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The Long Run Book Club: Run or Die by Kilian Jornet

lhoward-artI asked my friend Julie to drive up to Colorado with me last summer, so I wouldn’t be alone with a six year-old and a nine month-old for 16 hours en route to the Leadville 100. Julie agreed because she is an extraordinarily compassionate person – and because leaving South Texas for the Colorado mountains in August trumps traveling 16 hours in a car with children (especially if you don’t have any children of your own and don’t know what you’re getting into.) Anyway, somewhere between San Antonio, Grand Junction, and my son’s last side-of-the-road vomiting stop, Julie pulled out her Kindle and asked if I wanted to hear Kilian Jornet’s book, Run or Die. I yelled, “YES!” so she could hear me above Ruby’s wailing. The following assessment of Kilian’s book is colored by the volume it had to be read at, the truck stop coffee I was guzzling, and the fact that Skyrunner’s Manifesto that starts the book off doesn’t really speak to me these days.

“….Because glory is the greatest, and you can either aspire to glory or fall by the wayside. You cannot simply not fight, not suffer, not die…. Now is the time to suffer, the time to fight, the time to win. Kiss or kill.”

Kilian Jornet is the best and most versatile mountain and ultra runner there is. He might be the best there’s ever been. One of my favorite Kilian quotes comes from Hardrock this year when he smashed the unbreakable course record and said something to the effect of “I was kind of tired the last three miles.” He’s in a class by himself.

Unsurprisingly, though, he is not the best writer there has ever been – and neither is whoever helped him write the book.

“Away from the few paths that cross the park, animals live peacefully, far from the dangers represented by modern man, where nature can breathe and reproduce without being choked by clouds of smog from big cities.”

“Sport and life are always about teamwork in which each person contributes their grain of sand to help the adventure reach a successful outcome.”

(I will not address the young love chapter. Sleep-deprived 40+ year-olds with screaming and/or nauseated kids in the backseat should never comment about the emotional drama of new love.)

Some of the writing’s awkwardness is surely due to translation.

“That scrap of hairy flesh couldn’t be mine! Good heavens! Then I got very gloomy.”

“…I really must have suffered a wholesale destruction of my neurons.”

“I enjoyed a normal childhood….[M]y parents lived in a mountain refuge…6,500 feet above sea level, on the northern slopes of Cerdanya, between the mountain frontiers with France and Andorra….Every evening before going to sleep, my sister, mother, and I would go out in our pajamas for a walk in the woods in the dark, without headlamps….By the age of 3 I had already climbed Tossa Plana, Perafita, and La Muga. By age 6 I had completed four Aneto summits, and at age 10 I crossed the Pyrenees in 42 days.”

I do not think the word “normal” means what you think it means.

I read the book again after Leadville to try to tease Kilian’s message from the stilted prose. I didn’t come away with much more than that he loves running in the mountains, mountaineering, and competition. He’s a tactical runner. He’s trained hard. It was difficult when he surpassed his idols. And he feels a sense of obligation to the people who support him. I don’t know, I feel like I could have guessed all that. Somehow Kilian’s voice just doesn’t come through, and the writing feels like a compilation of uninspiring platitudes.

Kilian’s running feats and accomplishments alone should have sufficed for inspiration. Certainly the description of his third place finish at Western States and his speed record up and down Mount Kilimanjaro were excellent.

“ And so I fly, leaping between great blocks of stone and dodging the zigzagging path. I’m going fast, very fast, and the barometer drops quickly. I’ve run down 3,200 feet in under 15 minutes, and as I leap between the rocks at Barafu Camp, some porters and guides shout out to me, scared that I am falling down the ravines. But I’m not falling; my feet and my body are dancing with the terrain… like a rock falling from a mountaintop and ricocheting down, seeking the most direct route.”

But you really don’t get a sense of how exceptional Kilian’s times and feats are. The chapters need some sort of benchmarks for comparison. An average hiker takes X days to hike up and down Kilimanjaro. An average runner takes X hours. The last FKT was…

These “normal human” points of reference would have made the chapters about his 168-mile FKT on the Tahoe Rim Trail and his crossing of the Pyrenees more impactful. As it was, if I wasn’t an ultrarunner with a sense of the distances, I probably would’ve been unimpressed – which is just Crazy. Kilian ran the Tahoe Rim Trail in 38 hours and 32 minutes, about seven and a half hours faster than the last FKT. Hikers often take nine to fourteen days on the route.

I met Kilian Jornet very briefly a number of years ago. His friendliness and humility were impressive. I think that humility doesn’t serve his autobiography well though. If you’d like to read something that really resonates about this extraordinary runner, read Becoming the All-Terrain Human by Christopher Solomon in the New York Times Magazine.

– Liza Howard

Talk Run or Die

  • If you read Kilian’s book, what did you think of it?
  • Any interesting aspects? Favorite sections? Opportunities to reflect…giggle?

[This article contains affiliate links to Amazon which costs you nothing and provides a small commission to us if you would purchase the book through our link. Any reflections are honest and completely our own.]

About the author

Liza Howard Liza Howard became addicted to ultra running belt buckles back in 2008 and now runs for New Balance and coaches fellow ultra runners. She also teaches for the Wilderness Medicine Institute and is a field instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School. For more information on Liza, check out the About page where you can learn about her coaching, trail running camp, and daily life musings.

One Response to “The Long Run Book Club: Run or Die by Kilian Jornet”

  1. on 27 Jan 2015 at 4:27 am Tatiana

    Actually I loved the style of the book (honest and naive and not too polished) and prefer it to the Christopher McDougall’s artificial works… it “feels” like Kilian (even translated) not dressed in too pretty colors.

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