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Just Kilian

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The 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

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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.

One Namer

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.

Soft-spoken Kilian.

Humble 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.

Likely Beginnings

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.”

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Kilian during a Salomon team training camp at Mont Ventoux, France, 2010. Photo by Yves-Marie Quenemer.

The Salomon-Kilian Marriage

In 2008 Kilian joined the Salomon International Team, which consisted of 15 athletes from Spain, France, Germany, Great Britain, the United States, Russia, South Africa and New Zealand. Initially he was situated amongst the likes of former Olympian and six-time Mountain Running Champion, Jonathan Wyatt, but after quickly realizing the young runner’s potential, Salomon overhauled the team, placing Kilian at the top, with first-hand access to shoe, clothing and equipment designers.

Says chief technical clothing designer for Salomon, Serge Chapuis, “Kilian is an athlete who knows the human body perfectly. He’s intimately aware of the body’s potential and adept at translating needs into actual equipment.” In 2009, Chapuis designed a lightweight rain jacket for Kilian—a required piece of equipment for UTMB. Kilian complained about the weight and Chapuis had to start again, researching fabrics that had never before been used for running. “Nothing is ever light enough for Kilian,” says Chapuis.

In need of a stage to show its technical shoes and clothing, Salomon conceived Kilian’s Quest in 2008. The premise of the trail-running series was simple—give a young and talented athlete the means to pursue some of his lifelong dreams, capture the adventure on film and offer it, free, in bite-size episodes throughout the year. The idea was brought to life the following year when Kilian broke the record for the 118-mile GR20—a rugged trail that crosses the mountainous island of Corsica, climbing 35,000 vertical feet in the process. With a time of 32:54 he broke the former record by four hours.

The episodes that followed captured Kilian’s successful attempts to break the records up and down Mount Kilimanjaro, up and down Mount Olympus, around Lake Tahoe along the Tahoe Rim Trail and the aforementioned coast-to-coast running of the Pyrenees.

Add up the cost of designers, plane tickets, hotels, camera crews, helicopters for aerial shots and other expenses and you quickly deduce that this thing surrounding Kilian is a massive project. The question arises, how does it pay for itself?

In the background of nearly every one of Kilian’s great performances over the past couple years has stood Gregory Vollet. After seven years as a professional mountain biker and several more years working with various sports-related companies, Vollet, 36, joined the Salomon team with a global vision of expanding trail running.

“This sport is arriving on all of the continents,” says Vollet. “We aren’t just out to push our product, but to grow the sport at the same time.” The goal behind Kilian’s Quest is not to convince runners to buy Salomon running shoes over their competitors’ but rather to inspire non-runners to run and to create running communities where none existed before.

“What we have to do in sports is to have business,” he continues. “It is difficult to evolve a sport without business. Without support the sport rests in niche.”

As team manager, logistics coordinator and pacer, Vollet is the liaison between Kilian and his endeavors, between Kilian and the world.

Vollet goes on to explain how an amazing performance is only validated by spectators and the story that follows. “You can’t have a big race if nobody is going to write about it. We organize media around an event to inspire people to run. All this communication,” he says, “is for making noise.”

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Kilian nears victory in the 2011 Western States 100 in Auburn’s Placer High School stadium; his time of 15 hours 34 minutes was the third-fastest ever. Photo by Monica Delmasso.

Western States Legacy

It is the evening before Kilian’s second attempt at winning the Western States 100. I am standing in his Squaw Valley hotel room with the noisemakers—two videographers, two photographers and Vollet—poring over a map of the course. The talk is of steady cams, lenses and the geographical jargon specific to Western States: Robinson Flat, Dusty Corners, Devil’s Thumb, I-80 to Highway 49. What time they need to be where to get the best coverage.

Kilian is in the kitchen, throwing together a concoction of dehydrated maltodextrin mixed with honey and water: his own energy-gel recipe. He is business-like in his actions, a man who has done this before. His presence in his own room would go almost entirely unnoticed if it weren’t for his propensity to leap, gazelle-like, over various obstacles: Vollet’s chair, the fold-out couch.

When asked about his race strategy,  he says, “I will start strong, then I will accelerate and I will sprint on the finish,” and laughs.

The first year I ran with Kilian, I did so because I was curious. I wanted to see what an ultramarathon looked like.

What ensued was one of the great battles in ultrarunning history as Kilian and two-time Leadville Trail 100 champion, Tony Krupicka, of Boulder, Colorado, fought a battle in the dead heat of the day that ultimately cost them both the victory. Just past the Rucky Chucky river crossing at mile 78 Krupicka left a beaten and fading Kilian in second place. Soon thereafter eventual winner, Geoff Roes, passed them both and left Kilian in third.

Admittedly, I agreed to pace Kilian through the same section for a second year also out of curiosity, to see a rematch with one of the few trails to ever defeat the Spaniard (Krupicka would have to sit out the race due to an injury). Kilian, I’ve learned, does not need a pacer. When pacing for Kilian my responsibility is merely to witness. I’d sooner miss a rematch of Foreman and Ali.

