Killian Jornet is one of the greatest athletes of our time. He is a sky runner, a trail runner, and a ski mountaineer. He is a winner, and a record holder. He is not the greatest storyteller of our age.
Above the Clouds is Jornet’s third book. It is a lightly structured collection of musings and stories which do not make for the greatest reading experience. Some of his stories feel like dead ends, loose threads are left dangling, and there are some peculiar turns of phrase which, in fairness, may be due to translation.
I do not intend for these posts to turn into full reviews. Instead of telling you whether I like a book or not, I want to run you through where the book took me; to express what thoughts, feelings, and mental side passages that it dragged me down, and although I think the style and structure of this book could have done with a little remodelling before publication, it was still thoughtful and evocative enough to spark some engaging debates inside my head.
Jornet is a dedicated long time lover of running, the mountains, and winning competitions in both. From a young age he was searching for an edge, forgoing partying with his friends to train and experiment with techniques which would lend him an upper hand. One such tale has Jornet going days on end without eating, only drinking water, whilst he continued his training. This story ends with Jornet passing out after drinking an orange juice at a party that his friends managed to drag him to, as he was justifiably more pliable in such a depleted state. Jornet by no means suggests any reader undertake his experiment, but the fact that he even attempted it makes for a useful guide to the kind of man, and athlete, that he is.
With such a strong foundation of sacrifice and excellence (and genetics, probably) it is no surprise that Jornet has excelled on trail, and on the mountains, and that he has become one of the more famous names in what was once a fringe sport. Consequently, he has been subjected to the rigours of celebrity status. Jornet’s insights on this subject are the most interesting of the book. The growth of a sport would perhaps be assumed to be a good thing, but Jornet sees the otherside. He sees that with increased public/media attention comes an increase in personal branding. What was once the burden of politicians and popstars has crept into the lives of players of football, basketball, tennis, sprinter, marathoners, ultra runners…
More worryingly, this burden is not only reserved for dominant forces such as Jornet, but everyone.
Included you, probably, as having any social media presence at all requires a level of personal cultivation which simply hasn’t existed up until this point in history.
This growing weight leads Jornet to contemplate faking an accident in the mountains to escape. Thankfully, he is convinced of the harm that this would do and doesn’t attempt such a thing, but I can see why the thought came to mind. Contrast the dueling euphoria and agony of Jornet’s sport with the frenzied attention of traditional and social media that precedes, and follows, his competitions. Which side is he in it for? There is only one answer. He makes it fairly clear that although he likes winning and is pleased to be able to pay for his lifestyle with his sport, that the attention, the extras, the very book that I am read those words within, could be done without.
On reflection, although we may all strive to be as fast or strong as the best of the best, are we mere mortals not in some ways in a more enviable position than these sporting heroes? Even those far faster than me, but still noticeably slower than the likes of Jornet, are able to practise their passion without such boiling external pressure as those at the peak of the 1%.
Except, we have started to apply a version of that pressure to ourselves.
Strava, Instagram, Twitter, Youtube, erm… blogs, apply an extra force to our training which is ultimately unnecessary. There is a balance to be found though. These platforms are not intrinsically bad, instead their potential for negativity comes from the worth that we put in them. Strava, for instance, is a great resource for tracking your runs. This is useful, and allows you to chart progress over time. It can also serve a source of inspiration. I love that I can see what Jim Walmsely is up to on a Sunday morning. This is comparable with Instagram especially, and for a direct example I will point to the recent coverage of the Black Canyon 100k/60k from athletes and organisers alike. Their photos and videos made me want to get off the road and onto the trails, and that can’t be a bad thing.
Where things go wrong is when we put all our worth into how much kudos we got on our long run, or how many likes we get on the goofy reels of our post workout coffee. There’s nothing wrong with sharing those things in the first place, but if we spend the rest of our day stressing over why we’ve not got the numbers we wanted, that’s a problem.
Killian Jornet didn’t start running and climbing to become a professional. He did it because he loved it. Whether we’re talking about training, or about Instagram, Strava, Twitter, Facebook, or whatever the hell comes next, there’s a lesson there.