Kil­ian Jor­net breaks records. Ear­lier this year, he not only con­quered Ever­est twice in one week, but be­came the first per­son to do so with­out sup­ple­men­tal oxy­gen. At­tempted by any other, this would have re­sulted in one more body on the moun­tain­side. But

Men's Health (UK) - - In This Issue - KILLIAN JOR­NET

What does it take to achieve the im­pos­si­ble? Jor­net, the record-breaker who con­quered Ever­est twice in one week, di­vulges

He is not like us, you or me, Kil­ian Jor­net. On 22 May 2017 the Span­ish moun­taineer, ad­ven­tur­ist and ul­tra run­ner as­tounded ex­perts and oblit­er­ated past mile­stones by as­cend­ing Ever­est with­out so much as an oxy­gen mask in just 26 hours. Irked that a stom­ach bug had ham­pered this first as­cent, he set out to do it again five days later; this time he reached the sum­mit in just 17 hours. That he com­pleted both climbs with just two litres of water, 10 en­ergy gels and a pair of mit­tens is tes­ta­ment to his preter­nat­u­ral re­silience. That he raced up the world’s high­est moun­tain with­out oxy­gen twice in the same week – com­ing within 15 min­utes of set­ting a new speed record in the process – is lit­tle short of re­mark­able.

Eight weeks later, Jor­net, then 29, em­barked upon an­other her­culean chal­lenge: the no­to­ri­ous Hardrock 100 En­durance Race. An ul­tra­ma­rathon held an­nu­ally on the alpine ridges of South­ern Colorado’s San Juan Range, it cov­ers 10,000m of el­e­va­tion over 100 miles. Fresh (in his world) from his Hi­malayan en­deav­ours, Jor­net did not im­me­di­ately en­joy the same suc­cess – 13 miles in, he tripped and dis­lo­cated his left arm. His legs, how­ever, were feel­ing just fine. With a race still to run, Jor­net popped his own shoul­der back into place and ran the re­main­ing 87 miles in a makeshift sling. A lit­tle over 24 hours later he won the race – his third win in four years. (He turned in a dis­ap­point­ing se­cond in 2016.) Mean­while, when he’s not win­ning ul­tra­ma­rathons, he also speed-climbs, com­petes in duathlons and holds records in ski moun­taineer­ing and moun­tain run­ning. More of­ten than not, what­ever ex­treme ac­tiv­ity or chal­lenge Jor­net de­cides to pur­sue, he ex­cels at.

Alpin­ism, in par­tic­u­lar, is a sport that deals in ex­tremes – of al­ti­tude, men­tal for­ti­tude and en­durance. But even in a field that’s crowded with ex­cep­tional ath­letes and note­wor­thy ac­com­plish­ments, Jor­net’s in­nate abil­ity stands apart as some­thing pro­found. So what is his se­cret? Ge­net­ics? Train­ing? Or some­thing less tan­gi­ble? Be­fore he set off to con­quer yet an­other moun­tain, MH trav­elled to Jor­net’s home in Nor­way to find out what it takes to push be­yond the wall.

Breath­ing Room

Mount Ever­est stands at 8850m, mak­ing its peak the high­est scal­able point in the world. At this height the avail­abil­ity of oxy­gen is just a third of that at sea level. Con­se­quently, for those able to even make it that far, blood oxy­gen lev­els plum­met from around 99% to just 40%. The av­er­age climber will no­tice th­ese ef­fects at around 3500m. Pulse and heart rates will be­come el­e­vated as the body at­tempts to make up for the de­fi­ciency. Nausea and headaches are com­mon; vi­sion and bal­ance be­come im­paired. Left to his own de­vices, a climber in this po­si­tion is at risk of de­vel­op­ing ei­ther High Al­ti­tude

Pul­monary Oedema (HAPE), in which fluid leaks into the alve­oli of the lungs and com­pro­mises breath­ing, or High Al­ti­tude Cere­bral Oedema (HACE), in which fluid leaks into the brain. Both can be fa­tal. The eas­i­est way to pre­vent them is to carry enough 2.7kg oxy­gen can­is­ters to sus­tain you. Un­sur­pris­ingly, most do. Af­ter all, the risk of not do­ing so is vast: 22% of deaths above 7900m are those climb­ing with­out oxy­gen. In short, only some­one of sin­gu­lar de­ter­mi­na­tion and ath­letic abil­ity would pur­pose­fully set out to sub­mit body and mind to such con­di­tions. And only a mad­man would do it twice.

