The following article was written by Kylee Toth. As a Näak athlete and ski mountaineer, she constantly pushes her body to new limits, and her experience with high altitude sky running in Italy is no exception. Learn how Kylee's experience grinding through the mountains played out and what she learned along the way.
Losing my lunch at 4000 meters isn't exactly how I envisioned my foray into the sport of Sky Running.
Sky Running is a genre of competitive running that takes place mostly above 2000 meters or 6561 feet, where the minimum average incline is 6% over the total distance, and at least 5% has an incline of 30% or more. The climbing difficulty does not exceed UIAA grade 2.
It can be likened to conventional mountaineering meets Formula One racing. We trade mountaineering boots for gaitered running shoes, regular poles for carbon, heavy mountaineering ropes for the lightest and shortest that still provide function. A menagerie of spandex, helmets, carbon and lean, mean, ripped endurance physiques all hammering up and down a mountain as hard as physically possible.
In plain English, it is a steep, relatively high altitude and physically demanding type of racing that takes you to the summit of some very beautiful mountains. To ascend, racers run, hike and grovel on everything from buff forest trails to steep, icy, glaciated faces and ridges.
A LIFE LONG PREPARATION
It is pertinent to start at the beginning to fully understand how I got to expelling my stomach contents two feet from a handsome Italian mountain guide on a beautiful bluebird summit ridge.
I have been a racer for most of my life, starting my debut into competitive sport at the age of five in speed skating and literally crying through the entirety of the race because I was scared by the starting gun crack. I have raced probably more times than I've been to the movie theatre, been drunk or headed into a nightclub.
I was born and bred a competitive racer going to sports schools, being in a national training center and taking sport psychology instead of home economics in high school.
When I retired from my first sport, speed skating, at age 21, I took up a passion-driven fringe sport called ski mountaineer racing. Not unlike sky running, this is a somewhat strange genre of skiing; essentially, it is a light, fast and somewhat contrived mountaineering.
Never one to back down from a challenge, when I saw the Mezzalama Sky Climb running race announced, I was intrigued by the terrain, location, technicality and style of racing.
FROM CANADA TO ITALY
In 2019 I did the winter version of the Mezzalama race. This iconic Italian ski mountaineering race has taken place since 1933 in the Aosta valley.
This region of Italy is a draw for me with its rich mountaineering history. I was fortunate to compete on a team with two other North American women. We completed over 4000 meters/13123 feet and 40 kilometres/25 miles of ascents and descents in under 8 hours, securing a sixth-place finish.
With memories of this rewarding experience in my mind, I embarked with high hopes from Canada to Italy.
LEARNING TO RACE AGAIN, POST-PANDEMIC
I hadn't raced for two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the prospect of my first international trip post-COVID 19 filled me with both excitement and apprehension. I checked and rechecked entry criteria, vaccination documents and regulations surrounding re-entry to Canada PCR tests. My apprehension proved all for not as I found the travelling experience straightforward and not at all hostile as I had imagined.
We drove into the nearest village, Champoluc, for the race late at night, two days before the race. I still remember waking up the next morning to an idyllic green, quintessential expansive view of the Italian valley and countryside. Below the sleepy little postcard town of Chapoluc, up the valley past all the holiday homes, loomed Mount Castor, the 4300-meter peak we came to race up.
I heard a mountaineer once say, "If it wasn't for foreshortening, nothing would get done." As I looked at the summit, I remember thinking, "It doesn't look that far away."
FUELING FOR THE RACE
For me, the day before a race is always fueled with nervous apprehension mixed with genuine excitement for the challenge ahead. To quell these nerves, I often do a route recon and move my body a bit while being careful not to expend too much energy.
My race teammate, Matt Ruta, and I set out from the historic church of Saint James with its lovely fresco's dating back to the 1500s in Saint Jacques to Lac Bleu, one of the first landmarks on our racing journey. I love the history of racing in Europe and try to absorb and appreciate as much of the culture, history and ambience that the trails and landscapes provide.
Having raced the winter Mezzalama in 2019 with very little acclimatization, I wasn't concerned about the altitude of the race. It was in fact, the furthest thing from my mind as we weaved our way up through cobblestone paths, through farmers' fields toward Lac Bleu and the start of the more technical glacier moraine ascent.
We ate pizza every night. Never one to obsess about my diet, and with a nutritional philosophy of food as fuel, we delved headfirst into the Italian pizza culture consuming an ample amount of pre-race carbohydrates and appreciating the slower, more experiential culture of dining in Europe.
Having arrived in Europe only two nights before the race was a risky move in terms of acclimatization and jetlag. Having travelled to Europe multiple times to race in the past, I was armed with a plethora of sleep aides from Melatonin to worst-case Benadryl.
Like many of you after my time as a full-time athlete in my youth, I dove hook line and sinker into domestic life, getting married, having two children and yes, even the white picket fence (not kidding). As such, my life as a mature athlete is always a balancing act between pursuing my dreams and passions and fulfilling my life obligations and being a present and good parent. This is primarily why I came only two days before my race. I did not have childcare options to come earlier.
That night I went to sleep after tossing and turning for hours due to a combination of nerves and jetlag and awoke with a start to my obnoxious cell phone alarm at 5am.
