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Kilian Jornet Is Mortal

The mountain running superstar attempted a new record, and it didn’t go great.

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Kilian Jornet is quite possibly the best mountain and trail runner of all time. The 33-year-old Spaniard, now based in Norway, has won races like the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc, the Hardrock 100, the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, and the Pikes Peak Marathon. He’s a six-time champion of the SkyRunner World Series, and is known for running exposed, knife ridge terrain at dizzying speeds, as well as his “Summits of My Life” project and film. He’s also one of the world’s best ski mountaineers.

On November 27, 2020, Jornet took on a new challenge: Running around a flat, 400-meter track in Norway for 24 hours in attempt to break a distance record (188.68 miles) set by Yiannis Kourous in 1987.

Jornet’s effort took place in Måndalen, Norway, on November 27, and started well. He averaged 6:52-minute miles for the first 10K, and ran the first 26.4 miles in 3:02:23. But halfway through his 338th lap around the track, 10 hours, and 22 minutes and 83 miles into the effort, he started experiencing dizziness and chest pains that sent him to the hospital.

We caught up with Jornet while he was recovering from home in Norway.

Women’s Running: First of all, I hope you are recovering OK! Sounds like a scary day with the chest pains and dizziness! Did they give you a diagnosis? Or, do you have thoughts on what it might have been?

Killian Jornet: I’m fine, thanks for asking! Doctors didn’t find anything wrong, but we will do some more tests to know what could have happened.

WR: How was your training leading up to the attempt on the track, and can you talk about the different demands on the body that running flat terrain—and around a track, in particular—has versus mountain running?

KJ: This has been a year where I’ve learned a lot about my body, and especially that transitioning to flat running is not as easy as it looks!

Firstly, I thought I’d just do the same amount of kilometers and hours that I did in the mountains on flat. But I soon realized this was a mistake! I suffered some injuries on the tibialis and on the hip, because three hours of running on track are not the same as doing it in the mountains. I learned I had to reduce the number of hours I trained every week versus what I do for mountain running.

I’ve also worked to reinforce some parts of my body so they were ready to do the same movement over and over. Strides in mountain running change due to the terrain and also because it can be uphill, downhill or flat. But here, it was the same all the time! So I also had to change this!

WR: Can you talk a little about the mental toughness it took to complete 83 miles on a track, especially when you’re used to the constant beauty of alpine terrain, as well as the ever-changing terrain of mountain running versus 400 meters of flat track, over and over?

KJ: It hasn’t been the hardest part honestly. I already did 24 hours on skis last year and have done long challenges, so this isn’t the hardest part for me. It’s true that is hard to face the long hours of the night, but during the years I’ve learned a lot about this.

[Editor’s note: In 2019, Jornet set a record for the most elevation gained in 24 hours by skinning up and skiing down 77,000 feet of vertical.]

WR: Any other lessons you learned from either the attempt itself, or in training leading up to it, that you think apply to both yourself and maybe that everyday runners?

KJ: Yes! That’s what I actually like, doing new projects that allow me to learn new things. That is what keeps me going! I think that what I’ve learned the most is about nutrition. I’ve worked together with a young nutritionist and together we’ve built a fueling plan for the attempt. I don’t eat much, so I’ve trained my stomach so it was able to eat up to 100 carbohydrates/hour during the race. It’s been very interesting!

WR: What made you decide to attempt the 24-hour record on a track?

KJ: I am a person that doesn’t like to do the same thing over and over again. I like versatility, and I also like new challenges and to try things that I don’t even know if I will be able to do. I had been meaning to run on flat for a while, so I decided to give it a go!

WR: Will you try again?

KJ: Hopefully, but first I need to rest a few days!

WR: What’s next for you in 2021, and beyond?

KJ: I still don’t know, and it’s a bit hard to plan with COVID, but for sure there will be a lot of mountains in 2021.