Time on the Trail with Kilian Jornet

“Hey, Bryon, can you give me a lift back to my car in Tahoe City?” queried Sean Meissner, not long […]

By on October 8, 2009 | Comments

Kilians Quest Salomon“Hey, Bryon, can you give me a lift back to my car in Tahoe City?” queried Sean Meissner, not long after winning the Lake Tahoe Marathon two Sunday’s ago. I quickly replied, “Sure,” as I was headed that way to help out with Kilian Jornet’s running of the Tahoe Rim Trail as part of his Kilian’s Quest series of adventures. A few hours later we pulled into Tahoe City in search of both Sean’s car and my hotel. As luck would have it, Sean had parked directly behind the hotel where I’d be staying. Having heard about Kilian’s upcoming run on our drive around the lake, Sean decided to stick around for a bit. He would stay for the run “if [the run] excited him during the briefing.” I’ll save you the suspense, Sean stayed and we all had one heck of a time helping a tiny Catalan run around a really big lake.

Sean Meissner Lake Tahoe Marathon MontrailSean Meissner after winning the Lake Tahoe Marathon

A Meeting By The Lake
Not long after arriving in Tahoe City, the full team assembled in the hotel parking lot and wandered across the street to a promenade along the shores of Lake Tahoe. On a warm day under blue skies, El Gino from the French Salomon contingent welcomed those assembled to Tahoe. Adam Chase was up next with a description of how pacers would be used for Kilian’s run of the Tahoe Rim Trail. That was followed by many of the group on hand – Salomon folks, media, and pacers – introducing themselves. Finally, it was time for the good stuff – planning the pacing effort.

Maps were collected, laid out on the ground, and pieced together. With Adam on the lead, Kilian giving his take, and local Ross McMahan sharing his knowledge, the pacing plan moved forward. All were welcome in the discussion. It was quite cool to see so many trail savvy folks put their minds together to hatch a plan that would best help Kilian in his effort. I must say the result was brilliant save for the choice of the leadoff pacer – me.

Kilian Jornet Tahoe Rim TrailKilian explaining his plan for the Tahoe Rim Trail

You see, we jumped in with figuring out who would take on the big pacing sections late on the first day. After some discussion, it was decided that I would pace from Spooner Summit (mile 60) to Kingsbury South (mile 76) and that Ross would run with Kilian from Kingsbury (mile 76) to Big Meadow (mile 99). From there, we worked backwards to see who would run each of the shorter beginning legs. The big logic problem ended with me pacing from the word “go.”

Kilian Jornet Salomon RelaxKilian standing over a map of Lake Tahoe in his Salomon Reelax

Start to Painted Rocks
Fast forward to 5 a.m. Monday morning. No, take two steps back. It’s about 12:15 a.m. Monday when I hit publish on a post updating everyone on the final plan for Kilian’s Quest – Tahoe. Follow that with an unplanned, nervous wake up at 3:38, a snooze alarm at 4 a.m. even, and a final wake up at 4:15. I quickly get ready and pack up my belongings as we’ll be spending the following evening in South Tahoe.

Upon arriving at the start area, I go find the folks with the GPS unit I’m to wear, put on the pack, and don my Petzl Ultra headlamp. All ready to go, I wander over toward Kilian. Others at the start jokingly comment, “Are you nervous?” Damn right I am!

As we all wait for 5 a.m., I give a few comments to the camera crew and then meet up with Kilian for our first real chat. Staying on task, we talk about who will lead – he will – and what sort of pace he intends to run at the start – “easy.” We wander to the “line.”

With what felt like little fanfare, we were off. Kilian and I ran side by side down the road and across the highway. The effort was easy… and then we hit a hill. In an instant, I was huffing and puffing. Panic set in as we climbed the short road section.

We hit the trail and in an instant my lungs ready to explode… most likely to be ignited from the burn that engulfed my legs. To make matters worse, a film crew jumped in the gap between Kilian and I at the trailhead. With a camera at his back, Kilian shifted into another gear. The chasm between KJ and I spread with every second that the camera crew separated us. By the time they peeled off into the brush, the gulf had grown large enough that I was unsure I could bridge it in my pre-dawn rigor mortis. On a switchback Kilian patiently eyed me from above and eased off the gas. This was the first of many instances where I felt like Kilian had to slow to wait for me, the one who was supposed to help him cover the trail more quickly. Some help I was!

A few minutes after one of the times Kilian lets me catch up on the first climb he asks, “Do you run short races?” I’m sure that he was merely trying to spark conversation, but he couldn’t have asked a more telling question. “No, I run ultras,” was my terse, concessionary response.

Upon hitting the top of the first big climb, Kilian pointed out what he said was a beautiful overlook during the day (he’d run this section before). I suggested that we sit there for an hour until the sun rose. He declined my suggestion. “Darn!” I thought to myself. I was badly in need of a rest.