Gross! I downed a pre-race coffee of Nespresso and ate some European butter, jam and cheese, and before I knew it, I was lined up at the start with a plethora of other spandex-clad endurance athletes ready to masochistically hurdle myself up the mountain as rapidly as I could.
Race starts are always messy and chaotic with nerves running high, people's poles, elbows, arms thrashing about. Through my years of racing, I have learned to get my elbows up and weave and plow my way through. Everything was going wonderfully, well as wonderfully as hurdling straight up a mountain can go until on the first technical descent I jumped down and over my ankle went.
"Shit!" I remember saying. "Oh crap, I hope I can walk this one-off,"
I said to my teammate. I rolled my ankle, and in true 25-year-old boy fashion, he looked at me and said do you think you can keep going? I bit my lip and nodded yes, and full-throttle, he kept trundling up the mountain. The terrain goes from Glacial Moraine to ice and snow. Eventually, at a mountaineering hut which is an impressive and inhospitable location, it turns into a full-on crevassed glacier.
Ankle a bit sore but spirits still high, I downed two glasses of hot sweetened black tea at the aid station, put my crampons on my runners, tied into the rope with Matt leading the charge. We were off to the summit of Mount Castor, which sits at 4300 meters.
I felt fine, or that's what I kept telling myself as we ascended. In retrospect, my teammate Matt noticed a slowing in my pace and a greenish expression on my face as we crested about 4000 meters.
It was amazing how quickly I went from feeling "fine" to oh crap, I'm going to be sick.
All I remember as we ran across the summit ridge was saying to myself, "dammit, Kylee hold it together!" Unfortunately, as we hurtled down off the summit toward an aid station, I knew I was in trouble. When we reached the aid station, I opened my mouth to say I don't feel so..... and couldn't get out my sentence before that gut-wrenching, turning, everything inside is coming out experience happened.
THE WRONG PLACE, AT THE WRONG TIME
Of course, these embarrassing moments always happen in front of an attractive guy, a boss, or someone you are trying to impress. When these happen, it's like the universe saying, "time to kick pride in the teeth a bit today."
The nature and reality of altitude is that it's a fickle beast. It is not impressed by resumes, fitness or experience. How your body uses the oxygen available to it depends greatly on a multitude of factors, genetics, hydration, acclimatization, caffeine levels etc.
The guide I unceremoniously lost my lunch in front of kept insisting I wait for the physician to come and examine me before I continued on my race, but in my altitude addled brain, all I could think of was,
A: I will feel better at a lower altitude and
B: I don't want to ruin the race for my teammate Matt.
I gave my face a wipe with the back of my hand and said to Matt lets get down. The next part was an agility minefield as we ran down the glacial snow slope jumping crevasses and trying to stay upright on our running shoe-clad crampons. As we transitioned back to the moraine and rock, my energy felt so incredibly low. A combination of altitude sickness, dehydration, and, yes, demoralization coupled with a sprained ankle made me want to curl up like a pathetic, broken-winged bird.
We had about 1500 meters to descend still when I said to Matt, "I think I might be doing more damage than good to my body." In the words of Johnny Cash, in every race that goes unexpected, you have that moment when you "have to know when to hold em' and know when to fold em'."
My personal and coaching philosophy is, "quitting is not an option unless you are injured or sick." When I thought about how I was feeling and my own standards for calling a race, I knew it was the right call.
LEARNING TO COPE WITH FAILURE
It's never easy to pull out of a race. I have only done it once previously. The tape playing on rewind in your mind can get you in a bad place if you let it with criticism and self-doubt.
But, the reality is as cliché as it sounds. The failure doesn't lie in not completing the goal. The failure lies in not even trying.
So while the race didn't go as planned, I am grateful for the experience. I learned about myself physiologically and will make changes next time to increase my chances of completion. The journey, challenge and yes, in this case, the destination (Italy) was worth every dirt road interval run. Every 6am training wake up to get out and back before my kids were awake.
If you have a goal, my advice, even after being disappointed with not completing it, is to lean in and go for it. You will learn so much along the way.
Kylee Toth is one of Näak’s elite athletes, and a professional skier who competes on the Canadian Ski Mountaineering National Team. Some of her accomplishments include top female ski mountaineer racing athlete in Canada in 2015, North American female spring champion in 2016 and more recently, claimed the fastest known time on Mount Columbia in 2020! Not to mention she is a 3x winning Canadian Ski Mountaineering Champion.
Kylee loves spending time outdoors. Whether it is skiing, mountain biking, trail running or camping with her two sons, she always looks forward to spending quality time with the people she cares about. On top of her love for speed skating and ski mountaineering, Kylee is incredibly proud as a mother to her two boys!
Lastly, Kylee has a passion for fitness and even has her own business to promote physical and mental health! All of You Fitness aims to invite fellow athletes to use their bodies as their greatest tool and discover how truly powerful they really are.
For more articles about our amazing team's accomplishments, head on over to the Näak Blog. Always remember, the most important aspect to any race is your nutrition choices. Our Ultra Energy Bars are specifically designed for endurance athletes to provide the best nutrition for going the distance!