Just KilianThe Spaniard Kilian Jornet is taking the trail-running world by storm. A self-described “mountaineer,” the 23-year-old takes a surprisingly Zen approach to distance trail running
Kilian pounding down Tanzania's Mount Kilimanjaro (19,341 feet), at around 16,000 feet, not far from Lava Tower camp; in October 2010, he set the up-down speed record of 7 hours 14 minutes on Africa's tallest mountain. Photo by Stephan Repke.
This article appeared in our December 2011 issue.
The video clip opens with a person climbing a serrated, snow-covered ridgeline. He is wearing a white spandex racing suit and eggshell-thin ski boots, and, slung tightly to his back, are a pair of skis. The background music is dramatic, catchy—an inspirational three-chord rock anthem, something Hans Zimmer might have composed. He is taking deep methodical breaths. The clip switches to a helicopter view showing the earth drop off precipitously thousands of feet all around.
The season changes from winter to spring as the athlete trades out ski boots for running shoes and sets off at a sprint through the thin, fresh snow. His wardrobe morphs throughout the clip too, all threads committed to a theme of tight and bright. Ascending one mountain, descending another, launching off boulders, scrambling down steep, treacherous terrain to the crescendoing background music.
After dropping below snowline, he stops, crouches down and feels the grass and earth at his feet. The music pauses. You hear him breath. You hear his heart beat. The music kicks back in. By the end of the video the viewer half expects the star to climb into an Aston Martin alongside a beautiful woman or BASE jump off the mountain to machine gun down some bad guys.
This is the trailer for season three of Salomon’s high-budget, trail-running video series called Kilian’s Quest.
He fills in his race entry form as Kilian Jornet Burgada. By the time the start list has been finalized his mother’s name, Burgada, is usually dropped for brevity’s sake. Increasingly, though, as his fame has rapidly grown, he is being elevated to the ranks of Madonna, Bono and other one namers, and is known as just Kilian.
Kilian with the short, black hair and the soft chin.
Kilian with the calm and quiet presence of a librarian, a demeanor that allows him to go unnoticed on a crowded starting line.
In 2007 Kilian won his first of four consecutive Skyrunning World Series, a series of highly technical up-and-down races at altitude of up to a marathon in distance scattered around Europe and beyond. In 2008 he won what is generally considered to be the most competitive 100-miler in the world, the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UMTB), which starts and finishes in Chamonix, France. He broke the course record by nearly an hour. In 2009, Kilian won the Sierre-Zinal in Switzerland, a 32K mountain race that prides itself in stacking the starting line with several sub-2:15 marathoners from Mexico, Ethiopia, Colombia and beyond, each year. In June of 2011 Kilian became the first overseas winner of North America’s most competitive 100-miler—California’s Western States 100—and, in September, again took top honors at UMTB.
Having either won races, broken records or both on five continents, Kilian is arguably the most accomplished and recognized trail runner in the world.
In addition to being the sole star in his own on-line trail-running series, over July 2nd and 3rd, 2011, the first annual Kilian’s Classik was launched—a casual race weekend where fans could run and chat with Kilian himself. The release of his book, Córrer o Morir (Run or Die, available in Spanish, French and Catalan for now), followed later that month. Oh, and he’s 23 years old.
Eduard Jornet and Nuria Burgada raised Kilian and his younger sister, Naila, in the Catalonian Pyrenees, and both had skis on their feet before they took their first steps.
“The fact that I took on mountain sports is no coincidence,” says Kilian. When their parents were working, Kilian and Naila would run around the hills and woods surrounding the mountain town of Lles de Cerdanya in the far eastern corner of Spain. When time allowed, their parents would take them up a mountain … if not several.
At 18 months old, he would hike four to five hours at a time. By the age of five he had already bagged some of the largest peaks surrounding his home.
“When he was a young,” his mother recalls, “we soon realized that he was a child that we would have to tire out.”
