On a Shoestring - Page 2
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.