Last updated: 22-Nov-18
By Steve Diederich
The last time I saw Kilian was at the Trofeo Kima in September in Italy. He had just broken his course record on the Skyrunning event and was walking back from the finish line through the crowds that were cheering him like a rockstar. His demeanour was characteristically modest and self-effacing with everyone, offering an outstretched hand for a handshake, an autograph or a smile.
When I recently met with Kilian in London, prior to the launch of his new films and book, he had the same slightly self-conscious unease about being put on the spot and being the focus of attention. This belies a man who attracts the epithets superhuman, machine and phenomenon. His demeanour is calm and his words measured. His English is fortunately excellent, with a characteristic Catalan accent.
Everest – twice in a week
Kilian’s achievements are legendary – this year alone he summited Everest twice in a week without oxygen, breaking the previous record. He smashed the Bob Graham Round course record and numerous others in his racing season.
Kilian Jornet. Photo Credit: Steve Diederich.
The love of training
That is just his running, Kilian doesn’t define himself as a runner, running is only part of what he does. I asked him if he had to choose between racing and breaking records, which one would it be.
“You have missed my preferred option, I love training, much more than racing or record breaking. Training in the summer is running in, or climbing in the mountains. Training in the winter is skiing or climbing in the mountains.
Training is a lifestyle, not a performance on a single day. I have friends who are 80 years old who wake up and call each other if the weather is good to go and ski a col or summit a mountain. It is beautiful to talk to them, to have this passion of doing these things every day – this gives me my motivation.”
He has worked alongside the greats in all mountain sport, mostly decimating their achievements with his outstanding performances.
I was keen to know if there had been anyone who significantly inspired him.
“Other than my parents, who gave me my love for the mountains, when I was 13 years old and starting out in SkiMo (ski mountaineering), my first coach Jordi Canals gave me the belief to succeed and the sports science to train and manage myself effectively in a geeky way. These techniques gave me the approach that I still use today for every challenge”.
From the outside, it seems that Kilian has made very few mistakes and that his career has consisted of linking a series of successes together, pretty much untainted by any significant setbacks.
Kilian points to failures and low points as learning opportunities that are important for development.
“I have made a lot of mistakes, although these mistakes have been positive in the long-term because the learning from these has been important”.
Kilian Jornet. Photo Credit Steve Diederich.
Dealing with injury
Kilian has an original, logical attitude to setbacks.
“Injuries are good, when I was 16, I got a patella fracture and at the time I was in really good shape and was doing really well, winning everything. The doctor told me that I needed surgery and rest for at least 6 months and maybe I wouldn’t be able to race at top level again.
It was a really important moment for me as I could understand that the injury was no longer only physical. I used the time that I had to study bio-mechanics and psychology that allowed me to prepare for not only this outcome, but also for future setbacks.”
Low points have also come in other guises and are the nature of mountain adventures. Climbing, running or skiing push the limits and he has lost some close friends and colleagues. Ueli Steck and Stephane Brosse are the two that immediately come to mind for Kilian.
Stephane’s accident was particularly tough as he was with Kilian when a snow cornice collapsed under him in his attempt to traverse Mont Blanc. They were on his Summits of my Life project in 2012, and despite Kilian’s quick response, they couldn’t save Stephane.
“There was a moment when I questioned whether it (sic. going on with the project) was worth it. I realised that it was about living your life, not putting yourself in danger, but not waiting for security. We need to be exposed sometimes to feel like we are alive.”
Advice to others
When I push him and ask him what advice he would give his younger self, in a heartbeat he replies,
“Do not worry about what others think, do not listen to what they feel they need to say. You have one life, when you die you will only have the memory of the things that make us happy, all the rest is not important. Be straight with yourself and work for happiness.”
Managing the media
Kilian is obviously not a socialite, however with the consistent support of his sponsors Salomon and Suunto, he gets a lot of public interest and attention. I asked him about publicity and how he manages the media and the notice that he and his litany of achievements attract.
