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Confessions of a Vagabond Runner

Racing on the European mountain running circuit, with a pair of shoes, bike panniers and two wheels

Photo by Pete Hartley

Mid-July: 30 miles from Lublijana, Slovenia

I hear an accordion in the distance, echoing the remembrance of a dream. I’m above treeline and people are scattered about, shouting at me in a language I do not understand. Behind me, the lush, green valley of gushing springs and gnarled trees falls off 3000 feet to the valley floor where the race had started only three miles earlier. I have to climb another 400 feet before I reach halfway.

For the first time in my life, I’m wishing for a louder accordion because, according to the Doppler effect, a louder accordion could only mean closer proximity. Three hundred vertical feet to go. Looking back down the rocky slope, I can see the Pole in second place, only a few hundred feet back. A jolt of adrenaline hits me and for a moment I forget the accordion. I forget the 30-percent incline. I forget about trying to understand what the spectators are yelling. I forget where I am, what month it is, what shoes I’m wearing and who I should be missing, so far away from home.

One hundred vertical feet to go. Coercing my body to lengthen the gap between me and the Pole, I call myself awful names. Names I wouldn’t utter in a barroom fight … if I were the fighting type. The accordion is getting louder. More spectators. “Bravo!” then, “Dajmo!” “Pojdi!” Upon reaching the halfway point I’m disappointed to find the accordion in the hands of a non-descript Slovenian man rather than the devilish jester I had conjured. We exchange looks of confusion, and I begin to suspect that he would be up here playing his polka with or without the other 600 runners who would pass by him.

Looking back at the Pole, I see a pale visage of despair. Though I still have another 3000 vertical feet to climb in just under three miles I know that it is now only a race between me and Grintovec—a mountain that cares not about how many miles I ran back in January, what I ate for dinner last night or how much money is at stake.

For a second consecutive summer, I find myself in the heart of the Alps, living out of a backpack (well, panniers anyway) and racing every weekend. Friends back home ask me, Why Europe? There’s mountains in Colorado. There’s races in Colorado. Why not stay here? Because the Alps are to mountain running what University of Oregon’s Hayward Field is to the 5000 meters—a mecca, of sorts, where the culture runs thick and people just seem to … get it. Here, I have a dozen choices of races in a half dozen countries on any given weekend. I come to the Alps because here I am not considered crazy. A couple screws loose, sure, but that seems to be about average.

Early August: Telfes, Austria

I arrived several nights ago after riding my bike for three days, from the Julian Alps in Slovenia into Italy. I rode through the limestone monoliths known as the Dolomites and finally crossed up into the political peninsula of western Austria. I camped where I could for free, which included a streamside cave, the rough on the ninth hole on a golf course and the end of a dead-end road in a Slovenian mountain park.

Though I have been stretching and massaging my legs for two days now, they seem unwilling to make the switch from biking to running, which I knew in advance would be a risk in riding the bike so much. I resort to the wine-bottle leg roller—I roll my leg with the full weight of my body over the bottle (generally it’s best to consume some of the wine first to soften the pain).

The race director, Ernst Kunst, asks if I’ve decided to bike from race to race this year for extra training. Half jokingly, I turn the insides of my pockets out, revealing nothing more than lint and a couple of ibuprofen pills.

“Not for training,” I say. “For no money.”

The other half of the truth is that I am interested in seeing more of the Alps. Racing once a week allows me six days to do what I want. I decided to bike for three of these days and run for the other three. If the distance from Grintovec to Telfes proves to be more than the 200 or so miles that I can handle in a few days’ time, then I simply put my bike on the train and finish by rail.

The other runners have been filing in throughout the past couple days, filling the two hotels that Ernst has provided for the elite athletes. Already I have seen the pale-faced Pole, a Frenchman by the name of Georges who punctuates his English sentences with “oui,” and runners from the Czech Republic, UK, Slovenia and Switzerland. Being a Grand Prix race, the competition will be much more fierce than the Slovenian race, as stronger runners travel from farther away not only to compete for money but points as well.

Ten years ago, wanting a greater cohesion for the sport of mountain running, a small group of enthusiasts—primarily race directors—started the Grand Prix, which took place in four countries: Italy, Austria, Switzerland and Germany. They designed the Grand Prix after the Alpine Skiing World Cup, and runners are awarded 100 points for first, 90 for second and on down for each of five races. In October, the Grand Prix culminates with a final race and an overall winner.

