Kilian Jornet: Our Sport’s Ambassador

On a cool morning in early July 2014, I followed Kilian Jornet up a long and gradual trail in the mountains of southwest Colorado. There were a lot of other people around us and I was straining to relax, because this was the Hardrock 100, and we were racing. The small collection of people worldwide who you might define as the Ultra World had spent the previous six or so months building up a veritable avalanche of hype for this race, as these people tend to do, and now the trigger had been hit. We were off into the mountains in The Most Competitive Race Ever (one of two or three such events that year) and it was a big deal. I was stressed.

At some point on the climb, Kilian, running in front, must have gotten a rock in his shoe, and as we crested the first of the race’s many summits, he decided to actually sit down and take off his shoe. In my view, he was not so much fixing his shoe as he was waiting for us to catch up, and maybe playing a head game. There’s a good video of the 2011 UTMB that shows him doing exactly the same thing. As the rest of us caught up to him and steadily passed him by, we each said something in turn. “Good job, Kilian!” “Better take care of that early!” “Wow! You’re sitting down! Ha!”

I jogged by him and looked down. “Douche.”

But Kilian Jornet is not a douche, of course. In fact, he’s quite the opposite. He’s both the most successful athlete our sport has ever seen and the best role model we could hope to have. He’s easygoing in person, with a quiet demeanor that doesn’t quite mask a core of fierce purpose and intensity. He says little but laughs often, and he’ll always be the first to congratulate someone for breaking one of his records, or for pushing the sport–or any sport, for that matter–to new limits. He’s happy to acknowledge someone’s accomplishment even if he obviously has no desire to accomplish such a thing himself, and he’s able to remain humble without too much sandbagging. When he talks to you, he cares about what you say.

Kilian Jornet

Kilian Jornet emptying out his shoes and socks at the top of the first climb during the 2014 Hardrock 100. Photo: iRunFar/Marc Laveson

No other runner in our sport has accomplished so much, yet Kilian is hardly 30 years old. He self-promotes like the rest of us, but his brand of self-promotion almost never rings hollow because his actions always hold up to his words. Indeed, his words–all of our words, really–usually fall short of what he has done. If anyone in our sport is mainstream, it’s Kilian Jornet. He is seen on talk shows and billboards across Europe and America; he’s featured on radio shows and commercials; he hangs out with top-level athletes in major sports like soccer. Part of the reason he moved from Chamonix, France a few years ago is because he could hardly go into the Mont Blanc range without having to stop for 30 photographs a day. Because the thing is that he does stop for those photographs. He’s too nice for his own good. He literally needs a bodyguard at some events.

Kilian is only three years older than myself and for a long time that age difference was the only thing that kept me from a kind of existential despair. As he repeatedly stunned the running world, the climbing world, the mountain world, and nowadays just The Whole World, I kept telling myself that I still had three years to achieve such things for myself. But as multiple three-year periods have gone by and my star has stayed mostly level while his has continued to rise, I’ve had to come to terms with my comparative approach to his achievements. At some point I had to recognize that I am not as good at mountain running or climbing as Kilian and I never will be. Nobody is, at least not yet. Now I’m older and have a better sense of myself, and I don’t need quite so much external validation. I’m better able to see that he occupies a position that’s not actually very appealing: he represents us. Whether he likes it or not, the outdoor world has a huge love affair with Kilian and we pay attention to everything he does. We’re lucky that he’s so conscientious about his actions and the attitude that he puts into public. I don’t think a lot of people recognize the power he has to shape our sport. But he seems to.

Because Kilian is more than just a guy who’s really good at his sport. His position in the mountain world now is shared by only a few other superstars, like Alex Honnold or Lindsay Vonn. He represents the current age of mountain adventure and as such he has tremendous power to mold the direction our sport takes. People will do what he says by the thousands. Yet it may still be a long time before we’re able to truly appreciate what his consistently positive and humble attitude is doing for our collective mentality. If he was more combative or egotistical, I think we might all start to adopt a more competitive frame of mind. But Kilian came from a mountain background that taught him the traditional values of mountain travel–the kind of values John Muir and Henry David Thoreau talked about–and he’s able to prioritize experience and community while still acknowledging the vital role that competition plays in mountain running.

