OutdoorsRadar speak to the King of the Mountains, ultra runner Kilian Jornet
In football there are Leo Messi and Ronaldo. Two players so much better than everyone else that between them they’ve won the Ballon d’Or (the award for the best player in the world) for the last six years. In tennis Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have dominated for a decade. In Formula One Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel is the great rivalry. But in the world of mountain and ultra-distance running, there is only Kilian Jornet.
The Catalan has no rival. He’s peerless. He’s won everything. From UTMB® (three times), to America’s notorious Hardrock 100 (three times, with a course record for either direction). He’s won the Skyrunning World Series six times. Western States? Tick. When the mountain ultra season takes a break the 28-year-old simply turns to skimountaineering. And casually wins world titles at that too.
More recently, ostensibly because those sports seem to hold little challenge for him anymore, he’s turned to his Summits of My Life project. Kilian is in the process of trying to set Fastest Known Time (FKT) records on the world’s largest peaks, including Everest. He’s not just a runner, mountaineer or skimountaineer. He defies athletic categorisation. He’s a real-life mountain god.
Where it began
Those looking for an easy excuse as to why Kilian is so superior can point to him growing up in Cap de Rec in a Cerdanya mountain hut at 2,000 metres. From a very early age he would do mountain sports with his family. That may not be coincidental – in fact he has a V02max around 85-90ml/kg/bw and a resting heart rate of 34bpm. Both pretty much unheard of.
Is his high-altitude upbringing his secret? And if not, what is? “Cinnamon buns!” he tells OutdoorsRadar. “No, seriously, it’s down to a lot of work, training and motivation. When I was young I was really focused, obsessed even, with training, building up my capacities. Then keeping the motivation, the training and being pragmatic, and relaxing for the races.”
His first win at UTMB in 2008 was a pivotal moment in his career. “It was my first experience of a long race,” he remembers. “I had prepared really well, doing the loop in two days. I also had some experiences of 80km loops in my home mountains from when I was 13. I was focused and sure of myself. But I was also scared about the distance, the lack of sleep, the potential for stomach problems. During the race I remember I was enjoying it, but nervous about all these unknowns. After the race I remember three weeks with pain in my legs. The day after, I needed to ask for help to get in the shower!”
It wasn’t the race that pushed him the most. “That was probably Western States in 2010,” he says. “I didn’t drink much and it was hot, around 52˚, and at 130km I got full body cramps. I ran some steps, my body cramped and I fell. I woke up, stretched and started running again, until I cramped again and fell again. It was a long way to the finish.”
So when he’s hurting and tired, what’s the secret to staying motivated and competitive? “Look around you. Don’t think that you’re racing or doing something important. Just think, ‘I’m in a place I like to be in: around mountains, doing what I love’. And sometimes a bit of pain and suffering is motivating too. If it’s difficult, if it’s challenging, you’ve learned more when you are done.”
Despite all his successes, he insists he doesn’t like “To look too much into the past… you enjoy it and it has an ephemeral beauty. But it disappears.”
What about a favourite race then? “There are so many! Hardrock 100 or Diagonale des Fous are probably the best 100 milers, for scenery and ambiance. Zegama or Canazei (Dolomites Skyrace) for short distances. New technical races such as Trofeo Kima or the one we organise in Tromsø are probably the ones I most enjoy. Technical mountaineering terrain.”
Now that he’s racing much less and instead spending time on his Summits of My Life project and setting FKTs on the Matterhorn, Mont Blanc and America’s Denali, it would appear he’s almost running out of challenges. But he says not. “When you climb a summit the first thing you see behind it are other summits and valleys you want to climb. The list grows so fast, it’s hard to chose which ones to do next.”
“My Summits project gives me a new way of doing things, my own way. The beauty of discovering places and people. The possibility to challenge myself and learn, putting myself on difficulty, on more technical terrain, for longer, at altitude.”
In rare moments that show Kilian may in fact be semi-human after all, his FKTs on Aconcagua, Elbrus and Kilimanjaro have since been bettered. OutdoorsRadar suggests that though he says he doesn’t mind, he must be a tiny bit annoyed? Just a tiny bit… “I think it’s great!” he smiles. “That is sport. I welcome the next generation. It’s great to see people pushing where you pushed, to learn what they did differently, better. Anyway, simply to see people running out on the mountains is great.”
Fast and light mountain travel has its critics. There always seems to be someone saying it’s irresponsible, that Kilian is dangerously encouraging less experienced people to copy him. “I’m impressed by and admire Alex Honnold soloing Half Dome, or free divers at 100m under water,” he says. “But I will not do it, because I know I will die. I think the responsibility is to know what are our individual capacities and experience. Mountaineering and risk are linked. Isn’t that the beauty of alpinism, to make the decision of which risk you can or want to take? It’s the soul of this sport.”
At races Kilian can be treated like a rock star, mobbed in the streets, but he says his fame has never felt like too much of a burden. “Sure, the ‘bad’ thing of my life is to lose a part of my anonymity. But it’s part of the game. If I want to have sponsors, I need to have a public life. On the other hand, it’s beautiful to share moments, meet interesting people on mountains, at races or events, to share emotions, or to let others see where I have gone.”
Talking of that side of things, he says that despite the more than usual amount of time spent indoors, he enjoyed writing his book Run or Die. “It was a great exercise, to put yourself in a new perspective, to see what I’m doing, what has happened and trying to find answers to the whys: Why I run, why I love to suffer, why…”
His next major target is the biggest of them all: Mt Everest. “Everest is big. It’s high. The altitude and conditions – the weather, snow conditions, wind – on these big mountains, demand a lot of patience. It’s a great challenge, because it demands I improve a lot in many aspects, such as technical climbing and my ability at altitude. And that’s what motivates me, to learn.”
Kilian was preparing for an Everest attempt in the spring of 2015 when Nepal was hit by devastating earthquakes. He travelled to the Himalayan country anyway, to help out, and his heartbreaking but hopeful film, Langtang, is raising funds to rebuild homes in the stricken region. “These earthquakes changed the vision of every person who was there. You really feel how small and vulnerable we are in front of the Nature, that we can’t fight Nature. On the other side, Nepal is a poor country, rural areas are really poor, and they lost everything. When we arrived there with some rice and shelter they invited us to eat their food and to sleep in their beds. Can you imagine that?”
Because of his constant success in mountain athleticism, Kilian could be forgiven for being slightly arrogant, slightly irritating, or aloof. But instead you get the opposite. He’s humble, humorous, endlessly positive, childishly enthusiastic, and his hippyish love of the mountains rises above all else.
“Running is only one way to be on the mountains. Sports – whether that’s running, skiing, climbing or similar – are tools to be in the mountains, to find a line, to enjoy… to find emotions. I love the simplicity of running. You don’t need any gear, just your legs to travel on the mountains. My favourite mountain is the one I will climb tomorrow, the one you dream of… discovering and finding the beauty in every place.” What about after Everest? “I have no concrete project. But I have many dreams.”
He knows he will not run fast all his life. “There will be a moment when I will not be able to run fast. I will run slower. Then I can walk. Then I can still just be in the mountains, looking around. Running is a way to be in the places I love.”
Kilian Jornet is sponsored by Salomon and Suunto. You can buy Langtang from summitsofmylife.com
Words: Damian Hall