Record-setting ultra-distance mountain runner will race Colorado’s Hardrock 100 on July 11-12.
For as ambitious and hard-core as Kilian Jornet’s legacy makes him out to be, the 26-year old Catalan runner is, in many ways, just a kid who loves breathing fresh air and moving his body over natural terrain.
With a mix of poise, humility, playfulness and confidence, Jornet has established himself as the world’s best mountain runner, winning races and setting records on every continent over the past six years. Based on the extraordinary marks on his adventure and endurance résumé, he’s one of the toughest, most competitive and driven individuals who have ever run trails or scaled mountains, yet he’s amazingly down-to-earth, earnest and very sincere.
“I just like to be in the mountains,” he says simply, knowing that he’s not oversimplifying but actually accentuating what he’s all about. “I love to feel the freedom and to feel the wilderness of the mountains.”
Jornet has returned to the U.S. for the fifth straight summer, this time to set a speed record on Mt. McKinley in mid-June and also tackle the Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run on July 11-12, the daunting 100-mile trail race through the rugged San Juan Mountains of Southwestern Colorado.
With an average elevation over 11,000 feet and a high point of 14,058 feet atop Handies Peak, Hardrock is considered the hardest trail running race in the U.S., one that compares favorably with some of the world’s most grueling races. The course is a 100.5-mile loop that links four historic Colorado mining towns (Silverton, Telluride, Ouray and Lake City) and numerous backcountry mountain peaks and passes. It has a cumulative vertical gain of 33,992 feet of climbing and 33,992 feet of descending for a total elevation change of 67,984 feet. Unlike most 100-mile runs that have a 24- or 36-hour cut-off time, Hardrock has a 48-hour cut-off time and an average finish time of just over 41 hours.
Jornet has tried to get into Hardrock for three years, but, like an increasing number of runners, he’s been denied when his name wasn’t called in the lottery. (The race has become increasingly harder to enter as interest has increased. This year more than 1,200 runners applied for the lottery to gain one of the 140 entries in the race.)
But unlike most runners—from the recreational runners to world-class elites—who focus primarily on running, Jornet spent a part of last winter skiing on the Hardrock course on Alpine touring gear (he’s also a world champion at ski mountaineering races) and recently set a new record for hiking up and skiing down Mt. McKinley in Alaska. Since then, he’s spent the past few weeks running the final 60 miles of the Hardrock course from Ouray to Silverton.
Always appreciative of his natural surroundings and the history of the races he runs, Jornet knows Hardrock ranks among the world’s best and most challenging ultra-distance mountain races, with a high-alpine route comparable to the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc—the 104-mile circuitous race around the Alps he’s won three times.
Jornet has massive legs that belie his otherwise modest, 5-foot-7, 125-pound stature. But hidden inside that physique is a massively high VO2 max (reportedly at 85 ml/kg/min), plus the strong will of someone who was raised in the mountains (he was raised in a mountain hut in the Pyrenees) and an unyielding passion for challenging himself over rugged terrain.
“I have heard a lot about Hardrock for many years,” says Jornet, who has been staying in a small cabin above Silverton that has no heat and no running water for the past few weeks. “The San Juan Mountains are a special place. The mountains are strong here and I like that kind of race. It’s much more technical than most American races. On this course, you are deep in the mountains and far away from everything. It is real wilderness and that makes it a very special run.”
Jornet has won numerous trail running races and set many records on several continents. Last year, he won the Pikes Peak Marathon in Colorado. He won the 2011 Western States 100 in California after finishing third in 2010. In 2009, he set a new record for running 165 miles around Lake tahoe in 38 hours. Aside from three victories at the famed Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, he’s also won numerous short and steep SkyRunner races and vertical kilometer races. He also holds the record for running up the short and steep Mt. Sanitas trail in Boulder, Colo., (14 minutes, 12 seconds for 1.4 miles with about 1,300 feet of elevation gain).
“Kilian is an amazing athlete, no doubt about it,” says Russell Gill, race director for the Ultra Race of Champions 100K trail running race in Colorado. “I think Kilian’s impact is two-fold: He’s certainly a tremendous athlete, truly a unique talent. And secondly, the big change that he’s brought about is moving the sport forward with the support and exposure he’s getting.”
To that point, the Hardrock 100 has draw considerable media exposure this year. Instead of about a dozen or so individuals covering the race, there are more than 50 this year, including “60 Minutes” and the New York Times.
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Jornet has often mixes his background in ski mountaineering with his trail running skills and incredible fitness to set ascent and roundtrip records on some of the world’s highest peaks. In June, Jornet set a new roundtrip record for climbing up and skiing down 20,237-foot Mt. McKinley (aka Denali) in Alaska. He reached the summer of North America’s highest peak in 9 hours, 45 minutes and then skied down to achieve a new record of 11:48. (He broke the previous record by more than 5 hours.) Amazingly, he did it by re-fueling with only a liter of water and numerous energy gels.
“I don’t drink or eat much during my training,” Jornet told National Geographic Adventure recently. “I know it is not the ‘good’ way, but it has always worked well for me. I can run for seven to eight hours without drinking. Here at altitude is important to drink and have energy. Two days before the record, I did the West Rib route and I drank less than half a liter, so I was thinking that one liter would be enough for the record. I take the gel and one bar in case of needing more food, but I didn’t use the bar.”
Last summer Jornet set new records for going up and down the famed 15,781-foot Mt. Blanc in Chamonix, France (about 25,000 feet of elevation gain and loss in 4 hours, 57 minutes), and the iconic 14,692-foot Matterhorn (roughly 16,200 feet of ascending and descending in 2 hours, 52 minutes) on the border of Switzerland and Italy. In 2010, he broke records for running up Tanzania’s Mt. Kilimanjaro (5:23:50) as well as the roundtrip record (7:14:00).
Later this summer, Jornet is hoping to summit Russia’s Mount Elbrus (18,510 feet), which was unsuccessful in 2013 due to bad weather, and Aconcagua (22,841 feet) as a continuation of a project known as “The Summits of My Life.” Jornet hopes to conclude the project in 2015 with the ascent and descent record attempt on the world’s highest mountain, Mount Everest (29,029 feet). By breaking the longstanding records on those peaks and winning as many races as he has, Italian journalist Giulio Caresio says Jornet is “in all likelihood the strongest and most versatile endurance athlete of his generation.”
Jornet wrote an autobiographical book of his adventurous life called “Run or Die” in 2012 and its been translated into nine languages.
This year’s Hardrock 100 is stacked with talent, with runners from 26 states and more than a dozen countries, including past men’s champions Seb Chaigneau (2014), Julien Chorier (2011) and Jared Campbell (2010) as well as previous Hardrock runner-ups Dakota Jones and Joe Gray and other ultra champion runners like Tim Olson (U.S.), Adam Campbell (Canada) and Tsuyoshi Kaburaki (Japan). On the women’s side, two-time defending champion Darcy Piceu is back, but so are Diana Finkel, who won Hardrock four times from 2008-2011, and longtime Hardrock veterans Betsy Nye and Betsy Kalmeyer.
Although challenging the Hardrock course record for the clockwise direction (23:23, Kyle Skaggs, 2008) depends on trail conditions, the weather and possibly how fast the lead group runs, most believe the race is Jornet’s race to lose.
“It’s always an honor to be running in a race with Kilian,” says Adam Campbell, who is running Hardrock for the first time. “He’s a special athlete, for sure. He’s done some amazing things and really gained a lot of exposure for trail running and ultrarunning.”