On a Shoestring - Page 4
At an internet cabin in Innsbruck, while waiting for my train to depart, I find a note from the illustrious British mountain runner Martin Cox, containing all of the information that I need in order to take over his flight from Bergamo, Italy to Oslo, Norway, three days from now. Due to a nagging problem with his calf and not being able to run the very steep pitches that Norway is renowned for, Martin has insisted I go in his place. His initial suggestion was to simply use his ticket and passport, thus avoiding the 100-euro name-change fee. I suggested that this might not be the best solution since we look nothing alike. More important, I told him about my long history of failed Monty Python impersonations. No, my British accent would not even fool a Norwegian customs official.
When I arrived at the first race of the season last summer, admittedly clueless in Europe's mountain-running scene, Martin took me under his wing and taught me the ways of the vagabond runner. I hadn't realized at the time that I was to be traveling from race to race with one of the legends of European mountain running, despite his blatant admission as such. "I've got my fingers on the pulse," he'd say to me. With over 10 summers of racing in the Alps, Martin has accrued no less than 50 wins. Race directors know him for his speed, temper and occasional dyed-blond hair.
From Martin I learned that a bag of chips and a can of beer can make a complete meal, that the complimentary hotel shampoo is all you need to wash your socks in the bathroom sink and which race directors to ask for travel assistance. Last, Martin taught me about the "worst type of people."
"Fell runners [English mountain runners] are the worst type of people," he said.
"But I thought you told me that the Bavarians were the worst type of people."
"I said the Bavarians are the worst type of Germans," he replied.
"Oh, then what about the Swiss Germans?"
"They're horrible, indeed. Worse than the Bavarians. But they aren't German."
I never really did find out who was the worst type of person, since they all seemed to have fallen under the category at some point or another.
For the next six weeks, we made our way from one race to the next. With a few words to each race director he would arrange for us both free entrance into the race, free lodging, three meals a day and occasionally a small sum of money for travel expenses.
I often wondered how he benefited from including me in the scene. One more decent runner meant the possibility of him finishing one more place back in the prize purse, and I knew Martin needed the money. As a grassroots sport, mountain running needs its shoestring athletes no less than it needs the race directors, aficionados or Olympians. At 39, Martin is nearing the end of his years as a hand-to-mouth professional runner. He saw in me a young, fresh heart with a resume not unlike his own. Curriculum Vitae: no job, no wife, no home, abnormal and unconventional lifestyle and, last, a willingness to earn your meal in the age-old fashion of simply running it down.
Mid-August: Turtagrø, Norway
If Martin failed to warn me about the Norwegians being the worst type of people, it's only because he figured the race courses and rules already implied it. The course is as steep as Grintovec but the rain is impossibly cold and the obligatory five-pound backpack gets heavier with every agonizing step up the trail, which starts at sea level and finishes at 6000 feet. The race is just over five miles long. Despite his age, 44-year-old Jon Tvedt wins these races in his home country by as much as 15 minutes. The two-minute lead that he maintains on me today keeps him out of sight. When I finish second to him, I am consoled by the Norwegians, who insist that the man is hardly human.