There are people who are as good as Kilian at certain things. François D’haene is almost certainly a better 100-mile mountain runner, as evidenced most recently by their head-to-head race at UTMB last year, which François won by 15 minutes. Canadian Nick Elson is the only runner I’ve ever met whose skill is equal to Kilian’s in steep terrain and rocky trails. Marco de Gasperi is at least as fast as KJ in the short and steep mountain races they have all over Europe. Even I beat him once because I sweat more and he nearly got heat stroke. But nobody has been able to combine these skills and others in such a consistently successful way as Kilian. He doesn’t win everything, but he has won pretty much everything at least once, and his range in this regard is broadening into records in alpine climbing to rival Ueli Steck’s. Perhaps most importantly from a cultural impact point of view, Kilian has managed to communicate these accomplishments to the world in far-reaching and uplifting ways. His films are never about chest-beating masculinity; rather, he focuses on his love of the mountains and his appreciation of communities. After several such sentimental films they can seem a bit stale, but if his attitude really is one of simplicity, what else is there to say?

Hanging out with him, I sometimes struggle to find words to say. He’s not a great talker, at least not in English, at least not sober. But that doesn’t mean he’s not smart. He lets his actions talk for him. Our conversations are generally about mountain or running stuff, small talk. He opens up more when there are other people around talking about things he cares about. He’ll listen a while, and then put in a few words. I mostly get him to talk by acting stupid, by making mistakes with small items or telling a story about a dumb thing I did. He laughs at my self-deprecation and sometimes tells a similar story of his own. He makes so few mistakes in the mountains, though, that I crush him in this subject.

Whereas I tell funny stories about big stuff I tried to do and the hilarious ways I failed, Kilian’s funny stories tend to be about him pushing the limits without any regard for conventional wisdom. Like the time he went to Alaska to climb Denali and just sort of assumed the whole state was a glacier, for some reason, and so he didn’t bring any shoes. Just ski boots. Then he had to go to REI and buy some Salomons.

One time he told a crowd of people about the time when he was about 18 and decided to see how long he could keep training at a normal level (which for him was apparently four-ish hours each morning and one-ish each night) without eating anything at all. “It wasn’t bad!” he assured us with a misunderstood smile. “You can’t go fast, but you still have power. But after five days, I… well, yeah, I died.”

It’s this near-innocence that defines his ability to consistently push the limits of what is possible. His disregard for convention seems almost incredible in a world based on the kind of comparative self-judgement I described in myself above. Returning to Hardrock 2014, by the third climb he was going slower than he could believe and still dropping the rest of us. Halfway through the race, he actually waited for another runner to run with. Then at the end he put on a truly amazing burst of speed and blew away Kyle Skaggs’s revered 2008 course record. It probably wasn’t that casual in reality–he definitely knows how to get in other peoples’s heads–but he sure made it seem that way.

It can be hard to draw the line between someone’s online personality and their true one. But Kilian seems about as honest as anyone can be with his public image, and this feels most true in his choice to go into the mountains primarily to have fun. He’s competitive, certainly, and he trains hard. But his primary motivator still seems to be a kind of childlike love of being outdoors and working hard. We’re lucky to have such a conscientious and intelligent person as the mascot of our sport. And even if we can’t keep up with him, we all do ourselves a favor by trying to act like him.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

What do you think about Kilian Jornet and his spirit as a mascot for our sport?

There are 44 comments

  1. Christopher Lee

    Awesome as usual Dakota.
    Couple comments. Why are people saying that Francois is now better than Kilian at 100 mile mountain races? He’s beaten him once, at UTMB. There’s a couple mitigating factors there: one, Kilian did train for it but not likely as assiduously as Francois; two, Kilian did not use poles, either for ethical or for shoulder reasons, not sure, which might well cause enough extra leg fatigue to account for 15 minutes. Who knows what time Francois would have had w/o poles.
    The really interesting thing about Kilian is that he does have both the super intense competitive spirit and also the laid back mountain vibe, somehow, together. Reading his book, Run or Die, it’s clear that he is intensely competitive, reallllly competitive. Or at least was at the time of the book. So for people who want to ‘be like kilian’ they can choose between competitive and spiritual angles LOL. It’s important, because, getting to the top of the heap just might be why he’s so chill and spiritual now, rather than vice versa. I don’t know.
    Keep it coming Dakota!

