Is the “Vertical Kilometer” the World’s Toughest Race?

It's only 0.62 miles, but it takes the best skyrunner in the world a half hour to complete it

Spanish trail runner Killian Jornet drinking from a water bottle and wearing a headlamp
The Spanish adventurer just ran up 3,300 feet in record time.

Finishing half a mile in half an hour sounds extremely easy, even for those who absolutely dread running.

But when that distance is straight up a 50% incline, and involves traversing glassy slabs of Norwegian schist, it’s a different ballgame entirely. Spanish trail runner Kilian Jornet, who’s accumulated over 1.2 million followers on Instagram for his daring exploits throughout the mountain ranges of Europe, recently made a run at the official FKT for a VK.

In non-endurance athlete terms, he tried to become the fastest man to ever complete a “vertical kilometer,” which means running roughly 0.62 miles of elevation.

In a video produced by French outdoor outfitter Salomon, Jornet details the stakes: “For me, a vertical kilometer is about pure performance. It isn’t about technique or strategy, it’s just about how much the engine can work. It’s only that — how strong you are.”

His personal best going into the record attempt was just under 30 minutes; he was gunning for a mark set by Italian trail runner Philip Götsch, who had completed the VK in under 29 minutes. The video chronicles his first attempt, on Slogen, a mountain in the western fjords of Norway. He runs a 29:15. It’s a fantastic effort, but still far off the record.

So Jornet regroups, searching for the best possible route. When attempting a VK, every second matters. While interruptions in elevation — stretches where the trail flattens out — give runners a chance to catch their breath, they can also be costly to the clock. A continuous climb ensures that you’re climbing ever closer to that 1,000-meter goal.

Jornet experimented with other routes in other countries (he ran a fast VK in the mountain town of Fully, Switzerland), but his home base is Norway. He believes the Nordic nation is the “perfect” place to attempt a FKT (fastest known time) for a VK, thanks to the rapid ascent of its slopes. After some extensive scouting for his second record attempt, he settles on Venjetindan, a mountain along the northwest coast, with an elevation that ranks #79 (out of 11,000!) in the country.

The rest is now skyrunning history. While some of the other courses were shrouded in trees or dotted with bushes, this track is pure rock. It looks like something out of Mordor. Jornet runs straight up it, even ditching his poles at one point to finish the “run” while crawling on all fours. Watch it for yourself above; at the 3:30 mark, it’s legitimately shocking that he doesn’t fall right off the face of the cliff.

But he holds on for the record, 28:48, and while breathing heavily against a boulder, finally allows himself a smile. He says: “It’s nice to have challenges where you really need to push well, push hard and see year after year that you are improving.” Indeed. For those curious, that’s nearly 3,300 feet of elevation that he covers. Next time you’re on your hilliest run, look out for how “high” you go. I was humbled today to find that mine only goes about 300 feet up.

Win the Ultimate Formula 1® Miami Grand Prix Experience

Want the F1 experience of a lifetime? Here’s your chance to win tickets to see Turn 18 Grandstand, one of Ultimate Formula 1® Miami Grand Prix’s most premier grandstands!