By James Stewart
October 1 2020
Kilian Jornet had never officially run a Vertical KM under 30 minutes before -- despite a handful of other European athletes having accomplished the feat – but he finally did so on September 17 2020 (the day prior to his 2020 Sierre Zinal victory), when he ran 29'51" on the Fully VK course. You can see Jornet’s activity on Strava here for verification: https://www.strava.com/activities/4072120072
Jornet – and his sponsor Salomon – have been relatively silent about the achievement on social media thus far, but this is not out of the ordinary, potentially due to an upcoming Salomon Running video of the feat .. or perhaps since Jornet still fell 1' short of the world record he decided it wasn't worth publicising. Jornet did post a short video on his Instagram feed which you can see below:
On July 4 2020, Jornet’s Salomon teammate Remi Bonnet also achieved the feat for the first time. Below is the Salomon featurette video of Bonnet’s earlier attempt this year “The 30-minute Barrier” when he fell just 10 seconds short of the feat:
As is customary following a gruelling VK time-trial, Bonnet comments “never again” while splayed out on the ground following the effort. However, Bonnet quickly put the pain of the day behind him and returned a few weeks later to run 29’53” as documented here: https://www.strava.com/activities/3710640719.
Vertical KM racing is very popular with a long history in European SkyRunning tradition. A vertical kilometre race is an up-hill mountain running race that ascends 1000 vertical meters in the shortest distance possible. Traditionally, the maximum distance for a vertical km race in Europe is any course that can climb 1000 vertical meters in less than 5km (5000m).
If you want a good understanding of what it takes to run a vertical KM in under 30-minutes, take a look at this video of Stian Angermund-Vik’s 31-minutes up the 1.9km course in Cabrales, Spain, where he left a series of destroyed cameraman in his wake. This video is the only time an elite VK attempt has been filmed in full:
The Vertical Kilometer was invented in 1994 by skyrunning founders and is now governed by the International Skyrunning Federation which certifies all courses. The first Vertical Kilometer took place in Cervinia, Italy on August 20, 1994. The race was won by Italian Ettore Champretavy in 40’44”. Two years later, at the Face de Bellevarde in Val d’Isère, France by skyrunning legend, Bruno Brunod set a new mark of 38’29”.
The steepest vertical km races in the world are 1.9km in distance at Fully in Switzerland and 1.8km Grand Serre in France. At Fully, the world record time for a vertical KM race was set by Italian Philip Götsch in 28'53". At the Grand Serre, French woman Axelle Mollaret set the women's record of 34’44” in 2018. Götsch is not well known outside of European circles and primarily trained as a climbing road cyclist. He regularly featured in the Dolomites Vertical KM race for a number of years before improving to take the VK world record and wining the Skyrunning Vertical KM championship in 2016.
The only athletes who have broken the 30-minute barrier are VK specialists Götsch and Urban Zemmer, so it is quite incredible that Jornet has now done it given his versatility as an athlete across many different forms of trail running. VK racing is the most set apart from other forms of endurance trail running, due to its far higher level of short-power requirements. Although at 30-minutes still requires bucket loads of endurance.
Götsch battled it out with Jornet and Urban Zemmer in a famous battle during the 2013 Dolomites VK as seen below, which was undoubtedly Jornet’s greatest triumph in VK racing. Kilian made a famous move under the saddle banner just 100m from the top of the course, when he surged to overtake and outpower both Zemmer and Gotsch to claim victory that day. It was a rare occasion for Jornet to topple Zemmer, who was the long-standing reigning champion of the sport, and usually unbeatable on steep terrain and the use of poles to go fast.
Zemmer hit back a year late in 2014, becoming the first man to break 30-minutes in a VK, when he ran 29’42” at Fully to smash the VK world-record. In his 40’s, the VK champion Zemmer was hitting the twilight of his career and by 2015, Götsch was the new crown holder at the Dolomites toppling Zemmer as you can watch below:
Götsch then ascended to supremecy in 2017 at Fully with his insane sub-29 minute. Jornet, however, never continued his ascendancy in VK racing as Zemmer and Götsch did following 2013, largely due to Jornet’s sole focus on long-form racing. Undoubtedly, Jornet has the potential to rival Götsch’s time, if Jornet made VK his sole training focus as Götsch did.
Jornet’s best effort at Fully was 30’33” in 2016. The previous year Jornet ran 30’25” on the French Grand Serre course, the steepest VK course in the world at 1.8km. Fully is 100 metres longer but is a slightly faster course due to the advantage the old railway sleepers give to the climbers. The Grand Serre is an alpine grass course, while steep and fast, the lack of steps slows the pace just ever so slightly compared with Fully. No one has yet run under 30’ at the Grand Serre, although Bonnet came the closest in 2018 when he ran 30’13”.
Jornet has been focusing on more flat speed running in 2020. This style of training with more speed and power has undoubtedly given him a greater explosive training stimulus to finally go under 30-minutes at Fully despite not training specifically for VK racing in 2020. Although, Jornet posted on his social media a few weeks back about one of the hardest training sessions he does: a VK10K - to run a vertical kilometer at max effort, run down easy and then run a max effort 10K flat. It seems it was not the first time he went under 30-minutes in a VK attempt, but his time at Fully was slightly faster. Jornet wrote on his social explaining the training session:
One of the hardest training session I do is what I call VK10K. Concept is simple: to run a vertical kilometer, run down easy and run a 10K flat. Normally I do a “easier” version of 700m + 7K, today I did pretty much at full gass. I started with the VK speddy since from 700 to 800m this uphill has something like 100m of distance with a couple meters down and flat. ( that’s a pity because I believe if it wasn’t for those meters it could be a very fast place for a VK!) I reach the 1000m in 29’57”. Easy way down and then I started the 10K on a semi conservative pace trying to be close to 3’/km. The hard thing is to push with the legs still “heavy” from the lactate of a VK. Last 2K I gave everything to close in 29’42”. So almost 1h (59’39”) with blood taste in the mouth and bottle legs 🤪 . 2nd picture by @mzolad1986 . And obviously the heart rate was waaay higher than that, more like 185-195 for all the VK. That’s a wrist measurement and I have always the watch not tight ;)