Above the Clouds – Review

I am tidying the blog. Well tidying is too strong a word. I was scrolling through draft posts to decide what is worth saving and finishing and what I should just bin. Mostly I just binned things because they were things written about at a particular moment in time which are not really relevant anymore. I did think that this review was worth finishing though. I wrote it in September last year when I was really struggling with fitness and didn’t really know what was going on health wise. Not sure why I never finished the edit and posted it because the review was pretty much finished. So here it is:

A week ago I curled up on the sofa to read Kilian Jornet’s ‘Above the Clouds’. I am grumpy about not running or exercising much at all. I couldn’t get passed the 8 minute runs on the 5k plan and the Nike app just doesn’t seem to work for me beyond a week or so. I was and still am feeling unreasonably tired and this last week I have been for a few walks, slow walks, and I have been aching and tired like a ran a half marathon and didn’t stretch. I have a blood test on Thursday that will hopefully provide some answers. If everything is fine and I am just less fit than I ever have been then ok, well I guess I can work with that. But let’s just wait and see and then go from there.

I finished ‘Above the Clouds’ in an afternoon/evening and it is a nice and easy read. If you are interested in running and in particular running in the mountains then it’s worth a couple of hours of your time. But it’s not the snippets about training or races etc that stick with me from the book. Instead it’s the things left unsaid or hinted at. It’s clear that Kilian Jornet is not a people person and that he would rather just be running in the mountains or recording his thoughts just for him rather than sharing them with the world. There are passages of the book that made me smile because the reluctance to share too much of Kilian the person rather than Kilian the personality is tangible. Engaging with us, the public, through the writing is something he sort of has to do as part of the job. And presumably publishing the book then also means activity to promote the book and so more people stuff… So maybe I should start the review by saying thank you to Kilian Jornet for doing this, for sharing and for allowing us a glimpse into his extraordinary life and give us so much to think about and reflect on.

So the book provides an insight into Jornet’s journey that led to him climbing Everest twice within a few days and I really like that this is positioned both as something that has been in the making all his life and a sort of endpoint as well as just another thing he does. It’s that mixture of acknowledging the extraordinary while also recognising that for him that is actually just what he does, his normal if you like. This tracks through book and it made me think about how many people I would call inspirational just go about their normal life. For them, what they do is not special or record breaking or pushing boundaries (it might be but that’s not the point), it’s about them doing their thing their way. And in some ways this is so ill at ease with the social media world where clicks and likes are everything and doing your thing your way is difficult – particular where your thing your way does not conform to expectation. That juxtaposition between making a living doing what he loves – running in the mountains – and having to to the things which allow him to make a living doing what he loves – being an influencer and content creator – is an interesting one and one he clearly struggles with.

It made me think about social media and how we often view the sort of content created by these sporting greats. We see the big views, crazy mountain runs, snippets of what they choose to share on line with their sponsorship agreements and brands. That’s fine, that’s what it’s about. However it leaves a whole load of stuff unseen. We rarely get a glimpse of the ‘I can’t be fucked to get out of bed today’, ‘I am struggling with motivation’, ‘Everything hurts and I can barely walk never mind run’ stuff. It doesn’t fit with the influencer role. Except that there are glimpses of this in the book. Glimpses of losing the reason, the why, and therefore struggling. It also links, I think to something else Jornet writes about: The difference between training to compete or competing to train. It came as no surprise to me to read that Jornet competes to train. Throughout the book it is clear that his end goal is never about competition or records. It’s about him. Competition/races can provide motivation to train but the race is not the end point. I think maybe us mere mortals could also learn something from thinking about the difference between the two approaches – and we may take a different approach at different times in our lives. Practically I might do much the same but I think the mindset is completely different.

Something that resonated with me, which isn’t really about running at all, is the idea of home as feeling rather than place. Home for me has always been about a feeling not a particular place. When I say ‘home’ my meaning is completely dependent on context. I might mean the house Mum and I shared in Germany, I might mean my Dad’s flat in Hamburg, I might mean our very own corner of West Yorkshire. Sometimes it might mean a hotel room or a cabin or apartment. That’s not to say that I call every place I am staying at ‘home’. To me it’s a feeing of settledness and calm, maybe partly of familiarity but it’s more than that. It’s about what it feels like to be in the particular space. Home is Ilkley Moor when the curlews are circling, home is the flash of orange and blue as a kingfisher darts passed along the Leeds Liverpool Canal, home is the smell of Glühwein in Hamburg in the run up to Christmas or the icy blast of air conditioning as you come through the front doors of the Contemporary Resort at Disney. For Jornet home is always in the mountains but as it is for me, it is more a feeling than a place.

Jornet writes: ‘To me, sport doesn’t mean a life full of sacrifices but rather one full of choices’. This is sticking with me because it runs counter to how we so often think about life. The narrative of ‘achievements come on the back of sacrifices’ is really quite strong. Not just in sport but in other areas too – careers, relationships even. Reframing sacrifices to choices is a subtle but important difference in thinking about what we do and why. So some of the choices Jornet makes might seem extreme to us. The training he is capable of and chooses to do, the risks he chooses to take, yep, mad. But making choices to do x and y is a rather more positive way of thinking about achievements than sacrificing a and b to achieve them. So rather than sacrificing an hour in bed, I am choosing to get up and see the run rise during my run. Instead of sacrificing my chocolate fix and love of cake, I chose to bake my own healthier versions and instead of sacrificing ‘bad’ food, I choose to learn more about nutrition to help fuel my body better. Sacrifice feels imposed, unsustainable and a bit forced and miserable. Choice feels empowering, sustainable and positive. I don’t know if that’s what Jornet had in his head as he was writing but that’s what is sticking with me.

So overall reading the book left me with a sense of contradictions. Contradictions that are inherent in us all but which come out so clearly when someone like Jornet writes about his life. The book isn’t an amazing feat of story telling, it’s a bit chaotic and the sections don’t always link together easily. It’s not even a particularly well written book but there is something raw and honest about it. It is the story of an introvert who would clearly rather be running in the mountains than writing the book and who is certainly not looking forward to the promotional work the book will require. It’s the story told as it would be told in a cafe with friends with asides and tangents and chaos and an assumed familiarity with his life and work which sometimes means there is a lack of context. I loved the book because it felt real, it felt human and because there was no attempt to hide the lack of need for other people or the disdain felt for many of his fellow humans. There was also no attempt to gloss over the contradictions. Jornet comes across as supremely arrogant in some ways and vulnerable and humble in others. In other words, he’s human with all the flaws, contradictions and issues and the book not only doesn’t hide them, it acknowledges and embraces them. That’s rare in a book by or about elite athletes.

Happy reading.

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