Some things that exist in this universe we accept and expect just as they are, like the daily ebb and flow of ocean tides, the changing of the seasons and the proverbial pedestals on which we mount our heroes upon.
On that point, we can all agree that Pele is the finest football player in history, Gretzky the greatest in hockey and perhaps Jordan is to basketball what Woods is to golf. In mountain running Jonathan Wyatt is the world’s greatest, there simply is no disputing this fact.
Wyatt owns seven WMRA World Mountain Running Association Championships with five consecutive wins, both of which are records themselves. He holds the New Zealand record for the half-marathon and has competed in the Olympics, Commonwealth Games and is a nine-time IAAF Worlds participant including three IAAF World Athletics Championships. Like many Kiwis before him, he is a versatile runner, who owns impressive personal bests in distances from 800m to the marathon and every distance in between
Some requirements for running at a high level are undeniably necessary: consistent training, natural talent, running a variety of paces. Great runners of track, cross-country and road all seem to spend years developing a large aerobic base; Jonathan says, “… in my case, a large endurance base over many years has given me the strength to maintain a relatively high tempo while running uphill.”
He now resides in Italy working as an Architect and living the life of an elite mountain runner, I assume also taking advantage of the mountains he lives near for the specific training benefits they provide.
Following is the interview with Wyatt, a gentleman who refreshingly seems neither encumbered by the trappings of his place in sport nor burdened by the self-congratulatory albatross that weighs so heavily on the egos of many athletes today.
Christopher Kelsall: I notice you once mentioned during a Cool Running interview:
“I work best off a high strength/endurance base where the speed work sits on top of this. For this reason, it generally doesn’t take me long to get good track speed off minimal track workouts… This is also the type of running I most like to do, out over the hills and farmland.”
Are you keen on periodization and do you run distinct phases leading towards key races.
Jonathan Wyatt: I think that’s a good question and I would say that yes, I did used to do that but now not so much. I have really moved into the second phase of my running career. One where PR’s and records don’t provide the focus for me as they used to. I am perfectly comfortable having moved away from track racing to do other parts of running that I really enjoy and these require a strong emphasis on endurance/strength endurance training.
I certainly subscribe to Lydiard’s principles in building a great base fitness before launching into speed work and then racing. In Mountain Running, however, this isn’t such an issue because the speed component in these races is much smaller than the strength and endurance parts.
When I did race a lot of track I could always get in shape quickly because I always started the season very strong and I could handle the track workouts. The limiting factor for me was often raw speed, but I certainly got the most out of the speed I had by being able to run at close to my top speed for a good length of time.
CK: You mention hill bounding on your website. Is this hill bounding ala Arthur Lydiard?
JW: Not sure which part of the site that was on, but I probably use that in the loosest sense of the word! Unless it was the video I helped make for a friend who needed a ‘model’ to demonstrate technique for runners to improve their strength and form. I was more than a bit sore the next day after doing that it has to be said, so maybe it really does work!
CK: When you run a lot of your hill work you make sure that you do not go anaerobic. Are you using your Heart Rate Monitor to guide you in your effort or do you control your effort by way of feel?
JW: In training, I use my HRM – actually my Suunto t6c HRM (unashamed sponsors plug) because I can very quickly see if I am overreaching and I can put a number against the way I am feeling. It also tells me when I am having an off day and I can review the results on the computer.
I use it specifically when I am doing the same workout so that I can overlay the traces and compare workouts and see if I am improving and most importantly – how I am recovering between reps. When it comes to races I quickly know the feeling and I get confirmation off the watch – I also know that with nervousness and being in a race situation I can allow the HR to go higher but for longer races, I really am very careful to adjust my pace to what it is telling me. It helps me avoid the ‘getting hit by a fridge’ feeling, which in mountain running can be even more devastating due to high altitudes and ever steepening terrain near to the summits.
CK: Do you ever use Joe Vigil’s Oscillatory hill work?
JW: No, haven’t really come across it, but I am not very well read. I have a lot of respect for Joe’s work over the years and he has brought on some runners to really get the best out of themselves – compatriot Martin Johns is one example from back in the Alamosa Collegiate days.
Editor’s note: Vigil coined the phrase. For Meb Kelfezighi and Deena Kastor’s marathon training he had them use hills, where they ran a quarter of a mile up and a quarter of a mile down, referring to it as running over oscillatory terrain, for the benefit of gaining greater running economy.
“…but the single biggest influence was that of my collegiate Coach. Coach Vigil is without a doubt the reason I was able to attain my goals. Coach is one of the most prominent coaches in the world. It is not only his coaching ability but also his ability to motivate and get the best out of me. He is extremely well educated in the art of training and his sense of what to say and when to say it was uncanny. It would be great to have him come to NZ to impart some of his knowledge.”
CK: You have indicated that you like to plan races, and then build your training specifically around that particular race. Do you see parallels between planning your training and the architecture work you do?
