“The important thing,” he said, “is moving.”
March 23, 2013 8:28 AM   Subscribe

Becoming the All-Terrain Human: [New York Times]
"Kilian Jornet Burgada is the most dominating endurance athlete of his generation. In just eight years, Jornet has won more than 80 races, claimed some 16 titles and set at least a dozen speed records, many of them in distances that would require the rest of us to purchase an airplane ticket. He has run across entire landmasses­ (Corsica) and mountain ranges (the Pyrenees), nearly without pause. He regularly runs all day eating only wild berries and drinking only from streams."
posted by Fizz (23 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
posted by nrobertson at 8:47 AM on March 23, 2013

Six and a half foot, 250lb me is envious of tiny humans with extreme physical endurance. Until they need to reach something in a high shelf, that is my domain.
posted by iamabot at 8:57 AM on March 23, 2013 [5 favorites]

He regularly runs all day eating only wild berries and drinking only from streams

And it might be said, it is time for him to get a check-up.
posted by uraniumwilly at 8:58 AM on March 23, 2013

Some say, he was named after this number.
posted by w0mbat at 9:43 AM on March 23, 2013

Great article, thanks.
posted by Cycloptichorn at 9:46 AM on March 23, 2013

He's like, a genius of the body and mind, maaaan. Pretty amazing.

I'm eating flapjacks with maple syrup and Kerrygold butter. I won't be running, but it's snowing outside and the carbs will probably help me with the shoveling. Oh hai high school kids who want to do it for me for a low fee...I guess I'll Meef.
posted by lordaych at 9:55 AM on March 23, 2013

Stay to the end when the writer describes going out to train with Jornet. That's the real oof moment.
posted by zippy at 9:58 AM on March 23, 2013

I run for fitness and pleasure and I like to think I'm in decent shape and willing to challenge myself. Finished a half, working on a full marathon. But I read stuff like this and I want to crawl into a cave with a bowl of pasta and hide.

posted by Fizz at 10:15 AM on March 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Runners who have served as pacesetters for him have told me with amazement how, when he was midrace at Lake Tahoe, Jornet didn’t run with his head down in focused misery but instead brushed the hairgrass and corn lily that grew along the trail with his fingertips and brought the smell to his nose, as if he were feeding off the scenery.

My jealousy of this man burns almost as much as my seasonal allergies.
posted by skrozidile at 10:23 AM on March 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

Thanks for the post. The shots of him descending like a mountain goat are some of the most memorable moments of the documentary Unbreakable. Salomon's done some high capture-rate videos of his running -- example.
posted by bread-eater at 10:24 AM on March 23, 2013 [6 favorites]

He reminds me of why homonids were so fearsome to gazelle on the Serengeti. Leopards might ambush you, but a homonid on your trail absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 10:31 AM on March 23, 2013 [4 favorites]

People like this make me believe in super powers.
posted by dersins at 10:56 AM on March 23, 2013

Man, I'm really getting what I deserve for linking to TvTropes.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 11:04 AM on March 23, 2013


tropelooping - to be stuck in a perpetual link loop at tvtropes.org

Pretty sure we can get this on urbandictionary.
posted by Fizz at 11:19 AM on March 23, 2013

Don’t you sweat? I asked. “Maybe a bit here,” he replied, touching the back of his neck.

Damn, I'm jealous. I can lose 2 - 3 lbs of sweat in an hour's run.
posted by octothorpe at 11:24 AM on March 23, 2013

But I read stuff like this and I want to crawl into a cave with a bowl of pasta and hide.

I had a similar feeling recently when I was out for a trail run, and some dude burned past me. I struggled to keep pace, and then fell back. For maybe a week after that, I was thinking "WTF am I even doing out there?" and then I realized that the answer was that I am trail running because I love it. Other people's physical abilities have ZERO to do with why I'm out on the trails.

I'm more than impressed with Kilian's abilities, but I refuse to be humbled by him. What I take away from his story is his infectious love of the mountains, and the fact that he's turning people like me on to the joys of trail running. I just hope that for everyone that's turned on, there's not one that's turned off because they think "I'll never be able to do that".
posted by sutt at 11:41 AM on March 23, 2013 [11 favorites]

Well said sutt.

I forget who said it first but I always remind myself:

"Race your own race."
posted by Fizz at 12:14 PM on March 23, 2013

Great comment, sutt.

Trail running is not a race. Trail running is running, on trails. It is its own reward. Some of my favorite moments on the trails are when I really get into a rhythm, and I'm just out in the middle of nowhere/somewhere, thump thump thump, just quietly moving, whishing through the landscape, and the only thought I have is I'm running. That's it. I'm alive, and I'm running. It's weird how awesome that feeling can be, and it has nothing to do with how fast I or anyone else is going.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 1:11 PM on March 23, 2013 [9 favorites]

He's a truly incredible person. It's really worth watching "Summits of my Life" (trailer here) - the documentary mentioned in the article. It's by Sebastian Montaz-Rosset who also filmed his amazing training videos for Salomon, Killian's Quest.
You can get it directly from the film-maker, here, which helps to support the project.
posted by tardigrade at 3:25 PM on March 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Killian beat me by almost twelve hours at Western States 100.

