By Mitch Phillips
LONDON (Reuters) – Arguably the finest endurance runner and probably the greatest adventure skier in the world, Kilian Jornet has never graced the Olympic Games, but he is not a man to wonder “what if?” after a lifetime of astonishing athletic achievement.
Topping the 32-year-old Spaniard’s list is probably running up and down Everest, twice, within five days. “Fastest known times” up and down Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn, Kilimanjaro and many more were also knocked off as part of his “Summits of my Life” project.
For the last 15 years Jornet has utterly dominated the world of ski mountaineering, and set a preposterous 24-hour record of 78,274 feet (23,864 meters) for skiing uphill.
His wiry 5ft 7ins, 9 stone (1.71m 58kg) frame has also laid waste to some of the most demanding trail and mountain ultra-marathons with the prestigious Western States, Hardrock 100 and Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc titles among his many achievements.
Despite that glittering palmares, Jornet is still sometimes referred to as the “greatest athlete nobody’s heard of”. Unsurprisingly, though, he is held in the highest possible regard by those involved in adventure sport, not just for his medals, but for his humility.
Two years ago he turned up in England’s Lake District to have a crack at the famed Bob Graham Round, a challenge devised in 1932 where a runner must complete an unforgiving circuit of 66 miles (106km) over 42 peaks (fells in the local parlance) on all sorts of terrain with a total ascent of 26,900ft (8,200m).
The course record was untouched for 36 years but Jornet destroyed it by more than an hour to finish in 12 hours, 52 minutes. Waiting at the finish line to greet him was Billy Bland, now in his 70s, whose mark he had just demolished.
“The history struck me – it was where the sport of running in the mountains was born and I got attracted to it,” Jornet told Reuters in an online interview given from his home in Norway while jogging on a treadmill with his young baby strapped to his back.
“It’s a very special atmosphere and I really loved the pacing thing.” Most Bob Graham attempts are “paced” by friends or local runners, who help with navigation and logistics, though the challenge for Jornet was finding enough athletes fast enough to keep up with him even over short sections.
If he had any ego, it was firmly parked as he put his prospects, and safety, in the hands – and feet – of a group of virtual strangers.
“Normally, I like to do things self-supported but with the Bob Graham there are all these people, pacing, giving me tips, and that whole community is so cool,” he said.
Running, climbing or skiing, “just for fun” has been Jornet’s mantra almost since he began scrambling around the Pyrenees as the son of a mountain guide.
As a professional athlete, however, he has, somewhat reluctantly, embraced the commercial side and the story of his whirlwind 2019 publicity tour, is told in the film “Inside Kilian Jornet”, released free from Thursday on Rakuten TV.
He and his Swedish girlfriend and fellow endurance runner Emile Forsberg had their first baby in March last year and the change in lifestyle, combined with environmental concerns, has led to him paring back his normally packed racing diary.
“It changes logistics for sure but in other ways it’s so cool,” he said. “We really want to share our experiences and we took her climbing to 4,000 meters in Nepal. But we also want to travel less, or differently, because of the pollution impact.”
Jornet’s target race this year will be the defense of his title at the Pikes Peak Marathon, a grueling uphill trail in Colorado, United States.
“I don’t want lots of races with average performances but to train well and focus on fewer races,” he said. “I just need one event to really motivate me and Pikes Peak is a mythical race,” he said, adding that he had an eye on American Matt Carpenter’s 1993 course record.
Jornet’s free spirit means he has reservations about off-road running now being brought under the control of World Athletics and the first combined trail and mountain world championships will take place next year.
“In one way it’s good to have everything under one umbrella and it might make the competitions more interesting,” he said.
“But in another it might formalize the sport a bit. We don’t want everything to be, say, a prescribed 50km race with 3km of elevation, without taking into account the logic of the landscape.
“If you are in Fort William, the logic is to run up and down Ben Nevis, if you in the Lakes you run to all the summits, if you are in Mont Blanc run around it. It’s about what nature offers and I am a little afraid that that might change.”
(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Ed Osmond)