Kilian Jornet is the top endurance athlete of his generation. We thought so four years ago when we had a chat with Jornet for a feature. Then only 25, he had won more than 80 races, claimed some 16 titles and set at least a dozen speed records, many of them in distances that would require most people to take a plane. He has run across entire landmasses and mountain ranges, nearly without pause.
And now he has conquered Mount Everest. In a record 26 hours. Without ropes or oxygen support. It’s unbelievable. It’s disgusting even, when you think about the rigours others have endured just to complete the climb.
To understand how it is possible for Jornet to do this, you need to know his background. Here are highlights from our 2013 feature.
- Jornet began running as a form of offseason training for cross country ski competitions.
- Growing up in the Spanish Pyrenees, his gifts are literally in his blood. Science has ascertained that when you are born and bred at altitude, you tend to have a higher blood volume and red-cell count for oxygen-carrying capacity. Jornet’s VO2 max, a measure of a person’s ability to consume oxygen and a factor in determining aerobic endurance, is 89.5ml/kg/min compared to an average male’s 45 to 55 ml/kg/min.
- This also explains why Jornet sweats so little whereas even very fit people quickly experience vasodilation and fatigue. In moderate temperatures, Jornet can run easily for eight hours without drinking any water.
- A lifetime of scrambling over uneven ground has moulded Jornet into a gifted negotiator of terrain, making him an excellent technical downhill runner. This is particularly useful since skyrunning races are often won on the downhill, by hurling yourself over roots, logs and shifting scree.
- He eats wild berries and drinks from streams when he runs. He believes the mountains provide what we need. But the heart of Jornet’s talent according to observers and fellow runners is joy. Jornet doesn’t run with his head down in focused misery but instead brushes the foliage along the trail and smells the flowers, as if feeding off the scenery. Leading long races, he’s been known to stop and exclaim at a sunrise, or wait for others to catch up so he can enjoy it with them instead of furthering his lead. He just truly enjoys being in the mountains.
This week, Jornet summitted Everest in a super feat. But he’s no stranger to the world’s highest mountain. In 2012 he began the Summits of My Life project to set speed records climbing and descending some of the world’s most well-known peaks, from the Matterhorn to Mount Everest. Bigger challenges always bring bigger risks. Jornet lost his hero and friend Stephane Brosse on Mont Blanc that year. Since then, he has asked himself, how much is it worth sacrificing to do what you love? After coming to terms with losing Brosse, Jornet continued pursuing Everest. Still he doesn’t see his recent achievement as a conquest. “You don’t beat the mountains. You go when they permit,” Jornet said.