Devouring mountain ranges with his little feet

Jornet is the master of any terrain, running across landmasses and mountains
Last Updated 27 March 2013, 17:35 IST

Kilian Jornet Burgada is the most dominating endurance athlete of his generation. In just eight years, Jornet has won more than 80 races, claimed some 16 titles and set at least a dozen speed records, many of them at distances that would require the rest of us to purchase an airplane ticket.

He has run across entire landmasses (Corsica) and mountain ranges (the Pyrenees), nearly without pause. He regularly runs all day, eating only wild berries and drinking only from streams. On summer mornings, he will set off from his apartment door at the foot of Mont Blanc—the highest mountain in the Alps — and run nearly 2.5 vertical miles, or 4 km, up to Europe's roof—over cracked glaciers, past Gore-Tex’d climbers, into the thin air at 15,781 ft—and back home again in less than seven hours, a trip that mountaineers can spend days to complete.

A few years ago, Jornet ran the 165-mile Tahoe Rim Trail, on the border of California and Nevada, and stopped just twice to sleep on the ground for a total of about 90 minutes. In the middle of the night he took a wrong turn, which added perhaps six miles to his run. He still finished in 38 hours and 32 minutes, beating the record of Tim Twietmeyer, a legend in the world of ultrarunning, by more than seven hours.

Come winter, Jornet puts away his trail-running shoes for six months and takes up ski-mountaineering racing, which basically amounts to running up and around large mountains on alpine skis. In this sport, too, Jornet reigns supreme: He has been an overall World Cup champion three of the past four winters.

So what’s next when you are 25 and every one of the races on the wish list you drew up as a youngster has been won and crossed out? You dream up a new challenge. Last year Jornet began what he calls the ‘Summits of My Life’ project, a four-year effort to set speed records climbing and descending some of the world’s best-known peaks, like the Matterhorn this summer and Mount Everest in 2015. But bigger challenges bring bigger risks. Less than a year ago, Jornet watched as his hero and friend, Stephane Brosse, died in a fall in the mountains. Since then, he has asked himself, how much is it worth sacrificing to do what you love?

Chamonix, France, is a resort town wedged into a narrow valley at the foot of Mont Blanc, just over an hour drive from Geneva. The valley is Jornet’s home for the few months each year when he is not travelling. I met him there on a stormy morning in December, when he drove his dented Peugeot van into a parking lot at the edge of town. He is slight and unremarkable in the deceptive way of a Tour de France cyclist — he is 5-foot-6, or 1.7 metres, and about 57 kilograms — with the burnished complexion of years spent above the tree line.

As we drove to and from Valle d’Aosta in Italy, where he would train that day, Jornet told me in soft-spoken English (one of five languages he speaks) how he first stunned the small world of elite ultrarunning. It happened at the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc in Chamonix, the most competitive ultrarunning event outside the United States. (An ‘ultra’ is any race longer than a marathon). In 2008, when he was 20, Jornet defeated a field that included Scott Jurek, perhaps the sport’s best-known star, while setting a record for the 104-mile course around the Mont Blanc massif (which includes 31,500 feet of uphill climbing). Then Jornet won again the next year (and again in 2011).

Prestigious ultrarun

His versatility amazes other runners, including Jurek, who today is a friend. Jornet has been able to run the very short mountain races, like a vertical kilometre race, that is over in a couple of hours, Jurek says — and then, he adds, Jornet can turn around and win the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run in California's Sierra mountains, arguably the world's most prestigious ultrarun. (Jurek himself won the Western States seven consecutive times.) It's a little like an Olympic-champion sprinter winning the Boston Marathon.

Even among top athletes, Jornet is an outlier. Take his VO2 max, a measure of a person’s ability to consume oxygen and a factor in determining aerobic endurance. An average male’s VO2 max is 45 to 55 ml/kg/min. A college-level 10,000-meter runner's max is typically 60 to 70. Jornet’s VO2 max is 89.5 -- one of the highest recorded, according to Daniel Brotons Cuixart, a sports specialist at the University of Barcelona who tested Jornet last fall.

“I've not seen any athletes higher than the low 80s, and we've tested some elite athletes,” says Edward Coyle, director of the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin, who has studied the limits of human exercise performance for three decades.

Born into a Catalan family, Jornet grew up in the Spanish Pyrenees at 6,500 feet, and his gifts are literally in his blood. “When you are born and bred at altitude, you tend to have a higher blood volume and red-cell count for oxygen-carrying capacity,” which translates to better endurance, said Stacy Sims, a researcher at Stanford University in California, who holds a doctorate in exercise physiology and nutrition science.

 Years of daily running and skiing up mountains have further bolstered this advantage. This helps explain why Jornet sweats so little. During exercise, the bodies of very fit people quickly act to disperse heat by, among other things, vasodilation -- expanding blood vessels at the skin's surface where the air can cool the body.

Jornet was raised in the Cap del Rec regional park, where his father was a hut keeper and mountain guide and his mother a schoolteacher who liked to run and ski. “Mountains were his playground,” his mother, Nuria Burgada Buron, told me. When Jornet was 18 months old, she took him on a seven-hour hike in the Pyrenees, and he never cried or fussed. Seven hours? She laughed. “Kilian is not normal.” At 3, she says, he completed a 7.5-mile crosscountry ski race. “My mission is to make Kilian tired. Always, I was tired. But Kilian? No.”

At 13 Jornet entered a programme for young Catalan ski-mountaineering athletes; he won his first youth World Cup race at 16. He began to run as offseason training.
A lifetime spent scrabbling over uneven ground has moulded him into a gifted negotiator of terrain. Skyrunning races are often won on the downhill, by hurling yourself over roots and logs and shifting scree. “There is probably no one in the world who is a better technical downhill runner than him,” Anton Krupicka, a top American ultrarunner, said.

(Published 27 March 2013, 17:32 IST)

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