Two years ago at the 103-mile Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc trail running race through the French Alps, Kilian Jornet was moving at a fast pace with a hearty group of elite runners from Spain, France, Hungary, Portugal and the U.S., when suddenly Jornet dashed ahead on a long ascent up a steep mountain pass.
Forget for a moment that it was about 2:15 a.m., and that he and the other runners had already been on the course for about 30 miles through rain, snow and sub-freezing temperatures. Ignore for the time being that the UTMB has become the most competitive and, arguably, the most grueling running race in the world, and that the group he separated from consisted of some of the top ultrarunners in the world.
Instead, focus on this: after his quick burst to the top of the pass, Jornet, a 23-year-old phenom from the Catalan region of Spain, turned off his headlamp and stared in wonderment at a suddenly clear and star-filled sky, only to wait for the other runners to catch up. On the long climbs up subsequent mountain passes, he repeated what his competitors came to realize was not one-upmanship, but merely an act of pure joy and superior athleticism.
Each time he patiently waited for the other runners -- sometimes horsing around with young kids, talking in one of the five languages he speaks with other hikers, or merely scouring the landscape for edible mushrooms -- before joining the group at the back of the pack in a supportive role, similar to how a cyclist slides through the peloton of a bike race.
"What makes the race special -- this race or any race -- is being out there with the other runners," Jornet said after winning that race (for the third time) in 20 hours and 36 minutes. "I don't want to run alone, I want to share the experience."
But Jornet, now 25, is alone at the top of the world. Aside from being the best trail runner in the world, he's also at the leading edge of the emerging discipline of speed mountaineering, which uses a combination of trail running, rock climbing and scrambling techniques to pursue record-setting times up and down high mountain peaks.
This summer he set new records for going up and down the famed 15,781-foot Mt. Blanc in Chamonix, France, (about 25,000 feet of elevation gain and loss in 4 hours, 57 minutes) and the iconic 14,692-foot Matterhorn (roughly 16,200 feet of ascending and descending in 2 hours, 52 minutes) on the border of Switzerland and Italy.
By breaking the long-standing records on those peaks and winning as many races as he has, Italian journalist Giulio Caresio said Jornet is "in all likelihood the strongest and most versatile endurance athlete of his generation."
Jornet, who has won nearly every type of mountain running race, has also won multiple world championships in the niche sport of ski mountaineering. For the past two years, he's been pursuing a project he calls "The Summits of My Life," which is essentially a personal challenge to set new records on eight of the world's highest peaks.
On his list for next year is 18,510-foot Mt. Elbrus in Russia, the highest peak in Europe, and, if it works out, 29,035-foot Mt. Everest in 2015. As ultrarunning slowly gains mainstream appeal in the U.S., Jornet is one of a handful of breakout stars that has emerged, along with Americans Anton Krupicka, Scott Jurek and Dean Karnazes.
"Kilian is an amazing athlete, no doubt about it," said Russell Gill, race director for the Sept. 28 Ultra Race of Champions 100K trail running race in Colorado, where Jornet will be running next. "I think Kilian's impact is two-fold: He's certainly a tremendous athlete, truly a unique talent. And secondly, the big change that he's brought about is moving the sport forward with the support and exposure he's getting."
There have been many record-setting trail running and mountaineering athletes over the past 50 years, but few have combined Jornet's crossover ability, Gill says. And the key to his emergence, Gill says, is the viral exposure he's gotten through stories, photos and videos on the Internet, and through a few mainstream media sources such as Runner's World and The New York Times.
Jornet's autobiographical adventure book, "Run or Die," has been published in 10 languages. Jornet's primary sponsor is French footwear and apparel maker Salomon, one of the leading brands of trail running shoes in the U.S., which has helped create online video series about Jornet's accomplishments.
"There have been similar talents in the past, but we're more aware of Kilian because of the exposure he's received," Gill said. "But I think that's all been very good for everyone -- for him, for the sports and for everyone associated with endurance mountain sports. We've all truly benefited, because his efforts have allowed people to do more things and understand what is possible."
Jornet is the favorite to win the Ultra Race of Champions, a 62-mile point-to-point trail race over the rugged terrain between the mountain resort towns of Breckenridge and Vail. The race, which is open to both elite and recreational runners, is doubling as this year's Skyrunner World Series Ultra Championship, the culmination of a series that also included races in Spain, Andorra, France and Utah, and will have many top international and American runners chasing part of the $20,000 purse.
Jornet has already made his mark in the U.S., setting a new record for running the 165-mile Tahoe Rim Trail in 2009, winning the Western States 100-mile trail race in California in 2011, claiming victory in Colorado's venerable Pikes Peak Marathon last summer, as well as setting a new record (since broken) for running up and down Wyoming's 13,770-foot Grand Teton.
"He's human and he puts work into it, but he's a pretty special talent and he's quite the competitor," said Jonathan Wyatt, a six-time world mountain running champion who represented New Zealand in the 1996 and 2004 Olympics. "He's not unbeatable, but he's proven to be very hard to beat."
While Jornet is a finely tuned mountain athlete with an enormous aerobic engine and an astounding 89.2 VO2 max (a measurement that indicates his ability to efficiently process oxygen during endurance events), extremely powerful legs and amazing agility on technical mountain terrain, none of those things are what sets him apart as an athlete or a person.
More than the competitive battles of racing or the rush of zipping up and down a mountain in a quest for a record time, what fuels Jornet is his pure love of being in nature. As simplistic or ridiculously Euro-centric as it might sound, it's anything but disingenuous.
His mother was a mountain guide and his father was a ski instructor, and they taught him to respect and connect with the natural world long before he had any inkling of his world-beating endurance talents. Run with Jornet and you'll see him stop to feel the texture of a tree's bark, smell wildflowers or quietly watch water trickle over rocks.
Although fiercely competitive when he's on the move, he's a gentle soul with a deep appreciation for the mountains.
"To me, being on a trail is about feeling the mountains, feeling the strength and the power and just being a part of that," said Jornet, who says he has no interest in running traditional road races.
"Racing on the roads in a big city, to me, that is not running. To me, running means moving with the mountains and feeling the mountains move."