When A Legend Bests A Legend Under The Radar

Some thoughts on Kilian Jornet's Bob Graham Round.

Posted by Matt Heason on Jul 09, 2018

I've been a Kilian Jornet fan for a long time. I've watched no end of short films about the guy, read articles, and even lined up on the start line with him last year at the Glencoe Skyline. He is a phenomenon. He's broken records in virtually every race he's run, but has managed to do it with humility and good humour. He's sponsored by giants of the running world, Salomon. One would hope that they pay him royally for the association, and one could consequently forgive him for doing what so many professional sponsored athletes do and filling the airwaves of social media with his every breath and the colour of his post-run pee. But this is where the humility comes in. He doesn’t do that. His mum has featured in some of the films about him and is as grounded as they come. She talks of their love for the mountains as much as his natural talent. Aged five he walked with his family one summer across the Pyrenees.


When Shane Ohly's Facebook page bleeped yesterday morning with news that Kilian had set off at 6am at a record pace for the Bob Graham I was instantly hooked. The Bob Graham, in this country at least, is held in the highest esteem. It's a Lakeland challenge of some 70 miles taking in 27,000 feet of ascent along the way. Over 2,000 people have managed to complete it in under 24 hours. Many more have tried and failed. 36 years ago local runner Billy Bland smashed the record at the time to set a new mark of 13 hours and 53 minutes. It’s not been broken since despite many efforts. So fast was Billy that even the best relay teams have been unable to break it.


Fell running is a sport steeped in tradition and history. The Hallam Chase in Sheffield claims to be the oldest fell race in the world, established in 1862! As is the case with anything rich in history, it usually comes with a resistance to change. Billy's record is held by many as hallowed and untouchable. To think that a foreigner who hasn’t grown up on the fells of the Lake District learning his craft with his elders, supporting others on their attempts at the round and effectively serving his apprenticeship, is clearly too much to bear for some. When Kilian announced in a Tweet last year that the news was greeted with an equal amount of enthusiasm and negativity from two different camps. When Shane's update was shared yesterday it was immediately apparent that Kilian and Salomon were wise to the strength of feeling, and had made a decision to keep it as under the radar as is possible in the current insta-climate.


I spent the day following snippets of news, times at summits, and half-updates as the true definition of viral marketing kicked into action. It made a really refreshing change to the usual sponsor-driven second by second updates, the running commentary, and the break down of what he was eating. Instead the mood could be gauged by the comments to the posts. As the day progressed the neighsayers who'd been saying it was too hot, and that he'd burn out, seemed to change their tune as it became clear that he was going to do it, he was going to smash it, and he and he had the support of not just his sponsors, but the who's who of the fell running world.


It turns out that Rob Jebb, who last year had had a real go at the record, and come closest, had been due for another attempt on Saturday and had lined himself up an elite support crew to help. Rob had decided at the last minute that it was too hot and abandoned his attempt. In the world of olympic sport that would have been the end of Rob's story. But, in the kind of goose-bump inducing Spielbergesque story telling that only happens on film, Rob and many of his team offered to help Kilian! The icing on the cake was the news that Billy was out  on the course to cheer on Kilian. If Billy was cool with it then so it appeared were the neighsayers! The mood changed. Claire Maxted dropped everything and drove three and a half hours to Keswick to get to the Moot Hall in time to broadcast the finish live over Youtube. It was the right way for it to have happened. A shaky camera with a commentator so passionate about running, about the Bob Graham, and about Billy and Kilian, that it was impossible not to approve. There wasn't a single sponsors banner or flag in shot, just hundreds of admirers who wanted to share in a bit of history. When Kilian touched the wall in a time an hour and a minute quicker than Billy's, who else should be at the top of the steps to congratulate him than Billy himself. Two humble runners of different eras who found enough common ground to hand the mantle from one to the other.


Well done Bob (Graham) for giving us dreams. Well done Billy for setting the bar. Well done Shane and Jebb and the others who made yesterday happen. Well done Claire for filling the gaps. Well done Salomon for treating it with the respect it deserves, and well done Kilian for everything.


As a footnote for those who may not appreciate the gravity of this achievement, a month ago Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold climbed the Nose in Yosemite in under 2 hours. Unbelievable. The news item breaking this news on UKClimbing has been viewed 18,483 times in just over a month. Yesterday's equivalent news item (which is well worth reading) on the same website has had 35,918 views in just over 12 hours. On a climbing website. Goodness knows what the stats are in the running world.

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