I arrive at a place, high up in the French Pyrenees, in the village of Font Romeu, where log cabins and huge, beige canvas tents lie dotted on a hillside under tall pine trees. The large wooden sign at the entrance reads ‘Huttopia’ and although it sounds like I’ve stumbled upon some San Francisco hippie commune, it is, in fact, practically crawling with elite Salomon athletes, products designers & the rest of the team’s entourage. This is their secluded HQ for the five days before the Kilian’s Classic event and I’ve just landed smack, bang in the middle of it – into a kind of Salomon Shangri-La.
The man himself, Kilian Jornet © DROZ-PHOTO
It was during Kilian Jornet’s monumental crossing of the Pyrenees mountain range in 2010 that the initial, tentative idea for Kilian’s Classic materialised. During a stop in Font Romeu on that epic, eight day, 850 kilometre jaunt from the Atlantic coast to the Mediterranean coast, Greg Vollet, fresh into his new job as Salomon Marketing manager, envisioned a trail running event. ‘We made a stop in Font Romeu because his family and friends were all there,’ he says. ‘Kilian studied in Font Romeu and he had a very good relationship with the city, it was then that we started taking about doing something.’ What he wanted to do, however, was something a little out of the ordinary – something a little different – not a standard race but more a kind of gathering of the tribe. He wanted to achieve a triple celebration, that of trail running; the city of Font Romeu and it’s favourite son; Kilian Jornet.
Arriving at Huttopia is as daunting as it is delightful. This is, after all, going to be five days spent with the Salomon trail running team – the behemoth of the mountain racing world. We’re talking a team that has owned the majority of podiums in the trail races for the past few years. That dominance has manifested itself in an occasional bout of negativity in trail running circles – they are the classic victim of their own unbelievable success. Too good for their own good, some might say. Others see them as just an incredibly gifted group of athletes assembled by a forward-thinking, ahead-of-his-time boss. It would seem the current team-focussed trend from other brands is testament to that – Salomon just happened to be the first out of the blocks. Whatever way you look at it, they sure as hell know how to run and I’m about to become immersed in their insatiable appetite for the trails.
The team, in their element © DROZ-PHOTO
Pierre Dechonne is someone who could affectionately be called a fixer – you want something done in Font Romeu, you turn to Pierre, it’s as simple as that. Chances are that with a cool, gallic shrug of his broad shoulders and a quick chat on his mobile phone, what you wanted has been done – no problems. The guy oozes debonair. It’s no surprise then that in 2011, when Greg Vollet set about tackling the logistics of creating the Font Romeu event, he picked up the phone to Dechonne. ‘In January 2010, I started to organise the snow trail [race] “la Romeufontaine”,’ he says. ‘This race entered the French Salomon challenge in 2011 and after that, Greg called me to discuss a new race which he wanted to take place in Font Romeu.’ Vollet explained his vision to Dechonne that the event would be, ‘More a festival than a race,’ and together they wasted no time in creating the inaugural Kilian’s Classic, ‘The first KC was born on 2 and 3 of July 2011,’ says Dechonne, before adding, ‘Just before the race, we held the Kilian’s Classic running camp [for the Salomon Athletes]. It permits a break in the season, a time to test new products, a moment to exchange ideas between athletes and staff and a week to see where Kilian grew up!’
By the time it takes me to walk from my car along wood chip paths, past the small, open air swimming pool and to the Huttopia reception I’ve bumped into Kilian (Jornet), Frosty (Anna Frost) and Emelie (Forsberg) off to stretch their legs on an evening run in the warm summer sun, I’ve chatted to the young US hotshot, Mario Mendoza, who’s just gotten a brutal introduction to European style descents, ‘My quads are gone, man – you just don’t get those type of downhills in the US’ and I’ve met the team boss, Greg Vollet. It turns out the whole group has just returned after a long day running in the mountains testing product prototypes and while it would be natural to assume that an relaxing evening would be in order, that’s not the case at all. ‘In five minutes we are going to the ski resort for an uphill workshop,’ says Vollet as we stroll to our cabins. ‘You should come!’
