<Update: Kilian Jornet won the 2015 Mount Marathon race in Alaska in 41:48, breaking the old record by more than a minute. Read more here.>
For the seventh straight summer, mountain runner extraordinaire Kilian Jornet from the Catalonia region of Spain is back in the U.S. for another epic mountain running odyssey. If you don’t know or haven’t heard about this 27-year-old, he’s living the dream as a full-time professional trail runner and mountaineer who has been on a globetrotting mission to win races and set trail and mountain records around the world since 2009.
While Jornet probably wouldn’t have been able to pull off his rigorous schedule without the considerable help from his primary sponsor Salomon, he’s a once-in-a-generation athlete who many trail runners and mountaineers consider to be “in another universe” compared to everyone else. But what makes him special—and certainly a reason he’s so successful—is his deep-rooted connection to the mountain environment and his genuine interest in pushing himself over the natural obstacles of a rugged Alpine environments. He grew up in a mountain hut in the Spanish Pyrenees, with a mother who was a mountain guide and a father who was a ski instructor.
Although fiercely competitive when he’s on the move, he’s a gentle soul with a deep appreciation and respect for the mountains.
“To me, being on a trail is about feeling the mountains, feeling the strength and the power and just being a part of that,” he told me once.
After winning the Western States 100 (2011), Speedgoat 50K (2012), Pikes Peak Marathon (2012), Hardrock 100 (2014) and Run the Rut 50K (2014) on American soil in recent years, Jornet is back to run two of the hardest trail races in the U.S.—the Mount Marathon race on July 4 in Seward, Alaska, followed by an encore appearance at the Hardrock 100 in Silverton, Colo., on July 11-12.
Although it’s only 3.1 miles in length, Mount Marathon is considered one of the most grueling races in the U.S. It starts in the town of Seward and sends runners up a gnarly, steep 3,022-foot route to a point below the top of Mount Marathon and back. Some of the best mountain runners have run but not won the race—including Rickey Gates and Danelle Ballengee—but the race has been largely dominated by strong Alaskan runners, many of which happen to be strong Alpine or Nordic skiers in the winter.
The race has an amazing history, dating back more than 100 years and the winners are revered as legends in the Alaskan running scene. The course record is held by Eric Strabel, a former University of Alaska skier who covered the course in 42:55 in 2013, breaking the previous course record that had stood since 1981. Strabel, who lives in Anchorage, has won the race three of the past four years. Jornet has been in Alaska training on the Mount Marathon course since June 29.
As for Hardrock, Jornet, a Salomon-sponsored runner, shattered the previous course record for the clockwise direction last year by 40 minutes, winning handily over a strong field in 22 hours, 41 minutes, 35 seconds. This year he’ll tackle the counterclockwise course record of 24:25:50 set by Frenchman Sebastien Chaigneau in 2013. (Chaigneau competed in last year’s race but dropped out due to illness.)
With an average elevation over 11,000 feet and a high point of 14,058 feet atop Handies Peak, Hardrock is considered the hardest ultra-distance trail running race in the U.S., one that compares favorably with some of the world’s most grueling races. The course is a 100.5-mile loop that links four historic Colorado mining towns (Silverton, Telluride, Ouray and Lake City) and numerous backcountry mountain peaks and passes. It has a cumulative vertical gain of 33,992 feet of climbing and 33,992 feet of descending for a total elevation change of 67,984 feet. Unlike most 100-mile runs that have a 24- or 36-hour cut-off time, Hardrock has a 48-hour cut-off time and an average finish time of just over 41 hours.
Although this year’s Hardrock was initially pegged as a compelling matchup against American Anton Krupicka, Krupicka has been suffering from a stress fracture in his left leg and hasn’t run much since placing sixth in the 125K TransGranCanaria race in the Canary Islands in March.
In recent years, Jornet has won numerous trail running races and set many records on several continents since 2008. He set a new record for running 165 miles around Lake Tahoe in 38 hours in 2009. Aside from three victories at the famed 104-mile Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc race, he’s also won numerous short and steep SkyRunner races and vertical kilometer races, and is a ski mountaineering world champion. He also holds the record for running up the short and steep Mt. Sanitas trail in Boulder, Colo., (14:12 for 1.4 miles with about 1,300 feet of elevation gain).
In 2013, Jornet set new records for going up and down the famed 15,781-foot Mt. Blanc (about 25,000 feet of elevation gain and loss in 4:57:00), and the iconic 14,692-foot Matterhorn (roughly 16,200 feet of ascending and descending in 2:52:00 ) on the border of Switzerland and Italy. In 2010, he broke records for running up Tanzania’s Mt. Kilimanjaro (5:23:50) as well as the roundtrip record (7:14:00).
Jornet is also an accomplished mountaineer and ski mountaineer and, in the weeks before Hardrock last year, he set a new record for hiking up and skiing down 20,450-foot Mt. McKinley, the highest peak in North America. Before coming to the U.S. this year, Jornet spent time skiing, running and mountaineering in and around Chamonix, France.
On June 24-25, he completed a 23-hour combined run and climb of Grandes Jorasses, a 13,806-foot peak adjacent to Mont Blanc, then slept for 6 hours and placed seventh in the crazy-steep Mont Blanc Vertical Kilometer on June 26. After 3 hours of sleep, he then ran back up and down Mont Blanc with Karl Egloff, who recently broke Jornet’s records on Kilimanjaro and Aconcogua. (Watch the amazing video here.)
Jornet has been pursuing the mountaineering speed records of the Seven Summits for several years, although Egloff has broken a few of his records. He’s also planning to try for the record on Mt. Everest as soon as 2016.
Although he’s won numerous races and set plenty of records around the world, Jornet hasn’t been unbeatable and flawless—especially in the U.S. In 2010, he famously finished third at the Western States 100 in an epic duel with Geoff Roes and Krupicka. (That race was later depicted in the film “Unbreakable: The Western States 100” in 2011.)
He also outran Gates at the Speedgoat 50K in Snowbird, Utah, in 2012, but was criticized for cutting the switchbacks on the way back down the mountain (a tactic that is legal in many European races but decidedly prohibited in most U.S. races). He also placed fourth at the 2013 Ultra Race of Champions 100K from Breckenridge, Colo., to Copper Mountain, Colo.
Jornet wrote an autobiographical book of his adventurous life called “Run or Die” in 2012 and it has since been translated into nine languages.
Ultimately, it’s not about the records or the race victories for Jornet, it’s about the experience. What fuels Jornet is his pure love of being in nature.
“It’s not about the records for me or for the time. It’s about the process of getting to know the mountain, to run it over and over again and getting to know it in the morning, in the rain, in the dark, when it’s hot or cold. It’s about how you run, not how fast,” Jornet told me once. “It’s the process of understanding the mountain that helps me to run it fast. It’s like a relationship with a person. You might live with that person your whole life and not know them completely. A mountain is much bigger, like a thousand hundred persons.”
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