    1. Stelios

      I thought the same about the poles (Francois was definitely more efficient in general) but can’t help but think it was a one-off race. A race in which Kilian was returning to after many years of absence and probably not in optimal shape/training for it. The same summer he made a double Everest summit (1 week) and won Hardrock. Probably not the freshest and he probably didn’t have best training leading up to it with his short and intense mountain marathons. So I still think Kilian is the man to beat in a hilly 100 when in optimal shape/training. Francois was the king last year but I think he has to beat an on form Kilian a few times more before that title sticks.

    2. Ricardo Silva

      Agree.
      And killian has a range never seen before.
      Last year he raced and won mont blanc marathon, sierra zinal, ultra pirineu, hardrock and glen coe been second at utmb where he doesn’t train to…!
      He won to a race of 21k with 1500mt in1h30m!!

      Best ever in and out of races

  2. Scott Baldwin

    I love what Kilian represents and what he’s done for so many sports. I’m constantly in awe of his diverse skils, energy, and ability to train and recover. I just worry that one day I’m going to wake up to a tweet or blog post about him falling off a mountain ridge while taking a selfie or video.

  3. Ric Moxley

    Dakota — As one writer to another, I just gotta say: Love your writing style, bro. Conversational, as though you’re there, and you take us back there. Fun, enjoyable, as always.

  4. Jorge

    Hi Dakota. Great post, as usual.

    Taking into consideration that you were there and watched him better than nobody and you know him, what time do you think he could had done that day if he had pushed hard all the way?. I mean, what would be the current Hardrock record?

    I remember some words from an astonished RD talking about “at least, he could have done it in one or two hours less”.

    Regards

  5. MIke Bonnell

    Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Wayne Gretzky – these are all names we easily recognize. Like Killian, they are all examples of the best at their sports. Unlike Killian they were all lauded and acclaimed early on in their careers. Me thinks it’s taken far too long for us to hear about the greatness of this man – particularly from folks in the US. As such, I applaud you for doing such a brilliant job at sharing with us the nature of the man that is at the pinnacle of our sport. Beautifully written – thank you.

    1. Ryan Hogan

      Greta point here I actually thought of these exact same athletes and believe Wayne Gretzky is the greatest of them all in terms of his stats and dominance of his sport in that era. I have now come to believe that Kilian is the greatest athlete in the world right now without question because he is a year round athlete. The two sports he excels in are the toughest on earth. It is simply amazing what he has accomplished at such a young age and does so without very little recognition as compared to the mainstream athlete.

  6. Dean G

    Great piece as always.

    After I read it, I noticed Kilian had posted on twitter that he had meant to taper for his upcoming race – but it was just too nice out to taper. That’s what I love about the guy. He never loses that joy.

    1. Dean G

      What’s interesting is the report concludes he summitted Everest and yet it is called “Faking Everest”. It’s their first conclusion.

      So I think that kind of headline suggests an agenda. Whereas Kilian has a history of being very open about “failures”. Etc.

      If you think he didn’t summit the second time – that he lied for some unknown motivation – I guess that’s your right.

      But for a guy with his endorsements and his track record (endorsements which were in no way dependent on Everest) to risk it all?

      I myself see no upside or need on Kilian’s behalf. He cheers when people break his records. He admits when he falls short. Sometimes only by minutes.

      In general, claims of cheating end up in two places. Either they’re right (and no one in the know is surprised). Or they’re wrong (and no one in the know ever believed they were right)

      I’ll trust the people who’ve been on the mountains with him. And him.

      (Let the can of worms be opened)

    2. Jon

      I think you’re looking for the other running forum… you know, the really volatile one populated by people who think everyone cheats or is a hobby jogger… seems that crowd is bored as they’ve been heavily trolling this site… at any rate, always appreciate your writing, Dakota… and it’s been amazing following KJ’s career… thanks again

      1. longsauce

        It was merely an observation to gain some consensus, I am not making remarks either way as to whether or not he actually made both summits.

      2. Bob KEdsky

        I like Killian and what he represents. I would like to believe he did Everest twice. However there is no evidence he did that. Extraordinary achievements demand extraordinary evidence. Simple.

    3. Brian

      Didn’t he already respond to this in a big interview? That they are making a film about it so he can’t be totally transparent about it until the film drops?