Anyway... I really didn't like "Summits of My Life" that much, despite my total and complete respect for Killian. He's a really fantastic ambassador for our sport. I felt like they really didn't capture his adventure very well in that documentary... just too many swirling helicopter shots. "Unbreakable," though, that movie is great.
posted by ph00dz at 8:33 PM on March 23, 2013

He's the first ultra runner I've seen with similarly built legs to mine...maybe I should be doing trail runs instead! I would just need to drop 40 pounds and double my v20max. Hmmm. Inspiring, though. There was an anecdote in Born To Run about a runner who always ran with her head straight back, smiling, taking in the scenery rather than focusing inward, and taking the time to remember to do that really has improved my distance running. It can be a joyful and meditative experience. The idea of running 100 hilly miles still breaks my brain, however.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 1:12 AM on March 24, 2013

Kilian is so amazing and so different it's making me wonder whether we understand the physiology of human exercise as well as we think we do.

His uniqueness showed itself too early for me to be comfortable attributing it to any kind of training or life experience:
Jornet was raised in the Cap del Rec regional park, where his father was a hut keeper and mountain guide and his mother a schoolteacher who liked to run and ski. “Mountains were his playground,” his mother, Núria Burgada Burón, told me. When Jornet was 18 months old, she took him on a seven-hour hike in the Pyrenees, and he never cried or fussed. Seven hours? She laughed. “Kilian is not normal.” At 3, she says, he completed a 7.5-mile cross-country ski race. “My mission is to make Kilian tired. Always, I was tired. But Kilian? No.”
His ability to take up oxygen is evidently unique:
Even among top athletes, Jornet is an outlier. Take his VO2 max, a measure of a person’s ability to consume oxygen and a factor in determining aerobic endurance. An average male’s VO2 max is 45 to 55 ml/kg/min. A college-level 10,000-meter runner’s max is typically 60 to 70. Jornet’s VO2 max is 89.5 — one of the highest recorded, according to Daniel Brotons Cuixart, a sports specialist at the University of Barcelona who tested Jornet last fall. Jornet simply has more men in the engine room, shoveling coal. “I’ve not seen any athletes higher than the low 80s, and we’ve tested some elite athletes,” says Edward Coyle, director of the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin, who has studied the limits of human exercise performance for three decades.
But it's really his failure to heat up and sweat which surprises me most:
Don’t you sweat? I asked. “Maybe a bit here,” he replied, touching the back of his neck.
. . .
Born into a Catalan family, Jornet grew up in the Spanish Pyrenees at 6,500 feet, and his gifts are literally in his blood. “When you are born and bred at altitude, you tend to have a higher blood volume and red-cell count for oxygen-carrying capacity,” which translates to better endurance, says Stacy Sims, a researcher at Stanford who holds a doctorate in exercise physiology and nutrition science. Years of daily running and skiing up mountains have further bolstered this advantage. This helps explain why Jornet sweats so little. During exercise, the bodies of very fit people quickly act to disperse heat by, among other things, vasodilation — expanding blood vessels at the skin’s surface where the air can cool the body. A body that sweats less loses less precious liquid from its circulatory system, a major factor in fatigue. In moderate temperatures, Jornet says, he can run easily for eight hours without drinking water.
But I was conceived, gestated, and born right at 6000 ft.; my mother was a regional champion sprinter and high jumper in high school; and I've been known on many occasions to turn lobster red and sweat heavily on sub-30 days wearing jeans and a T-shirt-- and even if I hadn't been sweating, I would have lost massive amounts of water in my hot breath anyway.

And it's in terms of waste heat-- or his lack of it-- that I'd pitch my tentative explanation of what's going on with Kilian

Human beings and other mammals have a special tissue the only function of which appears to be the generation of heat: brown adipose tissue, or brown fat; brown because of its very high concentration of iron-rich mitochondria, and highly vascularized because it requires so much oxygen.

Recently, it was discovered that brown fat derives not from the stem cells that give rise to ordinary fat (white adipose tissue), but from muscle stem cells, and it's been known for some time that for certain rare individuals in rare circumstances (under anesthesia, primarily but not exclusively) muscle cells can begin to act just like brown fat cells and generate massive amounts of heat-- a syndrome called malignant hyperthermia, which kills people by sucking way more oxygen out of the blood than the circulatory system can resupply.

I think all that might be necessary to characterize the essential difference between Kilian and the rest of us is to posit that for most people, muscles in the course of their normal activity generate considerable heat not as a side effect of motion, but as their near relation brown fat does, by mitochondrial metabolism decoupled from motion or other cellular necessities, and that Kilian's muscles do not have this capacity, or didn't turn it on for some reason (despite what I said above, I think very early life experiences could play a role in not turning it on).

This would make Kilian's muscles much more efficient at generating motion (and force!) than other peoples' for a given input of fuel and oxygen from blood flow, because they would not be wasting it by making heat, and would also make him heat up from exercise much less.

But why would the rest of us be stuck with such relatively inefficient and inferior muscles?

Well, it could merely be that because we're hairless and lose so much heat through our naked skin (especially as newborns and small children) that inefficient and overheating muscles were selected for because they helped to prevent hypothermia.

And this is definitely a reach (or what's a Metafilter for?), but the issue of hairlessness brings us around to something else that amazes me and has for a long time: that chimpanzees are so much stronger than us even though their average mass is somewhat less.

The figure that's usually bruited about is that they are five times stronger than us, and there is some dynamometer data that tends to back this up, but the hypothetical reasons that are usually adduced to explain it, such as greater adrenalin and muscle attachment points that give them greater leverage, have always seemed like pretty weak sauce, and I would find the whole thing more palatable if there was a plausible reason for our muscles to be less efficient than theirs.
posted by jamjam at 6:54 PM on March 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

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