One of the last runners to arrive is the mountain-running poster boy himself, Jonathan Wyatt of New Zealand. On the flyer for this race Wyatt, 35, is pictured approaching the finish in his machine-like stride, arms pumping like the driving arm of a locomotive, his head turned down, focused four feet in front of him and not a competitor in sight. Nobody deserves the spotlight more than he, as his name is found in nearly every course description in the European mountain-running world: “CR: Jonathan Wyatt.” If the name next to the course record is somebody other than Wyatt’s, it is unlikely that he has run the course.

In the hotel lobby, on my way out for a run, I encounter “Jono,” who is just coming back from one.

“How’s the riding been going, Rickey?” he asks.

I tell him about sleeping in caves and on golf courses and mention the fatigue in my legs.

“Ha, ha, ha! Yeah, all right.” He laughs a stunted Kiwi laugh. “Be careful biking too much,” he warns me. “It makes you stronger for a bit, yeah, but it can catch up with you just as quick.”

He excuses himself as he always does—by narrating his next move, then clicking his tongue as you would to spur a horse. “Well, I’m off to get some ice cream, all right, click, click.”

Wyatt’s first mountain race was in 1998, amid a track season in Europe. At the time he was traveling by train from Milan to Stockholm to Munich with a backpack that contained an all-black uniform, a change of clothes, two pairs of trainers and a pair of spikes. Ten years and two Olympic teams later (5000 meters in Atlanta, marathon in Athens), he is traveling from his new home in the Dolomites to small ski towns scattered throughout the Alps. The Grand Prix comprises a mere third of the races that he runs from May through October.

Wyatt is as much the gold standard for mountain running as Michael Phelps has become for swimming. Like a Swiss train, you can set your watch to him and be within seconds of the hour. In a sport where distances, vertical gain, competition and severity of the terrain can fluctuate greatly from course to course, a unit of measurement seems to follow him wherever he goes—Minutes Behind Jono (MBJ). To be five MBJ is to be one of the top mountain runners in any given European country. To be three MBJ is to be top 10 in the world.

On American soil, New Hampshire’s Mount Washington Road Race has long been used as a similar gage. In 1999, the long-time undisputed king of American mountain running, Matt Carpenter, ran nearly one minute faster than any other American with a time of 59:16. Five years later, despite fog, rain and 30 mph wind gusts, Wyatt would break the course record with a time of 56:41.

the race makes a small tour of Telfes before climbing steeply up the ski area towering above. Wyatt has likely finished by now as the well-thatched pelt of Marco Gaiardo brushes past me as we make for the final ascent to the finish. Il Cani Morti, his teammates call him: The Dead Dog. It’s all I can think about, looking up the hill at him. Mesmerized by the thickness of the hair on his arms, shoulders and neck, I begin questioning the moniker Dead Dog. Why not Woolly Mammoth or the Hirsute Mufloni? The mind will wander to some amazing places in order to pretend that the body is not suffering.

Race the same people long enough and you get to know their strengths and weaknesses. You get to know every aspect of their stride, how they breathe, how long one of their surges might last and, if you are lucky, you get to know what their skeleton dance looks like. Gaiardo looks back. He looks back again to see me 10 meters closer. At the tape, Il Cani Morti grows and expands like a puffer fish as I try to squeeze past … but, alas, I have to settle for third.

The event continues in the school gymnasium well into the night with beers and schnapps. Wyatt, Kunst, some Brits, myself and 30 runners from the Czech Republic gather in a circle around a keg of Czech beer that was brought on their bus as an offering.

Kunst invites runners here year after year—young, old, fast, slow—just to see them each make their way to the top of the course. A guitar is playing, Kunst is yodeling and the color of his cheeks and nose is approaching the tint of the merlot in his glass. An excess of muscles spills out of every orifice of his polo shirt. Triceps, biceps, deltoids and sternocleido-mastoids.

He puts his massive arm around me like an elephant trunk and says, “You know why I like zis sport? Because before ze race you are friends,” waving his other hand about the room, a trail of wine following in its path. “After ze race you are friends. But during ze race”—the trunk releases me and punctuates his remark with an uppercut through the air—”how you can fight!”

I pedal away late in the morning with a hangover that could split the pavement in front of me. My third-place finish earned me enough euros to take a left turn at the edge of town, downhill with the wind at my back to the train station in Innsbruck only 15 miles away. The right-hand turn that I was dreading would have taken me 30 miles up to the top of Brenner Pass before I could begin the long and slow descent into Italy.

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.

