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Hang around a mountain race in Europe, and you’ll likely see cheering crowds lining the course and thousands of runners heading straight up a peak. By comparison, trail races in the U.S. can be sleepy affairs, with a few hundred runners trotting along on forgiving singletrack.

Ian Sharman wants to change that. A U.S.-based Brit, he’s the head of U.S. Skyrunning. The organization is named for a form of mountain running that originated in Italy and emphasizes high-alpine settings, ample elevation gain and rugged off-trail travel. Sharman oversees the national series, consisting of three categories—“ultra,” “sky” (22K to 50K) and “vertical” (no longer than 5K, no less than 1,000 meters—3,280 feet—of gain).

To Sharman, the Broken Arrow Skyrace serves as an illustration of what makes “skyrunning” different. With 52K, 26K and vertical K distances, the event takes place in Squaw Valley, California, the same ski-resort area where the Western States 100 begins. Arguably the country’s most famous 100-mile race, Western States is runnable enough to have been labeled a “track meet.” Broken Arrow, meanwhile, hews to high ridges and steep climbs; it has well over half the vertical gain of Western States in just a third of the distance. “I was amazed at how different it could feel,” says Sharman, who has finished Western States seven times.

Though many skyraces attract competitive fields, Sharman says the sport isn’t just for elites. “The aim is to make [the races] hard and rugged and tough, but you don’t have to be some kind of mountain expert to do it,” he says. Rather, skyrunning’s about “being a bit more out of your comfort zone”—and getting yourself to some of the country’s most spectacular views in the process. This gallery, by photographer Myke Hermsmeyer, illustrates that blend of challenge and transcendence.

Kendall Mountain Run | Silverton, Colorado
Date: July 23, 2016
Distance: 12 miles
Gain: 3,750ft

“Kendall Mountain is a challenging course, and because it is just a week after Hardrock, the trail-running community always has a big presence.” Justin Ricks, 2016 finisher (seen below)

Kendall Mountain offers big views.
Aid stations are in rugged locations that require 4WD.
Kendall Mountain has technical descents that keep runners focused on what’s underfoot.

Franklin Mountains Trail Run | El Paso, Texas
Date: September 10, 2016
Distance: 50K
Gain: 8,500ft

“The rugged beauty of the Franklin Mountains will make your entire journey one you will never forget.” Marco Zuniga, half-marathon and King of the Mountain winner (below).

Marco Zuniga descends North Franklin Peak, with El Paso in the background.
Tarahumara runner Arnulfo Quimare on North Franklin Peak.
Off-the-beaten-path grandeur.

Broken Arrow Skyrace | Squaw Valley, California
Date: June 16/17, 2016
Distance: 52K, 26K, Vertical K
Gain (52K): 10,500

“There are some majorly fun and awesome (and a little scary) features, like our Stairway to Heaven ladder, reached via a heady hand-line on a knife-edge ridge.” Brendan Madigan, race director.

The ridgeline up to Squaw Peak.
Eventual third-place Anne-Marie Madden on the Escarpment climb.
Ropes lead to the Stairway to Heaven ladder.

The Rut | Big Sky, Montana
Date: September 2-4, 2016
Distance: 50K, 28K, Vertical K
Gain (50K): 10,500

Climbing the infamous spine of Lone Peak.
Taking a break on the 11,166-foot Lone Peak summit.
Rut co-RD Mike Foote getting a taste of his own medicine during the VK.

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