On my way out of the hotel room, a paper with checkpoint splits catches my eye. Kilian has written down his predicted time for all points on the course minus the finish line. “I’m convinced it’s important to stay humble to progress,” says Kilian. “If you think you have accomplished something in this world, you are a fool.”

Ten hours after the race start and five years after meeting Kilian for the first time, I find myself waiting for him near Forrest Hill at mile 60 on his second running of the Western States 100.

He arrives calmly in first place, and chats with a volunteer. He fills his water bottles and we trot off. He tells me straight off, “Vamos tranquilo” (Let’s go easy).

Kilian rarely makes a mistake once and never makes a mistake twice. Jez Bragg, winner of the 2010 UTMB “Fun Run” [see Issue 71, March 2011], passes us with his pacer. With a slight jolt of adrenaline, I pick the pace up to match Bragg’s and Kilian reminds me, “Tranquilo!” Chasing somebody at mile 60 is a mistake that he will not make twice.

He puts his earphones in and we watch Bragg pull away. We never did too much talkin’ anyway.

The water bottles are new. He did not have those last year, when he had lost 10 pounds by the end of the race and race volunteers were begging him to take water with him to the next aid station. Now he’s sipping, every couple of minutes. Also new are his shirt, shorts and shoes, each one-of-a-kind, designed according to his specifications for the oppressive heat of the mid-afternoon, California sun.

Running through Forrest Hill, Kilian points out a red-and-yellow-striped flag hanging from a spectator’s car door. “Catalonia!” he proclaims and laughs. Despite his success and fame, he at times maintains the mannerisms of a young boy.

As we begin the descent down to the American River I begin to think that I’m hearing humming. Then whistling. Only then do I realize that it is coming from Kilian. Whistling!

Jez Bragg comes back and Nick Clark passes us. Nick Clark comes back and Mike Wolfe passes us. Mike Wolfe comes back.

Kilian keeps listening to his music.

“Techno?” I ask.

“No,” he laughs. “Not so much the techno.”

It appears Kilian is into Spanish pop, Bob Dylan and Bach.

At the mile-66 aid station, volunteers welcome him by name. An older man says how happy he is to see Kilian carrying water this year. He laughs it off and is back on the trail in less than a minute—down from three minutes last year.

At the Rucky Chucky river crossing, 22 miles from the finish, I leave Kilian with his next pacer, Tanzanian mountain guide, Simon Mtuy. The 6′ 7″ African held the Kilimanjaro record until Kilian broke it by over two hours. When asked how he felt about Kilian breaking his record, Mtuy explained that he felt honored that Kilian even attempted it. They left the aid station calmly, smiling, chatting. The three pursuers followed—each with the intense look of the chaser etched in their faces. Their race was against Kilian. Kilian’s race, as his father had said, was against himself.

I did not need to see the finish to know that Kilian was going to win.

Fear and Loathing in the Roses

Success for Kilian is not measured on the binary scale of winning or losing as it is for most world-class athletes. Despite experiencing severe dehydration and a diminutive spot on the podium he considered his third-place finish at Western States in 2010 a success, more so than some of his previous wins. “For me, a loss is if you don’t enjoy a race.”

Following this third-place finish in 2010, Kilian rented a car and road tripped south through California then diagonally northeast to Boulder, Colorado. He stopped along the way to run the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim-to-rim.

“How fast?” I asked.

“About seven hours,” he replied. If he was aware of the current record of 6:59:56, held by American ultrarunner, Dave Mackey, he gave no indication of it. Nor, perhaps, did he care.

Passing through Las Vegas, Kilian made friends with a group of people on the street. He ended up partying with them till dawn. When I ask him about it he replies, “The most interesting thing about a race is not just to run, run, run. It’s also about knowing the area and getting to know the people and culture of that area. I wanted to discover the country and Las Vegas is very interesting.”

“So what did you guys do?” I asked.

“I don’t remember.”

It is this lesson that the young mountaineer stresses most in both his words and actions.

Speed is important.

Hard work is important.

But stopping to smell the roses is most important of all … even if it involves waking up in the back seat of your car in the Bellagio parking garage.

Kilian’s road trip took him, lastly, to Boulder, Colorado, where he spent a week with Scott Jurek and his recent Western States rival Krupicka.

Jurek got to know Kilian briefly during his time in Boulder, teaching him the art of slack lining and showing him some of the local trails. “Kilian continues to set the bar high and motivates the sport of trail running to rise to a new level,” says Jurek. “He motivates us to set our sights higher and find a new dimension of potential.”

Kilian is a once-in-a-generation athlete, unifying the trail-running community across race distances, countries, languages and continents. “He knows how to be a student of the sport, using science to fuel peak performances,” Jurek continues, “but at the same time appreciate the artistic and deeper aspects of the sport.”

We haven’t seen the full extent of what Kilian is capable of. We have only seen the beginning of what will become a legacy.

Rickey Gates of Aspen, Colorado, recently took top honors in his first ultramarathon, the Canadian Death Race, setting a course record in the process.