In 2022, Kilian Jornet won UTMB for the fourth time, over a time span that ranges back to 2008. In the following interview, Kilian talks about how a pre-race COVID-19 diagnosis nearly kept him from running the race, how the front of the race played out, how important psychology and strategy are in ultrarunning, to what he attributes his longevity, and what’s next for him.
For more on how this year’s UTMB unfolded, read our 2022 UTMB results article.
Kilian Jornet, 2022 UTMB Champion, Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Bryon Powell of iRunFar here with Kilian Jornet, a week after the 2022 UTMB. Congratulations on your win.
Kilian Jornet: Thank you very much.
iRunFar: You had an exciting week leading up to, or a couple of weeks even, leading up to this year at UTMB. As strong as your summer season has been, you have a little trouble at Sierre-Zinal, with your legs. Then on Monday, you got a COVID-19 positive test. What was going through your head the week before the race and how did you decide to finally run this year’s UTMB?
Jornet: Yeah, I think this summer I had been training very well and the plan was going very well. And then I was seeing, three days before Sierre-Zinal, that my average beat was dropping. And my resting heart rate was climbing up. I was thinking ok, that might be from the travel and that. I was doing a COVID test, and it was negative. But at home, Emelie [Forsberg] and my mother were positive. I was thinking that I will be super lucky if I escape this one.
Then I had kind of all the symptoms, which means that when I was resting, I didn’t feel anything. But when doing a hard day, it was something strange. At Sierre-Zinal, it was the muscles. They weren’t working very well. Then also the beating, it was very, very heavy and pain in the chest. It was, ok. That’s it. I was, what’s this? Yeah, I was worried, I was thinking what, why this happens? Then a few days after Sierre-Zinal it’s, ok, positive. That’s why probably these feelings.
Then I understand ok, now it’s UTMB, what to do first, I easily did at that point. That’s why I wasn’t much meeting people and that. Because, first, try to not spread that out. I’m trying to be isolated. I was feeling good. I could go for easy runs and feel nothing. But I was worried about pushing too hard. That feeling the chest and that at Sierre-Zinal. About the muscle, the doctors say probably with COVID, what they see is that the muscle damage is much higher.
I was worried about these two things, but they say, yeah, if you don’t have symptoms, and if no fever or anything, it’s not dangerous. I was trusting them on that. Then I was in the race, it was mostly to try to keep under a certain threshold where I knew that it was not, I didn’t get affected on the lungs and all that too much. Because anyway, 100 miles is good. Because you never push that hard. You just, kind of easy running for very, very long.
Jornet: But the muscles, yeah, at first it felt ok, muscles are kind of destroyed. It will be very painful all the way and I need to play my strength on the uphills and take very easily all the downhills.
iRunFar: But on the mental side of things, there’s also a toll there because it’s hard to be, the whole week you’re deciding, you’re talking to doctors, you’re seeing how your body feels. What was it like going into such an important race with that uncertainty? Or did you just accept it?
Jornet: Yeah, it’s nothing that you can do about it. I knew, ok, that I was in good shape. I knew that I was good. So that was not concerning. Then it was more worried about, how can I feel after 100 kilometers or something like that? Then it was mostly ok. I’m just, if the doctors say it’s not dangerous, and then I just go and see how I feel.
I also think because I have been doing so many races this season, the team don’t feel that ok, that’s the goal of the season. It’s another race. Mentally, it’s very important for me to say, ok, it’s not like that I’m missing something if I cannot finish the race. It was just, ok, now I’m in good shape. Normally I’m good at racing, being kind of not in perfect conditions. I can try to find either a strategy or on the way to run, ways to try to balance that, so I was a bit counting on that. You never can count on that. But I was confident, ok, I will see and probably try to mitigate these problems.
I actually entered the race super relaxed, because I was, ok, I will see. Training is done. I have this but I cannot do anything about it, so just go on and see how it goes.
iRunFar: Those can almost be the most fun races, the ones where you can’t have expectations for. You’re fit, but you can just go into it and see what happens.
Jornet: Yeah, and then I was feeling good. That was the thing. Ok, that feels good. It feels easy. So, let’s go. Let’s continue. Until, when Jim [Walmsley] attacked. Then it was, I was ok, should I go? Or should I stay? I was trying to go for one, two minutes. I started to feel that. I was, ok, no, that was a big mistake. Then it took a long time to recover from that. I was thinking to quit because the muscles will be destroyed. I was, oh, that’s very hard. It’s maybe stupid, but then it motivated me. Then it was feeling good at the end.
iRunFar: Let’s rewind a little bit. That first 80k, it started out with a pretty reasonable group. The sort of folks you would expect to be there, at almost a reasonable pace. It wasn’t super below course record. I assume you felt pretty good there and, and what was running with Jim for much of those first 80k?
