Authors Note: On September 29, 2009, Kilian Jornet finished running the entire 165 miles of Tahoe Rim Trail in 38 hours and 32 minutes- a new World record. He is a Salomon-sponsored athlete and is 21 years old. His Tahoe Rim Trail accomplishment is part of a series of trail-running events called Kilian’s Quest.
On the Monday morning of September 28, I began riding my bike, with a faulty headlamp, at six fifteen in the mostly dark sky. I should have checked the batteries. It was the beginning of my own journey to intersect with Kilian’s Quest.
I rode my bike up Road 74 for the next twenty minutes. I could almost see without the aid of the headlamp. The day brought a quietness that leaned into me, along with all my layers of clothing. I was overdressed, but I couldn’t stop. I needed to get to the Tahoe Rim Trail or I would miss him.
I arrived at the Tahoe Rim Trail in the first morning light of day, shed my outermost layers, and began riding again. I wondered how far I could ride before I found Kilian. Just as I crested the peak to Watson Lake, I saw him. I pulled over to let him pass. ‘Kilian! Kilian’s Quest,’ I gleefully shouted. Kilian ran by with a friendly wave, a genuine smile, and a happy greeting. Behind him was one of his pacers, Jean-Michel Faure Vincent, and a French-speaking cameraman who attempted to follow Kilian’s celebrity while juggling a camera. The cameraman was breathing hard.
Between breaths, the cameraman asked ‘Do you know Kilian?’ I thought he meant ‘personally,’ so I answered ‘no.’ However, the cameraman still inquired if he could interview me and gave me the universal sign for ‘wait until I catch my breath.’ After the cameraman’s pulse returned to normal, he asked ‘How did you hear about Kilian?’ I guess I gave him a good interview because afterwards he looked like he had just encountered Aurora, goddess of the dawn, instead of a mountain biker in the middle of the forest. Besides, I gave him a breather from Kilian’s vicious pace. (Watch Kilian and my portion of the interview in Episode 8 here)
I asked the cameraman if I could follow Kilian and he replied ‘Yes! Yes! Go! Go!’ I got back up on my mountain bike and went as fast as I could- backtracking my way down the TRT. I just barely caught up to Kilian and his pacer. I was thrilled when they said I could follow them. I told them I was going to protect them from bears, which got a laugh. We crossed on to the next section of Tahoe Rim.
In pursuing Kilian’s Quest, I had found my own adventure. I was able to follow a major ‘Rock Star’ of the trailing-running community- a world-class athlete- while he was pursuing one of his trail-running dreams. For the moment, it became my dream too. Our two worlds intersected – an ordinary mountain biker and an extraordinary runner following the same path. It was a rare opportunity to be in the direct presence of someone immersed in their element with a passion and resolve that was empowering. On the golf course, I wouldn’t be allowed to hit a ball while Tiger Woods was playing in a tournament; I couldn’t be on the basketball court when the Sacramento Kings were playing; and, I definitely wouldn’t want to be one of those dangerous nut-jobs that tries to run with the Tour de France riders for short stints. But, in the woods of Tahoe, I could hear Kilian and his pacer breathing slowly and talking casually, even including me in on the conversation occasionally. The Tahoe Rim Trail connects to itself around the lake, but it also connected us to each other, if only briefly.
Suddenly, Kilian came to a stop. His support team was waiting for him about a quarter of a mile up from Road 74 on the TRT. I quickly got out my camera and as I was preparing to take a picture of Kilian, a lovely French-speaking woman motioned that she would take a picture of Kilian and me. I thanked her for taking the picture and as I started to grab the camera from her, she told me to check and make sure the picture was taken properly. I was very nervous because, after all, Kilian was in a race against time, but both of them emanated calmness. The picture was preserved, and by the time I had put the camera back in my Camelbak, Kilian and his pacer were out of sight.
I used my bike’s downhill speed to catch them again, just as they crossed the next segment of trail. They were slightly unsure that this section was indeed TRT. Kilian’s pacer started to run back. ‘This is Tahoe Rim Trail,’ I reassured them, and then pointed to the small TRT emblem attached to a tree. At one point, I was directly behind Kilian and we talked about the aspects of the trail after crossing Highway 267. He was knowledgeable about the terrain. He knew he had a technical climb ahead. I told him that I would lose him before reaching Brockway Summit because the trail that we were on would soon ascend.
A mountain-bike is no match for an elite runner on a steep, rocky uphill. Kilian and his pacer were pulling away from me. ‘Au revoir,’ I shouted. Kilian replied with a heartfelt ‘Thanks’ and that big smile and friendly wave.
I climbed up the rest of the trail and at the top I spotted the French-speaking woman again (I later learned that she was his doctor). She said I should go down the road, while Kilian was running the next section of the trail, and try to intersect him. I took the short-cut and clocked myself at 30 mph. I arrived past the next entrance of the TRT seconds before Kilian. In my haste to catch him, I overshot the entrance and was pedaling back. ‘Which way?’ he asked. I pointed to the Tahoe Rim Trail emblem. He overshot the entrance too and ran crashing through the brush like a bear back to the trailhead. I was inspired by his faith in me. I was a complete stranger and yet, he believed that I was his true compass.
The next segment of TRT was a short distance to Brockway Summit. I purposefully followed far behind, and by the time I arrived, the cameras, journalists and crowds were already surrounding Kilian. He received fresh pacers and was off to pursue the rest of his 165 mile quest.
The French-speaking doctor that had offered me such steadfast kindness saw me. ‘You made it,’ she exclaimed. She encouraged me to follow Kilian up the next section, but I knew it was futile. It was too steep to try to follow his unrelenting pace. My quest was over.
Kilian ran the first nineteen miles of the Tahoe Rim Trail in approximately three hours. It was exhilarating to see him run. Kilian ran full-speed through the wilderness just for the thrill of it all. It reminded me that with passion and determination, there are limitless possibilities. When our possibilities become our realities, we are connected to each other and the world.