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August 27, 2018

If You’re Not A Sports Fan, Don’t Read This

Disclaimer: This is a story for sports fans. One day, perhaps long after I am dead, the following story, or an excerpt thereof, will be included in the annals of great sports stories. If those annals are chronicled in a book, the book will be titled something like, “The Greatest Stories In Sports (Including That One By Eric Senseman of Citius Mag)”. Something like that—I’m not sure what the exact title will be. The point is that this is a story for the ages. If you’re not a sports fan, don’t read this.

If you’re reading this, then you’re a sports fan, which means you’re familiar with the concept of passing a baton. The literal concept. I’m not actually concerned with the literal sense of passing the baton. I just wanted to connect with my readers. What’s pertinent for this story is the idiom. In some track events, people literally pass a baton. In the rest of the sporting world, a baton is passed metaphorically. To metaphorically pass the baton is for a veteran to give their responsibility to an up-and-comer. It’s like when Derek Jeter retired and Didi Gregorius took over at shortstop for the Yankees. Jeter passed the baton to Gregorius. Soon after Pete Sampras retired from tennis, Rafael Nadal became the dominant face of the sport—Sampras, willingly or not, has passed the baton to Nadal. Running has its metaphorical baton passing, too. But not everyone is eager to pass the baton. Kilian Jornet is one of those people.

If you don’t know who Kilian Jornet is, stop what you’re doing, get on Google, and search his name. (His full name is Kilian Jornet Burgada.) You’ll find write-ups from The New York Times, Outside, and The Guardian. You’ll see phrases like “speed record” and “fastest known time” and other jargon that’s developed to capture what it means to move faster over a section of terrain faster than anyone else ever has. I could spend this entire article listing all of Jornet’s accomplishments. But, dear reader, most of those accomplishments won’t mean much to you because Jornet runs really far and if you’re a sports fan and you’re still reading this article, you don’t care about people running far.

So, let me make this very simple and say this: Kilian Jornet is the LeBron James of ultra-distance running, mountain running and trail running. He is the LeBron James of three very different disciplines. If LeBron were to lead the league in points, rebounds, and steals, then he would accomplish in a season what Jornet has done every year for the last decade.

Jornet is the best on the planet. But someone else is emerging on the scene and Jornet does not want to pass the baton.

The Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) is a 170-kilometer, or roughly 105-mile, mountain race that circumnavigates Mont Blanc. It is the Super Bowl of mountain-ultra-trail running.* (* Yes, I will allude to as many sports as possible during this story. I told you from the beginning: if you’re not a sports fan, don’t read this.) It draws the most participants and the stiffest competition. Guess who has won the race on three separate occasions? You guessed it: Kilian Jornet. He will be on the UTMB start line at 6:00pm on Friday, August 31st.

Jornet purports to be a man of the mountains: a boy on the playground, enjoying time in his sanctuary. That might be true. But if that’s true, here’s something else that’s true: Jornet does not like to lose.

He wins almost every race he runs: sometimes seemingly effortlessly and other times with a hard-earned grimace on his face. It’s those rare occasions when someone pushes him so hard that he has to grimace that you know how much he likes to win and hates to lose. That’s why, I argue, Jornet doesn’t want to pass the baton: he’s not ready to lose yet and giving up his throne atop the sport by passing the baton would certainly be losing.  

If you’re a historian of ultrarunning**(**You’re not because you’re a sports fan and you’re still reading this.), then you know that no American male has ever won UTMB. To be honest, it’s never really been close. Sure, some American males have finished as high as third at UTMB, but no American has ever been in a position late in the race to win the thing.*** (*** You can be an hour behind the winner in a 170-kilometer race and finish third.) There’s an American male racing UTMB that could be in a position late in the race to win the thing. His name is Jim Walmsley. 

(Author’s note: Travis Gaylord correctly pointed out via Twitter that two Americans, Topher Gaylord and Brandon Sybrowsky, tied for second at the 2003 UTMB. They finished more than two hours behind the winner. Travis has earned the status of an ultrarunning historian in my book.)

Jim Walmsley doesn’t have the accolades of Kilian Jornet but he’d like to earn those accolades. He’s not revered in the sport like Jornet, but he’d like to be. He hasn’t dominated every facet of mountain-ultra-trail running like Jornet, be he’d like to do so. He hasn’t won UTMB like Jornet, but he’s tried. Basically, Kilian Jornet is everything that Jim Walmsley would like to be. And Walmsley is fast becoming the person he would like to be.

Walmsley smashed the course record at the 2018 Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run back in June. Kilian, too, has won Western States but in winning the race this year, Walmsley ran 64 minutes faster than Jornet’s winning time. Walmsley would have been on his second beer after Western States before Jornet would even have finished.

If Jornet hates to lose, Walmsley hates to lose more. Seriously, he absolutely hates it. If you even bring up the idea of Walmsley losing a race while he’s around, he’ll literally start talking shit to you. He can’t stand the mere thought of someone thinking he won’t win. Like Jornet, Walmsley hasn’t lost much. Among the fortunate few who have beaten Walmsley, can you guess the name of someone who has? You guessed it: Kilian Jornet. It happened at UTMB last year when Walmsley led the race for the first 100 kilometers, fell apart, took an hour nap, then miraculously finished fifth. Jornet had a rare second-place finish.

Kilian Jornet and Jim Walmsley will face off at UTMB again this year: the man who has dominated the sport for a decade and the man who has been nearly as dominate lately. It’s the classic tale of grizzled, shifty veteran versus talented, pompous youngster. (Although, in reality, the two are not many years apart.)

It is the story of a new-age runner emerging while the old guard stands its ground. Sure, there are other competitors in the field with talent, and there are other stories to be told about this year’s race, but none match the talent of Jornet or Walmsley, and few other stories are as intriguing. Imagine if Tiger Woods, at his best, could have faced Jack Nicklaus in his prime.**** (****You thought I wouldn’t manage to squeeze in a golf reference? Shame on you, sports fan.) The showdown between Jornet and Walmsley will be the ultrarunning equivalent. If you’re still reading this, you’re a sports fan and you’re at the edge of your seat.

Keep your eyes peeled because the fireworks will come when Walmsley or Jornet cross the UTMB finish line first on September 1st. You heard it here first.

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