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A Conversation With A Skyrunner Grounded By COVID-19

A person climbing over rocks very high in the mountains.
Andy Earl, Courtesy
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A lot of sports are canceled for COVID-19, including skyrunning. VPR's Mitch Wertlieb learned more about it from Vermont native Hillary Gerardi, who lives in the French Alps.

There is no NBA, NHL, and so far, no Major League Baseball season announced. But all this sports downtime got VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb poking around to learn about sports he’d never heard of before, like skyrunning.

Hillary Gerardi is a 33-year-old world-class skyrunner from St. Johnsbury, Vermont, who now lives just outside of Chamonix in the French Alps. She said the best way to describe skyrunning is to first explain what it is not.

VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb recently spoke with Hillary Gerardi, and their interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Hilary Gerardi: If you do not use your hands at some point, it's probably not a skyrace. So you get a lot of trail running in a skyrace. But then you also get going through more technical terrain, sometimes off-trail, but there's usually a little bit of scrambling involved.

But I think anyone who has any experience, you know, hiking in the Green Mountains could practically considers themselves a skyrunner, because the trails can be so gnarly there.

Mitch Wertlieb: When you talk about using your hands, Hillary, do you mean that sometimes you'll even use ski poles or something to stabilize yourself and get you over some of the rougher terrain? Or is it just literally your hands?

Oftentimes we do use poles, but that'll be to sort of propel us forward on a steep uphill, for example. But more often than not, when it's very technical, a race director might even say, “No poles allowed,” because you need to have all hands on deck, if you will. There might be some ropes or chains or sort of handhold that you might need to grab on to.

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How long did these skyraces usually go for? I mean, how much ground are you covering?

It depends. There are a number of different formats, but typically the kind of races that I do are around a half marathon length to somewhere around 40 miles. There are some races that are longer than that, but really technical races, you oftentimes don't see super long ones, because to keep moving through that kind of terrain could get dangerous.

Now, I know you've told this story before, but it really bears repeating. What was the first race that got you started on this road to skyrunning, skyracing? What was the prize for winning that race?

I know which one you're talking about. But I did do my very first trail race in the Adirondacks in Keene Valley. I wasn't totally sold on it at that point. My second first race, if you will, which happened a few years later, was a race outside of Grenoble, France. And I won a leg of prosciutto that was about 12 pounds. And I really got to bring home the bacon, if you will. I sort of said, ”Boy, this sport is awesome.”

Watch Hillary Gerardi skyrun in the video below, by Black Diamond Equipment:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OeCSyHId4aw

How long have you been living in France now, Hillary?

We're actually coming up on about 10 years in France. Both myself and my husband, Brad – who’s from Hinesburg, Vermont – moved over not long after we finished college. Initially, the idea was to sort of stay for about six months, ski for a winter and then head back to Vermont. And it's been 10 years now, and I haven't left.

What is life been like for you, Hillary, since the COVID-19 pandemic hit? Did you have to quarantine for a while?

Yeah. So the rules in France are pretty strict, actually. We've got until next week before they lift our lockdown. But when things went into place, rules were such that we can leave home once a day for one hour maximum, though a maximum of one kilometer away from home. And then a few particularities for where we're living, because it is so steep. We're only allowed to go 100 vertical meters above our house, about 300 feet.

Anytime we go out, we need to have this form that we fill out, that we sign on kind of like an honor code, that you sign to say that all of the information is true and that you're following your rules.

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Will you be getting back to official competitions anytime soon?

That's a great question. And I've sort of, you know, for the most part, stopped trying to make predictions. I've competed for several years in the Skyrunner World Series, which is a series of races all around the world. And right now, every race that I had been planning to do is canceled until the end of August. Whether or not the fall races take place – it's still up in the air.

Hillary, I imagine you still have friends and family here in Vermont, if you've been keeping in touch with them throughout all this ordeal.

Absolutely. My mother jokes, relatively early on, “Boy, I love lockdown because my daughter calls me more often.” And I do spend a lot more time on calls and video conferences with friends and family. I’ve still got a great group of girlfriends in the Northeast Kingdom. And I get to see my family and my in-laws up in Chittenden County as well. So definitely keeping in touch with people there.

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