This piece was featured in issue #37 of Like the Wind Magazine. Words by Patricia Oudit – first published in French in Kiki – adapted from the original by Julie Freeman and Imogen Lees.

First the suspicion, then the revolution.

Fifteen years ago, a young Catalan runner shook up the then small world of trail running. Accused of cheating in the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (the first time he had entered the race), 20-year-old Kilian Jornet shook up the small world of trail running to the point of breaking its codes. After that, nothing was ever the same again.

Saturday, 30 August 2008. It is 3.26pm and 59 seconds. A slender silhouette in shorts and a black tank top rounds the final bend of the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) and grabs a Catalan flag. The crowd is jubilant, and not a little astonished: who is this anonymous runner – the youngest entrant registered in the race?

A voice on the microphone pierces through the celebratory hubbub: that of Catherine Poletti, co-founder of the UTMB with her husband, Michel. The result of the race has yet to be confirmed. There may be doubts surrounding its validity. The crowd is stunned, as if an explosion has torn through the mass of humans at the finish line.

Kilian Jornet – for this is the name of the unknown in black – may not have respected the list of compulsory equipment. Around his waist, a “fanny pack” (“bum bag” in British, or “banana” in French). After opening and dissection, it is established that the “banana” contains straps, although these are only suitable for binding half an ankle; a survival blanket, cut down to fit a garden gnome; a tiny fleece; a pair of nylon tights weighing only 10g; a windbreaker, remodelled in a brassiere style, a micro-headtorch and, at the bottom, an extra-flat, rolled-up flexible one-litre bottle.

Everything from the compulsory equipment list is present in Jornet’s bum bag… symbolically speaking. But perhaps the Catalan subtitles say: “Compulsory equipment, interpreted according to the criteria of ultra-lightness prevailing in the world of ski-mountaineering.” It is this parallel universe, where obsession with lightness of kit – and coming up with hacks to make it even lighter – have always reigned. This is the sport from which Kilian Jornet comes.

At the finish line, in front of the flower-covered balconies of Chamonix Town Hall, jubilation gradually fades, morphing into a surreal atmosphere. In years to come, the press will flock to the UTMB but on this day the media zone is sparsely populated. Journalists’ eyes meet, dumbfounded… flabbergasted. Ivan Thévenin, the promoter of trail running at Salomon, fumes and rages. Casting suspicion on his prodigy protégé, winner after 166km (including 9,400m of elevation gain and 10 passes to cross, six of which are higher than 2,000m), suggests a total lack of respect for the athlete who has just exploded through the 21-hour threshold – coming home in 20h56m59s when the average walker struggles to complete the same route in a week. We don’t know what to say. What to think. It doesn’t matter: the word “cheat” is voiced, the controversy is ignited. Pro- and anti-Killian factions will soon quarrel on specialised websites. What no one knows at this point is that this victory will forever change the face of trail running.

Although the Chamonix crowd very quickly embraced Kilian Jornet, the guides and other mountaineers were still resistant to the chills caused by the opening credits of the race. Never mind Vangelis and his Conquest of Paradise, which now resounds at 6.30pm on the last Friday of August as the runners set off: back then, the “true summiteers” made fun of their skimo (ski-mountaineering) counterparts. A couple of years later, when tighter attire and lighter hydration bladders started to replace heavier ski trousers and solid water bottles in the ski-mountaineering world, mountaineers gave skimo athletes the nickname “collant-pipettes” – loosely translated as “tight tights”, considering them barely fit to trample the cow pastures. However, some mountain guides were forced to revise their judgment. Not many years after that sixth edition of the UTMB in 2008, trail running guides dethroned mountaineers in terms of the high-net-worth clients they attracted.

“At the time,” summarises Julien Chorier, third that year (1h35m behind Kilian), “we didn’t know much about this environment. I discovered ultra running in May 2006 thanks to the Grand Duke race, which goes right in front of my house in Chartreuse. I’m seeing guys who are limping, who are not moving forward – and I am told that they are hitting the 80km mark. For me, the classic 42km marathon was already the extreme. I thought to myself: ‘It’s nonsense, it’s a crazy thing!’ Nevertheless, I got into the game and joined the off-road section of an athletics club in Chambéry a few months later. Off-road was [at the time] still a minority practice. In short, when I registered for the UTMB in 2008, apart from the sparse race reports from previous years, and an embryonic specialised press, there was nothing public.”