Mid-September: Crans-Montana, Switzerland

If there was any discussion of the lack of vertical or the amount of pavement to be found on the World Mountain Running Trophy course, it has been lost amid the steel-gray drizzle, the gasping for air, the perfectly planted rows of pinot noir bulging for the harvest and the ever-present thwopping of the helicopter blades just overhead. Still early enough in the race, the unbroken stream of runners works its way up the mountain—red, green, white, yellow, blue, black jerseys from 39 countries. With the strongest men’s team ever represented by the United States, I find myself in the top fifth of the field, within meters of all five of my teammates’.

Immediately ahead of me is Eric Blake, 29, propelled upward by the massive and muscular legs that have earned him the moniker “Quadzilla.” Just behind me are two of the three first-year members—Zack Freudenber, 30, of St. Louis, Missouri, and Matthew Byrne, 33, of Scranton, Pennsylvania. Leading the American team is its youngest member, Joseph Gray, 24, of Lakewood, Washington. Having raced Joe no less than five times in the past year, I know that his clamorous, college sense of humor gets turned off entirely for the race. His statuesque frame is the vehicle for a long and elegant stride.

Last, just behind Joe is Simon Gutierrez, 42, of Alamosa, Colorado (see “Mountain Master,” February 2008, Issue 50). Simon, more than any runner I know, has had a legitimate “career” in running: 25 years of road, cross-country, track and mountain running. A week ago, Simon won the Masters World Mountain Running Trophy for a second consecutive year. And now, for a seventh year, he is bounding up the mountain, not unlike the Jack Russell terrier he left back in Colorado.

At the first and longest of three plateaus on the course, Joe and I take the lead for the Americans, maintaining line-of-sight contact with Wyatt and 10 others determined to stay within reach. I concentrate on running close behind Joe, knowing that his recent college track background in the steeplechase will provide him with a pace worth matching. Overexertion causes my vision to blur, which I don’t bother to correct. I just try to enjoy this distilled moment of few ingredients and precise mechanics—legs, arms, heart and lungs, pumping, driving, in, out, up and down. From the periphery of my stained-glass vision protrude rhythmically the pale pistons of my legs.

My mind wanders back to the days immediately following Telfes when, just as Wyatt had warned, the miles on my bike, the number of races, the numerous beds and make-shift campgrounds finally caught up with me. I found myself needing more sleep to run fewer miles at a dwindling pace. I did what any running fool would do in my situation and doubled my weekly mileage. Although it took over three weeks, the miles slowly brought my body back to life.

I pull ahead of Joe as the flat pavement ends and the singletrack begins, hoping that he will follow my lead. With the amount of rain that has fallen and the number of runners that have trodden this trail already today, I pray that my shoes will stick to the greasy corners and off-camber straightaways. The exhaust from a helicopter fills the forest like a phantom, morphing into billowing clouds, one after another, into the still, cold air.

As I turn a corner, I catch a glimpse of the furry Italian disappearing behind the next bend. I get closer and closer until I am finally matching his pace only a stride behind. I know that I should be thinking about the race, but of course I’m thinking about his nickname. The only thing to take my mind off it is the swelling of spectators as we enter the final kilometer.

The crowd is three people deep, and they are playing accordions, blowing horns and swinging pumpkin-sized Swiss cowbells. The cowbells are in fact so large that they must be swung between the legs like a child rolling a bowling ball. “Dai, dai! Allez! Bravo! Soupair! Hup, hup, hup! Go, go!”

Just behind Il Cani Morti, I cross the finish line in 12th place, and wait anxiously for my teammates. In rapid succession they file through. The six of us gather near the finish line waiting for a word from the officials confirming the team’s finishing place. With the race still in full effect, an official leans out of a van full of computers and video monitors and says just one word: “Third.”

“I’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” says Simon. We unanimously agree that he will forever be the caretaker of the heavy metal trophy.

Late September: Southern Germany

Two weeks have passed since the World Trophy as I bike through the cold Bavarian rain on my way to the final race of the season where I will face Il Cani Morti yet again. My panniers seem to be lighter somehow, despite the addition of a medal that marks the third time the American Mountain Running Team has earned a spot on the podium—a first for the men.

When I finally arrive in Bergen, the race director, Bibi, welcomes me into his home. As I’m peeling off my soaking clothes he tells me about the American mountain runner, Jay Johnson, who was invited to stay for a few days after he won the World Trophy in 1989. He stayed for six weeks.

I suspect that Jay saw the same thing that I see now—a mountain range that has created a thousand different cultures with a thousand different histories, all of them convening on the mountain top.

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