JW: No, running is running and making buildings is a bit different. In a way, running is the antithesis of my architecture – a time to release stresses! When I am planning my running I plan my training while out running and I work backwards from the key races thinking about key sessions that are specific to the event I am training for.
In Architecture I start with the idea/concept as well as the brief (list of requirements from the client) and develop it to reach the finished product – I never start Architecture with the look I want to achieve because that ends up being unoriginal.
CK: You hold the unofficial course record for the Vancouver, BC Grouse Grind, I guess this means you will have to come back to officially own that record, how about September ‘09.
JW: Mountain running sometimes struggles to be understood outside of the mountainous areas of Europe and as you are a local BC resident I will forgive you.
The story is: I had stayed in Vancouver for 3 months previously and heard about the event and the challenge that takes place there where anybody who wants can log in at the bottom and use an electronic key to take start and end times. I never got around to it then, but some of the training buddies from back then, locals — Mark Bomba and David Polisi always said I should have a crack. I had the chance to come back for a few days and thought I would run up there – just to see what it was like and without thinking anything would come of it.
On the day, I carried out the start and finish swipe with the key and then ran up. I went in to see my time but discovered it had been rejected by the computer because it was deemed too fast and the staff there programmed it that way so that people using the cable car can’t cheat. After checking with the guys there they found my time and printed a story in the paper about it and that was that. But to answer your question: No, I have no desire to chase that particular record. September is a busy month for me with some key events in Europe so it would never work out.
CK: I assume these key events are preparatory races before Worlds.
JW: Yes and I race most weekends during the season. The 25th WMRA World Mountain Running Championships happen on September 6, 2009.
CK: Which of your running accomplishments to date are you most proud of?
JW: I am most proud of the fact that I am still competing at a high level after my first international race…20 years ago! Really, that’s it in a nutshell.
I am not going to choose my Olympic experiences, over my mountain running ones or road and cross-country races for that matter. Being a distance runner gives you an opportunity to race in diverse disciplines – and in some very interesting places too. I have at various times prioritised and focused on specific targets to ensure I get the best out of myself.
If I find I start getting itchy feet, however, then I start looking for new challenges. This has helped me to retain my motivation for competition and the hard training required.
I rate Rod Dixon as one of the most versatile athletes ever (just look at the range of PR’s he has overall distances) and he freely admits he might have achieved more in one area if he had solely stayed dedicated to that one specific area. But he is like me in that he needs to keep things fresh and fun and so has tried it all and guess what? He is still as enthusiastic as ever and still gets out to train and compete. I don’t see myself as ever retiring from running!
Wyatt’s personal bests
1 mile 4:01.5
10k road 28:04
Half marathon 1:02:37
CK: Where does the record 56-minute Mt. Washington Race rank?
JW: I guess I have been saying it’s not easy to have rankings! I know in the USA stats are a big part of sports – but in NZ I think we just have the idea to get out and do it, then forget about the past and say “ok, what’s next?”
Yes, I am happy for the record – but records are there to be broken.
CK: At 35 do you have enough time left to make it an even 10 World Mountain Running Championship victories? Is that a goal in the back of your mind?
JW: Again, 10 is a number and I don’t have the feeling that 10 is better than 9. Every competition is a new challenge and I have to look specifically at that – if I start thinking about reputation, history and legacy it’s easy to lose sight of the immediate goal…and then you get beaten!
CK: What does a typical training week look like for you?
Sunday: RACE (usually in the mornings).
Monday: Travel Day, easy run 1hr.
Tuesday: am. Workout: 8x3min on 12-15% hill (unless the race was a long one in which case I make adjustments with Tuesday an easy run of 1hr30).
Wednesday: am. Easy 1hr45-2hr30.
Thursday: am. Steady long up hill run to finish on a pass 2hr OR 1hr30 flat run which includes 20-30min steady state.
pm. Easy road bike 2hr.
Friday: am. Easy undulating 1hr 30.
pm. Walk/jog with the dog / whatever I feel like doing.
Saturday: am. Travel Day, easy 1hr + 8x relaxed leg speed strideouts.
CK: What do you think of the idea of having cross-country races included in the Winter Olympics.
JW: Great — anything that gets running a greater profile and bigger slice of the populist viewer cake I would support. I would also argue that mountain running has as much right to be in the Olympics as cross-country running. That should stir people up on the message boards!
CK: Further on that, if cross and mountain running were included in the winter Olympics we would see Africans in those games for the first time as obviously, they do not figure skate or bobsleigh. And there would be more countries than ever involved. What do you think it would take to get the International Olympic Committee to consider including them in the games?
JW: I think the difficulty, as I see it, is that the winter Olympics are about snow/ice sports. I don’t see cross-country running as a snow sport. If there was a chance to have it in — then grab it, but I don’t think the IOC would buy it as a snow discipline.
There are, however, running events that are snow sports. One that is a direct running event and the second uses very much the same muscular and cardiovascular systems as running — and athletes that specialise in this tend to be good runners also.
