A memoir from trail running champion Kilian Jornet
There’s a quintessential clip in the 2011 movie Unbreakable—a documentary on the 2010 Western States 100 Mile Ultramarathon—where Kilian Jornet launches off the side of the banked narrow trail and throws a back-scratcher, in trail shoes. He’s 45 miles into a 100-mile ultramarathon, running with two of the fastest American athletes, yet he’s playful—even wasteful—with his energy. This is one of many legendary tales of Jornet’s childlike ebullience for running through the mountains, which seems to belie the difficulty of the sport, and fuels our collective fetishization.
At 26 years old, Jornet has won more than 80 endurance races, including three Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc events (a 104-mile circumnavigation of the massif), the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run (the world’s oldest 100 miler), and multiple world championships in ski mountaineering. Following the script of the breakout athlete, Jornet has written a memoir titled Run or Die, which, refreshingly, he wrote without the help of a ghostwriter.
Jornet grew up in a backcountry day lodge managed by his father, on the northern slopes of Cerdanya, Spain. The refuge’s remote location, between the mountains of Andorra and France—at an elevation of 6,500 feet—was the perfect high-altitude, all-terrain playground for a young mountain athlete. At night his mother would take him into the forest for walks, bushwhacking off-trail without headlamps, to allow his senses to adapt, so he could “hear the woods breathe.”
Jornet’s athleticism is a powerful combination of nature and nurture. His V02 max—the rate at which his body can transport oxygen to working muscles—is one of the highest ever recorded, at 92. But he has also put in the work starting from an extraordinarily young age. Not many children enter their first ski race at three years old, summit their first 13,661-foot peak at seven, or cross the Pyrenees on foot at ten.
The book however, lacks any superhuman achievement, and any narrative arc, which causes it to read more like long blog posts bound together. Jornet chose to omit relevant background information about the trails, the races, and the characters of his life. (And energy cake. What in the world is energy cake, Kilian? It sounds wonderful.) The omissions will make Run or Die less interesting for those outside the ultrarunning community. But for those of us in that narrow band, it gives a fascinating glimpse inside the mind of our ruling champion. —Matt Hart
Run or Die is published by Velopress.