“Ac­tu­ally the plan was not to try and climb Ever­est twice. My goal was to climb to the sum­mit quickly, on my own, and to light a fire with­out oxy­gen,” says Jor­net, an af­fa­ble, easy-go­ing speaker with the air of some­one re­call­ing a brisk jaunt around the lo­cal park. “But the first time I climbed to the sum­mit I had some di­ges­tion trou­ble and was vom­it­ing. Af­ter­wards, with an­other week left in the Hi­malayas and noth­ing else to do, I thought, ‘OK, if I can re­cover it would be nice to try to go up there again.’”

This nat­u­ral affin­ity with al­ti­tude is in the blood. Born in 1987, Jor­net grew up in Refugi de Cap de Rec, an alpine re­sort in the Pyre­nees where his fa­ther worked as a moun­tain guide. Here Jor­net spent the first 13 years of his life above 2000m. It was an ac­tive up­bring­ing: he ex­pe­ri­enced his first seven-hour hike aged 18 months and com­pleted his first cross­ing of the Pyre­nees aged 10. As a teenager, ski moun­taineer­ing be­came a pas­sion and a place on the na­tional team beck­oned. By his early twen­ties he had achieved renown as a long-dis­tance run­ner, win­ning com­pe­ti­tions across Europe, Amer­ica and Aus­tralia. Such an up­bring­ing was ev­i­dently the per­fect in­cu­ba­tor for de­vel­op­ing Jor­net’s ex­tra­or­di­nary ath­letic prow­ess.

But early glory led to Jor­net grow­ing, if not com­pla­cent, then cer­tainly ap­a­thetic. To re­tain his in­ter­est in his sport, he knew that he would have to push him­self in new and chal­leng­ing di­rec­tions. “I’d been try­ing to find mo­ti­va­tion by open­ing up new fields,” he says. “I don’t like to do the same thing all the time, I al­ways need to do some­thing else to keep mo­ti­vated.” From this pe­riod of stag­na­tion, a new ob­ses­sion de­vel­oped. “I grew up in the moun­tains and had a Mat­ter­horn poster in my bed­room, so I thought it would be nice to try and climb some of th­ese moun­tains,” he says with keen un­der­state­ment. “Just in a lighter, more min­i­mal­ist way.”

Free­dom To Roam

This ini­tial spark set light to the ‘Sum­mits of My Life’ project dur­ing which Jor­net set out to claim fastest as­cent and de­scent records on six of the world’s most fa­mous moun­tains, from the Mat­ter­horn to De­nali. Be­gin­ning in 2012, the dual Ever­est as­cent rep­re­sented the cul­mi­na­tion of this ven­ture. His prin­ci­pal ob­jec­tive, he tells MH, was to re-de­fine how clim­bers ap­proach moun­tains, with an em­pha­sis on fast move­ments and min­i­mal equip­ment, as op­posed to the tra­di­tional long, slow slog to the sum­mit. In other words, he wanted to take trail run­ning dis­ci­pline and ap­ply it to ver­ti­cal routes.

“For me the moun­tain is a space of free­dom,” Jor­net told Span­ish news­pa­per El Pais ahead of this year’s Ever­est at­tempt. “I try to go light so I can move quickly. In this way, we spend less time in al­ti­tude and our body fa­tigues less.”

Jor­net’s the­ory proved cor­rect. On the fi­nal sum­mit push above 8400m, he av­er­aged an in­cred­i­ble 330 ver­ti­cal me­tres per hour. His slight frame – he weighs in at just 59kg – cer­tainly helps, but there is far more at play. In moun­taineer­ing and trail pur­suits, Jor­net es­ti­mates that he climbs 600,000m of to­tal as­cent per year. As a re­sult, his VO2 max level – the mea­sure­ment of oxy­gen dis­tri­bu­tion through­out the blood­stream un­der ef­fort – comes in at an al­most un­fath­omable 85-90ml/min/kg. Mean­while, his lung ca­pac­ity has grown to 5.3 litres – al­most 1.5 litres greater than an av­er­age male of the same height. “Kil­ian has one of the big­gest bases of aer­o­bic fit­ness of any ath­lete, prob­a­bly in the world. He’s been log­ging over 1200 hours of train­ing per year since his late teens,” says Scott John­ston, coach to Nordic World Ski Cham­pi­onship ath­letes and moun­taineers, and co-founder of train­ing re­source up­hillath­ “And this is not ran­domised ex­er­cise he’s do­ing. He stud­ied and grad­u­ated with a de­gree in ex­er­cise science [from the Uni­ver­sity of Per­pig­nan] and worked with top coaches for many years.”

