Friday, March 22, 2013
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.
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, is a resort town wedged into a narrow valley at the foot of Mont Blanc, just over an hour’s drive southeast of Geneva. For those who adore high mountains, the place is hallowed. The Rue du Docteur Paccard is named for one of the first men to ascend Mont Blanc, in 1786; millionaires are tolerated, but mountain men are revered. The valley is Jornet’s home for the few months each year when he is not traveling. 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, stepped out and offered a shy handshake. He is slight and unremarkable in the deceptive way of a Tour de France cyclist — he’s 5-foot-6 and 125 pounds — with the burnished complexion of years spent above the tree line and a thatch of black hair that, when sprung from a ski hat, has a slightly blendered look.
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 most well known star, while setting a record for the 104-mile course around the Mont Blanc massif (which happens to include 31,500 feet of uphill climbing, or the equivalent of 25 trips to the top of the Empire State Building). “It was a revelation and a coronation at once,” Runner’s World magazine later wrote. Then Jornet won again the next year (and again in 2011).
Jornet has won dozens of mountain footraces up to 100 miles in length and six world titles in Skyrunning, a series of races of varying distances held on billy-goat terrain. “Other Top 5 or 10 ultramarathoners can show up for a race, and he’ll just be jogging along, biding his time, enjoying their company until it’s time to go,” Bryon Powell, the editor in chief of the Web site iRunFar.com, told me. In the longest races, which can last 24 hours, he’s been known to best the competition by an hour or more. Lauri van Houten, executive director of the International Skyrunning Federation, calls Jornet “God on earth.”
He is also the most visible figure in the growing “fastest known times” movement, in which runners measure how long it takes to complete geographic challenges — running up and down the Grand Teton in Wyoming, say, or around a lake — and then post their results online. This is often done on the honor system, although Jornet, the only fully sponsored professional in ultrarunning, frequently has others time him. In addition to the mark he set at Lake Tahoe, Jornet holds the record for the GR20 trail that traces Corsica’s mountainous spine, and he crossed the 500-plus miles of the Pyrenees in 8 days 3 hours 15 minutes. He has set records on the 19,341-foot Kilimanjaro in Tanzania (7 hours 14 minutes) and the 9,570-foot Mount Olympus in Greece (just under 5 hours 20 minutes).
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 kilometer race that’s 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 between 1999 and 2005.) It’s a little like an Olympic-champion sprinter winning the Boston Marathon.
Once we crossed over the Italian border, Jornet steered the Peugeot through tight alpine streets to the small ski area of La Thuile. Ski-mountaineering racing, usually called SkiMo in Europe, is a mountain man’s steeplechase up, down and around high peaks while wearing ultralight backcountry gear that’s built to climb: matchstick skis, slipper-light carbon-fiber ski boots, climbing skins that grip the snow. The first race of the season was a few weeks away, and Jornet needed to log some workouts in the mountains. Beneath a giant trail map, we discussed a plan: he’d ski, and I’d try to watch. He wore a skintight cat suit adorned with tiger stripes the color of traffic cones. KILIAN was printed across his right thigh. The message was less boast than warning: Get off the tracks. Train coming.
At one point during Jornet’s workout that day — he’d climb and then descend about 10,000 feet in about four hours — he paused at a mountaintop cafe to talk. I offered espresso. He declined. He also hadn’t eaten breakfast, nor would he eat or drink during his workout.
Don’t you sweat? I asked.
“Maybe a bit here,” he replied, touching the back of his neck.
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. Jornet simply has more men in the engine room, shoveling coal. “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, says Stacy Sims, a researcher at Stanford 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. A body that sweats less loses less precious liquid from its circulatory system, a major factor in fatigue. In moderate temperatures, Jornet says, he can run easily for eight hours without drinking water.
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, Núria Burgada Burón, 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 cross-country ski race. “My mission is to make Kilian tired. Always, I was tired. But Kilian? No.”
His parents tried to instill a sense of humility and a deep feeling for the landscape. “Por las noches we walk out to the wood, the forest, without lamp,” Burgada says, describing how she sometimes took Jornet and his sister, Naila, a year and a half younger (and today also a SkiMo racer), out barefoot into the night dressed only in pajamas. Listen to the forest, their mother told them. Feel the direction of the wind against your cheeks, the way the pebbles change underfoot. Then she made her children lead the way home in the darkness. “All this,” she says, “to feel the passion of the nature.” At 13 Jornet entered a program for young Catalan ski-mountaineering athletes; he won his first youth World Cup race at 16. He began to run as off-season training.
A lifetime spent scrabbling over uneven ground — Jornet has never trained on a track — has molded 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, told me. Yet amazingly, Jornet has never sprained an ankle.
When Jornet told me this, we were at his apartment, a modest place just down the valley from Chamonix. Its décor is Modern Mountain Bum — rows of hard-worn trail shoes at the door, bins of carabiners and ice axes in the guest room, something gray and half-eaten petrifying in a saucepan on the stovetop. He stood in his socks, rolled one of his thick ankles to a tendon-straining angle, then began to hop up and down on it nonchalantly while I watched in horror.
On another day, Jornet pulled a pair of shoes out of storage, laced them up and then demonstrated his downhill technique on a snow-covered track behind the apartment — his weight almost recklessly forward, the sides of his shoes biting deeply when he cut a turn as if they were an ibex’s hooves, arms pinwheeling overhead for balance. He didn’t resemble a runner so much as the downhill skier Bode Miller, that master of the calculated free-fall, or an ecstatic child set free from school. “It’s like dancing,” he said when we reached the bottom of the hill.