Let’s rewind a little further, back to the first edition of the UTMB in 2003. The press hadn’t exactly swamped the event and there were many fewer rules (and officials). Even in the second year, it was still possible to follow Dawa Sherpa (Nepalese winner of the inaugural event) on the trail without being bothered by regulatory spoilsports. During the following years, the race’s popularity begins its crescendo.

But the ultra trail explosion will be set off by the youngster, Jornet.

Let’s zoom in on Kilian. Apart from his family, his friends, his sponsor and aficionados of ski mountaineering and trail running (the boy was already a winner of the Pierra Menta skimo race, and European Skyrunning champion), few in that excited crowd in 2008 recognise the precocious intruder. The UTMB did the 20-year-old a favour. In 2008, a Google search of the surname “Jornet” does not yield 1,210,000 results in 0.47 seconds. Kilian – a noteworthy quasi-aptronym which means struggle in Gaelic – is therefore unknown not just to the general public, but also in the world of trail running. Even two years later, when he speedily glides on the Mer de Glace ice field for a photoshoot proving his phenomenal genetic agility in the mountains, the lack of crampons on his feet and his leaps (in sneakers) over the crevices make the roped guides scream; they don’t hesitate to scold the unconcerned youngster sharply.

The press release for the 2008 UTMB, issued a few hours before the start of the race, does not feature the name Kilian Jornet. The young Catalan is not yet part of the crème de la crème. To be fair to the organisers, even a well-polished crystal ball might not have foreseen the approaching culture shock and predict that a kid could win a race arguably aimed at his parents’ (or even grandparents’) generation. Indeed, Italian Marco Olmo had won the race during the previous two years at the grand old ages of 57 and 58.

In 2008, Kilian Jornet is a third of that age. During Olmo’s victorious years, when Kilian was 18 and 19, the youngster won the La Fully vertical kilometre. Very few “young people” took part in ultra trail racing – besides, Jornet was a sprinter, a climber… he wasn’t known for the multi-day mountain grind. Imagine Usain Bolt turning up at the London Marathon and challenging Eliud Kipchoge. It would be unexpected, to say the least.

That Friday evening, 29 August 2008, Kilian does not hide his “sprinter” tendencies. He sets off in rocket mode, in the lead from Les Contamines at 31km, 15 minutes ahead of his illustrious pursuer, Dawa Sherpa (who would finish second, a full hour behind Kilian). Kilian had timed everything and prepared meticulously, his intentions as clear as the waters of Green Lake. “I had never run more than a marathon,” he explains. “So thinking of running 160km was something that really intrigued me. I didn’t know how it was going to be.” Wanting to prepare in the most effective way possible, Kilian ran the route in advance.

Joan Solà, responsible for developing Kilian’s talent as his sponsor’s athlete scout (Solà was also marketing director at Salomon Spain at the time) explains: “He did the round over two days without drinking and without eating. That’s when he thought he could try to race it with minimal supplies. He had done the math: if you spend 30 seconds at each of the 20 checkpoints, you lose 10 minutes. I remember that his precise timing had upset the people at the checkpoints because no one had believed that he would arrive so quickly. Some were not ready to welcome him there. Kilian was obviously the only person to believe in his strategy, which was: ‘If I could run the whole route on race day, that meant that I could complete the lap in 19 to 20 hours.’”

As Kilian passes through those first checkpoints, rumours begin to spread quickly. The volunteers, astonished, exclaim: “He carries nothing!” implying he has no bag. From then on, suspicion taints Jornet’s race.

