Racing the Sky

Yeah, there’s Kilian Jornet. But next to him, a Vermont woman is poised to win the 2018 Skyrunner World Series

If you’re tuned into the running world, you’ve probably heard the name Kilian Jornet. But you probably haven’t heard of the Vermont woman who took the podium this September alongside Jornet at the Skyrunner World Series in Kinlochlevin, Scotland. This month, she is also is poised to win the overall title.

Jornet, a pro runner from Spain’s mountainous Catalan region, is a six-time champion of the Skyrunner World Series. It’s no surprise he took another first place. Winner of the women’s division in the sixth stage of the Migu Run Skyrunner World Series and now the leader in the Sky Extra category, was Vermonter Hillary Gerardi.

The St. Johnsbury native ran through high winds and foul weather over third class terrain to win the 32 kilometer race in the Scottish Highlands with a time of 4:17:48. Although the route was shortened from the original 52K route due to weather, competitors still gained the full 2,700 meters, which included an exposed third-class scramble up Curved Ridge on the Buachaille Etive Mor.

On September 13, Gerardi also took the bronze for Team USA in the Vertical World Championships, also in Kinlochlevin. She climbed 1,000 meters over 5K to the summit of Mt. Munro to take third. Gerardi was one of 15 American runners invited to compete on the first-ever complete U.S. Skyrunning Team.  Burlington’s Noah Brautigan was also invited to join the team. The team placed third overall in the World Championships.  

At the 2017 Skyrunning World Championships in Andorra, Gerardi ran into Ripton, Vt., resident Ryan Kerrigan  who was coaching the first ever U.S. team to compete in the Youth Skyrunning World Championships. “I’m usually one of the only Americans at these events, so to run into a group of Vermonters was pretty awesome,”  says Gerardi.

The International Skyrunning Federation defines skyrunning as “mountain running above 2,000 meters where the minimum incline is six percent over the total distance and must include sections of 30 percent.” In other words, running on extremely technical high mountain trails. As Gerardi put it, “It’s not skyrunning if you don’t have to use your hands.”

Gerardi credits her upbringing in Vermont with instilling a love of the outdoors. “When I was a junior in high school at St. Johnsbury Academy, I joined the Wilderness Club. I remember taking a trip to hike in the White Mountains in the winter and traveling to New Zealand to tramp, and I think my passion for living in the mountains and my love of the outdoors were born out of those experiences,” says Gerardi.

While she was at Middlebury College, Gerardi spent five seasons working for the Appalachian Mountain Club at their high mountain huts in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. At that point, she says she was focused on hiking and climbing, not running.

Gerardi  never considered herself a runner until well after she graduated from college, in 2009. “I didn’t really run seriously until 2012,” Gerardi said in September.

She never even liked road running. But in 2010 her then-boyfriend (and now husband) Brad Carlson of Hinesburg signed her up for The Great Adirondack Trail Run, an race through the High Peaks region of the Adirondacks. She finished first in the women’s category, and  was pleasantly surprised. “I was more focused on rock climbing and hiking the rest of the summer and didn’t really pursue it again,” she recalls. “Then we moved to Europe in 2012, and skyrunning was everywhere.”

The couple relocated to Sevoz, France, near Chamonix, in fall of 2012. Carlson is a professional mountain guide, and Gerardi now works for the Research Center for Alpine Ecosystems, an NGO that recruits university professors and students to study the impacts of climate change on alpine ecosystems.

Gerardi joined the World Series circuit in 2017 and in just one year has garnered attention for a slew of wins, including the Tromso Skyrace on Aug. 4 (where she took 10th place overall) and the Trofeo Kima, a grueling 52K race across snowfields, moraines and exposed crests with fixed ropes in Valmasino, Italy. Gerardi won Kima in 7 hours, 37 minutes and 29 seconds—just a minute shy of the course record. In 2014, another Vermonter, Huntington’s Kasie Enman, won the Kima race and went on to tie for second in the Skyrunning World Series Ultra category,.

On October 13,  Gerardi will compete in the Limone Skyrace in Lombardy, Italy. The 29K race is known for being exceptionally challenging and technically demanding, with 2,500 meters of vertical gain through olive groves and rocky limestone mountains. In order to win the Skyrunning World Series outright, Gerardi will have to earn sixth place or better at Limone, a race she has previously placed eighth in twice. The top overall ranking is based on the top two finishes of the season in the Sky Classic and Sky Extra categories. There are 10,000 euros on the line but Gerardi says one of her favorite prizes has been a 6 kilogram leg of prosciutto she won in a local race.

“I typically train about six days a week, always on trails,” says Gerardi. “At this point in the season, it’s mostly about maintenance. There isn’t time to get much stronger, so I’ll be focusing on speedwork in the coming weeks, and especially on dynamic changes. I’ll be doing runs with lots of up and down on terrain that requires changing speeds.”   

Gerardi says she loves the steep, technical trails of the Alps, but that she and her husband still daydream about moving back to Vermont. “For now though, Chamonix is a great place to be. There’s a spirit of pushing yourself that is such  a part of this place.”

Photo Caption: On July 22, 2018, Hillary Gerardi took second place in the DoloMyths Run Skyrace in Canazei, Italy. Here, she tops out after climbing nearly 1,000 feet per mile for 10K. Photo by Mattia Rizzi.

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