After this peak, the trail incorporated more flats and short descents. I was thankful for two reasons. First, I could manage to keep up reasonably well on these sections. Second, Kilian and I were able to strike up conversation. We mostly chatted about various US races (Western States, Hardrock, and Badwater), as well as a few of the top American ultrarunners.

I also tried to shoot some video and take photos of Mr. Jornet in early morning action. Let’s just say those efforts were a flop… and so was I! I swear every time I tried to capture an image of Kilian I fell. Each time Kilian would stop, turn around, and ask if I was ok. I always responded along the lines of “Yes. Keep going.”

Salomon Exo CalfWhat happens when I try to hang with the big dogs!

My frequent falls (three good ones) had many causes. (1) It was pitch black… I’ll take that as a convenient excuse. (2) It wasn’t even 6 in the morning. I’m not a morning person. Never have been, never will be. (3) I was fiddling around with various cameras. Invariably I fell when shutting down or putting away the camera. Next time I pace someone on a long trail, I pay attention to the trail, stay upright, and attempt not to break my camera… again. (4) Kilian obviously trains for a different sport than I do. That or he and I have VO2Maxs that apparently differ by an order of magnitude.

On the last point, I’ve never seen anything like Kilian running uphill on this first leg. I didn’t understand “mountain running” or “sky running” as a complete separate sport … until I watched him run. I highly recommend each and every one of you find a top mountain race – be it one of the Skyrunning races in Europe (or America) or the La Sportiva Mountain Cup in the US – and go watch the top runners. It’ll be sick and humbling…. and you’ll want to run faster. My recent performance at the Leadville 100 caused me to rethink what I was capable of. Watching Kilian made me rethink what humans were capable of and that I’d like to be closer to that human potential.

Ok, back to the narrative. So while I’m suffering en route to the apex of the first climb I keep allaying my fear that Kilian will drop me (as nearly happened within the first mile and then a few times after that) with the thought that I only needed to keep up with him for 5.4 miles. If I could just get him to the road crossing before Painted Rocks I’d be fine. Well, we get to the road crossing and no one is there. Damn! I hadn’t checked to see exactly how far it was to the next road crossing, but I knew it was at least a few miles.

Oh man, did I suffer up the 400′ of climb in the next mile. The pain was worth it as we hit the top and saw a spectacular Sierra sunrise before cruising another mile and a half down to where the crew was waiting. I can honestly say that it was one of the hardest trail runs I’ve been on in a long time. Sure it was only 9 miles in 90 minutes, but with 2,000’+ of climb between 6,300′ and 7,700′ in elevation, it was damn tough. My average heart rate was “only” 159 bpm, but that includes the descents. I spent far too much time at or above 170 bpm… which feels a lot tougher than usual when you’re up that high.

Spooner Summit to Kingsbury North Trailhead

After the brutal wake up I experienced on the morning run, this second run only eight and a half hours later was one of the most enjoyable runs of my entire year… and I’ve had many an enjoyable run. Mr. Jornet and I set off from Spooner Summit in good company. Jayme Moye Otto, a journalist from Boulder, and Devon Sibole, a PR guru, decided to join us on the climb up through the conifers. Not only were we in good company, but the dappled shade and the intermittent breeze distilled from the tree-stifled remnants of the day’s gale made for pleasantly cool running on a sun-filled day high in the Sierras.

After a mile of climbing, the ladies bid us adieu. The next four miles were as pure and as tranquil as trail running gets. I know Kilian didn’t feel fast on this section, but he was locked into a steady 8k an hour climbing pace that felt just right. We chatted from time to time. Ski mountaineering, Le Tour, and the finer points of Indo-European languages were the topics du jour. We also ran for long periods of silence that were only broken by my offering him a water bottle, him thanking me for it, or either of us pointing out a new spectacular vista as we would round a bend or enter a clearing.

The most joyous of our scenery-based outbursts occurred when we hit the rocky, but open Duane Bliss Peak. We must have said “Incredible!” in unison and the view sure was. The sky was clear and the lake choppy with the day’s brisk winds. We quickly picked up Emerald Bay from all the way across the lake. Kilian pointed out the Fannette Isle sitting tightly ensconced in the bay. Life sure was good!

Not long after, we came across The Squirrel as we started the descent into the hollow before the small climb to the sections second and final high point below South Camp Peak. The Squirrel, a to-remain-nameless member of Salomon’s US operation, was happily sitting atop his mountain bike waiting for us. He had taken off from Spooner Summit about half an hour before us as no one was sure how difficult the climb would be on a bike. (He made it without any problem.) Anyway, The Squirrel was a welcome addition to our small group. His multi-lingual expertise greatly added to the trail chatter while he hung out behind us two runners. The Squirrel did pop ahead of me during one particularly sweet section of trail to film Kilian with a handlebar mounted GoPro cam.