At the Les Chapieux checkpoint (50km) Dawa Sherpa is given to understand he can run with ease: the young Spaniard in front of him doesn’t appear to be carrying the mandatory kit. “I was told: ‘You are going to win’,” recounts the Nepalese runner. “But I didn’t care, I was racing! Also, Les Chapieux is still the warm-up part: anything can happen, the race has only just begun.” It was the same story with Julien Chorier. “Spectators were talking about this runner, who was a complete stranger,” Chorier remembers. “I was on my first UTMB, new to trail running, and very happy to be in third place. What made me smile is that behind me was Marco Olmo. I was already considered, aged 28, to be the youngster of the race. Most were 10 years older than me. Thereupon arrives Kilian…”

Saturday 30 August, 2am, Maison Vieille (74km). Metronomically, Kilian appears half an hour ahead of the most optimistic time estimates. Anne Géry, then UTMB press secretary, recalls having to wake the journalists up. “I will remember it all my life,” she says. “We saw this young man, very thin, absolutely cool, who was not on my files!” Kilian takes the journalists by surprise. Well… everyone except Quim Farrero, the Spanish photo-journalist from Revista Trail. He knows this 20-year-old “chico”.

By the halfway point, among the smells of camphor and pasta emanating from the Courmayeur gymnasium, the rumours about Kilian Jornet have swelled like a runner’s calf without a compression sock: all the talk is of cheating and potential disqualification.

Under-pressure race officials begin to check Kilian’s kit regularly. “From Les Chapieux, they started to do kit checks on me. Six or seven until the Col des Montets. And then again!” recalls Kilian.

For Joan Solà, who is present at most checkpoints, Kilian commits absolutely no fault. “His only sloppiness was to not run far enough from the checkpoints before emptying his water bottle. I told him to do that a little further away. [The resulting penalty, for receiving assistance outside a designated aid station, he waits out later at La Tête aux Vents.] Kilian reminisces about speaking to the race director. “On the phone, I am told: ‘You cheated. You don’t have the gear.’ I said: ‘But can’t you verify this, with all the checks you have done?’ But they told me that I was certainly going to be disqualified because of this matter of kit or escort… In fact, I found out later, one of the spectators at the Col de Montets had followed me on the road for 100 metres. When I learned this, I wanted to give up, but my team told me to finish the race. At that point I just wanted to get the hell out. I thought: ‘I’m going to stick to skyrunning, to those great races.’ I didn’t want to try and get into this ultra running world.”

Last bend. Kilian bursts into town, grabs the Catalan flag. He is lucid enough to understand the message blasting out of the loudspeakers. How does he feel at this precise moment? “Mostly stupefaction,” he remembers. “I did not understand. I thought: ‘What shit is this ultra trail sport, so closed in on itself?’ It’s a shame, because I really liked the race, the challenge, the sharing with the runners, the volunteers; I don’t think I was unpleasant with the controllers. In fact, I did not understand at all what it was: was it was a personal thing? But I didn’t know anyone on the ultra scene. Or was it because I came from other sports – ski-mountaineering and skyrunning? Well, even today I don’t understand…”

Meanwhile, race HQ fizzes with anticipation and uncertainty: will Kilian Jornet be allowed to claim victory? Jean-Claude Marmier, founder of the Military Mountaineering Group (GMHM) attached to the Military School of Mountaineering in Chamonix, proposes an investigation in order to respect the presumption of innocence. In the press room, embarrassment and unease dominate.

“The finish line crossed, Kilian was so angry he had trouble swallowing,” recalls Anne Géry. “I apologised for the situation. Then I asked him if he could attend the press conference and that I would have completely understood if he did not come. He answered me, very straight, proud: ‘Yes, I will answer all questions from the media.’”

The only perceptible mood swing shown by the Catalan occurs when Catherine Poletti approaches to congratulate and introduce him. He turns away. Then he goes through drug testing which, according to Joan Solà, feels as though it is never-ending. He is then summoned to race HQ, located in the town hall, by race management. Nathalie Ecuer, UTMB communications officer, provides the context. “There were Catherine and Michel Poletti, and our checkpoints manager. They started talking, standing in the hallway. Then they settled in one of the rooms to try to establish the facts. I watched Kilian, this kid who seemed sweet, kind, sincere; he did not understand what he was being blamed for. He was saying ‘No, I didn’t cheat: look, everything is there!’”

