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?