“I am a very introverted person, I don’t like being with people too much, I am a bit anti-social in that way. Early on it was hard for me to accept the attention I was getting. For me that was a moment when I had to choose whether to continue or not. I have had to find a balance between solitude, racing and being with people.”
The future of trail running
I was interested to understand his thoughts on the future of trail running as a sport, given the explosion of organised races.
“It is hard to know at this point, it is really important that we keep the spirit of the sport. Sure there will be more professionals, but the real need is to get more amateurs to enjoy trail running – spirit is more important than performance I think. The joy in trail running is experiencing parts of the world by foot, enjoying the local tracks that you could not see if you weren’t running.
I hope we aren’t going to see more series, more fixed distance events, 50k and 100k, and loops. You can’t take one format and just move it to another place. UTMB is special because you run along the mountain tracks. The Bob Graham round is special because you link summits, at Ben Nevis you go from the village up and down – these are logical races based upon the terrain. It would make no sense to have a 160km race with 100 metres of elevation around Ben Nevis, because it’s not what the shape of the mountain offers. It’s not just the distance or elevation or difficulty that makes a race great, it’s what is logical and appropriate to the terrain.”
Kilian Jornet at Trofeo Kima. Photo Credit: Steve Diederich.
Thoughts on the minimum age for running
There is an interesting debate at the moment around the minimum age runners should be allowed to compete with adults, with the debate about lifelong injuries and conditions that could be created in these formative years.
This year at the Javelina Jundred a 100 mile desert race in Arizona, Luke Sanchez, a 15 year old was a finisher. Given that Kilian started running and SkiMo at a young age, I was curious about his thoughts.
“This is such an individual thing as ultra running requires experience, but that experience can start at any age. If you start doing endurance sports when you are a kid – then I don’t think this is a problem. If you start later and go straight into the sport, you may have a problem.
Rules can not really make this distinction well. It’s up to the individual to decide when they are ready. I was doing 80kms when I was 13 and it felt good for me. I felt ready at the time.”
Thoughts on success
I asked about the greatest successes of his career.
“The greatest success is the one I will have tomorrow. I don’t like to look to past achievements at all. The past has allowed me to open doors into the future.”
Kilian Jornet at Trofeo Kima. Photo Credit: Steve Diederich.
Future plans for Kilian
There are rumours that Kilian will be participating in Pikes Peak as part of the Golden Trail series this year, but he wasn’t going to be drawn on that one.
“This year I would like to do some expeditions, some mountaineering projects. Last year I had a lot of fun going to the Bob Graham. Maybe something like that in Europe and the US.”
So, would you like to do the Barkley? That made him chuckle.
“It has a morbid attraction. Tennessee can be beautiful but it isn’t like Nepal. You aren’t going there for the beauty of the mountains. How’s it possible that it’s so slow? It’s like 3 kilometres an hour on average. I would like to go one time, to understand how the terrain can make really strong runners run at this speed. It won’t be this year as it’s in the winter when I will be on skis, it definitely has an attraction, I am curious.”
Thoughts on fatherhood
And lastly, with Emilie, Kilian’s partner and formidable trail runner they are expecting “Junior”. How will being a parent effect their lives?
“Sure it will make some changes, firstly in a beautiful way – this will be a wonderful journey for me and Emilie. Then there will be some challenges like logistics, as Emilie and I want to keep doing sport, racing and mountain expeditions. We need to find time when one is racing and the other is babysitting. Maybe we won’t be doing the races that we used to do together but it will be great to take our kid to the mountains and the projects, and include them in what we do.”
I bet I know what you’re thinking. With the gene pool of Emilie Forsberg and Kilian Jornet to draw on, my bet is that this next generation will be smashing the records set by their parents.
Kilian’s Book – Summits of My Life: Daring Adventures on the World’s Greatest Peaks is available from Amazon HERE.
The film “Summits of My Life” will be screened in advance of its release on iTunes on the 10th December as part of the Mountains On Stage touring UK + Ireland from 19th November to 7th December.