A one kilometre race sounds simple enough doesn’t it? But not when that kilometre is straight up on rough and technical terrain with inclines of up to a staggering 60% gradient. Welcome to the extreme world of Vertical Kilometre running.
A Vertical Kilometre, or VK as it is more commonly called, is a race that has 1000 metres of elevation gain from start to finish. Unlike a more traditional race the vertical ascent is the fixed end point and the actual distance of the race varies depending on the course itself. The maximum length of the course is traditionally 5km to climb that elevation but many are shorter following skiing routes with inclines of up to 60%.
While the race format itself is relatively new, founded in 1994, it has boomed in popularity especially in European mountain running circles usually being held at the same time as more traditional races such as the marathons and ultramarathons. Arguably the most famous of these races is in Fully, Switzerland as it is one of the steepest, taking just 1.9km to ascend the VK distance and see athletes wearing helmets to protect themselves from falling rocks and the cave sections.
The record for a VK was set by Kilian Jornet, the legendary mountain runner, in 2021 in the mountains of Norway in a time of 28 minutes and 48 seconds. Kilian describes the VK as “pure performance. It isn’t about technique or strategy, it is just about how much the engine can work. It’s only that – how strong you are”.
Finishing 1km in under 30 minutes may sound easy on paper but once the map is turned on its side and you’re heading up that incline the legs start to feel the pain and the technical terrain that usually comes hand in hand with taking on a VK can really slow the pace. At the most recent running of the Chamonix VK, in the French Alps, the fastest finishing time was 38 minutes and the slowest was over three hours.
Friend of The Running Channel and trail running enthusiast Angus took on the lung busting VK at George Peak in South Africa and you can check out how he got on by watching our latest video: