For most people, reaching the summit of Mount Everest is seen as the peak of human athleticism; the closest an achievable task can come to being impossible; the ultimate achievement in mountaineering and the very end of the bucket list.
Spanish long-distance runner and ski mountaineer Kilian Jornet is not most people.
“I think my first long hike was when I was one and a half years old,” he tells us. “An eight hour hike with my mother.
“I put on my first crampons when I was three years old. Then later I started hiking by myself. It’s always been a big part of my life.
"I put on my first crampons when I was three years old. It's always been a big part of my life"
“Even when I was 13 I was going for 30 or 40 mile runs in the mountains. I always wanted to just go out and explore and discover and run in the mountains for hours on end.”
Not all of us have brought our childhood passions into the real world of bills and rent, but Kilian certainly has. These days, the Spaniard is a six-time winner of the Skyrunner World Series; the ultimate challenge in high altitude endurance racing, and he’s won pretty much every race there is to win - the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, the Western States Endurance Run and the Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance run to name but a few.
If that’s not enough, Jornet currently holds the fastest recorded time up and down the Matterhorn, Mont Blanc, Denali and Everest, and in May of 2017, he made international news after running up the latter - Mount Everest, the 8,848m highest mountain in the world - twice in the space of five days, without ropes or oxygen.
“It takes years to prepare,” he says. “Even those walks when I was a child, they were all preparation. Every day has been preparation. It can be a hard thing to understand these days; that if you want to do something, you can’t always just decide and prepare for a year and you’ll be able to do it no problem. A lot of people want things now, but sometimes you need the patience to say in 10, or in 15 years I want to do that - and then there are a lot of years where you’re training hard without any results, but they make it all possible.
“I love to train. I train around 1000-2000 hours per year running or skiing or climbing because I have that motivation. Sometimes you need to spend years in the dark in order to get the eventual results.”
"It’s not easy, but we’re not looking for easy"
Kilian has just completed the Bob Graham Round. If the name of the challenge sounds rather inconspicuous, the route is anything but. The Bob Graham involves 42 peaks in the Lake District, covering over 106km with 8,200m of overall ascent. The previous record was a time of 13 hours and 53 minutes, set by local runner Billy Bland way back in in 1982. Many have tried and completed the round since, but Bland’s time has stood the test - until now.
Kilian’s run of 12 hours and 52 mins cut just over an hour off Bland’s record of 36 years.
The runner may just have told us in the context of Everest that it pays dividends to build up to certain tasks, but on the contrary, Kilian actually only decided he’d take on the round on the Monday before he completed the run. A full 13 days of preparation. Well. Kind of.
“I actually only decided on Monday last week that I’d come here,” he told us. “I’ve just come back from an injury and I was doing another race, and thought if I didn’t have any problems, I should come and try [to run the Bob Graham].”
The injury he refers to was a fibula break sustained in March, skiing in the Pierra Menta.
“It’s been in my mind since 2007 or 2008 though. I was racing with some runners from here [the Peak District] and they were telling me about the round, and the history of the round, and the meaning, so I have really wanted to come for the last three years.
“I think first of all though, to train is to prepare. It would be one thing deciding you wanted to do a race next month and then taking off to prepare for it but after years of mountain racing and years of mountain running, you have the ability to firstly just run along these fells - the terrain is so tricky and technical - and then to be able to run this kind of race.”
Kilian is possibly as close to a global superstar or poster boy as ultra-running has, and it showed in the Peak District, not only by his time but from the turnout of the locals.
Keswick, Jornet’s starting and finishing point for the round, may only be home to 5000 people, but it seemed nearly all of them turned out to greet him in the centre of the small market town.
The Bob Graham Round was first established in 1932 when the eponymous local ran the 42 fells in the Lake District in less than 24 hours. It wasn’t until 1960 that anyone tried it again, but when they did, a coveted club of finishers was soon born. It was in 1982 that Billy Bland would set the 13h53 that would stand for over three decades, and Kilian met with Bland in the lead up to the run.
