On a Shoestring - Page 3
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.