An uphill battle: Czechs host mountain running “World Cup” for first time

For the first time in history, the Czech Republic is among the host countries of the World Mountain Running Association’s “World Cup” race. This weekend, endurance athletes from across the globe will attempt to run half-marathons in the Krkonoše Mountains – the highest range in the country.

Both the starting and finish line of Sunday’s race is on the colonnade of Janské Lázně, a picturesque spa town near the Polish border. The fact that this country is hosting the event comes down to the perseverance of Krkonoše area local Karel Šklíba, affectionately known as the “spiritual godfather” of Czech uphill racing.

“I have done about 60 [mountain] marathons. I wanted to do 100, but for health reasons it was no longer possible. So, then I cut down to half-marathons and so on.

“I first started running because my father was an athlete. When I was maybe 12, I switched to cycling. After the war, because there weren’t many of cyclists around, I went back to running and I have stuck to it.”

Karel Šklíba,  Petr Pechek | Photo: Milan Baják,  Czech Radio

Back in 1982, Mr Šklíba and a few others runners got permission to leave Communist-ruled Czechoslovakia to compete in an uphill running race. The next year, he established the National Mountain Running Cup, which is still going strong.

“My friends and I grew up in the mountains and trained there. I read somewhere about the biggest uphill running race in the world – 32 kilometres long, with an elevation gain of about 2,000 metres. We started training for it and were the first in the Socialist bloc to race it.”

After the fall of Communism, Mr Šklíba was on the first Czech team to compete for the World Mountain Running “Trophy”, as the “World Cup” race was then known.

“In 1990, we were invited to the first world championship. Since we’d held the Czech Cup for years, we already had many great uphill runners. So, we jumped in immediately – and we were the best of the former Eastern bloc. We’re still among the top in the world.”

Since that race 30 years ago, Mr Šklíba, now in his late ‘70s, has competed in or attended every world championship. But he has passed the proverbial torch on to a new generation of Czech athletes.

Photo: Milan Baják,  Czech Radio

Among them is five-time national marathon champion Petr Pechek, who is competing in Sunday’s race. Uphill running, he told Czech Radio, is another challenge altogether.

“There’s quite a big difference, both in tempo and terrain. Above all, the pace is different, and since it is mostly uphill and off-road, the running technique is also a bit different from running marathons on pavement.

“It’s more intense, it’s harder, and takes longer. I run a marathon on a paved road in about 2 hours and 20 minutes. A mountain marathon, for example in the nearby Jeseníky Mountains, takes me over 3 hours.”

Runners competing in Sunday’s “World Cup” race, a half-marathon, will run on some regular roads, forested pathways and grassy meadows in the Krkonoše Mountains. But over the 22-kilometre route, they face an elevation gain of 1,050 metres. An uphill battle (pardon the pun) to be sure.