Becoming the All-Terrain Human
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 in 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 and run nearly two and a half vertical miles up to Europe’s roof — over cracked glaciers, past Gore-Tex’d climbers, into the thin air at 15,781 feet — 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 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 32 minutes, beating the record of Tim Twietmeyer, a legend in the world of ultrarunning, by more than seven hours. When he reached the finish line, he looked as if he’d just won the local turkey trot.
Levon Biss for The New York Times
Come winter, when most elite ultrarunners keep running, 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 the overall World Cup champion three of the last four winters.
So what’s next when you’re 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 most well known peaks, from the Matterhorn this summer to Mount Everest in 2015. In doing so, he joins a cadre of alpinists like Ueli Steck from Switzerland and Chad Kellogg from the United States who are racing up peaks and redefining what’s possible. In a way, Jornet says, all of his racing has been preparation for greater trials. This month, he is in the Himalayas with a couple of veteran alpinists. They plan to climb and ski the south face of a peak that hasn’t been skied before in winter.
But bigger challenges bring bigger risks. Less than a year ago, Jornet watched as his hero and friend Stéphane Brosse died in the mountains. Since then, he has asked himself, How much is it worth sacrificing to do what you love?
Chamonix, France, READ ON