But while Jor­net’s com­mit­ment to train­ing is laud­able (he ac­tu­ally es­ti­mates

“For me the moun­tain is a space of free­dom”

his train­ing hours to be higher, around 20-30 hours per week, pre­fer­ring to stay fit all year round rather than go all- out for a spe­cific event) many pro­fes­sional ath­letes also work with top coaches and like­wise train as of­ten as pos­si­ble in their rel­a­tive sports. And yet still the vast ma­jor­ity will fail to achieve truly note­wor­thy feats. Even among the top 10% of ath­letes, Jor­net seems to oc­cupy a divi­sion of his own. Be­yond in­nate fit­ness, de­ter­mi­na­tion and dis­ci­pline, most agree that there must be an­other fac­tor be­hind his ex­tra­or­di­nary abil­i­ties – some­thing al­to­gether quite dif­fer­ent.

The Up­per Lim­its

Jor­net has al­ways had an in­quis­i­tive na­ture, of­ten to the detri­ment of his own well­be­ing. “I once stopped eat­ing to see how long the body can keep go­ing with­out food,” he re­calls. “I was train­ing for three to four hours in the morn­ing then do­ing an­other ses­sion in the af­ter­noon.” Af­ter five days with­out food, he col­lapsed while out run­ning, but was nev­er­the­less over­joyed with the re­sults of his ex­per­i­ment. “[Af­ter­wards] I knew it was pos­si­ble to go for five days with­out food and not die,” he says.

Re­cently, he ex­per­i­mented with the ef­fects of not drink­ing over the course of a 20-hour run. He is cur­rently play­ing with 30-hour train­ing weeks of long in­ter­val runs and climbs in an at­tempt to see what ef­fect this will have on his rac­ing speed. His Ever­est feat was per­haps the riski­est ex­per­i­ment of them all. “I knew that I didn’t have hy­pother­mia so I wanted to ex­plore,” he says of his push to the top of the world. “I wanted to try and find out how the body per­forms in dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tions.”

Putting one’s life at risk with such a climb, or run­ning for the best part of a day with­out hy­dra­tion, might seem like ex­ces­sively pun­ish­ing and dan­ger­ous un­der­tak­ings. But in Jor­net’s view, it is only by ex­plor­ing the lim­its of en­durance that per­for­mance can be ad­vanced. Un­like the ma­jor­ity of his com­peti­tors, he doesn’t view com­pe­ti­tions as the worst place to road­test new the­o­ries for the first time. “There are a lot of the­o­ries [about per­for­mance] but it’s im­por­tant to ac­tu­ally try things,” he ex­plains. “The worst case is that you lose races – I think that’s worth risk­ing if, in do­ing so, you find out some­thing in­ter­est­ing.”

More than a pur­suit of sum­mits or records, Jor­net’s ca­reer is a pur­suit of knowl­edge. He ex­plains that the first thought that crosses his mind af­ter a race is how he can go faster next time, whether that is by aug­ment­ing per­for­mance, or de­vel­op­ing a new tac­tic. “It’s good for your mo­ti­va­tion to want to break a record, but af­ter­wards what’s more im­por­tant is how you have learned from it,” he says. While he ad­mits that he has al­ways been com­pet­i­tive, it is the push to see not just how far his body can go but how far we can all go that drives him, “I think it’s im­por­tant to ex­plore what is pos­si­ble, both for me and for oth­ers. Maybe I can get to a sum­mit by climb­ing in a cer­tain way and then think ‘OK, so my limit was there, but the other per­son can do this or that.’ It’s in­ter­est­ing to ex­plore out­side of what is [thought to be] pos­si­ble.”

Cheat­ing Na­ture

Though he may be the one gen­er­at­ing the most head­lines, Jor­net is not a lone fig­ure in the moun­taineer­ing com­mu­nity when it comes to ex­plor­ing new av­enues. Adrian Ballinger, 41, has climbed Ever­est seven times. He sum­mited with­out sup­ple­men­tal oxy­gen for the first time this year af­ter a failed at­tempt in 2016. De­ter­mined to dis­cover ex­actly what had let him down, Ballinger be­gan train­ing with Scott John­ston. The first step was to un­dergo a meta­bolic ef­fi­ciency test. “I found out I was re­ally metabol­i­cally in­ef­fi­cient when climb­ing,” says Ballinger. “I ac­tu­ally shifted from burn­ing fat to car­bo­hy­drates at a heart rate of about 115bpm.”

When you’re high on Ever­est, Ballinger points out, it’s al­most im­pos­si­ble to stop and eat. With no new calo­ries com­ing in, the body switches to burn­ing through stored car­bo­hy­drates for en­ergy. Not only is this a less ef­fi­cient en­ergy source than fat, but once it’s gone, all calo­rie re­serves are de­pleted. This is pre­cisely what hap­pened to Ballinger in 2016. By con­trast, Jor­net’s body is geared to­ward fu­elling it­self dif­fer­ently; on his own at­tempts, this switch to us­ing car­bo­hy­drates didn’t oc­cur un­til much later in his as­cent. By fol­low­ing a carb-re­stricted diet and en­sur­ing that half of his work­outs in the build up to Ever­est were fasted,

“Kil­ian climbs 600,000m of to­tal as­cent ev­ery year”

low in­ten­sity and long dis­tance – in other words, the very con­di­tions he would ex­pe­ri­ence on Ever­est – Ballinger en­cour­aged his body to switch to burn­ing fat first, in­creas­ing the limit at which his body switches to car­bo­hy­drate stores to 143bpm.