And this gets to the heart of Jornet’s talent. Observers and competitors describe him as someone who draws endurance and vitality, Samson-like, from being among high peaks. Runners who have served as pacesetters for him have told me with amazement how, when he was midrace at Lake Tahoe, Jornet didn’t run with his head down in focused misery but instead brushed the hairgrass and corn lily that grew along the trail with his fingertips and brought the smell to his nose, as if he were feeding off the scenery. Sometimes in his all-day solitary runs, stopping only to eat berries, he can seem half-feral, more mountain goat than human. He likes to move fast and touch rock and feel wild, he told me; he feels most at ease and performs best when wrapped by the silence and beauty of the mountains. He can’t abide cities for more than a few hours. The sea — its unrelenting horizontality — scares him. Leading long races like Western States, he’s been known to stop and exclaim at a sunrise, or wait for friends to catch up so he can enjoy the mountains with them instead of furthering his lead. “It’s almost insulting,” Krupicka told me. But it’s just Kilian being Kilian, Krupicka said. “He’s not rubbing it in anyone’s face. He’s truly enjoying being out there in the mountains, and he’s expressing that.”
The trip last June was supposed to be special, a lightning traverse of the 43-mile Mont Blanc massif on skis, a punishing but glorious first in mountains that people have crisscrossed for centuries. It would kick off his Summits of My Life project. What made the trip truly special, however, was the man Jornet would make it with, Stéphane Brosse. A two-time ski-mountaineering world champion, Brosse was Jornet’s idol as a teenager — Jornet had a picture of Brosse in his notebook — and later became his mentor, training partner and good friend.
Jornet described to me the beauty of the trip, how blackbirds drifted like scraps of cloth in the thermals just beyond the skiers on the mountaintop. On the second day, they were almost done; all that stood between them and a triumphant descent to the wildflowers was a ridge crossing between the twin summits of the 12,799-foot Aiguille d’Argentière. Jornet led the way, skiing about 10 feet from the mountain’s edge to avoid releasing a cornice, an overhanging lip of hardened snow. Brosse and two of their friends skied behind, about the same distance from the edge. Looking back, Jornet noticed they were too far out on the overhang. He lifted his ski pole to give a warning, but it was already too late: under the skiers’ weight, a chunk of snow 10 feet wide and 20 feet long ripped from the mountain at Jornet’s feet. The collapse swept Brosse away 2,000 feet to his death.
The fall of his friend shook Jornet. A few days later, he climbed alone to the summit of Aiguille de Bionnassay high in the massif. He needed to experience why he’d been in the mountains with Brosse: “because it’s our home.” More than once during my visit, Jornet compared the mountains to a lover. To really know a deep love, you have to give yourself completely to another, he told me, which means making yourself vulnerable. As he wrote on his blog after Brosse’s death, “The mountain takes many things away from us, but it also gives us everything we need to breathe.”
A few months later Jornet ran again. This time he traversed Mont Blanc from Courmayeur to Chamonix, crossing crumbling moraines and split-lip glaciers and the chasm of the Innominata (“Unnamed”) Ridge. The route — 26 miles and 14,000 feet of ascent — takes alpinists several days. Jornet did it in less than nine hours while carrying a little more than a dozen ounces of sports drink.
What are you running after? I asked Jornet. Having beaten men, do you now want to challenge the mountains? He gently corrected me. You don’t beat the mountains. You go when they permit, he said. The speed records and “firsts” aren’t important except for motivation, he insisted. Then he mentioned the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Hughes Galeano, who once likened the ideal of Utopia to the horizon — goals that retreat even as we chase them. “The important thing is not to catch something,” said Jornet, whose own memoir, “Run or Die,” will be published in the United States in July. What matters in life is the pursuit, and everything we learn along the way. “The important thing,” he said, “is moving.”
Before departing Chamonix, I accompanied Jornet on his morning workout. I wanted to try to feel his speed and freedom for myself. We drove almost to the head of the valley and parked at a still-closed ski area, not far from the crumbling Le Tour Glacier. Where the parking lot turned to snow, Jornet stepped into his ski bindings and, wordlessly and without stretching, began to move. I fell in beside him. The apron of the mountain was a gentle bunny slope, and Jornet began to kick and glide upward with long, sure, measured paces. He wore a puffy jacket and warm-up pants against the cold, his ski-pole-holding hands jammed deep into his pockets and his poles trailing behind.
This isn’t so bad, I thought. I can do this.
We passed the silent bull wheel of the gondola house. We passed a shuttered chalet. The slope canted upward. My pulse bucked. Jornet’s stride remained unchanged: wide and sure and metronomic. The scenery began to blur. We passed the ribbon of the iced-over Arve River and a woman ski touring up the track.
My vision grayed at the edges. I glanced over at Jornet. His hands were still in his pockets.
It happened quickly. I was beside Jornet. Then I was not-so-beside him. Then I was behind him, snorting and huffing like a plow horse turning tough soil. Soon I doubled over, heaving and trying not to revisit the morning’s croissant. Jornet looked back, said something I couldn’t make out over the timpani of heart booming in ears and kept moving.
A lifelong runner, a marathoner, a backcountry skier, I lasted 3 minutes 6 seconds.
In a while the ski-tourer we passed arrived. She was a fit Frenchwoman, middle-aged, with silver hair. I nodded ahead. “The world champion,” I managed.
“My son knows him,” she replied. She looked after him for a moment, then said, “Everyone must have his — how do you say, rythme?”
After that we watched him together. Jornet was an entire knoll away now. He had removed his hands from his pockets and taken off his jacket. His arms pumped strongly with his poles. He moved fast and alone and content on the mountain, growing smaller and smaller as he climbed until he soon disappeared around a bend.
Christopher Solomon is a frequent contributor to Travel and other sections at The Times. This is his first article for the magazine.