A series of exchanges worthy of a Vaudeville comic scene ensue:

Kilian: “Look, there is a jacket.”

Organisation: “Yes, but the jacket is cut down.”

Kilian: “Yes, but it’s a jacket.”

And so on, throughout his wardrobe.

“He seemed lost, but honest in his reasoning,” continues Nathalie Ecuer. “I felt sorry for him, that he was condemned without getting the benefit of the doubt. We had always had cases of proven cheating. Runners who cut between Courmayeur and Arnuva without going through the Bonatti refuge. Those who did it as a relay. The car has been used quite a bit too. But, here, we were in doubt.”

From this sort of summary trial, nothing emerges with clarity.

In fact, a press release issued on Saturday 30 August only reinforces doubts: “At only 20 years old and for his first ultra running trail race, the precocious Spaniard Kilian Jornet crossed the finish line of the UTMB 2008 in the lead, more than one hour ahead of the organisers’ forecast, completing the course in 20h56m59s. Nevertheless, and to guarantee the authenticity and fairness of the race, the release of the official results will be postponed until tomorrow, Sunday, following multiple complaints. The organisation will use this time to verify accuracy.”

Back in 2008, Facebook was only two years old. Had the incident taken place a decade later, the temporary discredit would certainly have gone viral. But even without rampant social media, the UTMB management is hauled over the coals.

“The verbal attacks against the organisation were very virulent: we were called names!” reports Nathalie Ecuer, although adding in their defence that “we took the full brunt of Kilian and his new-to-us habits of getting rid of the superfluous; we were not prepared. Our regulations were not specific enough at the time. Gradually, the regulations [were tightened]. All these changes have been made in the interest of fairness for all participants. The UTMB was not created only for the elite.”

For now, Kilian is exhausted: when Joan Solà takes his protégé to his hotel, Jornet can no longer walk. “I had to support Kilian so he could take a shower,” Solà remembers. Then it is time for the press conference. As promised, he does not shirk. He sits down in front of the microphone and answers questions wisely “without ever spitting on the organisation”, specifies Anne Géry. Kilian Jornet is such a UFO in ultra endurance that curiosity outweighs controversy. A few questions arise that could have been overwhelming for a 20-year-old kid. Yet Kilian, whose youthful face perhaps belies an inner confidence more suited to a mature veteran, keeps his cool, explaining the situation without trying to justify himself. Later he confides: “I have always been reasonable, rather calm. And then you think to yourself: ‘Well, it’s only a race at the end…’” And Joan Solà insists that “had they disqualified him, it wouldn’t have changed anything. Kilian is the kind of guy who knows what he’s done, what he’s worth. This was not his first misunderstanding.”

The press release of Sunday 31 August, entitled “The triumph of precocity” finally eradicates any remaining doubt. Kilian is totally cleared. “The race management confirmed this morning the victory of the Spaniard Kilian Jornet in the 2008 edition of The North Face Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc.” After such protracted process, a certain lack of professionalism will be pointed out: can one imagine a stage finish of the Tour de France, where one would cry “Doping!“ before even having made the riders pee into the cups?

That year, 2008, forever strained the relationship between Kilian and the UTMB. “I never had a good relationship with the race directors after that,” Kilian explains. “I remain cordial, but they are not my friends. I didn’t try to get an explanation, either. The European ultras – and the UTMB – were more in the style of hike-run-race, unlike what was happening in the United States. Olmo, Dawa or Vincent Delebarre are very good runners, but with a different philosophy. Me, I arrived with a sporting approach. This is perhaps what shocked, surprised.”

Jornet’s disturbance of the established order of the small world of trail running went on to revolutionise it.

“All of a sudden, the race regulations took up 20 pages!” jokes Julien Chorier. “This episode made us change a lot in our behaviour,” explains UTMB communications officer Nathalie Ecuer. “We took a new breed of runners – real competitors – into account. The big change focused on mandatory equipment – the list of which was considerably lengthened, but also clarified. For example, there was a ban on modifying clothes after they left the factory. We also imposed the minimum weight of the second warm layer, the dimensions of the survival blanket, the volume of water.”

