Run or Die by Kilian Jornet, book review


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The Independent Culture

There can be no doubt that Kilian Jornet is an exceptional athlete. A world champion ultra-runner, the Spaniard holds the world record for ascent and descent of Mount Kilimanjaro and frequently wins events such as the Marathon du Mont Blanc, as well as completing a litany of other extraordinary feats.

However, his prowess as a writer is not in the same league. This is a story about a man who runs hundreds of miles, up and down mountains, in some of the world's most spectacular landscapes. Yet it is a tragically boring book, seemingly unclear about what it wants to be.

There is a tantalising but brief opening chapter about his childhood: he was brought up by parents who worked and lived in an Alpine mountain refuge 6500ft above sea level. They took him and his sister on night-time, pyjama-clad walks around the mountains in the dark, for fun. But these facts are skirted over, as is an upsetting adolescent knee injury, and by the beginning of chapter two, Jornet is a fully-fledged competitor. There is nothing of the training required, how he found sponsorship, how he navigated school with such an extreme dream and nothing of his family's input or support. We cut straight to the mountain-top.

What follows is a series of strange, partly clunky, sporadically poetic present tense narratives about some of his key events – Kilimanjaro, Mont Blanc, the Western States Endurance Run among others. Despite the epic nature of his challenges and the close bonds required among those supporting him, there is infuriatingly little background information given on any of the events. His mother and sister are briefly mentioned once more in passing but never again. His prose largely remains resolutely flat and impassive, although in fairness it's hard to tell whether the fault here lies with his translator. "The taste of victory hooks you, addicts you like a drug" is, after all, an unforgivable sentence.

Occasionally he manages to convey how magical he finds the mountains, how at one with them he can make himself feel, and there are fleeting glimpses of the freedom and clarity that he gains from taking on nature at its toughest. But still the reader is left with the distinct impression he'd rather be out there than slogging away at a laptop.

Perhaps most frustrating of all is how little reference is made to the book's title. In the absence of any brushes with actual death being mentioned, or any suggestion (beyond the original knee injury) that Jornet might not be able to run, we're left to assume that it's simply a catchy bit of exaggeration as no-one had a better title to hand.

Jornet seems likeable, if somewhat distracted, throughout and it's easy to forget how extraordinary what he has achieved is, which is precisely why this slapdash book is so infuriating. He mentions a love affair that seems to have broken his heart and made him question what running means to him. But once again his aptitude for self-reflection seems as weak as his heart and lungs are strong. His conclusion: "I think I run simply because I like doing it". Somewhere in here is a fantastic story, but perhaps it needed a better ghost-writer to winkle it out.