Kilian Jornet, trail champ of our time

How does one do justice in a simple blogpost to someone whose achievements have rocked the trail running world for the past (8) years, and whose victories are too numerous to list on a single page. I’d say it’s a pretty tough challenge, but one which I shall attempt – whilst throwing in a different, first-hand kind of flavour.

Kilian Jornet. It’s a name every trail runner knows. And if you don't, you’re either not a trail runner or you’ve been stuck in a time warp for the last few years. This man is what Usain Bolt is to track, Michael Phelps is to swimming, Ranulph Fiennes is to modern day polar exploration…  except this man is just a whole lot more, shall we say, out-there. For years he’s just been happily doing what he’s done since he was about four years old, and doing it further, better and faster than anyone else.

In brief: Kilian Burgarda Jornet, 26 year old Spanish/Catalonian, fastest mountain-running creature on two legs, the face of Salomon International, dominator of every challenging ultra-distance mountain race on the planet.
Weighing in at just 54kg, and spending most of his time running in the mountains above Chamonis in France, Kilian spends 48 weeks of every year in intensive exercise – what the rest of us would call training is simply high intensity exertion for Kilian: when he’s not running up near-vertical mountains and along razor-sharp ridgelines, he’s busy with a combo of extreme skiing and mountaineering, tackling those same high altitude peaks as he does on foot in the summer, but on skis in the winter.
Nothing seems impossible for Kilian – no peak too high or sheer to either run up or to ski down, and certainly no distance too far to take on.

In the words of his own sister, Naila, in Kilian's recently released film Summits of my Life: A Fine Line (Summits of my Life): “I’m always telling him be careful, that if it looks too dangerous, don’t go. But he doesn’t listen to advice much. If he sees he can go up, he’ll go; and if it looks like he can’t, he’ll try anyway.”

But this isn’t just another blog about Kilian and his running achievements – there’re hundreds of those out there. If you want to read up about his races, his times, his childhood growing up in the Pyrenees, then I’ll leave it to you to Google him. Instead, this blog is about what I, and others, have observed of Kilian before and during races.

In Oct 2012, I had the privilege of racing the Grand Raid de la Réunion (the Diagonale des Fous) as a Salomon International sponsored athlete. In the days before the race, I spent time with the other five athletes, all of whom were top class runners. What stood out most in my memory was just how relaxed Kilian was. This was his second Grand Raid – he'd won it in 2010, and he was expected to win again. His face was on the front of every newspaper on the island, there were enormous billboards of him at the airport, along the motorway and at every major intersection in the capital St Denis, and his fans were everywhere we went. And yet he showed no sign of any pressure at all. He was there to do what he loves to do: to run, and to compete.

One particular incident stands out in my memory: it was about 7:30pm on race night, and we were being driven to Cap Méchant in the south of the island, for the 10:30pm race start. The six of us were spread between two separate 4x4s, comfortable in true Salomon style. I was in the same vehicle as Kilian and Iker Carrera (winner of the Goretex Transalpine 2012). We’d pulled over at a roadside McDonalds to wait for the other vehicle, and had a few minutes to kill. I was sitting in the backseat, just looking out the window,  Iker was next to me shovelling down his third bowl of boiled pasta, and Kilian was sitting in the front passenger seat with his bare feet up on the dashboard, the window half down, napping (as one does before a 174km race…)
A car drew up into the parking space next to ours. There were two guys in the car, and I guess they’d come for a McD burger. The one guy happened to glance across at our car, and the next second his whole face lit up – he’d seen Kilian.
Through the window I saw him mouth the words “Kilian Jornet!” to his buddy, he bounded out the car and stuck his iPhone through Kilian's window and snapped a photo, right in Kilian's face.
Poor Kilian handled it so well. He’d got quite a fright, waking up to a phone in his face like that, but he patiently smiled and agreed to get out the car and have photos taken with these two complete strangers. They were thrilled, he’d made their night.
This was one of many, many times I watched Kilian being mobbed, albeit pleasantly, by enthusiastic fans. On Réunion everyone, whether runner or not, is a Kilian fan. If it was an independent nation rather than a part of France, I swear they’d probably elect him President.
billboard on the motorway in Reunion
The African Attachment’s brilliant filmmakers Dean Leslie and Greg Fell have spent the last two years travelling with the Salomon team around the world, documenting trail running. Dean was in Réunion for the Grand Raid, shooting Kilian and capturing the essence of that incredible race. He captured it so well:
In Réunion trail running is huge, more popular than football. They have to have a lottery system for the locals because so many want to the run the race. On a small island this is crazy. It’s not as though Grand Raid is a 21km or something – it’s a +100 mile race across big mountains, and takes most people 50-60 hrs to complete.
I got to the island a few days before Kilian to get some scenic shots.The first thing we noticed was the billboards of him all over the place. You drive around a car in Salomon logos and everyone is trying to see in the windows if Kilian is in the car. When he arrived there was a horde of cameras waiting for him at the airport. He would be swamped by people almost everywhere we went - and this is all in a few days leading up to a fairly big race for him. 
Then race day was unlike anything I have experienced on a race day before. Because access is fairly limited there were only a few points we could get close enough to the trail to hike in. At these points there were so many people waiting that often we would have to hike a few km's to try get away from the crowds to get a solitary shot of Kilian running. We’d think we were in a secluded spot, and next thing we’d hear whistling and screaming and then a couple minutes later Kilian would emerge from a treeline or a valley or even a single track on the edge of a cliff, with about 20 people around him, running with him, jostling to be next to him, asking for autographs while he ran, interviewing him live on radio, for TV…  It was absolutely crazy!”

