Kilian Jornet: Winning Isn’t About Finishing First or Beating Others. Running Is an Art.

In his book Run or Die, Kilian Jornet shares his passion for mountain running, offering a fascinating world rich with the beauty of rugged trails and mountain vistas.

This excerpt from the book shares how Jornet thinks about running–and why he so often will stop to enjoy the scenery, chat cheerfully with his competitors, and stop to help fellow runners who are waylaid on the trail.

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.

Kilian Jornet Run or Die English edition VeloPress ROD

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.

We have been running in single file for some time, and no one wants to go on the attack. Tarcis takes the initiative and is leading the group at a very fast pace. I’ve positioned myself immediately behind him in order to react as quickly as I can if he decides to make a move. I have two cards to play: the first is to attack down the side where there are huge boulders and, using my technique, fire off 3 miles from the finish line, which would give me some margin to play with. The second is to start my attack later, on the last downhill slope, just under 2 miles from the line. While I’m thinking about what might be the best strategy, Tarcis starts accelerating, making it increasingly hard to keep up the pace, and we start to fall a few yards behind. He speeds up and looks to be making his definitive spurt. He is leaving Robert and César behind. Perhaps now is the time for me to attack. . . . I look behind. They look as if they have accepted defeat. I am just about to change pace in order to pass Tarcis when he falls down in front of me. He had been taking too many chances on the descent, and his legs failed to keep up with his brain. I brake abruptly, look down, and give him my hand.

“Are you all right? Have you hurt yourself?” I ask.

“Shit! I’m fine, I’m fine,” replies Tarcis, getting up.

As he does so, I hear those chasing us make a spurt. My first strategy is in tatters. I will have to wait for another opportunity to go on the attack. In the meantime, the four of us run together. I have few options left. We will reach the finish in just over 12 minutes, and though I am a runner who likes to control a race from the front and wait for the right moment to attack, I prefer to do that well before the finish in order to have more than one option if my opponents attack again. Now I will have to lay everything on a single card, and it will have to be the right one.

I feel Robert putting the pressure on behind me. I can feel his desire to overtake me. He has the strength to do so, and I don’t have what I need to make a spurt myself. I must wait for the signal, for intuition to tell me now is the time and for my strength to flow back all at once.

Robert accelerates. I can’t see or hear him, but I know he is making a move. I grit my teeth to finish a short climb and start downhill. Then I attack, speeding up and clearly stunning the others. As I pass, out of the corner of my eye I see Robert turn to look at those chasing him, and I register a tiny reaction that now becomes crucial: His eyes are no longer full of fire; they are small and have lost their brightness; the finish tape they want to smash through has vanished from their view. That tells me he is defeated, and I accelerate even more.

I never know when to go on the attack. It is in that tenth of a second that the future of the race, victory or failure, will be decided. It is a moment you cannot plan; intuition must drive you to make a decision. An overconscious reaction will never come to good. If you plan it too early, you will certainly pay for the excess effort, and if you leave it too late, you will lose. You have to make good use of the surprise element. Find the key moment. This moment to change pace and go for the tape will always be the moment when the balance between self-confidence, which tells you can do it, and its absence is shattered. You have to feel the fear that you can’t do it in order to overcome it and launch into proving which of the two is right. And you must allow intuition to tell you when that moment has come, allow instinct to compel you forward, to tell you, “It’s now or never.” I’m a rational athlete; I enjoy analyzing races, planning them in advance, imagining how they will develop, dreaming them and rehearsing them in training, broadcasting them via imaginary commentators in my head. Sketching the outlines for the screenplay. I think I almost find writing that series of decisions in my head more satisfying than carrying them out for real, given that the screenplay we mark out is never respected, that there are always surprises. That is what makes competing so exciting, what makes it magical and turns it into an art—being able to follow the right impulse, knowing the one powering you into the lead is the right one, and keeping hold of it.