“Ex­plor­ing new tech­nolo­gies and train­ing is part of what fas­ci­nates me with this sport,” he says. “When I started big moun­tain climb­ing, I felt like it was be­ing done the same way it had been since the 1950s; the sys­tem, the sched­ule, the ac­cli­ma­ti­sa­tion process, ev­ery­thing had stayed the same.” By ap­proach­ing the sport as a multi- dis­ci­pline ath­lete, Ballinger be­lieves Jor­net had the free­dom to ap­proach the moun­tain with a much fresher mind-set. “My opin­ion of Kil­ian and that of the com­mu­nity is one of real ex­cite­ment. When well-trained, aer­o­bic ath­letes from sports like run­ning come into climb­ing, I think there’s just so much po­ten­tial. Many alpin­ist clim­bers – and I would in­clude my­self in this – tend to be un­trained. There’s a be­lief that this sport is all about suf­fer­ing, and the more you suf­fer the more you achieve. But the past few years have seen science, data and ath­letes such as Kil­ian come in and show that it is pos­si­ble to ex­cel with a smarter ap­proach. It’s like he’s break­ing through a men­tal bar­rier, show­ing peo­ple what’s pos­si­ble.”

But while Jor­net’s in­quis­i­tive­ness, lat­eral think­ing and ge­netic ad­van­tages un­doubt­edly help fuel his dom­i­nance, like any ath­lete, it is a life-long ded­i­ca­tion to his sport – start­ing with that first hike aged 18 months – that has seen him ex­cel. Whereas Ballinger was in his late teens be­fore he climbed his first moun­tain, Jor­net has been climb­ing them ever since he could walk.

“The train­ing his­tory of an ath­lete is the best de­ter­mi­na­tion of his per­for­mance. It takes years for the phys­i­o­log­i­cal adap­ta­tions and devel­op­ments known to en­hance en­durance to max­imise their ef­fect,” says John­ston. “If a 35-year- old sud­denly de­cides he wants to em­u­late Kil­ian – whether that’s start­ing to run ul­tras or climb­ing Ever­est – he will never reach his ul­ti­mate ge­netic po­ten­tial for en­durance be­cause the age­ing process will be work­ing at a faster rate than the train­ing process works. There just is no magic high-in­ten­sity short­cut.”

Mind Over Moun­tain

Per­haps Jor­net’s most closely guarded weapon is also his most un­ex­pected. Un­like most ath­letes, he claims that ev­ery­thing he does is ul­ti­mately mean­ing­less. It’s a kind of ni­hilism that be­fits one who spends his life among the cold majesty of moun­tain­tops. “Rac­ing is fun and it keeps you mo­ti­vated, but it is noth­ing im­por­tant,” he says. “Even if you are Olympic cham­pion, all that means is that at this time, in this race, you were faster than the other guys. In gen­eral we put sport on too high a pedestal. We are not ed­u­cat­ing peo­ple. We are not in­ves­ti­gat­ing ways to make the world bet­ter through new medicines or new en­er­gies. It’s just a game.”

From this comes Jor­net’s most salient piece of ad­vice, and one that is equally ap­pli­ca­ble to sum­mits both real and meta­phys­i­cal. “Think­ing that what you’re do­ing isn’t that im­por­tant ac­tu­ally makes things much eas­ier,” he says. “I have seen peo­ple who are re­ally well pre­pared, but then on the day of the race they put them­selves un­der so much pres­sure that they don’t per­form. If you re­lax, you don’t have the un­nec­es­sary stress of think­ing, ‘OK, to­day I can be a hero.’ In­stead, you com­plete the race the way you want.”

We all have our own heights to scale and lim­its to test. We may not all aim to sam­ple the rar­efied air of snow­capped peaks or to em­bark on 100-mile runs for fun. But as Jor­net has demon­strated, what­ever the chal­lenge, pre­par­ing thor­oughly and be­ing open-minded about how you tackle it is likely to yield re­sults. In the mean­time, the ex­tra­or­di­nary Spa­niard has a short race in Switzer­land com­ing up, fol­lowed by a 100-mile race in the French Alps. Af­ter that, his sched­ule is open. “The list of ideas is very big,” he says, re­flec­tively. “Now is the time to take it down and choose which one is next.”




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