FS magazine went to see ultra-runner and mountain-botherer Kilian Jornet take on the Colorado mountains in the brutal Hardrock100 race.
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again – Kilian Jornet is no ordinary human being. The 28-year-old Spanish trail and mountain runner has rewritten the record books in the world’s toughest races time and again since he started out in 2004.
This is a man who got lost in a thunderstorm at night after running more than 70 miles of the Hardrock 100, and then described the experience as good fun. This is a man who is in the middle of an extraordinary project to scale the world’s highest peaks, using the most basic of equipment imaginable. He has already taken care of Matterhorn (4,478m), Denali (6,190m) and Aconcagua (6,962m).
We’ll keep ourselves entertained while you reread that last sentence.
So what is it that drives this extraordinary man to perform such superhuman feats? As it turns out, nothing more than a love for adventure and the outdoors, created by a childhood in the Spanish mountains – although a VO2 max of 89.5 helps (this is a measure of someone’s ability to consume oxygen, and helps determine endurance – the average male’s VO2 max is 45-55, while elite athletes will typically be around 80).
To find out more, we sent a photographer to follow Jornet at this year’s Hardrock100, a 100.5-mile race in Colorado’s San Juan mountain range, then we spoke to the great man himself.
You’ve transformed trail running and mountain running – you must always get asked what your secret is, so what is it?
[Laughs.] There’s not really a secret. I’d say: Put one foot after the other, don’t think too much and fight on the hard moments, because there will be hard moments. I must say, though, that in my case I also think that part of the secret is that this is who I am.
I grew up in a mountain hut in the Pyrenees and was used to being in the mountains since I was a child. After that, I have never stopped doing this, and this is where I feel more comfortable. What I love is discovering new places, new routes, and always learning something new. Running is an excuse to get faster to another place, to discover somewhere new when you get there.
Do you think that very outdoor childhood in Spain gave you a natural advantage over others?
Yes, my dad was the guardian of a hut in the Pyrenees, and my mum was a school teacher. They both loved nature and the mountains, and since I was a kid, they would take me and my sister for long walks and let us discover the surroundings. This has definitely helped build who I am today, as I learnt to love and respect nature and the mountains, and especially to feel comfortable in the outdoors. The mountains are my natural playground, it’s where I feel safe.
We’ve photographed you at the Hardrock100. Can you explain what it is about the race that makes it so tough and unique?
I’ve been to Hardrock three times now, and it still amazes me. The views and terrain in San Juan’s mountains are amazing. I think, though, that what makes Hardrock special is the atmosphere – all the aid stations, the crews, the organisation, the spirit around. It’s a race you always want to come back and do again.
What were your toughest moments at this year’s Hardrock?
I always suffer around Ouray. It gets really hot, so I really take it easy from Ouray until the night to save energy.
Do you have any mantras that you use in tough times, or something that you search for deep inside to get you back on track when your body is screaming for you to stop?
Not really, I just try to keep distracted, talking with other runners and just looking at the landscapes.
How did this year’s race compare to previous years?
It was a big field so we ran for a long time together. It was also very hot and dry, so it got really warm during the day. On the last night, I was in the middle of a thunderstorm right at the highest point of the race, and I also got lost. It was fun, though!
For the first time, you shared the victory at Hardrock this year with Jason Schlarb. What made you decide to do that?
We just met during the race, and we shared a long part of the race. Ultimately we decided to share the victory because that was what we did for most of the race. It wasn’t planned, but it just felt natural when we got to the end.
So is ultra-running more about camaraderie than competition?
Well, I think there’s both sides. There are moments to compete, of course, because at the end we’re athletes and we like to win and feed our egos. But on the other hand, there are long races like this one where you share great moments with other runners and the camaraderie spirit remains. I think it’s a mix between these two things, and this is what it makes it such a great sport.
Do you ever have time to take in your beautiful natural surroundings when you’re in these kinds of races?
Of course! It’s a 24-hour run, there’s time for everything. I’d say it’s more a journey, you live a lot of great things. You don’t really look at the pace.
In the past, you’ve run races where you’ve been really far ahead of the rest of the field – is it difficult to be alone for so long?
I don’t think I ever am very far ahead. In a race, everything can happen so you need to push until the finish line. It is true though that in long races you need to keep your mind occupied, to forget how much everything hurts. For this, I try to listen to radio, I sing songs, I invent stories.
Do you have a favourite race and can you explain why it’s your favourite?
There’s a lot of races that I like, and I think each one has its things. I love Zegama in the Basque Country, it’s a great competition with a really great atmosphere. People would stay under the rain for hours cheering on runners, and it gives you goosebumps every time you take part in it.
Last year I was in the Mount Marathon in Alaska, it’s such a unique race where I’d love to come back at some point. Hardrock is great as well, and I’d also add Kima in Italy for its technicality and Ultra Pirineu, because it’s my home race.
You’ve broken so many records since you started competing – what is your motivation now when you’re training?
When I started running and skiing, I made a list of all the races I wanted to win someday. In 2012, the list was completed, and this is when the Summits of My Life project started. It was another kind of motivation, and it’s still keeping me focused. But really it’s much simpler than that. My motivation is wake up, look outside from my window on the morning, see a summit or a valley, dream about discovering it, and go for it.
You post all your runs on Strava. Do you think it’s important that athletes like yourself connect with so-called normal runners to help inspire and motivate them?
It’s always interesting to connect with other athletes to get inspired. I don’t like to differentiate between ‘normal’ and ‘elite’; at the end we are all runners and can get inspired from each other. Everyone has amazing stories to tell.
Do you allow yourself any guilty pleasures when you complete a huge challenge, like a bit of junk food or some alcohol?
During the race (only in Hardrock), you drink sombra [brandy and aniseed]. During long races it’s important to eat normally to avoid stomach problems, so burritos, quesadillas, sandwiches. After the races, I eat normally, though. With big training you burn everything off anyway. I don’t like junk food or alcohol that much, but I just love chocolate and can’t resist it.
Do you have any hobbies outside of running and outdoor adventure?
Drawing and reading. I’m not really a social person so I like the solitude.
Can you give us one piece of advice for all our hard-working readers who are outdoors training in all weathers?
Just forget about training and performance, and focus on the idea of doing it because you love to be outside – it should be more about the journey than about the result.
Like the ida of an ultra run? Check out our five most insane adventure races
Photographer Alexis Berg
Additional images David Gontier