Jornet: Yeah, it was cool. We ran most of the time at the beginning, all the way to Pyramides [Calcaires]. Also, with Tom Evans. And it was it was very, very nice. And Zach Miller was also there. We were the four of us running. Very small talk, not a lot. We were kind of, everyone concentrates on the race. And it’s the night. You need to look where you put the feet and all that. But it was nice to run with them. And then, in the downhill to Pyramides, Jim and I went a bit in front.
iRunFar: Was that you pushing the pace or was that Jim?
Jornet: I was in the front there because the downhill is a bit more technical. It feels easier. Then I was just within probably a couple of seconds to Tom and Zach. Then down to Courmayeur Jim was pushing, so I let him go in front. Maybe it took me, one minute or so to enter Courmayeur. Then we did a long stop. Eat a lot, relax. Then in the in the climb to Bertone, I was kind of pushing. It felt good. We were enjoying the moment. It was a good day. We feel we are just letting pass the kilometers. So not getting tired. Which I mean, it’s what’s the most important until Champex-Lac.
Then [I] let him [go] in the downhill to Arnouvaz. He was attacking, kind of, he was really pushing hard. I was surprised, saying ok, it’s still 80k to go. It feels a bit early for that move. Or he’s super strong and super confident. Or I was thinking he can explode later on.
iRunFar: Were you surprised that he was attacking you on a downhill at all?
Jornet: Not really, because he’s been kind of attacking in this place a few times. At that point, I was, ok, should I try to follow him or stay? I was, ok, still a long way to go. I don’t want to push a lot. But on the other way, it was, I don’t want him to go too far. Then I tried to not go with him but try to accelerate a bit.
But then is when I started to feel really, really bad. Like on the system. And I said ok, now I really need to cool down. I was going down, this next section from Grand Col Ferret all the way down to La Fouly, I was going at 100 pulse per minute. Because I say ok, now I need to really recover, to see that the lungs and everything functioned well. But then the muscles were, just going down from Grand Col Ferret, the muscles were kind of destroyed, very, very painful.
I was thinking, ok, if it’s this painful, I cannot finish. It’s just too, too hard. And it went that way until Mathieu [Blanchard] passed me. Because I think Jim then, he had 14 minutes or even more, 20 minutes on us.
iRunFar: He looked good. And you, frankly, for you, you did not look great at La Fouly.
Jornet: No. I was destroyed. The legs hurt so, so much. Yeah.
iRunFar: How is that? I mean, that doesn’t seem common for you, to even be considering a DNF. You did get the bee sting in one year at UTMB. That’s different.
Jornet: Yeah, that’s different. Yeah.
iRunFar: What was that like for you to be questioning yourself or questioning continuing?
Jornet: Well, it’s never, you don’t know if you lie to yourself. It’s ok. It’s tough. And then it’s, you are here, to get the motivation to get to the next aid station, I think it was a bit of that for me. I’d say ok, I tell that they want to stop but that’s also, ok, go to the next aid station, then I push.
Eventually that’s what happened. That when Mathieu passed me, I say, ok, now I can try to run with him to Champex-Lac, and there I will see how I feel. Running with him it was, ok, that, that feels good. I don’t feel the chest pain anymore, the chest heaviness anymore. And then the uphill to Champex was, ok, I go to my pace and I’m faster than him. We are catching on Jim, and it feels good.
I think I needed this long reset, probably for two hours to go very low on course.
iRunFar: I’d love to know a little bit more about what that exchange with Mathieu was like, because it seems quite instrumental in your race.
Jornet: Yeah, absolutely. He was passing me, and I was kind of clearly jogging downhill, he was running very fast. He passed me and he was, “Oh, Kilian. I’m so sorry.” Like that. “Yeah, that I’m passing you, and you feel that bad.” And I was, “Come on, it’s a race. You should go. You are going to crush it.” We just say that, and we keep continuing.
Then I say ok, I keep it behind him then. Then I was running and I passed him in the uphill, and then it was, ok, we are touching on Jim so let’s work, kind of don’t talk about, let’s work together. We can catch him and we can go. Then I was feeling very good in the uphills. He was running very well on the downhills. I was trying to push him in the uphills, he was pushing me in the downhills. We were working together that way.
iRunFar: When did the both of you catch Jim?
