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Salomon mountain runner Rémi Bonnet prepares for the Pikes Peak Marathon

Martina Valmassoi photo

Pikes Peak offers unique challenge to European Vertical K star

Rémi Bonnet leaned back in his chair and bathed in the Colorado sunshine on Saturday in Manitou Springs. Lunch with local mountain runner Peter Maksimow is always relaxing and peppered with good conversation.

The 22-year-old Swiss runner and ski mountaineer ordered his water without ice, European style. Speaking broken but clear English, he talked about his recent experiences while exploring the Pikes Peak region. The vibe is different on the trails above Manitou Springs, he says. The runners and hikers there treated him well.

“People are really friendly here,” he says. “When you run, people are cheering for you. In Europe, you don’t see this, no never.”

Now, to be clear, European Sky Running events enjoy an attendance of wild race fans. But Bonnet sensed the low-key camaraderie – the spirit of the trail – that Colorado folk offered as Maksimow showed him some favorite routes last week.

“All the people are really relaxing here,” Bonnet says.

He even noticed it in the restaurant service. “In Europe, sometimes you go to the restaurant and you ask for something more, and the guys say, ‘no, no, it’s not possible.’ But here, you feel more like at home.”

He expects to have a unique experience in the 62nd running of the Pikes Peak Marathon on Sunday. Bonnet is one of the world’s best in the Vertical K (VK) events, shorter races with an altitude gain of 3,280 feet or more. They are painful, leg-numbing races made popular in Europe’s Sky Running Series.

“I think because I am light, I can go faster on the steep,” he says.

Martina Valmassoi photo

Bonnet is built like a tall blade of prairie grass. Standing 6 feet, he weighs 116 pounds. “I eat what I want and I never take weight,” he says. And his strength is obvious when his motor grinds into the rising grades.

Pikes Peak offers a different kind of challenge than the steep and technical mountain trails in Europe. The course climbs 13.32 miles up Barr Trail, with an average grade of 10-to-11 percent. It is runnable nearly the whole way for elite athletes. The descent back to Manitou Springs is white-knuckle fast.

“It’s more unique here,” he says. “You never find a race like this Europe. It’s less technical, and I like running fast.”

His breakthrough in mountain running came at the 2015 Rut Mountain Run 25K in Montana.  Maksimow, and many others in the running community, were surprised. Bonnet had won the VK the day before. The 25K was supposed to be a training run, a lung-blaster to prepare for future events.

“His team manager said, you’re not racing, just go out really hard,” Maksimow said. “They sent him out as a sacrificial lamb, hoping that somebody would go with him and blow up the field. And that race included a who’s who of mountain running.”

Bonnet crested the first climb with a substantial lead and kept going. “It was my first long race,” he says. He charged down 11,116-foot Lone Peak to take the win. That victory launched his professional running career.

The Pikes Peak Marathon will be his longest race to date, but the peak’s difficulty can be found in its elevation. The race begins in Manitou Springs (elevation 6,300 feet) and tops out at 14,115-feet. The air is thin and the running difficult above treeline. Bonnet, who has trained this week on Pikes Peak’s tall granite sides, shrugged when asked about running at high altitudes.

“I don’t feel it because in the winter I always train high altitude,” he says.

His experience in Ski Mountaineering (SkiMo) has prepared him for big mountains, he says. He is a two-time world junior ski champion and won another title this year in the “Espoir” division, competing against the best in the sport.

Philipp Reiter photo

But he’s relatively new to endurance-type events. Born and raised in the mountain town of Charmey, Switzerland, he always enjoyed fishing and dabbling in soccer, but never played competitively.  He began skiing in 2013 when a friend on the Swiss national team took him out for “a loop.” Bonnet left his friend behind and Switzerland found a new star in the snow. Running soon followed and he found his groove in the VK when he won the brutal 2015 Red Bull K3 in Italy, climbing 9,960 feet in 2 hours, 1 minute and 57 seconds.

A member of the Salomon International Team, Bonnet is one of the favorites to win the Pikes Peak Marathon, but he’s also humble and won’t make predictions. All mountain runners know that Matt Carpenter of Manitou Springs holds the race record of 3:16:39. (Carpenter set the Pikes Peak Ascent record, 2:01:06, in the same race.) Those targets are enticing for mountain elites.

“I don’t like to say something before the race,” Bonnet says. “I just go my best and that is good. Matt’s record is too tough, I think. The uphill is possible, but the downhill is really, really fast. Of course, I will do my best to do the best time possible.”

His future in mountain running is bright, but his goals are simple.

“I like to race. I like to train. I like to go in the mountains, and it’s what I want to do for the next few years,” he says.

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