As another day draws to an end and the sun creeps behind the mountains, I catch up with Kilian Jornet outside his hotel on the outskirts of Canazei in the Dolomites. Looking fresh and relaxed he is on his iPhone, no doubt tweeting and replying to many of the messages he will have received congratulating him on another stunning win in the ISF Skyrunning Dolomites Skyrace. Just forty-eight hours earlier he had also won the Dolomites Vertical Kilometer.
Kilian needs no introduction. He is without doubt the leading example of everything that is great about our sport, not only on the trails, but also off them. He is the superstar of the sport. Always in the limelight, always in demand, I have been fortunate to see both sides in close quarters for some time now. It’s not just racing! Kilian has so many demands placed upon him, that it is miraculous that he can perform at the consistently high level that he does.
After our chat he must prepare for a long drive to Switzerland the following day for a four-hour meeting. Returning the same day to Canazei he will then leave for Verona, attend a meeting and then depart for the ISF Skyrunning Trans D’Havet ultra, he will attend three stores to do signings, photos and maybe go for a run. It is a hectic, full on, non-stop life. Despite all this, despite all the pressures placed upon him, I have never witnessed him say no to a photograph or an autograph. His dedication to the sport, his fans and al those around him is remarkable, so, when I ask to take up some of his valuable time for a chat it is always with a sense of guilt… I, just like you, want to hear what he has to say; I want his thoughts and his input. But at the same time, I also want to leave him, let him relax and just find some downtime away from the buzz that his ability as a runner attracts.
So, when I chat, although I would love that full hour with him so that I can go deep, ask about his life, talk through his progression I don’t. I set myself a fifteen-minute deadline, conscious of the fact that when I ask in the future, I hope, Kilian will always say yes!
Racing at the Dolomites Skyrace just hours before he had a close race; just three seconds…. Not many people can push Kilian to the line like that!
IC – Another great win Kilian and this time you had a real battle on your hands with your old adversary, Marco De Gasperi. You won by just three seconds, an incredible race!
KJ – Yes, a hard and incredible race. It’s always great to race Marco and today was very hard. During the race it’s hard and then it is beautiful afterwards. This is how we like it.
IC- Many people think that when they see a start list with your name on it, that you are automatically going to win. However, when we see Marco’s name, it’s great because we know he will push you along… Luis Alberto Hernando can do this too. Do you relish the opportunity to race these people so that you are pushed?
KJ – I think people think I am going to win but in my mind it is not like that. When I see Marco or Luis is in a race I think, this is going to be super hard. For sure, it is motivating. I relish competition. For the last three weeks I have done many races, for example the VK I have just done and the Skyrace when competition is tough that is what I like. I knew here at the Skyrace it would be tough against Marco. He likes short distances and I knew that he would go hard from the start. I needed to push myself. It may be easy from the outside to look in and think I am going to win but it is much harder than this.
IC – I agree, we all know your ability. Your skill in the mountains and your skill as a runner are without question. It is unfair to assume that you can race Ice Trail, the VK, The Skyrace and then go to Trans D’Havet and for us all to assume that you will win… when you approach a race like the Dolomites Skyrace and particularly this year with lots of snow, you must think that plays to your advantages, is that correct?
KJ – I know this race. I know the route quite well. I have raced here twice before. The snow wasn’t great for racing this year. It was soft, so not ideal to race fast. The snow wasn’t an advantage this year, however, it was more of an advantage to know the route. When I started with Marco I pushed on the uphill, at the top I had 20 seconds so I thought, we will do the downhill together. The downhill you need the correct line, so it was important to get the best line and if you are in front or if you have someone in front it is easy to follow, so, it would have been impossible to drop Marco. I was sure we would finish together. For me, I thought Marco would be stronger uphill. I thought he would start fast. But when I was with him uphill, I knew it would be a race to the line.
IC – Now Emelie Forsberg keeps tweeting about sprint sessions and interval work. The last time I spoke to her, she told me that she was going to make you do some speed work! After that VK finish when you sprinted from third place to take the win and then in the Skyrace finish you won by three seconds, does that mean you are not telling us something?
KJ – I am improving in my sprint for sure. I am not a sprinter, in SkiMo I am a bad sprinter, but yes, I always have a little speed for the last meters. It is something I never train so I need to work on this, it’s good for me to train and work on this. Sometimes when you follow someone it’s better… last week we tried to catch Chamois, it was impossible but good for sprint training.
IC – Well it has worked! I mentioned the VK. The VK here is a tough course, very steep. I actually went up myself, boy it was tough and steep. Watching you three race up, I am guessing you placed yourself in third so that you could surprise the others. Did you have a race plan to use this tactic?
KJ – It’s a very particular VK, I have raced here three times before and I never felt good. So I was a little afraid, not afraid, I mean not confident. For all three races, (VK, Sky and Ultra) the VK is the race I was less confident about. It is a specialist race and it suited runners like Urban Zemmer. I was thinking before the start that I needed to relax and then when I saw that I was in good shape I tried to follow Urban, he is the best at this discipline. I was following and in the steep parts he was super strong, it was really difficult to be in touch with him. When it was less steep I could run and I felt better. It was okay. I needed to make sure I didn’t loose time or contact. When I saw the finish, I thought it was perfect for the sprint.
IC – It was an impressive sprint. I watched a clip on YouTube, you put your poles together, you went down the outside and then that final 50m is a wall. You have to grit your teeth and get up as quick as possible. Now one thing that many were interested in, is the fact that you used poles. Not something that you use a lot, the VK here is so steep that it would be foolish not to use them. What advantages do they bring?