Jornet: We catch Jim in the way up to La Giete, that’s after Champex-Lac, in that uphill. He seemed in a lot of pain, the legs completely out of energy. Yeah, it’s kind of hard. I think he’s such a talented runner. I think it’s just fixing a bit the strategy. It can make such a change because if he didn’t have these kinds of issues, which is a big part of ultrarunning, to manage all the energy levels, I think he did a very good preparation, and he was in very good shape. But yeah, it looked painful, that last part.
iRunFar: So, you and Mathieu are running together from more or less 125 kilometers, maybe a little later, to Vallorcine at 153 kilometers. You started pulling away somewhere around Vallorcine. Did you make a distinct move or what happened there?
Jornet: Yeah, I leave. Ok, that’s how I am, in the race I know that muscles are hurting a lot. I know that I cannot be pushing very hard for a long time with how I feel. Then I was seeing in this uphill to Champex, and in the other uphill I was feeling that I can leave Mathieu in the uphills. That felt good. And seeing how much he was able to recover in the downhill. I was calculating a bit. Ok, I need to have four minutes or whatever in the uphill to be able to beat him.
Then I was trying to, the last climb up and down from Trient to Vallorcine, to take it easy, to save energy. Then when we exit Vallorcine aid station, I was, ok, now it’s the moment to push. I know it’s maybe for 45 minutes to one hour of pushing and then it’s done. The move needs to be here. I was, since the beginning, start to incremental with the pace all the way up to Col de Montets then all the climb to Tête aux Vents, try to push hard and to make a big gap. Because I knew that downhill will be hurting a lot and I didn’t want to race that downhill.
Jornet: So, it was ok.
iRunFar: You seemed like you wanted to race the uphill. It was fun having the side-by-side or going between the two cameras, because not as you thought he was catching you, but you were looking over your shoulder, probably thinking, “Do I have 300 meters? Do I have 400 meters?”
Jornet: It’s hard because there are so many spectators. You don’t really know if it’s him or other people. You’re all the time, ok, try to calculate, if he’s there maybe 30 seconds to two minutes, three minutes.
iRunFar: You did build a lead on him out on that climb out of Vallorcine. Was there any point in those last 20 kilometers where you were more or less confident that you had the win? Or did you even think of Mathieu at La Floria with a couple of kilometers to go?
Jornet: In the climb, at the beginning, I didn’t know how far he was. But when in Tête aux Vents, and all the way to La Flégère, the lead I think was under eight minutes. Then I was pretty confident. If nothing happens, it’s pretty secure. But I didn’t know how the muscles will react. I was thinking, ok, I cannot relax. I need to really kind of work the downhill. Probably don’t need to give everything and try to break more the muscles on that. But I need to run quick. I need to not have any problem. And I knew that he was going to just go for it. And he did, the last kilometers he did were amazing.
iRunFar: Yeah. Did you, you know, so you broke both the course record with Pyramides Calcaires and the overall record before they added that to the course. What are your thoughts on running such an amazing time?
Jornet: Well, conditions were very good. First of all, night was just perfect. It was dry. It was not cold, not super hot. That’s a big part of it. And then it was a good field. In the start, you see a lot of fast guys. The pace was not crazy, but fast. And then I think fighting with Mathieu, we were pushing each other.
I think in these long races when records happen it’s because all these conditions would feel. Yeah, it’s nothing that I think before the race or during the race even. If you want to do a good position, you want to win the race. And then if you break the record, it’s a plus. But I think it’s difficult to …
iRunFar: It’s similar, you’re thinking that you’re setting a nine-minute record at the Zegama Marathon this year. It was conditions, you know.
Jornet: Yeah, it was conditions. Yeah.
iRunFar: Yeah. But also at UTMB, it’s so long, having the competitors push the pace, push you I mean.
Jornet: That makes it even tougher.
iRunFar: You know, Jim was running fast, as you know, after Pyramides, Arnouvaz. You and Mathieu, having someone to chase.
Jornet: It makes a big difference. If you have this and then you motivate each other, you are going to run fast.
iRunFar: You’ve had other challenging races, whether it’s dislocating your shoulder at the Hardrock 100 or whatever. But doubting yourself during the race and having COVID before the race, does that make having a successful run, whatever that is, more special?
Jornet: I think so. This to me was one of the hardest races I have done because of that. I was feeling shit from kilometer one to the last one. It was not any kind of, oh, I feel good during this time. It was very hurtful. I need to work both physically and mentally during all the race, which make it very hard.
Then I’m really happy about this season. The main goal was to say, ok, I want to perform in short and in long. I’m happy that the plan that I did with the training, it worked well. At the end to say ok, that that can be maybe a base to, if you want to do short and long, here’s how to do it.