In 1997 when Kilian was 10, his parents took him and Naila on a 40-day trek along the length of the Pyrenees, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. Twelve years later, running 50 to 60 miles per day, he would repeat the crossing in eight days—a record that was captured in a three-part episode of Kilian’s Quest.
“My mother taught me a lot,” says Kilian. “It helped that she never gave us the solution, but rather the tools to find the solution.”
“We wanted to teach our kids how to be autonomous,” explains Nuria.
In the saddle of a road bike, Kilian experienced his first taste of competition before he was a teenager. Training rides would take the young cyclist up and over passes from mountain town to mountain town and sometimes even into the neighboring countries of France and Andorra. The racing that followed was fun, if not easy.
An endurance masochist was born.
“I discovered that there is much to be gained through suffering and struggle,” he recalls of his early training mission—heavy thoughts for a 12-year-old.
The following year, Kilian joined the local ski-mountaineering team (the sport is known across Europe simply as “SkiMo”). Under the guidance of a couple of mentors, the young athlete adopted a passion for training and racing and an even deeper love for the mountains. In 2004, 17-year-old Kilian made his presence known on the international stage by winning the SkiMo Junior World Champion Vertical Race.
The next summer, fellow competitors and teammates convinced Kilian to take up trail running and racing. Few were surprised that he was immediately successful … least of all, Kilian. “I grew up playing in the forest, on the rocks, in the mountains,” he says. “Now I’m doing the same thing except it’s racing.”
In July 2007, at a team relay race in the Italian Alps, Kilian’s three-person team entrusted him with the longest and most technical leg of the course. “Il Bambino,” as the locals were calling him, was everything one would expect from a teenager—quiet and awkward with a smattering of pimples across his face. Everything, except that he arrived 30 minutes ahead of the next competitor.
In the SkiMo community, Kilian’s running achievements are often overlooked, and vice versa. I ask Kilian which he prefers: running or skiing? “It is impossible to choose. I am not a runner. I am not a skier,” he says. “I love the mountains. I am a mountaineer.
“For me it is not possible to run or ski all year,” he continues. “After six months of skiing, in the spring all I can think about is running. In the fall all I can think about is skiing.”
Training Takes Shape
Most weeks throughout the summer and winter, Kilian logs 30 to 40 hours of training. “This is my job,” he says. His running schedule is bracketed in the spring and the fall by Kilian’s Quest endeavors, which he seems to use more as training runs than all-out efforts.
When he is in Europe, a black, diesel mini-van takes him from race to race, event to event. With a road bike attached to the back of the van, he has become adept at using it as a base camp, sleeping in the back at trailheads and rest stops. He knows his way through the Alps better than a taxi driver through Manhattan.
Kilian’s trail-racing season starts and ends with long, slow events—Western States in June and UTMB in late August. For six weeks in the middle of the summer he concentrates on shorter, faster events—races that most ultrarunners would consider sprints.
“I don’t like running just ultras or short races. For me sport is not only to discover the outdoors, the people, the mountains … but also to discover myself. To explore my limits. When you race just 100 miles, 100 miles, 100 miles, you discover that your limit is 100 miles. But I also like short races, such as Sky Races, Sierre-Zinal, the Vertical Kilometer.”
“Kilian’s trail-running competitive range is among the widest I have seen,” says seven-time Western States 100 winner and current American 24-hour record holder, Scott Jurek, of Boulder, Colorado. “One weekend he is out crushing the competition on a vertical-kilometer course and the next he is taking it to us on the 166K Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc. During the winter he is the world’s best ski mountaineer.”
How does the young Spaniard do it? “It is important in the sport to not think about the sport,” he explains. “Don’t think of training as training. Training is going and running because you enjoy it. I love the sport for this reason.”
The root of Kilian’s love for the sport, suggests Kilian’s father, that which drives him more than anything else, is curiosity—how far can he push his mind and body.
“He runs against himself with the targets he sets for himself,” says Eduard Jornet. “Seeing how far he can go, seeing how his body reacts. It’s in his spirit.”