Unfortunately for his competitors on the mountain running scene, Kilian Jornet has decided to take the sport seriously for once. That, at least, was the subtext of the mighty Catalan’s comments after he won the Sierre-Zinal trail race in Switzerland two weeks ago.
“The goal this year was to focus on training and see if it makes a difference in the performance,” Jornet said at the time. In previous years, an overcrowded race schedule had caused him to refrain from going “all out.” Before this season started, he announced that he would only be participating in the Zegama-Aizkorri “skymarathon” in Spain, Sierre-Zinal, and the Pikes Peak Marathon in Colorado. By focusing his energy on only three races, Jornet maintained that he would finally be able to “give everything.”
So far, the results have been telling. After handily winning Zegama back in early June, Jornet proceeded to break the course record at Sierre-Zinal, vanquishing reigning Western States champ Jim Walmsley in the process. Jornet’s time of 2:25:35 for the 31-kilometer (19-mile) course was almost four minutes faster than the previous mark, which has stood since 2003. Who would have thought that the world’s premier mountain athlete was holding back this whole time?
The real masterpiece, however, may be still to come. This weekend, Jornet has a chance at breaking Matt Carpenter’s longstanding course record for the Pikes Peak Marathon, which, as irunfar.com has recently suggested, might be the “most impressive feat in U.S. trail running.”
Now 55 years old and mostly retired from racing, Carpenter is the undisputed king of Pikes Peak, having won the marathon 12 times and the ascent-only race six times since his debut in 1987. (The Pikes Peak Marathon course runs from the town Manitou Springs, Colorado, which sits at 6,300 feet, to the 14,115-foot Pikes Peak summit and back down. The Pikes Peak Ascent, which typically takes place the day before, is the first half of the marathon course.) In 1993, Carpenter managed an unfathomable feat by setting records for both the full marathon and the ascent in the same race. Those times—3:16:39 and 2:01:06, respectively—have stood for more than 25 years and counting.
Jornet has raced Pikes Peak before. He won the event in 2012, though his comparably modest time of 3:40:26 was more than 20 minutes off of Carpenter’s record. However, that year Jornet already had a sizeable lead at the halfway point and may have decided to phone it in the rest of the way. Things might look a little different if he decides to throw caution to the wind and “give everything.”
Since 2012, Jornet has produced several unprecedented performances in the category of high-altitude running. He holds the course records for both the clockwise and counterclockwise iterations of the Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run, the lung-searing ultramarathon that starts and finishes in Silverton, Colorado, and has an average elevation of over 11,000 feet. In 2015, Jornet won the famous Mount Marathon race in Seward, Alaska, and set a course record on his first attempt. (The record would be broken again the following year by David Norris of Anchorage, much to the relief of Alaskans everywhere.) While the Mount Marathon course is only 5K—effectively a sprint for an ultra athlete—it also requires participants to run up a mountain and bomb back down, much like Pikes Peak. If anything, the longer the race, the more the conditions would seem to favor Jornet.
And yet, there are reasons to doubt that the Salomon-sponsored dynamo is going to be able to take down Carpenter’s record. For one thing, the National Weather Service currently predicts a high of 90 degrees for Manitou Springs on Sunday. Although the marathon begins at 7 a.m., it’s still likely to be a little toasty for a three-hour race.
Then there’s the fact that one of Jornet’s greatest competitive assets is his talent as a technical downhill runner—i.e. his aptitude for descending difficult, rocky terrain at a pace that would send most of us to an early grave. However, as Jornet himself acknowledged after his 2012 win, the Pikes Peak course is not particularly technical, thus canceling out an advantage he has at races like Mount Marathon, where the terrain is about as gnarly as it gets.
In order to have a realistic shot at breaking the Pikes Peak course record, Jornet will probably have to get pretty close to Carpenter’s 2:01 ascent split, a time that, over the years, has revealed itself to be so formidable that it’s borderline surreal. To reiterate, nobody (including Carpenter himself) has ever run that fast in the ascent-only race.
In a sense, Carpenter was a sort of proto-Jornet, a superstar mountain runner at a time when the sport was even more fringe-y and off-the-radar than it is today. Like the wiry Spaniard, Carpenter belongs to that freak subset of endurance athletes to have recorded a VO2-max over 90. For a few years, Carpenter was also traveling the world and running up mountains, as though possessed by some strange mania. And yet, he has lived in the Manitou Springs area since 1991, which means that when he set the Pikes Peak course record in 1993, Carpenter was running on his home turf.
If Jornet wants to take that record down on Sunday, he will have his work cut out for him.