We Are Mountain Runners

Mountain Running® is not only a trademark but also a philosophy and a way of thinking about products. Going uphill, however you go, always has to do with lightness.

by Claudio Primavesi

Fully, Valais (Switzerland), Saturday 25 October 2014. The sky is cloudy, the temperature is 11 degrees centigrade, humidity is 76%, almost no wind. The bells chime twelve to mark midday. Along an old cable car route immersed in vineyards and woods hundreds of people crowd around to cheer on. The start is at Belle-Usine de Fully, at 500 metres. The finish line is at Garettes, exactly one thousand metres further up. If you could draw a horizontal line across, it would measure 1.920 metres. The average gradient is over 50%. The shortest and steepest vertical kilometre of the world is situated in this corner of the Valais canton, it is mandatory to wear a helmet. Without poles it is almost impossible to climb up. Everyone sets off one at a time, first the amateurs, then the élite athletes. The number one race bib is given to last year’s winner, he starts off last.

Kastelruth, Bozen, Friday 24 October 2014. Five hundred and fifty-eight kilometres separate a farm which sits on the meadows below Alpe di Siusi, from that old railway track which runs straight up the mountain of Valais with the sun making the railway tracks shine like mirrors. A car heads off towards Switzerland. A man and a woman get in, Urban and Astrid. He has just taken his work clothes off. He woke up at six in the morning and went to his cowshed to check on the calves. He then put on his plumber’s overalls and when finally back home returned to the shed. Above his house there are meadows and steep woods, everything is vertical, all you need to do is choose where to go. And understand how much time is left before darkness falls. In spite of this, during the summer he covers something like 100.000 metres of vertical height gain both by bike and on foot.

Among the vineyards of Fully the excitement rises, the racer’s adrenaline is sky high. It is now the turn of race bib number one. It’s him, Urban, a farmer and plumber, vertical racer as a hobby.

At the registry office his date of birth was registered in 1970. Every hundred metres there is a sign which indicates the vertical height gain covered. The effort is superhuman, the fatigue impossible. With every metre the cheering becomes louder. Climb up for what? To end up like the bull in the arena, with the crowd going crazy just like at a bacchanalia and your heart pounding, beating a mile a minute. No, 178, the threshold heart rate is 178. Urban doesn’t use a heart rate monitor, but at his doctor’s appointment the doctor realised he was in front of someone with an outstanding engine. Heart and mind, that heart which pumps, that mind that sometimes would like to give up. «There are moments when you think you have to slow down, but sooner or later they go away, however you need to be stubborn, otherwise you would never go through all this pain». You need a singing engine, but without Urban’s stubbornness it wouldn’t work. Strategy? «Start off at full speed». The minutes rush by and each instant seems to be eternal. Time stands still, as if it has crystallised amongst the crowd’s cheers. It was cold early in the morning, but now, in the middle of the day, it’s warm, probably too warm for such a Herculean effort.

They say that great sporting results are favoured by a cooler climate. That heat and humidity in the air and that cheering remind us of two years ago, another climate, the heat of 2012. It was hot even then, end of June. But all of a sudden Urban no longer feels a part of his body. An ictus, or something of the kind. A big fright, he was admitted to hospital, in-depth examinations were made. And then there was the fear of not climbing up fast anymore. For someone who discovered competing by chance, a bit to strengthen his knees after an injury, a bit after winning a race organized by friends just for fun, for someone who wore mountain running shoes for the first time at 34 years old, to discover that at the age of 42 he has to stop, is like a cold shower. But he just can’t stay still and he has never done so. He continued training gradually. And now he is here on this never ending ascent. Those moments, those instants when he couldn’t feel his body any more, pass in front of his eyes while a drop of sweat runs down his nose. One hundred metres to go. One hundred vertical metres.

His sensations aren’t good though. A couple of weeks ago, at Limone sul Garda, his vertical race did not go as he had hoped for. It’s hot. His hands push as hard as he can on his poles. His steps become shorter. Yes, because Urban has a special technique. In vertical races there is no ‘orthodox’ technique to climb uphill, but the majority of athletes take little short steps, others continue to run up even when the gradient increases. He doesn’t, he doesn’t run and he takes long steps. He did that even at Canazei when he became the world champion and he had to catch up with the other top athletes who had moved away from him on the first meadow where you start running. He did that even when he became European Champion.

