 32:14 only 22 seconds behind the record set by Kilian Jornet - even more impressive is that he is a veteran (over 40 years old). Four hundred and twenty five people participated in the vertical kilometer under blue skies and perfect weather. When it was all said and done racers ran down a separate path and reconvened at the school gym for the traditional brisolee - or roasted chestnuts - with a side of cheese and fruit. Thanks to Team La Trace for another amazing day and another new cultural experience.
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