The first is ciaspole – or snowshoe races. When you look into it there is quite a big following of these races and a good circuit of events in some areas. It’s still very small and without a recognised World Championship, it would have a long way to go to get the nod from the IOC.
The second is the ski touring races. The uphill parts of these races are very running specific and there are many races that are only uphill events.
I am not saying that I think these should or shouldn’t be in the Olympics but I do think that as they are snow sports they might stand a better chance. The IOC is trying to reduce the number of events but are also trying to popularise them more with the inclusion of ‘younger’ sports such as half-pipe and boardercross. In the commercial realm, which is the reality of the Olympic Games, there is very little chance for these two sports as they stand.
CK: Do you snowshoe race in Italy or elsewhere in Europe?
JW: I haven’t tried it yet, I would like to though. People say it can be a bit hard on the Achilles tendon so you have to be a bit careful not to overdo it. I train with the cross-country skis (no races yet) — although it has to be said I get overtaken by a few 60+ and under 14’s. It is an excellent workout and a great way to cross-train over winter.
CK: You, Martin Johns, Lorraine Moller and many other Kiwi athletes took up running at a very young age. Do you think this is the very basic fundamental part of training now missing from children’s lifestyle in NZ, the US and Europe?
JW: Well, I don’t think it is totally missing today. If you go to the NZ secondary schools (ages 13-17) either cross country or track nationals you have really excellent participation levels and quality too. What often happens is that other aspects of life often take over once kids leave school. This is normal, but it would also be nice to have a vehicle where the keen athletes are able to dedicate themselves to athletics after this school leaving age.
Younger kids need to be encouraged by parents to go outside and play more – this is true, and I see this as an education deficit. Parents find it easier to put kids in front of TV and Playstation than taking them outside to teach them how to play sports.
But we are also making some positive steps. For example, in Nelson, New Zealand there has been a real appreciation and recognition of the coaching talent for junior runners of a coach by the name of Greg Lautenslager (2 NZ titles in the 6 years before his arrival, 41 in the 6 years since). An initiative to create an endowment policy for coaches like him is being set up for him with private and corporate funding from the local area (in much the same way as the USA model of University endowment programmes operate).
We rely heavily on volunteer support from the community. But we also must recognise that coaching support and support for talented athletes is crucial to success. I think we are starting to move in the right direction. Certainly, the success of Valarie Villi, Kim Smith and Nick Willis have made a huge impact in getting kids to start thinking that athletics is actually quite a ‘cool’ sport and shows that if they are dedicated to it and have the talent they can make a career out of it.
The National Body I think is waking up to the fact that some overhaul is necessary particularly in the club structure and how it interacts with schools. But more importantly, they realise that this overhaul must actually be carried out! Something that hasn’t happened in the past due to lack of continuity in upper management there.
CK: You seem to possess a great appreciation for well-made cars. If you weren’t a runner would you fancy racing cars?
JW: Yes, but I am quite crap at it, as I don’t go anywhere near fast enough – self-preservation maybe. I do enjoy a fast drive though, but now I put as much importance in satellite navigation as in additional horsepower. If you are driving on the Autobahn, nothing will make you later for an appointment than going 250+kph in the wrong direction!
CK: How long was it before you figured out you were going the wrong way? Where did you end up?
JW: No, I have missed an exit occasionally, but normally without dire consequences and that’s why I use the GPS. I have however blown the fuel pump on a Mercedes while travelling at 240kph near Munich where the cloud of unburnt petrol and smoke flying out the back was rather impressive — you would not believe just how far you can coast from that speed!
CK: What are you driving right now?
JW: Audi A4 Quattro because it snows a lot where we are in Italy and the diesel because it’s pretty efficient and takes the long drives pretty well.
I am into fuel efficiency and protecting the environment as much (if not more) than the next person, but not when the motor company’s offer up flawed and sterile products like the Toyota Prius. I will also try to go by train if that is convenient.
For fun in NZ I still have my MX-5 Mazda — next year it’s 20 years old so it was one of the first-ever made, but it’s great fun with the top down driving on the twisty, traffic-free roads you get here.
CK: Which message boards do you frequent?
JW: I don’t watch the boards, or rather; I will only go there only if directed by a link. I often go to nzrun.com, which is co-run by Jacko my former flatmate, and also to letsrun.com, which has quite a wide range of news and even across into a few other sports, which I think is good. The guys that work to keep these updated deserve a lot of credit and provide a great service to the running community.
CK: You chase sheep?
JW: Yes, quite often — but I try not to catch them.
CK: Are you successful?
JW: No, I mean yes.
CK: Do you think Marco Gaiardo catches them? (serious world-class mountain runner)
JW: Well, maybe, but I can’t vouch for what he does in his spare time.
Some good news
CK: When the best mountain runners in the world compete in the World Mountain Trophy event, it is in effect, the world championships of mountain running, the event just isn’t named that. Does it matter if the IAAF recognise the world mountain event?
JW: You could say that three months ago, but that has now changed. From 2009 it will be called the World Mountain Running Championships and is officially recognized by the IAAF.