People have a greater need to get out into nature, says the man at the forefront of a sport experiencing a surge in popularity
There is absolutely no denying the extraordinary and continued growth in trail running. With new events springing up on what feels like a weekly basis – and the more established races receiving unprecedented levels of interest – it would seem that more and more runners are looking to sample an off-road experience.
The superstar of the sport is Kilian Jornet, an unassuming Catalan whose abilities on the trails and mountains border on the superhuman. The reason he puts himself through such arduous challenges, however, is a fundamental love of discovering what he is capable of and placing himself at the mercy of jaw-dropping landscapes.
Jornet has seen the transformation of trail and mountain running first hand – indeed, a recent visit to the UK saw him setting a course record at the Salomon Glencoe Skyline race in the Scottish highlands, part of a weekend festival of running which is enjoying rising entry levels year on year.
— Salomon Running (@SalomonRunning) September 20, 2017
He insists the reason for the popularity surge lies largely with the fact that, with so many people now living city-based lives, the urge to exercise whilst remaining in touch with nature is a powerful lure that is proving hard for many to resist.
“It has changed a lot in the last 10 years and it has been growing,” says the 29-year-old.
“More people are living in cities and I think they have a greater need to get out into natural surroundings – and the sport feeds off those kinds of people.
“It’s like marathons and road running maybe 30 years ago, when participation was increasing a lot, and I think this is the same kind of movement – but added to it is the connection to nature and to the landscape.
“Like road running, there are the social and fitness aspects but with this kind of running you have to concentrate so much more, in a way. You need to be concentrated to run on a trail – you need to look at your feet or to look around – and I think that’s a plus and it attracts people.”
Jornet’s racing calendar is year-round and varied. From skiing to skyline racing – the discipline which is part running/part mountaineering – and ultra marathon races such as the Hardrock 100 in America, an event he recently won despite dislocating his shoulder in the early stages, there are few challenges which escape his attention.
When you consider that, earlier this year, he also climbed Everest twice within the space of a week – all without the aid of fixed ropes or supplementary oxygen – as part of the Summits of My Life project and it becomes clear why so many people believe he is the finest endurance athlete on earth.
It would be fascinating to see how he fared when coming down to earth and tackling a traditional road race.
It’s a thought which has entered Jornet’s mind, too, but he admits: “If I was to do one I’d want to prepare well, to spend some months running well and improving my technique and the muscles for that. But finding the time is hard. In winter I want to ski, do this, do that. If I were to do a 10km or a marathon then I’d want to prepare properly and I never seem to find the time for that.”
“It’s important simply to go out and gain the knowledge and the experience of running on trails or running on fells. It’s not a secret, you can’t go to the gym to improve these things you need to get out and get used to the terrain”
The lure of the mountains is simply too great. So what would his advice be to people who hear nature calling and want to start swapping tarmac for the trails?
“It’s important to take it easy to start with, to begin with short distances and to enjoy the journey of going up the distances,” says Jornet. “Start with 10ks, then 20ks, then go longer and longer over time.
“It’s important simply to go out and gain the knowledge and the experience of running on trails or running on fells. It’s not a secret, you can’t go to the gym to improve these things you need to get out and get used to the terrain.”
You don’t need to delve too far into Instagram to find images of athletes picking their way through stunning, mountainous scenery but, when it comes to venturing higher, Jornet urges caution.
“People want to have the nice picture or to be able to say ‘hey, I’ve done that’ but they want it today,” he says. “However, mountaineering or mountain sports demand time, a lot of knowledge and practice.
“I think it’s important to get a mentor, someone who has greater knowledge and takes you to do things safely. It’s step by step – begin with easy climbs and train safely, particularly climbing indoors, before you feel confident to go out scrambling on a mountain.”
He can certainly identify with anyone who is looking to explore, however. That’s the very thing which keeps him motivated, after all.
“Yes, it’s the feeling of discovery and trying new things, finding out how things can work and wanting to know what’s possible,” says Jornet. “Also, visually, travelling to different places. I’ve been able to enjoy the landscapes in Scotland, I’ve done some races in the US, China, South Africa…it’s amazing to have the opportunity to travel and visit all of these places.”
» An exclusive interview with Kilian Jornet can be found in Running Monthly’s trail running special, packed with features and product reviews. It’s out now with the October 5 issue of Athletics Weekly magazine