Life outside the race doesn’t exist at such moments. The race is life, and it stops when you cross the finish line. An afterward doesn’t exist; you can only think about getting there as quickly as possible. You don’t think about the consequences the effort you are making might bring, the knocks or injuries awaiting you, because nothing else exists after the watch has stopped. Because the life we have created is at an end and we are left searching for a new one to create.

My legs can’t stand the pressure; my breathing stops with each step, tries to minimize each impact. I’m not thinking about anything; my mind is blank. I only follow the sequence of emotions that I want to experience again. And as more come to mind, my legs accelerate and my heart beats faster. Seemingly out of control, they hurtle between rocks and undergrowth, but with each step they know exactly where they must go, where they must direct their strength. There are no feet, legs, or knees in reserve; there is no strength to retain. My body is at peak speed and my mind at the peak of concentration so as not to fall at every step.

I reach the asphalt, 100 yards, a bend to the right, and I look behind me. Nobody is in sight. And I have that feeling again.

But what does it mean to win? What is the real victory? When I cross the finish line, what is it that makes my hair stand on end or makes me feel that my feet are afloat, makes it so that I can’t suppress the need to cry, want both to run on and collapse to the ground? What makes me react inside this bubble? The real victory isn’t the act of smashing through the tape and crossing the finish line; it’s not seeing your name first on the list or standing on the highest step on the podium. None of that can make your legs shake with fear and excitement. Victory, the real victory, is what is deep down inside each one of us. It’s what we can’t believe will ever happen despite all the training and will on our part, and yet it is what finally happens. Despite all the thinking and brandishing of calculators, after so many hours of preparation, after so many days of training, of telling ourselves that we can win, or simply finish the race, it is as if something in our unconscious is constantly telling us that it is impossible, that it would be too wonderful, too brilliant, too incredible for it to become reality. That what we want to achieve is only a dream. And when you cross the line, when you look behind and see that it is for real, that you are flesh and blood, and that what seemed possible only in dreams has become real, you realize that that is the real victory.

Kilian Jornet Run or Die English edition VeloPress ROD

Winning isn’t about finishing in first place. It isn’t about beating the others. It is about overcoming yourself. Overcoming your body, your limitations, and your fears. Winning means surpassing yourself and turning your dreams into reality. There have been many races in which I have finished first but haven’t felt that I was the winner. I haven’t cried when I crossed the line, haven’t jumped for joy, and haven’t been swept up in a whirlwind of emotions. I merely had to win the race, had to finish in front of the others, and before and during the race, I knew and was sure that I would finish first. I knew it was no dream and didn’t think for one moment at any point what it would be like not to win. It was too easy, like a chef who opens his restaurant each day and knows exactly how his steaks will turn out. There’s no challenge, no dream to wake up from. And as far as I am concerned, that isn’t winning. On the contrary, I have seen big winners, individuals who have overcome themselves and have crossed the finish line in tears, their strength gone, but not from physical exhaustion—that is also there—but because they have achieved what they thought was only the fruit of dreams. I have seen people sit on the ground after crossing the finish line of the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, and sit there for hours with blank looks, smiling broadly to themselves, still not believing that what they have achieved isn’t a hallucination. Fully aware that when they wake up, they will be able to say that they did it, that they succeeded, that they vanquished their fears and left behind dreams that they had turned into something real. I have seen individuals who, though they have come in after the leaders have had time to shower, eat lunch, and even take a good siesta, feel that they are the winners, and they wouldn’t change that feeling for anything in the world. And I envy them, because, in essence, isn’t this why we run? To find out whether we can overcome our fears, that the tape we smash when we cross the line isn’t the one the volunteers are holding, but the one set in that place inhabited by our dreams? Isn’t victory being able to test our bodies and minds to their limits and discover that they have led us to find ourselves anew and gradually to fulfill our dreams?

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 In his book Run or Die, Kilian Jornet shares his passion for mountain running, offering a fascinating world rich with the beauty of rugged trails and mountain vistas.

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