100-mile state of mind | a Kilian Jornet story

“Why am I here? Come on, just stop. Just stop!”

The path of least resistance can be a tempting one — even for an ultra runner of Kilian Jornet’s calibre. It’s the trail-side siren serenading the loneliness of arguably the greatest long-distance runner of them all. That’s part of the fascination.

“No. No! Come on, let’s continue. Let’s continue."

Humans are intrinsically wired to look for the easy way out. We also possess an inherent need for motion. These two instincts lock horns when a foot race stretches to 15 hours, 20 hours, and beyond. “This internal fight is very interesting, and it’s part of the beauty of the 100-mile distance, I would say,” says Kilian. “There are many moments when it’s so painful. And there are moments when it’s very boring too — when you just want to stop. You want to stop. You want to relax. You want to do other things rather than thinking about another step, and another step. But that’s part of the challenge and part of the beauty — it’s the monotony."

The ‘hundred miler’ is the feather in the cap for most ultra runners. 100 miles, roughly 166 kilometers. Usually on trails and over and around mountains. Regularly taking the athlete through the night — and through the wringer both physically and psychologically. They are long, tough, and intimidating. At iconic races like UTMB, Hardrock 100, and Western States, the lauded Catalan has transitioned from wunderkind to sage since his successful hundred-mile debut in Chamonix in 2008. A kind of apprenticeship in attrition. “A couple of years ago, if I was going to run a hundred miles — even if I was in really good shape — I would never know how destroyed I was going to be or how the legs would be.” These days the distance is more like an old foe that he respects but doesn’t fear. “Now, the distance doesn’t scare me — it’s just a long day and nothing more than that. I think it’s very interesting how we change. Now I know that my body will handle it, and it can be slower or longer if I have problems. Now it feels like something normal — it’s not exceptional — it’s a very different approach.”

‘Something normal’ is a very Jornet thing to say. Those who know Kilian know how he downplays his achievements. His off-trail persona is quiet and unassuming —and he’s incredibly modest and approachable for being ultra running’s undoubted star. But like any great athlete, inside lurks a competitive animal that has redefined how hundred milers are raced. “No emotions, that’s the goal. You spend energy on emotions. When you make decisions, emotions are the main things that make youchoose one thing or another. Which is super cool in life, but when you’re racing, it’snot the best approach.” It took a long time for him to learn, but these days in-race emotions are almost used like fuel, while mentally — rationality is the name of the game. “I try to enjoy the emotion — whether it’s pain, anger, enthusiasm, or satisfaction. Absorb them, because they are beautiful to feel, but don’t let them decide your decisions. I try to use reason more than the emotional side. I try to be cold-blooded during a race. Separate what you are feeling and how you respond to those emotions. It sounds easy, but it’s taken years to learn to separate the income and outcome of emotions."

It’s said that to run a one hundred-mile race is to replicate a lifetime. To experience its highs, its lows, its anger, and joy. And its occasional bouts of pain and apathy. “It doesn't matter how well prepared you are — as the hours build up, those feelings will arrive. You can’t really ignore them and try and think of other things — you’re not in the flow.” In those moments, the pre-iPad generation’s favorite long car journey pastime comes in useful. “It’s a lot of counting, I would say. Counting up, counting down. Like, ‘Ok, I am at kilometer 11, 12, 13...’ or ‘I have 70km left, 60km, 50km...’ Counting up. Counting down. Counting steps. Counting calories. Counting the things you see...‘ok, now I have three rivers left!’ I don’t have mantras, but it could be other things like motivational sentences, focusing on your breathing, or looking at the landscapes. Whatever it is, it’s just to have something else for the mind to focus on.”

Following a five-year 100-mile sabbatical, earlier this year, Kilian ran an under-the-radar hundred-mile race in Skåne, Sweden. Treated purely as a training race, it was “about trying new products, experimenting with 100g of carbs per hour.” He followed that up by returning to Silverton, Colorado, for the Hardrock 100 last month. The same race he famously won in 2017 after dislocating his shoulder in a fall after just 13 miles, completing the remaining 87 miles — 138km — with his arm in a makeshift sling.

This time, in the beautifully brutal race through the San Juan mountains, he ran nearly the whole race in the company of his friend and perhaps greatest ultra rival, Francois D'Haene. Another way that helps while away the hours. “It’s just nice to have the company because you share the responsibility for setting the pace or the tactics. In the hard moments, you try and stay with each other — it’s nice. It’s easier to handle the ups and downs.” A push on the final climb saw Kilian pulling away tow in and reclaim the course record after 21 hours and 36 minutes of racing.

A reacquaintance with UTMB awaits, although the frenzy and weight of expectation that accompanies his return are carried lightly on his shoulders. “I don’t think the hype affects me a lot now. You know how you’ve been training — it’s not like if you get more excited, you get stronger. You’re excited because you want to race, not because it allows you to do more than what you trained for.”

As always with Kilian Jornet, the attraction lies somewhere a little deeper, cerebral.“It’s like you’re in a bubble — you’re somewhere else. That state is very, very interesting about the long-distance events,” he says. “Your body is moving towards one direction, and your mind is on another path — moving in another way.”

Words by Robbie Lawless | Photos by Viktor Brittsjö & Herman Reuterswärd