Here's the link to the episode on Salomon TV that The African Attachment filmed during the Grand Raid (Diagonale des Fous): Imagine a trail running island

Dean told me that he’d only ever seen Kilian polite and friendly, never impatient or exasperated with the cameras that protrude into his life. 
"He always makes time for us to film. He actually really makes our job quite easy because he has had so much experience with media over the years that he has a really good understanding of the filmmaking process and will often add valuable input. He is very thoughtful, has a profound love for the mountains and I think part of him loves being able to share that with people.”

Then I asked Kilian himself what he thinks about all the fuss…

LD:   I know you run for the sheer love of the mountains. I also know that you’re very competitive. These two reasons, together with your enormous natural talent, have made you into a phenomenal champion.  But with so many victories and records behind you, what is it like being Kilian Jornet in the build-up to a race? (the pressure, the media hype, the expectations…)

KJ:  When I started racing (13 years old in ski mountaineering) I was bit nervous before races, but now I try to be calm. I need to try to be [mentally out] of the race because all the media, fans and interviews use a lot of energy. I don’t like to think about the race before race day, and the media and people like to talk about races the whole year! Everyone has expectations of me, I have mine, I have my strategy, and I like to work on that in silence. For sure, with my level and my expectations, at the start of every race I think to fight for the victory, I need to believe in the victory to fight for this, and this makes me excited, not pressured.

LD:  I’ve seen how when you’re relaxing and enjoying time out, complete strangers recognise you and rush over to say hello and have their photo taken with you. How do you feel about this?

KJ:  I feel it’s not me, it’s not about my person. I like to share with people my values and experiences but I don’t like myths and idols... I like to be in the quiet. Sometimes that’s hard to find, but in mountains it’s easy to find silent places.

LD:  I witnessed the excitement of your fans in Reunion – they got very excited when they saw you. Is that reaction unique to Reunion (maybe being a small island?) or does that sort of thing happen when you race in Europe and the US?

KJ:  Reunion Island is special. Everyone there knows trail running and the Diagonale des Fous – I love how they love the sport! In France, Italy and Spain it’s almost the same, but in the US, Northern Europe and Asia it’s quieter, with mountaineering ambiances.

Kilian has often said, particularly in the last year or so, that what drives him is not so much being the first to cross the finish line, but more the challenge of achieving something daunting, finding a new limit, or setting a new record. He believes "winning is not ending in first position. It's not beating the others. Winning is overcoming oneself."

And then, just to finish off, here're Kilian's startling trail running statistics:
(this excludes his ski-mountaineering achievements)

- Winner Ultra Trail Mont Blanc 2008, 2009,2011
- Winner Grand Raid Reunion 2010, 2012
- Winner WS100 2011
- Winner TNF Australia 100K 2011
- Winner Cavalls del Vent 2012
- Winner SpeedGoat 2012
- Record GR 20 (200km,17000m - 32h54')
- Record Tahoe Rim Trail (280km,14000m - 38h32'

- Record Up/Down Kilimanjaro (5h22-7h14)
- Courmayeur - Chamonix by Inomminatta (8h42)

- World Champion Skyrunning 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2012
- Winner Zegama 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012
- Winner Giir di Mont 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011
- Winner Sierre Zinal 2009, 2010
- European Champion Skyrunning 2008
- Winner Skyrace & Skygames 2008
- Winner Sentiero delle Grigne 2007, 2008
- Winner Climbathon Malasia 2007, 2009, 2011, 2012
- Winner Skyrace Andorra 2007, 2008, 2009
- Winner Pikes Peak Marathon 2012
- Winner Dolomites Skyrace 2008, 2012
- Winner Marathon du Mont Blanc 2012
- Winner Ontake Skyrace 2007
- Winner Troffeo Kima 2010, 2012
- Winner Olla de Núria 2009, 2010
- Winner Table Mountain Challenge 2011
- Winner Becca di Nona 2012

- 2x KV Fully (best time 31'52'')
- 6x KV Manigod (best time34'05'')
- 1x KV Chamonix (best time 35')

** photo credits for all pics apart from the Ian Corless photo =

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