Kilian Jornet - Summits of my Life Interview
Written By: Tom Hill
Back in November 2018, we were lucky enough to be in attendance at the premiere of Kilian Jornet’s new film ‘Summits of my Life’. We were alongside journalist Tom Hill, a Jornet superfan, who gives his roundup of the night below.
“Never meet your heroes”, or so the saying goes. I’ve never really lived by that. Why would you? When given the opportunity to meet those who inspire us, it seems crazy not to take the opportunity to shake their hand, listen to them speak and hope that a bit of the magic rubs off. I guess the risk is that we have a tendency to place people on a pedestal. We mentally create a superhuman caricature of them, impossible to fulfil in real life. To meet these people brings them back down to being human, maybe, because no one can live up to perfection and therefore these meetings are doomed to be disappointing.
To read the list of Kilian Jornet’s achievements, it is hard not to reach for superlatives to describe his abilities, hard not to want to add to the legend. The greatest trail runner that ever lived has set records across multiple continents, dominated races for almost a decade, won World Championships and squeezed in time for his Summits of My Life project. Stories about him are almost mythical – like his upbringing in the mountains where he could run wild for days, sustained only by the berries he found along the way. Jornet’s exploits now transcend the worlds of trail running and ski-mountaineering, and while he isn’t quite a household name, he is famous enough in the outdoor world to only need to be referred to by his first name. Even mention of “Kilian” is enough to get someone with just a passing interest in the outdoors frothing with excitement. So, when we got the invite to meet him, there was no question that I had to be there.
It’s hard to think of a more conspicuous place to meet a man who is best known for his escapades in the mountains. As we walked towards our meeting point, the walls that towered above us were not the vertiginous cliff faces of the Alps or Norway, but made of cement and glass. Only in the last 100m did we step away from the crazy hustle and bustle of London, down a pedestrianised side street to the entrance of the Curzon cinema, Aldgate. A few Salomon – Jornet’s long-time sponsor – flags reveal that we are in the right place, but there are no other clues.
It was to be a rare opportunity to meet Kilian, outside of racing. He is open about his preference for solitude and the mountains over festival circuits or book tours. Each year he has a two-week window though, where he “rests” – in this case flying from the States to the UK, and then onward to Europe, promoting the final film in the Summits of my Life story.
Given a few minutes of a superstar’s time, what do you ask? Jornet has inevitably heard every question before – from the practical to the philosophical – but he answers each with as much enthusiasm as the first time, giving genuine insight with a healthy dose of good humour. He speaks fluent English, with a heavy Catalan accent and an almost permanent smile. While his size diminutive, and persona quiet, there is a calm confidence to his speech. This man who would almost certainly rather be running in the hills is now happy enough in front of an audience.
How does Kilian keep going through low patches when running or racing? Even superheroes have weaknesses and off-days. Interestingly the biggest battle for Jornet seems to be boredom during less technical races, and he has been known to use music to motivate himself, but you get the feeling that he has rarely had the kind of self-doubt that many of us get part way through a half-marathon or ultra.
Jornet famously rarely gets the kind of injuries that seem to plague many runners, even at the professional level. What is his secret? Well, he can’t share that can he? But, in seriousness, he puts it down to not actually running for half the year. Come the winter, he skis and climbs, only running once the skimo season is out of the way. It’s galling to hear for those of us who’s running form drops off pretty rapidly after a couple of weeks break, but clearly works for him.
Will fatherhood change his approach to risk? He thinks not, mainly because as risky as his activities sometimes appear from the outside, he has only very rarely taken risks that in hindsight were a stretch too far. It’s incredible to think that when watching films of him skipping from rock to rock along ridgelines thousands of metres up, but with ruthless logic, Jornet explains that it is no different to balancing on a low wall. He has complete trust in his own abilities. While it’s hard to argue against when sat in the comfort of a cinema seat, I know that I don’t have the same control of my fear when scrambling around the mountains. His approach has served him well though – we watch footage of him wrestling with whether to ascend the last few hundred metres to the Everest summit before, on that occasion, making the decision to return to camp. He returned days after, despite being ill and topped out.
What does the summit of Everest look like? Very dark… Jornet summited twice in the end, both during the night as he raced to grab the speed record for the ascent and descent of the world’s highest mountain.
And what is basecamp like? Boring, apparently. Although, perhaps Jornet’s idea of boring is very different to ours. Why would he want to lie around and drink tea when he could be climbing, running or skiing in the huge playground above him? We did find out he watched the Disney film, Frozen though, more than once. It’s hard to blame him for wanting to escape the tent if that was the only option.
What do you do after climbing Everest? Well, for Jornet, he chose to come to the UK and take on the famous Bob Graham round – 42 Lakeland mountain tops, over a distance of 66 miles. The record for the route had been held by local Billy Bland since 1982, until Kilian came and shaved an hour off, taking it down to a mindblowing 12 hours, 52 minutes. As impressive as the record was the international superstar’s love and respect of the history and traditions of the Round. He met Billy before his attempt, and was greeted by him on “finish line” at Moot Hall in Keswick.
What does Kilian eat when running? He consumes 200-300kcal an hour, via gels, bars, Snickers, and “real food” depending on the length. Crisps were a favourite on the Bob Graham, helping to replace the salt he was losing in the high temperatures of the day. It’s good to know that even an elite athlete is partial to a packet of ready salted when needs must…
And if there was one lesson that Jornet has learned so far? It’s as simple as it comes. Love what you do, appreciate where you are and share that love. It is the absolute embodiment of this man and summed up the evening perfectly. And with that, our time was up. Kilian quietly, politely chatted with us individually for a little longer, posed for photos, friendly, smiling and warm. It was impossible not to feel further endeared. I’m going to suggest a rewrite of that famous phrase I started with. Always meet you heroes. Only by doing so can you hope to strip away some of the mysticism that surrounds them. They may fail to live up to the impossible task of being superhuman, but by learning more about what makes them human has the power to inspire even more. Kilian Jornet is much more than his achievements, ability or talent. He has made the absolute most of what he has, while sharing that with passion and love for what he does in the strongest possible way. I, and the rest of the small audience left with Kilian’s hero status firmly intact.
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