The stop watch at the finish line stops. Everything stops, even the crowd cheering with their mouths wide open seem still, just like a freeze-frame. The world stops. 29’42”741. It is the first time a man has covered one thousand vertical metres in less than half an hour. This man is called Urban Zemmer, a farmer and plumber from Kastelruth, he is not Usain Bolt nor Carl Lewis. He is not a professional athlete, but a working class hero. He has no training programme and no energy gels in his pockets, his fuel is the lasagne cooked lovingly by his partner Astrid. He doesn’t go warm weather training during winter, and his worry when he leaves his house for a race, is the calves: who will look after them? Half an hour can mean everything or nothing. It has been calculated that an average man spends 54 minutes travelling to work, 77 minutes eating, and spends 177 minutes in front of his smart phone screen and 168 in front of the television. All multiples of Urban’s record.

«I came to Fully to win, I didn’t think of the record; truthfully speaking I didn’t even have a great feeling at Limone a couple of weeks earlier, things didn’t go as I had planned, the weather wasn’t as cool and then when you don’t have much time to train and you can’t follow a training programme you can’t really plan for a record» says Urban. He knew he could go under 30 minutes, he wanted to dip under thirty minutes, but only God decides when.

A fine red line connects Garettes with Ziano di Fiemme. A fine line where one end is held by Massimo ‘Macha’ Dondio, the shadow of each La Sportiva athlete, both in mountain running and ski mountaineering. Macha is the service man present at every race, ready to replace a boot’s buckle as well as helping runners and ski mountaineers in their logistics, saying the right thing at the right time, cheering them on. He is the one that sends a message to the other end of the fine line, to Giulia Delladio, who then calls Lorenzo Delladio: «I knew it, Urban was well prepared, sooner or later it was going to happen, he believed in it and during the last few months we spoke about the half hour barrier». Lorenzo Delladio sends Urban Zemmer a message straight away. «I like being close to the athletes even if they see me as the president and they think that it’s another level, Urban is extremely connected to the La Sportiva spirit: he is a normal person, like all of us, he is not a professional, he is not even that young, he has always been in the mountains, before racing, and everything is like that». Another fine red line connects the story of Urban to that of Mountain Running. A fine line which from Ziano sets off to reach the Rocky Mountains. «Mountain Running is a registered word by La Sportiva and is part of our philosophy, but we got there thanks to North America» continues Delladio. «We have always shaved off grams of weight and made our mountain boots shorter. We understood that we were moving towards lightweight and our research and development department had this specific objective». This is how we managed to achieve a more reinforced gym shoe, the Exum Ridge, in 1999, which is the opposite process compared to other companies in the world of road running which have made their racing shoe heavier. «I can’t deny though that this process was helped thanks to the demand which came from our North American distributor, Ed Samson and Colin Lantz. We always listen to the voice of important markets and the United States are fundamental for La Sportiva». This is how mountain running is born, even before the races, and it means going fast up mountains, with a tendency towards running.

The red line runs quickly, through time and space.

Flatirons, near Boulder, Colorado (United States). 12th October 2014, the sky is cloudy, the temperature is 11 degrees centigrade. While Urban Zemmer is getting ready for the Fully record, Anton Krupicka is enjoying himself on these iconic rock slabs over the city of Boulder. «I had the vague intention of going for a long run this morning, but after a few laps I can say that my legs weren’t with me. My levels of energy and motivation are difficult to predict. So I started scrambling up First, slowly and with difficulty. On the Green pitch the clouds rushed by and some raindrops started to fall. I find some motivation to go down into Bear Canyon and grind some extra mileage and change landscape. All of a sudden I started to improve and so I decided to climb up to Skunk Canyon. I had gone up the classic Stairway to Heaven only once and I enjoyed this 300 metre long route and the summit of Like Heaven. Then I traversed towards Royal Arch, went down and back up its West Ridge - especially to practise my running down steep terrain - before heading back to the city, satisfied for having straightened out a day that started out badly». Total: 2 hours and 49 minutes, 1.280 metres.