I so wish I hadn’t broke my camera (at least for the time being) on my morning run. While the amazing vistas jumped out at me for the first two thirds of this section, I didn’t notice them at all during the final miles. The granite dust single-track was true trail porn. It makes me want to come back and run it again and again. The single track snaked just right. Granite boulders walled you in on the uphill side while the other side fell away sharply into a sea of schooner-mast conifers. The stone blocks embedded in the route provided entertainment, not frustration. Excuse me… I think I need a moment….

I was originally scheduled to run the full 16 miles from Spooner Summit to Kingsbury South… that was until I discovered there were 4 miles of pavement between the north and south Kingsbury trailheads. Upon deducing this, I quickly found another, more well-rested runner to spell me on the road stretch. The Squirrel planned roll over to Kingsbury South, as well. Although no relief runner showed up and I felt fine to make the trek over to Kingsbury South, The Squirrel insisted that I stop and catch a ride to save my legs in case I was needed from pacing later in Kilian’s journey. I obliged.

Kilian Jornet Kingsbury SouthKilian pulling into the Kingsbury South Trailhead with The Squirrel in tow.

Even though I didn’t cover the final 4 miles of this stretch with Kilian, I was psyched that he ran the 16 miles from Spooner Summit to Kingsbury South in just under 3 hours… over 2 hours faster than his projected time. Even after an hour spent eating dinner at the “aid station,” Kilian left Kingsbury South an hour ahead of his 40 hour schedule.

Kilian Jornet Kingsbury South aidKilian raising a glass during his break at Kingsbury South

Ward Creek Road to the Terminus
I was out on the trail with Kilian for the final five miles, but I certainly wasn’t pacing him. Not with six of his seven Tahoe Rim Trail pacers out there with him. Well, that was until there were six pacers and The Squirrel on his bike. Of course, that was only until there were NINE runners, The Squirrel, and the star.

Sean Meissner Adam Chase Kevin Johnson Josh Korn  Jean-Michel Faure-Vincent Bryon Powell Tahoe Rim Trail Kilian JornetSix of Kilian’s seven pacers (Ross McMahan is not pictured)
(from l-r: Sean Meissner, Adam Chase, Kevin Johnson,
Josh Korn, Jean-Michel Faure-Vincent, and me)

I’m not sure what we did to help him on this stretch other than shed a little light on the situation. Surely that light was counterbalanced by all the dust kicked up by 10 other folks on the trail. I, however, was having a GREAT time. I started up the trail belting out numerous songs…. all very badly. At other points, I was joking around with the other folks on the trail… and that was when I wasn’t snapping photos with my iPhone. Once night fell, I took a video camera from fellow pacer, Sean Meissner, strapped my headlamp to my left wrist, and started filming myself Blair Witch style. I hope I get to see that footage someday!

Sure, it felt like a party on the trails, but the brotherhood that had developed over just three days was omnipresent. Coming together to aid an individual in an adventure like this is an incredible setting to build friendships both on and off the trail. I highly recommend jumping at the chance to help someone with a long trail attempt (record or not) or other personal running undertaking.

Kilian Jornet Tahoe Rim TrailKilian and friends crossing a meadow as twilight fades

Ok, two quick Kilian anecdotes before I wrap up my coverage of Kilian’s Quest: Tahoe Rim Trail. The first is that with about half a mile to go Kilian drops the hammer… and everyone who is running with him without warning. He soon drifted back to us, but it surprised the heck out of his entourage. The second happened not long thereafter when, as Kilian approached a low gate, Meissner yelled out “Hurdle it!” After a few more joined in Sean’s call, Kilian did, in fact, jump the barrier. I know I held my breath as he went up.

In the end, Kilian smashed Tim Twietmeyer’s trail record, but that’s not what it was about for Kilian… or for us. It was about the trail and the people and running. Some folks poo-pooed the run as a big European production. While there were photographers and videographers, I can assure you that those who were out there running with Kilian were out there with a sincere love for and, in a way, in homage to trail running. I truly believe that Kilian was, too.

Kilian Jornet speed recordKilian Jornet after becoming the 967th member of the Tahoe Rim Trail 165-Mile Club.
It took him a mere 38 hours and 32 minutes.
Bryon Powell

Bryon Powell is the Founding Editor of iRunFar. He’s been writing about trail running, ultrarunning, and running gear for more than 15 years. Aside from iRunFar, he’s authored the books Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons and Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running, been a contributing editor at Trail Runner magazine, written for publications including Outside, Sierra, and Running Times, and coached ultrarunners of all abilities. Based in Silverton, Colorado, Bryon is an avid trail runner and ultrarunner who competes in events from the Hardrock 100 Mile just out his front door to races long and short around the world, that is, when he’s not fly fishing or tending to his garden.