    1. Dakota Jones

      Mathias,

      I never meant to imply that they were rivals. I only used the word “rival” in the sense that their times are comparable. If Kilian and Ueli had ever had a Who’s Nicer competition, they would have tied. They are (were, in Ueli’s case, unfortunately) incredibly kind and modest, and good friends too, as you say. Sorry for the confusion.

  7. Xavier

    Top notch athlete and seemingly an even greater person, probably one of the few athletes I admire and wouldn’t mind getting to meet (and speak Catalan with).

    On the sporting side I agree that his approach is very unique for his level, he doesn’t show boat, gloat or demand attention. He goes into races with a humble attitude, without making a spectacle out of record times or himself. It’s all about spending time in nature, and he just happens to be insanely talented on so many levels.

  8. Alex

    For what it’s worth, Dakota, you’re a better writer than KIllian, even if you’re not going to beat him at Hardrock…

    Great job as always on this

  9. Emerson Thoreau

    I was hanging out at Oscar’s Pass, I think it was ’14, when Killian came up from Chapman, and then you and others — one by one. Killian was calm and enjoying the day; gave a nice “hi.” You gave a small smile that I interpreted as “this should be an interesting day.” I can see why you guys hang-out. Cheers.

  10. Kajuna D+

    Partiendo de la base que Kilian es el mejor corredor de montaña de todos los tiempos, el representa la esencia de nuestro deporte. A inculcado pasión, amor por la naturaleza y montaña, y a su vez a rebajado la tirania de los resultados, ganando y a su vez restando toda importancia. Su humildad y sencillez son sus valores, aunque no gane una carrera Kilian es Kilian. Yo descubrí la montaña viendo un video por casualidad suyo en web,vi lo que hacía y como lo hacía, y ne dije; ostras yo quiero tambien…jjjjj. Para Kilian ya no tiene mucho sentido ganar carreras pues las ha ganado todas alguna vez. El hace tiempo que busca simplemente estar ahí fuera….en SU REINO LA MONTAÑA.

  11. Clare Gallagher

    Beautiful piece, Dakota! Imagine if he were a jerk. The world’s mountains would be way less welcoming to our community. Thank you, Killian!!

  12. Megan Finnesy

    Dakota,
    I love your writing. . . I just want to keep reading. I hope we all get to read your books some day. I have never been one to follow the greats in the sports I have enjoyed, but there is something about KJ, things you describe well, that intrigue me to want to know him.
    Thanks for this great piece. And yes, I agree. Kilian is a great ambassador for our sport.

    Cheers,
    Megan Finnesy

  13. thomas

    Hi Dakota,
    great report from a great sportsman and a greater human being. I am remembering as you were climbing with Kilian Mt Blanc in his Video. I saw you both and it was great to see this connection between you guys. I guess you may has the same Talent, but he has the better genetics in Terms of injuries although he had just one.

    In summary Kilian for me is one of the greates sportsman on this planet, and the more important he is still a human being who ist Looking for to be alive, only on another Level.
    But I hope that he is not going over the Edge, that would be a pitty.

    Thanks for your amazing report

    take care

    Greetings from Germany

    Thomas

  14. Robert Jones

    One thing that impresses me about Kilian is the guy doesn’t DNF! Dislocated shoulder with >50 miles to go….no problem! No DNF at Western States during first try despite dehydration and heat issues. I assume he has a few DNFs but the only one I’m aware of was in skimo when he broke his fibula. He got up and tried to keep going until figuring out that something was terribly wrong. Are there any stats, anecdotal or whatever, about his DNF rate?

  15. Lightning

    I always love your writing. It’s sometimes hard to tell when you are joking though, like Killian only bringing ski boots to Alaska.

  16. Pete

    I’m a little disappointed that Dakota’s proposed “K-Dog” nickname for Killian from a few years ago never caught on. Ultrarunners tend to fade away, even the champions and UROY’s, but I see Killian representing the sport as long as he wants to, long after his competitive days are over.

  17. Wayne

    Excluding his mountain achievements and his 30/40 skimo wins and just focusing on his running i don’t think anyone comes close…….and to think he is only 30!…pretty humble guy to boot.