Lunch time with Pierre Dechonne (right side, with the sunglasses on his head) © DROZ-PHOTO
Greg Vollet lives and breathes trail running – it hits you the moment you meet him. It’s now three years since he applied for a job online with Salomon for a position as marketing manager – an application that, to his surprise, proved successful. In that time he has been an integral player in, not just the development of the Salomon International Team and the Salomon trail running brand, but the development of the sport itself. He’s taken to it with an intense passion. ‘It wasn’t in my job description!’ He says laughing. ‘My job description was not developing the sport, it was to develop the business market.’ While the Salomon accountants would no doubt be happy with a bigger stake in the existing market, Vollet believes in a more organic way of achieving the goal. ‘My approach was that if I want to develop the business market then it would be done naturally because I develop the sport – the sports image and inspiration.’ On top of that he sees cotter mountain brands not as rivals but as an essential component in trail running’s future, ‘Other brands have amazing runners and I really want those brands to continue to develop and be involved in trail running. I don’t want us to have all the best runners – that would kill our image and kill the sport.’ Talking to Vollet gives you the impression that this has become more than his work – this is, without a hint of exaggeration, his life. ‘You need to be passionate about the sport – to invest in it – to have the vision,’ he says. ‘I find it hard to switch off when I’m at home, it’s something that I need to fix.’ It’s a level of commitment, an unshakeable dedication to the cause, that would show itself countless number of times over the course of my days with the Salomon team.
Anna Frost cruising the Font Romeu trails © DROZ-PHOTO
‘You just bounce off your toes and use your arms for momentum.’ says Jonathan Wyatt in the flattened vowels of his New Zealand accent, as he, literally, skips up the 60° incline, demonstrating his uphill running technique. Honestly, he looks like a gazelle gracefully hopping through the plains – he makes it look that easy. We’ve started the uphill workshop and Wyatt, a bona fide legend in the mountain running world, is putting on a show as the rest of the motley crew of team members, S-LAB designers and nearest and dearest look on, genuinely impressed. After everybody tries, to various degrees of success, to emulate the affable, forty year old Kiwi, up steps Greg Vollet to offer an alternative approach to the art of ascending – the euro-style power hike. ‘Big steps! Dig your heel in for grip, hands on the knees, push down…and climb.’ says Vollet as he powers up towards the piste’s top. Whereas Wyatt’s stride had an almost balletic quality, Vollet’s is the polar opposite – a utilitarian, primal looking assault on the hillside – it reminds me of one of the dance moves from Michael Jackson’s Thriller video. It’s awesome and, damn, is it effective. He’s eating up the vertical. Everyone, again, gets the chance to try and then it’s time for a Wyatt/Vollet double act as the two take off upwards at a blistering pace, Wyatt leading the way and a wolf-like Vollet snapping at his heels, hunting his prey. Everyone’s lapping it up at this stage, so the two photographers – Damien Rosso and Jordi Saragossa are roped into a climb-off. I’m not sure who wins, but the airborne full stretch dive at the finish line dislodges a rock that hurtles down the slope and smashes straight into Rosso’s iPhone.
Team physio, Arnaud, taking care of business. © DROZ-PHOTO
It’s safe to say that none of the Salomon Team that take part in Kilian’s Classic take the competition aspect very seriously – and that, according to Vollet, is the whole point. ‘Most are racing only because it’s a loop marked that will bring you out into nature,’ he says. ‘They are not there for the performance.’ In fact, Vollet looked to his cycling roots, and more specifically the mass-participation randonnée events, for the inspiration for Kilian’s Classic, ‘My idea came more from cycling where you have the cyclosportive – an event where you have thousands of people coming and they are riding all together,’ he says. ‘There is a ranking but it means nothing.’ What does mean something, though, is the relationship between the elite athletes and the other runners and it’s this that really sets Kilian’s Classic apart from the multitudes of other mountain races and gives it it’s party atmosphere, as Pierre Dechonne explains, ‘There is a real proximity between Kilian and the other runners,’ he says. ‘Because he is not here to show he is the best, he is only here to say he loves running and this love was born in Font Romeu some years ago.’ It feels that by unshackling from the accepted race structure they have also allowed themselves the luxury of experimenting with different types of races and fun concepts. In other words, by freeing their minds they’ve, in turn, freed their legs to explore the mountains in different ways. ‘The first year, on the Sunday morning, we had a downhill race that was really well received,’ says Vollet. ‘Last year we had a downhill training session with the public, 300 people showed up – it was crazy!’ This year it was time for an uphill race, albeit an uphill race with a Kilian’s Classic twist that would pit the kids directly against their idols.