The registry office says that Anton Krupicka was born on the 2 August 1983. As a kid he lived in Nebraska, on a farm. He spent most of his time outdoors, in the woods, in fields, building shelters and paths and playing explorer. Then at the age of 12 he ran his first marathon and went to college, ran, cross-country most of all. He started running with minimal and light weight shoes, cutting off with his own hands anything that was superfluous and reducing the drop, the height difference from tip to heel. He started training by running bare foot on grass. But above all he won two Leadville 100, one of the most famous ultra-trail races in the United States, he came second at the Western States 100 and first in the Dolomites, at the Lavaredo Ultra Trail. But Nature has always been his most important element.

«Fully living life for me means having an aim every day. All I need is to be outdoors, among the mountains, either skiing or running. It means having a bigger objective. A general plan which gives shape to my everyday life. I want to live experiences which affirm my existence. I want to wake up in the morning and feel alive. I don’t want to simply sail along, but I want to experiment, test myself, I want to be moved. Curiosity has always been a key element in my life. In fact curiosity is essential to live one’s possibilities to the max, to evolve and progress as a person. It is a characteristic which I have carried inside me ever since I was a kid.

As an adult, mountains became the ideal terrain to express and cultivate my curiosity. I want to find out what I’m able to do, have experiences and try new emotions. During the last five years I have changed the way I move around in the mountains. I don’t only think of running as an end in itself. With hard training I try to reach all those emotions which lie below the surface. I have dedicated more and more time to scrambling. Just like for running, all you need is a pair of shorts and shoes, but there are two aspects which distinguish it. The first is that you use your entire body, the second are the consequences. It isn’t a matter of adrenaline, but it is the need to be completely present in that moment, without any distractions».

The red line runs and goes back in time. Mountain Running was born before competitions and it is all about going along mountains quickly and lightly, exploring and snooping around. At one’s own pace. Just like Anton. Using the best products.

«The best products are those which have everything you need and nothing else. Simple and lightweight shoes are more performing of course, but if the terrain requires more stability, protection and grip - you can’t not have them, if the race requires cushioning, you need it. The right values are under 300 grams and not less than 200. You cannot sacrifice functionality to eliminate weight. If you need cushioning and protection you need some extra weight. But I am convinced that you can have everything with less than 300 grams, above that there is material you don’t need and under 200 the shoe cannot function».

Anton Krupicka uses La Sportiva Mutant, Akasha and Helios SR. «The Akasha shoe is very versatile and it is a nice compromise over long distances, but it isn’t bad for scrambling and on hard terrain since it has shorter studs. The Mutant shoe is valid on technical terrain even for scrambling. Helios SR is my choice for speed training, but the almost flat sole and the soft structure give it excellent grip when you need it».

The tangled red mass returns to the research and development department at Ziano di Fiemme, it runs back in time and finally stops, motionless, in that moment. Carpe diem. The blink of an eye, the time which separates one record from another. But also a moment which expands because the concept of time is relative.

«I boil up 6 ounces in my Bialetti coffee pot which I then drink in two 6-ounce cups because I add hot water. I simply add water to make the ritual last longer, to read 20-30 pages instead of 15. Drinking coffee for me means sitting down, spending time, reading a book whilst looking out of the window, allowing my body to wake up in its own good time, having the possibility to chat with someone. When you run you can dream with your eyes wide open or think of something else. While you scramble, due to the consequences of the terrain on which you are moving, you have to stay concentrated. Living the moment can sound like a cliché, but to me it represents a significant moment. It means connecting with yourself and with what surrounds you in a deeper way compared to everyday life, when we are distracted by the constant influx of information and thoughts which crowd our mind».

At the end of the day, a second or a minute, 29 minutes and 42 seconds to cover one thousand vertical metres or 2 hours and 29 minutes to discover the Flatirons don’t mean anything because the main thing is to climb, always. After all, as Urban Zemmer says «When you can go out running it means that you are healthy and this is not a normal thing in this world, that’s why it is always wonderful, even when you don’t compete, because it means you’re still alive». At the end of the day, Mountain Running developed before racing, to climb quickly and lightweight. At the end of the day, each one of us picks their right moment. We are mountain runners.

Urban Zemmer’s record has lasted for three years, beaten in 2017, always at Fully, by Philip Goetsch with the time of 28’53’41. Anton Krupicka continues exploring the Flatirons scrambling, cycling, running bare-chested and taking his time to enjoy a good cup of coffee.

La Sportiva will produce 15 different models of Mountain Running shoes in 2018.