And to be able, because the days before, the team is, ok, yeah, maybe, maybe I shouldn’t start if I’m not 100% on that delivery. But come on, the goal of the season was to see if I can do long and short, it doesn’t matter the result of them. But if I prove that I can do a good race at UTMB it doesn’t matter the position. That would be the goal of the season, is to see, ok, yeah. It was possible to come back from Sierre-Zinal to UTMB and do a good, good race.
iRunFar: That could be third position and a good time.
Jornet: Or five or whatever. Yeah, that was the goal, and that’s why I’m most proud this season.
iRunFar: I think you’ve proven your hypothesis there. You can train for both long and short races and have success. It very much seems like you’re a student of the sport, of all athletic sports. The history, technique, the science of training, but what have you studied or learned about the mental aspect and strategy both in yourself and externally? Is that something you’ve researched and thought about?
Jornet: Yeah, it’s super interesting. At UTMB after La Fouly, I was doing ok. My mind was, ok, that’s horrible, feeling so bad. It was all negative thoughts. I want to stop. I will stop. Just negative thoughts all the time, so you are slowing down because you are not fighting anymore.
Then how a small thing, ok, like when Mathieu passed, I tried to keep with him. How this can change. It’s, ok, I’m in race mode again. I’m pushing hard. That’s so interesting. How the inertia of the thoughts can drive you to one place or another. How can we change that? I think that’s very interesting to use in races, to be able to calm yourself or to be able to fire yourself.
It’s probably neutral running. It’s where it has the most impact because you will have up and downs during a race. You will very rarely feel good all the time. But how to be able to know that, ok, I’m in a low moment, but that doesn’t mean that I will be in a high moment after. To study that, I think it’s super interesting.
I think different people will need different inputs for changing that. That some people will need, kind of a fight. Some people will need more relaxation. But to find what is the thing that can switch your mood. I think that’s very interesting. It’s very key.
iRunFar: You saw that in the moment with Mathieu. You learned that or reinforced that lesson. But do you do study that or consider that outside of racing, like when you’re home in Norway, or do you read books on the mental aspects of running or of sport? Or just, you know, consider that at all?
Jornet: Yeah, I’ve been reading a lot of psychology and kind of all the sports science, but also try to put in practice. I think the best school for that is entering. Because, ok, you are running UTMB, you will finish it. Ok, yeah. You can stop and hitchhike in the worst case. If you pass out, in 30 minutes, or 20, someone will pick you up. You put that in perspective when you are in high mountains, ok, I’m having a problem. That means that it can be an avalanche situation. It can be a crevasse situation. It can be a brain edema or whatever it is. You are up there, you are alone, you have …
Jornet: If you abandon, if you say, ok, you stop fighting, then you will die. It’s how you use this, ok, I want to keep fighting, I want to keep pushing, because it’s survival. It’s how I think that you really see the mechanisms of all that. And then try to apply that to ultrarunning. Which I don’t mean people need to go to these situations, ok, I’m going to die and put yourself there to be successful or not.
iRunFar: Thank you for clarifying that, Kilian. [laughs]
Jornet: Yeah. But probably, for me, the knowledges that I have learned there, hopefully I can pass to people to see this switch, so they don’t need to go to these situations to be able to switch from stop fighting to fighting.
iRunFar: Cool. You think about that internally, about that psychology. Do you also think the same? You were saying a little bit earlier in the interview about how, from your experience, you can have strategy in how to race your competitors, it’s not just who’s the fittest on the day. Like, there’s a bit of gamesmanship, or would you agree and how does that work for you?
Jornet: Yeah. Competition is to finish first, it’s a game on that. Then you see ok, who’s the fittest. Of course, that matters a lot, the physical fitness. It’s a big, big part of the game. It’s not someone that will not be fit and super strong mentally that will win a race. That’s not going to happen. But with people that is in a similar fitness level, it’s who is playing best cards, that comes to strategy. It comes to the mental aspect.
Then you can play. If you study, how are the runners? What are their strengths and their weaknesses? If I’m both physically and technically.
With Mathieu, I haven’t run with him before. I was in these three last uphills, I will say ok, I understand a bit here. Seeing the uphills, if I push, how he’s going in the downhill, so how he’s going mentally, how he’s doing it. And I see, ok, I know that he was very strong mentally, he was very strong downhill. So, I need to play the cards on the uphill.
With Jim, I knew him a bit more. I knew that, ok, if he goes, I don’t want to take these as a pressure or something. I want to let him go and see how he’s going. I know that they can finish strong race. So not to play this. If he was accelerating, for taking 30 seconds in length, I think, ok, I don’t want to enter here.