‘Everyone had said that Salomon is a family and now I can see why they say it,’ says Salomon team newbie Stevie Kremer when I get talking to her beside the pool. ‘You know, they bicker like every family but everyone gets along and loves each other,’ she adds with a laugh. I can’t argue with her, there is a camaraderie amongst them – a playful banter – that seems genuinely heartfelt. They’re having fun, lots of fun. One aspect I didn’t expect is that the family-feeling isn’t just amongst the athletes, it spreads right through to the product designers, the photographers, the marketing and PR team. It stretches to the partners, kids…I mean UTMB winner Francois d’Haene is here with his wife and their daughter – she’s 12 days old. It’s a shared passion. As Kramer puts it, ‘We eat and we run, what more is there to life!?’ If my time here is anything to go by, there simply isn’t time for anything more, well, apart from signing autographs.
Kilian mixes with the fans © DROZ-PHOTO
It’s Saturday morning, race day, and the start gun fires for the beginning of the Kilian’s Classic 25 and 45k races. To the side of the start line, the Salomon team enthusiastically cheer and shout the other 1300 runners on. The sea of competitors move as one up the main street before swinging left onto the trails and the first sustained climb – the 2200 meter Roc de la Calme. After a two minute head start, the team members start their chase – it’s yet another way for the back and middle of the pack runners to get an opportunity to mix it with the elites as they weave their way through the crowds. It’s a cool concept – everyone gets a little boost when a team member passes by or runs with them for a while. It’s a needed boost too – Dechonne has created two solid mountain courses, taking in the best that the French Pyrenees have to offer. The short and long races share the route until they split at the striking Les Bones Hores Hotel nestled on the shore of the beautiful Bouillouses lake at 2000 meters altitude, from there the 45k takes in an extended route through the stunning Grave Valley and Blue Lake before both races finish back on the main street and the carnival atmosphere in the heart of Font Romeu. It’s there, after four hours and twenty three minutes that the first three runners cross the finish line, hand in hand and beaming from ear to ear, after the 45k main-event. Kilian Jornet, Greg Vollet and Zaid Ait Malek will be declared joint winners of the 2013 Kilian’s Classic. Vollet, however, is quick to play down the success and makes it clear that certain people where not exactly pushing it. ‘Kilian saw some chamois and went over to them to take some pictures,’ he says. ‘He kept stopping and talking to people all the time and then catching back up to us. It was… awful!’ he adds laughing.
The start of Kilian’s Classic 2013 © DROZ-PHOTO
It’s almost time for my stay with the Salomon team to come to an end. I’m sitting with everyone in the crowded food tent after the kids versus elites uphill race and Vollet is explaining the concept to me, ‘The handicap enabled the kids to win and finish in front of Kilian – the idea was that none of the Salomon athletes would qualify for the final,’ he says. ‘We want to always play with the interaction between the normal runner and the elite.’ That relationship is essentially what’s at the heart of Kilian’s Classic, the team are ‘on show’ for the whole weekend. They sign autographs and get photoed for hours on end, they run and talk with the competitors and they, when the time comes, party hard with the locals. They’re an integral, irreplaceable, part of the whole event. As we get up from our table and make our way outside, an impromptu applause breaks out from the other competitors. It’s not forced, it’s a genuine act of appreciation. It’s clear that everyone really likes what the team and brand are bringing to Font Romeu and Vollet, in return, is loving what he and the team are getting back in return, ‘The enthusiasm, the fervour, of the people is surprising,’ he says. ‘They want to thank us, so many people were coming and simply saying “thank you”, it’s…’ he pauses for a moment,‘…it’s amazing.’ Funnily enough that’s the same word most people I talked to used to describe their experience at Kilian’s Classic.