    (just a selected few of his running achievements)
    4x – Winner Hardrock
    3x – Winner UTMB
    1x – Western States
    2x – diagonale des fous
    7x – Winner Zegama Aizkorri
    4x – Winner Sierre Zinal
    3x – Winner Ultra Pirineu

    1. Anonymous

      Scott Jurek:

      7x winner – Western States 100
      1x winner – Badwater Ultramarathon
      3x winner – Sparthathlon
      1x winner – Hardrock
      Former American record holder – 24hrs. (167+)
      Former Course Record Holder – AT

      And the list of other wins goes on. Jurk is just as accomplished, if not more, than Kilian.

      1. Stefan

        Anonymous,
        They both have great accomplishments. To me, Kilian takes it though. In my mind what stands out is his versatility. He wins shorter races such as the 18mile Sierre Zinal over fast runners such as Joe Gray but he also wins 100 milers like HardRock and UTMB. (Quick tangent- I’d love to see a showdown of Kilian vs Joe Gray Vs Jim Walmsley at a race like the 26mile zegama).
        Anyhow, as good as he was Jureks range was a little more limited to the long 100 mileish events.

        1. Anonymous

          Scott Jurek was as versatile as they come. He excelled on the road (Badwater, Spartathlon), track (24-hour record), trail (Western States) and mountains (Hardrock). Kilian has yet to show that kind of versatility.

          1. Wayne

            Versatile?

            Kj is a Skimo multiple champ, multiple mountain climb records. Plus running achievements.

            Jurek was awesome but 3 attempts at the really competitive mountain races like UTMB with 1000s of runners his best was 19th place…he dnf twice.

            Hardrock and spartathlon are hard yes but generally are not elite heavy from a participation point of view.

            1. moose

              spartathlon is way more competitive than hardrock, in that respect they aren’t comparable, at all.

      2. Mike Bonnell

        Anon – I’m a huge Jurek fan as well – as his burgers rock! That said, I think it’s the fact that Killian has accomplished most of what he’s done prior to turning 30. Furthermore, Killian has a certain humility, humbleness and love of mountains that seems to set him apart somehow. In the end though, it’s always tenuous and temporal when talking about the “best”. Clearly both are among the top athletes (so far) that our sport has seen. Jim’s young too…and he’s rocking everything. :)

  18. Carolyn Mahboubi

    Dakota,

    I met you at Hardrock ( was in Tim Olson’s crew) a couple of years ago and we talked about your love of writing. But, I’ve gotta tell you, my friend, you’re just getting better and better all the time. Your writing is so well done and your original voice comes across loud and clear. When are you writing a book?

  19. Anonymous

    Is Kilian really more accomplished than Scott Jurek? I’m struggling with the assertions he’s the most accomplished ultrarunner in the sport. More than Jurek?

  20. Jeff

    I believe Kilian is the most accomplished mountain runner/athlete we have seen. From the VK to Skyracing to 100 milers, not to mention FKTs, skimo, etc. his resume is unparalleled. He is also that larger than life personality that breaks out beyond the trail running world, which makes him unique up to now. Personally I am just inspired by his love of the mountains and joy at being out in nature. I spoke to him once after I had been cycling in the Pyrenees near his hometown — his eyes just lit up speaking about the mountains there.

  21. Anonymous

    Jurek is obviously more accomplished simply because of his previously established diversity! Got to bang on the Roads too or there isn’t an Apples to Apples comparison. Jornet does appear based on his records and Mountain presence that he could take a month off and still blow most runner’s doors off! Kind of like ‘ISHI’ who when studied by scientists, anthropoglots, etc could at any point and time just go all day. Walking up and down mountains like most humans walk on Flat Earth, but if needed he could go into a light run forever……

    1. Bryon Powell

      Folks, a couple things real quick like:
      1. I hope we can get past Jurek/Jornet thing… it’s an impossible discussion without defining which sport your talking about. Regardless, they’d both be first ballot hall of famers without that clarification. Kudos to both.

      2. There are a couple different people commenting under the name “Anonymous” and that’s really confusing. Could you please pick a unique stable pseudonym and stick with it if you need to be anonymous?

      Cheers,
      Bryon

  22. Dean G

    KJ – taking down the Bob Graham round record – which was only 36 years old – 4 months after breaking his leg. Yeah, I’d say we won’t see another mountain runner like him for a long long time.

  23. Dean G

    KJ – taking down the Bob Graham round record – which was only 36 years old – 4 months after breaking his leg. Yeah, I’d say we won’t see another mountain runner like him for a long long time.

    Oh – and he beat the record by AN HOUR.

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