To know, the other runners, to know how you, what are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? And play with all that, that’s part of the of the game.
iRunFar: Do you play with yourself? I mean, you’re observing Mathieu. Do you ever change what you’re doing so that the other athletes perceive you differently? Whether that’s lowering your heart rate while you’re making a move past them? Or just waiting there and looking at a flower and taking a picture so they catch up to you? Do you ever play that sort of game?
Jornet: Yeah. Not a lot here in UTMB. Because I was feeling very bad. I could not really hide anything. But in many races, when you are talking with the other, you are, oh, that’s very nice. Like, it’s delightful here. It looks amazing. You’re, [breathing hard], it’s so hard. You try to always look fresher to the others, or try to do moves. Saying, ok, I’m feeling fresh. I’m feeling strong. Run uphill with more movement. That’s a good part of the tactics, too.
iRunFar: One really impressive thing, with all your running, obviously, your times and your wins, but is your longevity. You’ve now won UTMB over a span of 14 years. If you look at your skyrunning and other racing before that, it’s even longer. It’s not just youth. Because there’s other people who’ve performed very well at, you know, late teens or early twenties. Like how, both mentally and physically, how do you think you’ve been able to perform at that very highest level for so long?
Jornet: I think physically, I have been lucky. I’m not only lucky, but also very, very sensitive to the kind of training that works well for me. Because every person will have a different physiology, different genetics. Some people will be able to train more on volume, some more intensity, some more on one kind or another. Being very sensitive to that, it made my career longer, physically, that I could be able to perform.
Actually, the two times I have been injured or I didn’t feel good, one time when I was 16 or 17, when I started to train by myself, that I was with a coach, and then I changed to another coach. He wanted me to do more classical athletics training with this intensity all over the session. It didn’t feel good on me. I say, ok, I don’t want to work with you. I want to try myself. Since then, it’s been working well, because I think to where I can make adaptations and where I feel bad, I get injured or that, I’m not doing that.
Then two years ago, when I was doing a bit more road. I also get back to do these more speed work. I was very strong, but I get injured. I was worse during the year. It was these times where I wasn’t sensitive to what the adaptations of the training were giving me. I think that’s very important for the longevity when it comes to the physical.
Then mentally, I just love training. I just love to be out. I just love to be in the mountains. I can take away racing, that’s no problem. But training, just being out, that’s something that’s part of me. If you love it, it’s easier to try and to find the place and the context where you live, where you are surrounded, that keeps that.
iRunFar: You’re recovering this week and you went out with Jon Albon and did a, I don’t know how many hours, but you are out in the mountains on a what everyone else would consider a big day, low intensity. But I would guess that’s not the ideal recovery plan, that’s what you love to do. Correct?
Jornet: Yeah. Then it gives you very good mentally. Especially in Norway. All this summer it’s been raining every day. We have like five days of sun since, I don’t know, March. So now it’s sun, so now we want to be out.
iRunFar: Yeah. What’s, what’s next? Whether it’s for this season, do you have anything left for this season? Or are you going to just enjoy?
Jornet: Yeah. I didn’t plan anything because I wanted to just finish that and then see how it is. I think I will just do some local races here in Norway because it’s fun and it’s a good level to keep on, it will be fun.
But mostly I just like to be training and to not think about traveling or big races. But just to train and enjoy. We’ll see how the weather is, the different projects here and things like that. But mostly very local and casual.
iRunFar: What do you have left that you want to do? Next season you now could run the Western States 100 if you want. You have a Golden Ticket. You could go back to UTMB. I mean, lots of the other races you can just get in whenever you want. What excites you for next year?
Jornet: I think that cannot be done the week after a race. I think I want to take a bit, two more weeks to sit down and think what really motivates me. But I want to do only one international travel to try to keep low my carbon footprint. So that means that if I go to an expedition then I will probably not go to race in the U.S. I will say, I want to go to Himalayas so maybe it will be that. Or we need to talk with also Emelie, what she wants to do and see all that. But probably I want to do some mountaineering, whether it’s in the Himalayas or here. Then some races. Not a lot of races, say maybe one, two.
iRunFar: But it could be Zegama. Or so when you say international travel you mean intercontinental.
Jornet: Yeah, intercontinental. Yeah, so maybe one or two races to Europe. Then maybe one expedition or one race intercontinental. Yeah.
iRunFar: Congratulations on your great race at UTMB and your great season, and best of luck next year.
Jornet: Thank you very much.