“I met Billy three days before,” he told us. “He was really nice. He gave me a little bit of advice and a lot of information.
“His time was really impressive. Some of the trails are better than before now, and at the time Billy did it, he was just running fast - he didn’t really have a schedule or a time to beat.”
The crowds might have been there for Kilian’s success, but the usual sponsor circus that comes with such a record-setting attempt wasn’t - there was no build up, no preview video with dramatic American voiceover or Kilian claiming it would be his toughest challenge yet, while directing a steely gaze down the camera. Jornet was just there to run the round.
We ask him Kilian if he worries about his times when he runs these events, or indeed, if not, what does go through his head during a 13-hour run.
“No it’s more for the fun,” he says. “Yesterday I wanted to give my best but mostly I just wanted to finish the round and to have a great day in the mountains. The time is secondary.
“I actually hadn’t checked the second half of the route before. So the first part was really enjoyable because we were going fast but at a comfortable pace and I was chatting with all the pacers and just discovering the mountains, because I’ve not run a lot before here.
“It’s at the end, when you are really tired, that you need to get in the zone. You want to push but you are hurting and you just think ‘20 minutes to there’, or ‘in one hour I can have a drink’ and that’s when you really start to think about finishing, because it’s testing the body, and you need to run in a kind of bubble so that you don’t think about all the pain.”
It’s interesting hearing that Kilian, a man known first and foremost for his competitive achievements, puts timing secondary, but not hard to believe given the tones with which he talks about competition and the manner in which he talks about his driving factors.
"I really don’t like to celebrate these things. What we do is for the moment"
He continues: “The good thing with training a lot of hours is that, yeah, I do 30-50 races a year, but what that also means is that for the other 300 days I’m out in the mountains just training and enjoying it. I take my camera or just train all day and then relax and go and see the sunrise or the sunset from the summit.
“Race days are not be the ones where you really enjoy the views, but you make the most of them, and then the hours of training are when you can really take it all in.”
Kilian has certainly seen more views than most. His ‘Summits of My Life’ project alone saw him attempt to set ascent and descent records on some of the world’s most famous mountains.
“It a project that I dreamt about when I was a kid. There were always some mountains that I wanted to climb. I had achieved all the goals I wanted to in racing, and I wanted to achieve some other things too, so it was the time to do it.
“Of course it takes a lot of preparation but it was a simple project really - you go to the summit of a mountain and then you come back down.”
King of the understatement, Jornet started the project with a record-time on Kilimanjaro in 2010, progressing through Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn, Denali, Aconcagua and Elbrus before finishing the seven-year stint on Mount Everest last year.
“There was a lot of learning. Everest was tough because it’s high, it’s hard and you’re up there in the altitude, but it’s real interesting in the same way. It’s not easy, but we’re not looking for easy.
“When you’re out in the mountains you always need to understand that you’re not going to be 100 percent safe. It’s easy for me to say that you should avoid the risk, but really the risk is something that we are looking for - but that you want to be able to control. There are always those decisions that you need to make. How much risk do you want to accept?”
The double-climb up Everest brought the ‘Summits of My Life’ project to an end. Kilian first reached the summit on May 21 via a new route from base camp, 26 hours after taking off, and then summited again on May 27 from advanced base camp in just 17 hours.
“It’s always good to finish a project, but only when it gives you more ideas,” Kilian told us.
“I really don’t like to celebrate these things. What we do is for the moment. And it was like that. I had been learning to run at altitude, and so it opened a lot of new opportunities for me to do new things.
“What really drives me is the discovery. Running is about movement. It’s the most simple way to travel. Just with your feet. You don’t need anything more than a pair of shoes and some clothes. And then it’s about being able to discover, to discover outside, discover the landscape and mountains, but also to discover inside, our limits and our capacity.”
Kilian himself is still searching for those limits, though his hunt is a little different to most others in that his is a hunt for discovery right on the edge of human possibility.
It seems entirely likely that he will continue to make headlines around the world, and astound the masses, as that hunt goes on.
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