Urban Zemmer

Urban Zemmer. The legend.

Record del mondo di KV. By Fabio Menino.

For mountain lovers, whether they be runners, climbers or hikers, the vertical climb always represents something closely related to passion. Particularly in the mountains, linear distance is not that important. Very often it is not even taken into account, as what really matters is the distance to climb.

As a young man, I once asked how far I had left to reach the top. The answer was given to me in vertical meters. It is now, based on experience over the years, that a hundred, a thousand, or more meters gives me a more precise meaning, depending on my state of mind, level of fitness and my enthusiasm.

And given that, for some strange reason, we tend to refer to round numbers, where for example a 4,000 meter mountain is always more significant than a 3,900m one, the exact figure of 1,000 meters of vertical height is key, something highly representative and used as a base.

Who in the mountains doesn´t usually make a mental connection between the distance and the time taken to run up it? In broad lines, when someone informed me of the remaining vertical climb to reach the top, I would use it to work out an estimated time to complete it. In my head, always based on past experience, I had my own time reference for an ascent. In general, the reference I used was how long it took to climb 1,000 meters vertically. This reference always took into account the technical difficulty and other factors that, on the other hand, would often provide a mental exercise to help divert my attention from the fatigue I was suffering at that time.


Until yesterday morning, on the odd occasions I remembered to take note of the time spent on a route or in a race, my thoughts inevitably turned to make a comparison between the times taken by the top specialists in vertical ascents. Until yesterday morning, with a certain inferiority complex, I compared my performance with the scarce half an hour that the best in the world took to climb 1,000 meters vertically. Until yesterday morning, and for the last time, I compared my performance with the time taken to cover 2,000 meters by those same top athletes.

Yesterday morning, however, something changed. In Switzerland, the 14th edition of the Fully Vertical Kilometer took place, a special race in which there are only 1,000 meters of vertical climb in just 1.6 linear kilometers. This makes it one of the fastest races on the international scene. To this characteristic it is necessary to empasize the fact that it takes place at a relatively low altitude, and that its entire route is accompanied by the old railway track. All this makes it the fastest race of this type in the world. In fact, in this race in 2012 the first records, both male and female, were set: 30’26’’ for the Italian Urban Zemmer and 36’48’’ for the French Christel Dewalle.

Yesterday morning, Fully’s Vertical Kilometer seemed destined to rewrite a great day for the stopwatch. In men, the Italian Nicola Golinelli crossed the line in a fantastic time of 30’25”, which was a new world record. Marco Moletto also got below 31’, setting his own personal record. In addition, for the females, Dewalle set her own record of 34’44’’. In short, once again Fully offered something “inaccessible” to the most “human” of those passionate about the mountains and the vertical climb.

But then, as in previous editions, the race was preparing to receive Urban Zemmer, and the word “inaccessible” became something very real indeed. His perfect core, comprised of head, arms and legs, not only shook the old rails of Fully, but even wrote a new page in the history of the specialty of Skyrunning and of mountain climbing. His final time of 29’42’’  suddenly changed many mountain enthusiasts´ way of thinking. As of yesterday morning, the fastest time that even the most experienced athletes have achieved a 1,000 meter vertical climb, of little more than half an hour, has fallen short and become obsolete.

But to tell the truth, you cannot really say that the top specialists in the world do it in less than half an hour, because really there is only one athlete who has done it. To be precise, we need only refer to one name and surname: Urban Zemmer, the only one capable of completing a 1,000 meter vertical climb in less than half an hour, or if you prefer, the only one capable of exceeding a speed for 2000 meters of within the hour.

And in this context, there is no point trying to compare Urban Zemmer´s time of 29’44’’ in absolute terms at an altitude of less than 1,500 meters, to Kilian Jornet´s record of 32’43’’ achieved in a vertical climb at 2,000 meters above sea-level, or to that of Marco de Gasperi of 34’51” at over 3,000m altitude. As often in this context, little consideration is given to the type of terrain or technical difficulty.

However, it doesn´t matter. The new temporary reference point will be that made by Urban Zemmer. Maybe some from outside the sport are wondering who Urban Zemmer is? The answer, obviously, varies depending on how well you are known or the successes achieved in your sports career. Some may say he is just a farmer, a shy mountain man not inclined to complacency, or others an enormously gifted athlete, not only physically but also mentally.

My answer, however, is already made up in my mind. Urban Zemmer is a man who, as rarely occurs in sport, has been fortunate enough to dedicate himself to the ideal activity that matches the physical and mental qualities Mother Nature has blessed him with. The perfect activity that, in fact, turns an athlete into a champion, a man into a legend.

At this point, and on a final note, I would like to add that the new vertical kilometer record has been established by Urban Zemmer at 44 years of age. But all things considered this is an unimportant detail given that champions and legends do not have an age, just like their achievements and successes escape any type of temporary reference.


The three faces of talent. By Fabio Menino.

I don´t think I’ll ever forget that hot summer afternoon. Not only was it a pleasant moment on the mountain, but, and more importantly, a great lesson.

In the distance, I watch Astrid as she leans over the ridge to look for Urban’s silhouette. Not even half an hour has gone by since he left Santa Carterina Valfurva, and in a few minutes he should appear over the last dip that leads to the finish line.

But today is not race day, rather the afternoon beforehand. Urban, following his tradition, wants to scout the route. Astrid tells me he is like that, professional and meticulous in his way of life.


I do not see any other athlete in the distance on the slope of this mountain. Urban is the only one. As I wait, I try to think of Astrid’s words looking for keys that will help me to understand her partner’s talent.

At the age of 45, and taking into account his spectacular sports career, Urban should have already abandoned high-level competition. And yet, not only does he keep on running, but when it comes to doing it vertically, he does it faster than any other athlete.

I think that talent, in the very sense of the term, is one of those characteristics intrinsic to defining a champion. For Urban Zemmer, however, it is not enough. It is necessary to go deeper into the meaning of the term and analyze other possible facets.

Typically, talent is identified as having an athletic body and extraordinarily distinct physical abilities. But this is just one of the faces of talent and, while important, not enough to explain how a 45 year-old man is able to compete on equal terms with others much younger than him.

In the case of Urban, it is also necessary to talk about talent as the ability to program, persevere and find the right motivation in any situation.

Among all high-level athletes, Urban is the only one who has always competed in the vertical kilometer event. In fact, he is the only specialist in this discipline. He never fell into the temptation to seek futile popularity in more well-known races like Skyraces. And this, I consider a talent in itself, especially with the frenetic pace of our society, which considers doing more and more a status vivendi. To believe in something and to put all your effort into it, without sideline distractions, seems to me to be something truly admirable and with a clear vision of the future.

In order to understand talent as a motivation, however, there is no need for words, it is enough just to observe what is happening on this hot afternoon on the mountains of Santa Caterina Valfurva.

That is why I feel I learned a lot from Urban today, because his athletic side is something that goes beyond sport and should be taken as a reference in daily life, especially for all normal people like me.

I see him coming with his beloved dog. He stops for a few minutes to contemplate in silence the mountain that surrounds him. Never before, until this very moment, am I convinced that tomorrow he will give absolutely everything to conquer his umpteenth victory.

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