The mountain athlete with the world at his feet
After cementing his legacy as arguably the greatest ultra runner of all time – with seven Skyrunning World Championship titles and multiple wins in just about every prestigious ultra marathon – 32-year-old Kilian Jornet proved he’s a dab hand at the art of speed mountaineering. The Catalan, who grew up in a Pyrenean mountain hut at 2,000m altitude, culminated his ‘Summits of My Life’ project – in which he attempted ascent and descent records on some of the world’s most formidable peaks – with a record-breaking climb of Mount Everest (without ropes or bottled oxygen).
We sat down with the king of the mountains – who, by the way, boasts one of the highest VO2 max scores ever recorded – to talk endurance, the environment, and his passion for places on high.
Men’s Fitness: Kilian, your new book, Above the Clouds, examines how your relationship with the environment has developed in tandem with your running – why is that important to you?
Kilian Jornet: “Yes, it’s about the many bene ts that exercising in the great outdoors can bring and how the time has come for us to all go back to a more natural approach in all aspects of our lives. I believe that by exercising outdoors we get a greater understanding of how everything works and tune in to that deeper connection we have
with nature. By motivating more people to exercise in the great outdoors, I hope they might want to take better care of it.”
MF: Do you think that was especially relevant during the past few months, as lockdown led to more people exercising outdoors?
KJ: “Absolutely. Since lockdown, lots of people have started running, cycling and working out in parks, and that’s helped them cope with the situation. I’ve always been of the belief that running improves your mental as well as your physical health – exercise can be a bit like therapy. Running is so simple, you can do it on your own and you can leave your worries at the door.
“Personally, I have been running or climbing all my life. I feel that I need to get out and have these moments with myself and with the natural world – it’s kind of a meditation. It helps me to realise ‘big problems’ aren’t always that big.”
MF: How did you rst get into running?
KJ: “It came naturally in that both my parents were passionate about the mountains.
eir love of climbing, skiing and running in the mountains meant that from the age of one I started to go there with them. [Jornet was just ve when he climbed his
rst mountain: the 11,000ft Aneto.] It just carried on, starting on easy summits and then getting harder and longer. e ultra running came about when I was 15, because I wanted to do something in the summer when I wasn’t climbing or skimountaineering to keep myself racing t.”
MF: Does the ski-mountaineering complement the running and vice versa?
KJ: “If you want to perform better in one sport, it’s better if you specialise your training and focus on that... but I love to do running,
“It’s full speed, pushing hard all the time like you would in a marathon. But…if you miss a step you die”
climbing and skiing! So I try to nd a balance that allows me to do all of them.”
MF: You combined that love of running and mountaineering for your Summits of My Life project – how did that come about?
KJ: “I’m not someone that likes to repeat all the time the same thing, so I was looking for something new to try. Since I was a kid I’d always wanted to climb the great mountains and I had written a list including the Matterhorn, Everest and Denali. For
ve years, I travelled to some of the greatest peaks on the planet. At rst, it was purely to establish the fastest known time of ascent and descent, but as the project progressed and other climbers came on board it kind of evolved from just wanting to break records to trying to do something in our own style, and capturing as much of it on lm as possible.” [Jornet made the lm series of the experience free to view during lockdown, to inspire others and make life more bearable for those stuck at home.]
MF: What impact does racing to break records at such altitudes have on your body?
KJ: “Well, if you take the Matterhorn for example [Jornet ascended and descended the Alpine mountain in a record 2 hours and 52 minutes], that is not a long summit but it’s full speed, pushing hard all the time like you would in a marathon. But you are also exposed and you need to know where you put your feet every time because if you miss a step you die. So it’s psychologically draining as well as physically very tough on the body. Again, a balance is required between the risks you are willing to take and the need to be on the safe side.
“Whereas on a summit like Everest it’s another game completely, because that’s
a very long process, something like 30 to 40 hours non-stop. So then you need to think about how you eat, but you cannot carry too much weight. I think I only drank 1½ litres of water in 30 hours, so my body was really on the limit the whole time.
en the altitude means you’re in a kind of blurry place and every step takes a lot of e ort. It’s hard to describe, but mentally the brain is working very slowly. ey say you’re operating at 80 per cent less capacity at those altitudes, so you are trying to push hard to do the most basic things.”
MF: On atter terrain, how do you fuel yourself?
KJ: “My diet has changed over time – for economic reasons partly. When I was a student, I lived o a pack of pasta and tomato sauce all the time! But I have always liked to have a high-carb diet because my body needs it, so I always eat lots of pasta, rice or potatoes.”
MF: Is your training purely endurancefocused, or do you do anything away from the trail?
KJ: “I use the gym three or four times a week for 30 minutes, but I don’t do heavy lifting or intense sessions because that would take away the energy I need for the running. It’s more about what I can do to help strengthen my core and prevent injury.”
MF: And how do you ensure you e ectively recover from your demanding challenges?
KJ: “ere is no complex science to recovery – you can’t ‘eat this food’, or ‘do this exercise’ and it will make you recover. It’s simply sleep
“I only drank 1½ litres of water in 30 hours, so my body was really on the limit the whole time”
and rest. Too many runners spend their rest time doing other things that are stressful, but that’s not recovering. For me it’s about sleeping, sitting down and reading a book, watching a series on TV or, at most, going for an easy walk. It’s important for people to understand that you must learn to switch o to truly bene t from rest and recovery.”
MF: How much of your phenomenal endurance ability is down to your unique make-up and how much of it could other runners replicate?
KJ: “For my sport I’d say 80 or 90 per cent is down to doing the work. In some sports, like the 100 metres say, you either have it or you don’t – the genetics are very important. But for endurance it’s not so much. Of course the genetics help – I am pretty light and slim, and that helps – but you need to put in years and years of training. I would say yes, of course the DNA has been helping me because I have a high VO2 max [Jornet’s score is around 90, bettered by only ve other athletes in history] and good recovery, but much of it is still training hard.”
MF: Anyone who wants to emulate you needs to be in it for the long-haul then?
KJ: “Absolutely! You need passion of course, but if you want to perform in endurance sports you need to think that it can take like seven, eight or more years before you have a good base. During those years normally the results are not good. If you are expecting to break records then that’s not the right motivation – when the results don’t come it’s easy to quit. You need determination. I would recommend just enjoying the process of becoming a good endurance athlete and then maybe the records will come!”
MF: Speaking of records, does one stand out as your favourite?
KJ: “Well, it’s the bad memories that stick with you, and those are the ones that you learn more from. It’s the races you’re defeated in and the ones where you make a lot of mistakes, these are the more memorable because you learn much more. With a victory everything is good, you are happy and that’s all. But from a defeat you take knowledge. I don’t have a favourite race. I love to do di erent things and to explore. For me the best moment is always tomorrow.”