A review of Run or Die, by Kilian Jornet

At the 2010 Western States 100, Spanish phenom Kilian Jornet ran with the leaders of the race until virtually collapsing in the last 20 to 30 miles, eventually finishing third. Unbreakable, a documentary about that race, showed Jornet struggling at an aid station about 20 miles from the finish and, hours later, crossing the finish line, but it left a gap in between. What happened to Jornet during those last long hours on the course? How was he able to pull himself together and ultimately push the pace to more than 10 miles per hour in the final stretch to hold onto third place?

Run or Die by Kilian Jornet

Buy Run or Die from the Northshire Bookstore

In Run or Die, Jornet’s autobiography, which has just been released in the U.S., Jornet provides a first-person account of the many races and adventures that have made him famous, including the 2010 Western States. Many of these have been documented in Unbreakable and the online video series Kilian’s Quest, such as his FKT on the Tahoe Rim Trail, the eight-day crossing of the Pyrenees, and his run up and down Mount Kilimanjaro. But while fans of ultrarunning may already be familiar with these stories, they have not yet had a glimpse into his mind as he conquers competitor after competitor, peak after peak.

The book reads much like an extended race report or journal entry, as it weaves fast-paced running narratives with Jornet’s reflections about life, family, the environment, and even love. When looking at his accomplishments, it can be easy to forget that Jornet is only 25 years old, but the tenderness of his writing provides a reminder. He writes, for example, of his first love. The relationship ended, at least in part, because of his girlfriend’s sense that Jornet cared too much about competition and winning and not enough about running or hiking for joy. Jornet admits that while she was strong enough to do things simply because they were worth doing, he needed to be told how well he had done—to measure himself by victories and trophies. He is honest about his competitive drive, conceding that his motivations for racing might be a sign of weakness, not strength. But he can’t help himself. Some of this self-doubt is visible in Kilian’s Quest, but it is much more prominent in Run or Die.

Of course, if you’re looking for adrenaline-packed running sequences, don’t worry: the book is not all coming-of-age tenderness. There are many accounts of his around-the-clock adventures. Watching an athlete as talented as Kilian, it is easy to wonder if he is ever in pain. The book makes clear that he feels the pain but simply refuses to yield. It is likewise easy to wonder if he is happy every morning as he wakes up about the prospect of a run. Again the book reveals him to be more human than he appears. When the alarm rings on the third day of his Pyrenees adventure, for example, he thinks “What on earth am I doing here? Why didn’t I got for a ‘normal’ run rather than torturing my body like this?”

While the storyline is rough, and might even be hard to follow for those unfamiliar with Jornet’s recent adventures, the book is surprisingly successful in eliciting an emotional reaction, perhaps because the storytelling is so raw. It is also refreshingly agenda-free. It is the kind of book that you will want to read quickly and then hand to a friend, so that you can talk about it together. And, let’s be honest, whether you ultimately love it or hate it, if call yourself a trail runner or ultrarunner or adventurer of any kind, you will want to read it simply to peak into the mind of one of the greatest endurance athletes of our time.

Read a sample chapter of the book on the publisher’s website.