Things being clearer, Kilian would come back to win during the following years, his ultra-light, jacket-style backpack duly filled – a model from which most manufacturers took their inspiration thereafter.

“Kilian has always been an equipment addict, very ingenious, very creative,” explains Joan Solà. “At 10, he was already designing running shoes. When he was younger in ski-mountaineering, he invented a system to carry his skis in front instead of behind, which allowed him to go faster. But the rules later forced competitors to carry their skis on the back. In a way, the same thing happened in Chamonix.” Kilian’s ingenuity continued to push legal limits. Joan Solà smiles: “Over the years, it has become a joke. When we talked about headgear, he would say: ‘And why not this bathing cap?’”

From the runners’ point of view, these changes have a few downsides. Dawa Sherpa criticises, in particular, the perverse side of regulations which, although intended to be more egalitarian, have become financially discriminatory. “Who has the means, as an amateur runner, to buy all this equipment?” Julien Chorier argues in the same direction: “I think that through its very meticulous specifications, the event has moved away from the original, [catering for] runners with a mountain culture, to go towards urban consumers of trail running. People [who are] not really autonomous at altitude. If Kilian can get away with a Barbie-sized jacket, most other runners can’t… On the Hard Rock 100 race, there is no mandatory gear. It is based on personal responsibility. But there are only 140 runners at the start, while there are 2,300 at UTMB. Organising a mass race, with the inevitable accidents, requires a precautionary principle, which we can also agree with.”

In addition to these new points of regulation, Kilian has performed a facelift on the slightly wrinkled face of ultra endurance sports: suddenly, young people have dared to set foot on trails with endless gradients. “The attractiveness of trail running has been boosted by Jornet,” admits Nathalie Ecuer. Julien Chorier adds: “After 2008, it was an explosion and a breath of fresh air: there were an exponential number of Japanese, Spaniards. Kilian made UTMB a reference event.” A Botox shot, coupled with professionalisation and internationalisation. As Kilian mentioned above, ultra trail running was, prior to his arrival, reserved for mountaineers.

Kilian Jornet arrived at the UTMB anonymously and became shrouded in suspicion. He left as an honourable world star. He arrived as an intruder and left a hero.

In the meantime, as Joan Solà points out, the UTMB has been repainted many times in the colours of Catalonia. In 2009, the 21-year-old won in 21h33m18s and joined the legend “the elder”, Marco Olmo – until then, the only one to have achieved the “double” in one of the toughest sporting events in the world.

In 2010 Kilian perhaps might have further expanded his list of wins, had the event not been cancelled owing to torrential rain. In 2011, the return of good weather also marked the Catalan’s comeback around Mont Blanc and the hat-trick, with a third victory in 20h36m43s.

So, Kilian, why go back there? The year after, and the following ones?

“I wanted to finish with a different taste in my mouth, to finish well,” Kilian says. “The first time, I failed to feel the emotions I had envisaged. Also of course, there’s a high level of competition, and the sponsors want you to attend, too – it’s a bit of all that…”

“Kilian is a competitor,” Joan Solà tells us. Coming back to win in 2009 and 2011 was a real challenge. He stopped when he felt he had done the hat-trick, and when it got too easy for him. He had no more motivation. After that, Chamonix became impracticable, there was too much notoriety. When he had to go somewhere, I acted as a bodyguard…”

In 2022, Kilian Jornet was victorious at UTMB for the fourth time, 11 years after his first win. He broke the record for the event, powering through the symbolic 20-hour ceiling with victory in 19h50m30s. He cemented (further) his status as a legend in the ultra trail running scene – and at the UTMB in particular.

Jornet, now 35, had said that he would not participate in the 2023 UTMB. However, in July, as this edition of Like the Wind was going to press, he announced that he did in fact plan to be present for the event’s 20th anniversary. Will he be celebrating a fifth victory in an event that owes him so much?

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