The beauty of running in circles
This newsletter was originally published on Patreon on 30 November 2020
I came home from my run this morning still gasping at the beauty of the early mist lying in the valleys, the hilltops emerging above like floating islands, to find the internet not working. My eldest daughter is at home self-isolating after a girl in her class had the coronavirus, and she couldn’t log in to her lessons. A frustrating hour of Ethernet cables and long holds to helplines ensued, dampening the exhilaration of the run. Alas, the problem turned out to be beyond our control. Engineers out there somewhere are trying to fix it. So I hope you’ll excuse me if today’s musing is a little late.
What I wanted to talk about was Kilian Jornet’s attempt this weekend at the 24-hour world record. For those who don’t know, the Spanish ultra runner is the most famous mountain runner in the world, but hates running anywhere flat or not mountainous. In fact, he says the only reason he runs at all is to be in the mountains in the summer when he can’t ski and there is no snow.
Anyway, as great a runner as he is, after about 11 hours of pushing a hard pace - he ran just under a marathon in his first three hours - he started to feel dizzy and the doctors advised him to stop. He duly obliged.
I had a few thoughts on the whole thing.
Firstly, racing around a track for 24 hours is tough. Anyone who has read The Rise of the Ultra Runners will know the particular difficulties I encountered in my 24-hour track race. In other races, you’re always moving towards a goal, a physical endpoint. You know that every step is taking you closer, so you keep moving. Here, though, the end is coming whether you move quickly or slowly, or not at all. The clock is not linked to your speed, so the need to push, to move quickly, comes not from a desire to reach the end, to complete the route, but from somewhere else. Where that is ... well, you need to be clear about that before you start.
Kilian, after 10 hours of running, and with the long night stretching out ahead, the temperatures in Norway where the race was being held dropping to -2C, and with 14 hours still to go, may have started to wonder where he was going with this. With his self-professed hatred of running on a track, he must have struggled to convince himself of the need to keep pushing.
As someone told me as I lapped the track in Tooting: “You have to know why you’re doing it.”
Why was Kilian doing it, if he hated running on the track so much? Partly the clue was in the name of the event. It was billed as the Kilian Phantasm 24.
I don’t have the figures, but judging by social media, almost every ultra running fan across the world was following the live stream. It was unheard-of coverage for a 24-hour track race, which is normally a niche event within a niche sport. But here we had global reach, a flawless live stream, complete with dry-humoured trackside commentators, expert analysis, with up-to-the second screen graphics showing pace, predicted finishing times etc.
The enigma that is Kilian Jornet never fails to amaze me. The self-professed hater of crowds, of interviews, of attention, is the single biggest marketing phenomenon in ultra running. When you meet him, he is kind, gracious, humble and even a little timid. But he is also a megastar earning big bucks. Phantasm is the name of the latest Salomon road shoes, and this, in essence, was all one big marketing event.
I once sat with Karl Egloff in a Pret-A-Manger in London and I asked him, why did the whole world know about KIlian Jornet, but nobody knew about Karl Egloff. He shrugged his shoulders. “I wish I knew,” he said. Egloff is a funny, smart, energetic man. But when he broke Jornet’s records first on Kilimanjaro, and then on Acongagua (the highest mountain in the Andes) and Denali (the highest mountain in North America), nobody batted an eye. Yet when Jornet runs a 10K road race and finishes in 18th position, the internet lights up.
Despite this, I too am drawn to Kilian. I guess I’m just as susceptible to good story-telling as anyone else. And so excitedly I switched on and intermittently followed the Phantasm 24 race for the first 11 hours. Until he dropped out. Then I turned it off, even though there were five Norwegians still running. (In fact Kilian was never even leading the race, but was running in second place when he dropped out.) But that’s how sport is; it is really a soap opera, and characters and storylines are everything. Here was the mountain god chasing a track world record that had stood for 20 years. If anyone could do it, it was him (everyone said). It was a fascinating setup and, like everyone else, I wanted to see what would happen.
Of course, a key element of any good story is the fact that the ending is unknown. And for that, in something like this, the possibility of failure must exist. And so this time it came to pass.
The others ran on as the world logged off. As the night wore on it must have felt colder and colder not only for the runners, but also the commentators and the Salomon marketing executives.
I don’t want to end it there on that note of cynicism. Whether it was all set up to sell shoes or not, it was fascinating to see a spotlight shone on a 24-hour track race, to see it filmed well, to see the stories of the athletes well told. As I watched the runners lapping the track in the dimming light, the mountains rising up around the track, the noise of footsteps muffled by snow, and the occasional voice calling across the track, I found it all somehow mesmerising. Just watching them loop around and around, focused, silent, each one in his own tunnel of concentration, I couldn’t help feeling that in some strange way it was beautiful. Of course it wasn't action-packed in the way of most sports, but it was somehow soothing and compelling. I would go off and do something else, then log back in and see that they were still out there, going round and round. It was like a Truman Show for ultra runners.
I wished afterwards that I had stayed tuned in for those other runners, especially at the end. To see them finishing. With or without Kilian Jornet, to see someone finish a 24-hour race is always something raw and extraordinary, as I know from experience. And in its own way it is also something beautiful.