Excerpt: An Ultrarunner Shares What It’s Like To Race Your Idol

In this excerpt Run or Die, ultrarunner Kilian Jornet looks back at his first major race and what it was like to race against an idol.


*Republished with permission of VeloPress from the book Run or Die by Kilian Jornet.

As a world champion ultra-runner and ski mountaineer, Kilian Jornet has conquered some of the world’s toughest races. Among his many feats, he holds the world record for running up and down Mt. Kilimanjaro. In his new memior, Run or Die, he shares his passion, inviting readers into a fascinating world rich with the beauty of rugged trails and mountain vistas, and the pulse-pounding drama of racing. In this excerpt, Jornet shares his first race experience against his idols.

I recall the words of Jordi, my trainer. Running is an art, he said, like painting a picture or composing a piece of music. And to create a work of art, you have to be clear about four basic concepts: technique, effort, talent, and inspiration. And all this must be combined in dynamic equilibrium. You must have perfect control of technique and avoid superfluous movements that don’t help drive you forward and only waste energy. You must husband your movements, care and protect them. Every runner has a natural way to run that he must follow and perfect. There are runners who take big strides and runners who prefer small steps. There are runners who run with their head erect and runners who stoop. There are runners who hold themselves in reserve and runners who attack from the very first. There is no way of running that can be imposed on everyone. There is no perfect way for every runner, but everybody has his perfect way of running. We discovered mine: It is running in step with nature, trying to communicate through my steps what nature is communicating to me. Not leaving a single trace on the terrain where I’m running, trying to be as silent as possible. Running as if I were floating over the path so that the earth hardly feels my feet brushing over its stones. Running and adapting to the terrain, taking small steps when running or big strides when walking up steep slopes, or trying to transform downhill stretches into a flowing dance between my body and the terrain, though never straining. Taking steps that flow naturally, as if they were an extension of that terrain.

From the day we first met, Jordi has always said that I have a gift for this sport, that my genetic makeup is perfect. But I’ve always been reserved and was never convinced that was true. I can remember the first ski event I won in an adult category. I was in my last year as a junior, and to reward my good results, the International Ski Federation took me to the European Cup. My eyes lit up when I saw that my idols—Florent, Manfred, Dennis—were there, and I could hardly believe it when I lined up at the start with them next to me.

The race started off at a very fast pace, and I was immediately left in no-man’s-land between the trio of favorites who were 40 or 50 seconds in front and the group in pursuit that was a minute behind me. All of sudden, on the last climb, I joined the leading trio. “What’s happened? Why have they stopped?” I wondered. “Why are they waiting for me?” I couldn’t grasp the fact that I had caught up with them. I was completely at a loss for a few minutes. How could I possibly be with them? My body was numb. I couldn’t stop thinking about how I was now running alongside my idols, the real people in those photos that filled my folders. When my head started to function properly and I recognized the real competitive situation I was in, I didn’t hesitate for a moment: I overtook them and went on the attack with all the energy I could muster. I continued to wonder, Why don’t they come after me? Why do they lag behind me? I couldn’t understand, but I pressed on to the finish line, where I hugged the team selector, crying and jumping for joy, unable to believe that I had beaten Florent, the best Swiss runner, whom I partnered with years later in various races and who became the closest of friends.

However, as Picasso said, inspiration exists, but you have to work at it. Jordi and Maite always told me that talent and genetic makeup are useless without hard work. We must work constantly throughout our sporting lives. From the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep. No holidays or days of rest. It is the labor of an artisan, where artist and work are one and the same. It is work morning and afternoon, on leisure days, in good weather, and on trips to discover new valleys or to share training with friends. But there are also many days when the weather is bad, when you run in heavy rain, when it is cold or muddy, when your body is tired and you just want to stay in bed. When you get up and feel like staying in the warm and watching a movie, drinking tea, but must go out and battle against wind and water. There are also many days of solitude, of more of the same, with only your iPod for company and a few wild animals that watch you from their dens as you run uphill and down.