KJ- I don’t use poles often for running but in SkiMo I use them everyday! I am extremely used to them. For years I used them everyday for 6-7 months. It is a particular exercise that you need to work on. On a VK like this it is like having four legs because you have the arms and upper body and you can really push. So when it is really steep it makes a big difference.
IC – Canazei is over and in 5-6 days you will race at Trans D’Havet*, it is the third event in the European Skyrunning Championships, you will be up against Luis Alberto Hernando, he will be arriving at that race fresh. You have lots of racing in your body, how do you think this race will be go?
KJ – It will be a great fight, I haven’t seen the list of other racers but I am sure it will be quality. I am in good shape. I am strong. Mont Blanc Marathon a few weeks ago was a fast race, Ice Trail Tarentaise was like a long training session and then the two races here makes it hard but I am good. I hope I can keep this shape for one week and then I will rest. Yes, it will be hard, Luis is strong this season and of course he hasn’t raced recently, he is focused on Trans D’Havet it is going to be hard but the hardest part of the race is the 0100am start… that is horrible.
*Kilian and Luis Alberto raced head-to-head at Trans D’Havet and both crossed the line together in what will be seen as a defining moment of the sport, read my race report HERE
IC – You flippantly talk about races such as Mont Blanc and Ice Trail. Particularly Ice Trail, you said it was easy but everybody else thought it was super tough… you are here now for the VK and Sky but you have missed your Chamonix-Mont Blanc-Chamonix record… super impressive! A fantastic achievement, many look and find it difficult to comprehend how someone under human power can do something like this. What is it in the Summits project that has illuminated the fire within you to push to new depths?
KJ – Summits it is about pushing in the mountains. It is about being light. It is more than records, a record is nice but it is about being light and moving fast. How light can I be in the mountains? If you are light you need to be fast to be safe. Mont Blanc took a lot of time. We had too much snow early season, I attempted ‘CMBC’ after Mont Blanc Marathon but it wasn’t the correct time. The snow wasn’t correct. The week before my attempt I was in the mountains everyday to form an opinion on when was the best time and when the best day would be. It was all about timing. It is not like a race. Here you need to be in the mountains, to understand. Every mountain is different; you need to understand how it works how it breathes. I had perfect conditions for my attempt and the perfect day. I was with Mateo Jacquemoud for all the uphill and most of the downhill so it was just pushing, pushing each other. (Note – Mateo fell on the downhill and insisted that Kilian carry on)
IC – You mentioned a couple of great points. The one I concentrate on most is the need of understanding the mountain. It is very easy for people to follow Talk Ultra, websites or blogs and look at what you do and think, Chamonix-Mont Blanc-Chamonix, I can do that! But it is a real risk, a real understanding of the mountain is required, you make it look easy, I know that it is not. Do you feel you have a responsibility to those who follow you?
KJ – I saw Alex Honnold do soloing in Yosemite, I saw Ueli Steck doing the north face of the Eiger, and it is not because of this that I would do an attempt. It is inspiring but it is important not to follow. We can all have our goals, our own summits, but of course when we do these things, we have a responsibility. Chamonix is accessible, many people climb every year, and I am not dangerous but every year people die. That is because of rock falls, avalanches etc… you need to know the mountain, you need to know yourself and you need to know your limits. We take risks when we go, of course, but we accept those risks based on our ability.
IC – It is about your personal summits and about you understanding what risks you can take, about how light, how fast you can go?
KJ – Yes, it is about knowing each persons capacity and knowing the conditions, the mountain conditions change daily. Maybe one day you have the capacity and conditions but the next day it changes. I know people who climb a mountain and then they say it was easy… It is not like that! Today they climbed but another day maybe more wet, cold, snowing and everything changes; it is no longer the same mountain. Nobody is stronger than the mountain. You need to understand that, you need to take time, spend time in the mountains and understand them.
IC – The Matterhorn will be your next summit?
KJ – After Trans D’Havet I will take a break. I plan to stay more than one month without a race to recover and then prepare for the Matterhorn. It is a technical mountain. Bruno Brunod has a record of 3:14. It is a technical route that is not difficult BUT if I fall, I will die! I need to know the route very well, I need to spend time on the mountain, and I need to learn every step.
IC – And the process? Will it be going on the mountain everyday, working routes and understanding how the mountain adapts to the weather?
KJ – Yes I will be in Cervinia (Italian side of the Matterhorn) with my van and I will stay for at least a month. I know many guides in the area and I also know that it has too much snow at the moment but during this time I will go up and down, up and down etc… I need to know everything. I think Bruno climbed thirty times before the record attempt; so, I need to go up 10-15 times at least.
IC – And your attempt, will that come before or after the ISF Skyrunning Matterhorn Ultraks?
KJ – It depends on the weather? I planned Mont Blanc for May but snow made it impossible… I actually did it in June! I have planned the Matterhorn for late August or early September, however, the mountain will decide.
Image taken by Kilian Jornet, Friday Aug 2nd w/ Emelie Forsberg at the summit of the Matterhorn copyright: Kilian Jornet
IC – Kilian, thank you so much for your time. I wish you all the very best for the coming months.
KJ – Thank you so much Ian, see you at the Matterhorn!
You can listen to this interview on Episode 40 of TALK ULTRA – HERE
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- Dolomites Vertical Kilometer HERE
- Dolomites Vertical Kilometer IMAGES HERE
- Dolomites Skyrace HERE
- Dolomites Skyrace IMAGES HERE
- Trans D’Havet HERE
- Trans D’Havet IMAGES HERE
- Kilian Jornet HERE
- Summits of my Life HERE
- Salomon Running HERE