Run or Die: The Kilian Jornet Way - Page 2We have been running in single file for some time, and no one wants to go on the attack. Tarcis takes the initiative and is leading the group at a very fast pace. I’ve positioned myself immediately behind him in order to react as quickly as I can if he decides to make a move. I have two cards to play: the first is to attack down the side where there are huge boulders and, using my technique, fire off 3 miles from the finish line, which would give me some margin to play with. The second is to start my attack later, on the last downhill slope, just under 2 miles from the line.
While I’m thinking about what might be the best strategy, Tarcis starts accelerating, making it increasingly hard to keep up the pace, and we start to fall a few yards behind. He speeds up and looks to be making his definitive spurt. He is leaving Robert and César behind. Perhaps now is the time for me to attack ... I look behind. They look as if they have accepted defeat. I am just about to change pace in order to pass Tarcis when he falls down in front of me. He had been taking too many chances on the descent, and his legs failed to keep up with his brain. I brake abruptly, look down, and give him my hand.
“Are you all right? Have you hurt yourself?” I ask.
“Shit! I’m fine, I’m fine,” replies Tarcis, getting up.
As he does so, I hear those chasing us make a spurt. My first strategy is in tatters. I will have to wait for another opportunity to go on the attack. In the meantime, the four of us run together. I have few options left. We will reach the finish in just over 12 minutes, and though I am a runner who likes to control a race from the front and wait for the right moment to attack, I prefer to do that well before the finish in order to have more than one option if my opponents attack again. Now I will have to lay everything on a single card, and it will have to be the right one.
I feel Robert putting the pressure on behind me. I can feel his desire to overtake me. He has the strength to do so, and I don’t have what I need to make a spurt myself. I must wait for the signal, for intuition to tell me now is the time and for my strength to flow back all at once.
Robert accelerates. I can’t see or hear him, but I know he is making a move. I grit my teeth to finish a short climb and start downhill. Then I attack, speeding up and clearly stunning the others. As I pass, out of the corner of my eye I see Robert turn to look at those chasing him, and I register a tiny reaction that now becomes crucial: His eyes are no longer full of fire; they are small and have lost their brightness; the finish tape they want to smash through has vanished from their view. That tells me he is defeated, and I accelerate even more.
I never know when to go on the attack. It is in that tenth of a second that the future of the race, victory or failure, will be decided. It is a moment you cannot plan; intuition must drive you to make a decision. An overconscious reaction will never come to good. If you plan it too early, you will certainly pay for the excess effort, and if you leave it too late, you will lose. You have to make good use of the surprise element. Find the key moment. This moment to change pace and go for the tape will always be the moment when the balance between self-confidence, which tells you can do it, and its absence is shattered.
You have to feel the fear that you can’t do it in order to overcome it and launch into proving which of the two is right. And you must allow intuition to tell you when that moment has come, allow instinct to compel you forward, to tell you, “It’s now or never.”
I’m a rational athlete; I enjoy analyzing races, planning them in advance, imagining how they will develop, dreaming them and rehearsing them in training, broadcasting them via imaginary commentators in my head. Sketching the outlines for the screenplay. I think I almost find writing that series of decisions in my head more satisfying than carrying them out for real, given that the screenplay we mark out is never respected, that there are always surprises. That is what makes competing so exciting, what makes it magical and turns it into an art—being able to follow the right impulse, knowing the one powering you into the lead is the right one, and keeping hold of it.
Life outside the race doesn’t exist at such moments. The race is life, and it stops when you cross the finish line. An afterward doesn’t exist; you can only think about getting there as quickly as possible. You don’t think about the consequences the effort you are making might bring, the knocks or injuries awaiting you, because nothing else exists after the watch has stopped. Because the life we have created is at an end and we are left searching for a new one to create.
My legs can’t stand the pressure; my breathing stops with each step, tries to minimize each impact. I’m not thinking about anything; my mind is blank. I only follow the sequence of emotions that I want to experience again. And as more come to mind, my legs accelerate and my heart beats faster. Seemingly out of control, they hurtle between rocks and undergrowth, but with each step they know exactly where they must go, where they must direct their strength. There are no feet, legs, or knees in reserve; there is no strength to retain. My body is at peak speed and my mind at the peak of concentration so as not to fall at every step.
I reach the asphalt, 100 yards, a bend to the right, and I look behind me. Nobody is in sight. And I have that feeling again.
But what does it mean to win? What is the real victory? When I cross the finish line, what is it that makes my hair stand on end or makes me feel that my feet are afloat, makes it so that I can’t suppress the need to cry, want both to run on and collapse to the ground? What makes me react inside this bubble? The real victory isn’t the act of smashing through the tape and crossing the finish line; it’s not seeing your name first on the list or standing on the highest step on the podium. None of that can make your legs shake with fear and excitement.