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Photograph by Suunto

Ultra Trail Runner Kilian Jornet Burgada on Risk, Sky Running, and Disconnecting

Spanish ultra runner Kilian Jornet Burgada did not run last night’s The North Face Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, though he has won it three times (2008, 2009, and 2011). He is here in Chamonix, France, base camp for the decade-old race. The 24-year-old champion sky runner and ski mountaineer has been storming through records and across finish lines of ultra trail races around the world. We caught up with Kilian on his recent records, sky running, and how he relaxes.

When did you realize you were far better than the average person at moving fast in the mountains?

Kilian Jornet Burgada: I’m not better than other people. The mountains are my home, so I’m more at ease in the mountains than in cities. I live and was born in a mountain hut at 2000 meters at Pyrenées, and we went climbing mountains or skiing with my parents every weekend and holiday. After the school, we didn’t  watch TV or rest at home, my sister and I were playing in the forest or mountains.

How did you get so good at being so fast? Is there something different about your physiology than the average  person?

K.J.B.: No, maybe they’re some small differences in genetics, but it all is work. I have spent years  in the mountains to adapt my vision and feet to run there. Sure, with the training my VO2 max is growing to 92ml/min and also the acclimation to altitude, but it’s still all about working.

You are knocking off a lot of speed records these days, including the upset on the Grand. Is breaking records what motivates you?

K.J.B.: Breaking a record doesn’t motivate me. I want to go fast in the mountains, without assistance, without help. Just me and the mountain, to explore my capacities, the “animal” capacities, not technologic or equipment capacities. I don’t like to break a record if they’re persons to give me water or give me gear during the race. I like if I need to drink, I will in the rivers and take everything I need with me….

Are you able to also appreciate nature’s beauty while you flash through the mountains?

K.J.B.: I enjoy a lot landscapes, I run fast, yes, but my technique permits me to look not at the trail but around, and I stop a lot of times, in lakes, in summits…we need to not make noise, to be quiet to hear and understand nature.

You lost a dear friend and mentor on the Mont-Blanc massif this summer—and you were there. Did that make you question what you do and the risks you take?

K.J.B.: On this day we took no risks. There are days when you take so many risks, and you feel stupid, and nothing happens. Messner says mountains are not fair or unfair, just dangerous. It is true. We know they’re risky, and that maybe we will lose our lives there. But we do not stop for this reason, because life is about keeping dreams. The more bad experiences you have in the mountain, more you feel unsafe, more you pay attention when you’re there. But you continue to go.

You are also a champion ski mountaineer. Do you miss the speed of skiing down when you are running and climbing?

K.J.B.: I spend six months skiing and six months running. At the end of summer, I miss skiing and I want snow, cold. Then the contrary at the end of winter. It is a great balance. I feel happy in the mountains, and I like to enjoy the conditions, if its with snow, with skis, if not, by foot.

What training advice do you have for athletes who want to be more like you?

K.J.B.: Don’t try to be like some other person. Just try to be yourself. Everybody is different. It’s not a secret, but work hard, not just when is sunny. Train  when it is raining, snowing, cold, when you feel tired…and know your body, heard at you.

What advice do you have for keeping your mental focus during these long endurance events? 

K.J.B.: The mind is the strongest muscle of our body. In long races it is important to make short goals: “In one hour I will reach this check pont, or this summit.” Don’t think about the end….

Do you think sky running will take off in the U.S. like it has in Europe? 

K.J.B.: It is different. In America is more trail running, running in the trails, and less technical races. In Europe skyrunning is town-summit-town or long crossings by the shortest way possible, so you need to think where put you feet. It is more technical. In America there are mountains for this kind of race too, but it is a different philosophy.

Why aren’t you running the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc again? Especially since you are here?

K.J.B.: I love the ambiance and the spirit of this race. But this year I don’t feel motivated to do again. When you improve all that you want in one race it is important to find new goals.

What’s the best part of the whole UTMB experience?

K.J.B.: All of it. Crossing the villages with all the spectators smiling, being alone at sunset in big mountains—it is a internal fight, long distance permits you to know yourself better. And finishing is making a dream come true, because the winner is the person that thinks that is impossible, and try, and fight, and finish.

What do you do to relax?

K.J.B.: Leave my computer and my phone and go to mountains—not for training, but walking, climbing, and sleeping there…to just disconnect.