It was a real pleasure to do the following interview with Jonathan Wyatt and I thank him immensely for taking the time to answer my questions. Jonathan currently lives in Italy however originally comes from New Zealand and is arguably one of the greatest mountain runners ever, and many will be aware of his still standing course record at the Sierre Zinal race.
Despite his big presence in mountain running, Jonathan’s running resume is equally impressive across all disciplines from the 5k to the marathon, and he has been a force to be reckoned with on the mountains for the better part of the last two decades. Even now, he still crushes it. Aside from all his amazing achievements, Jonathan is just an all round top bloke and a fantastic ambassador for the sport.
Here’s a quick peek at Jono’s running personal bests:
- Mile – 4.01
- 5k – 13.27
- 10k – 27.53
- Half Marathon – 1.02
- Marathon – 2.13
Tell us a little about your background and what you’re up to currently?
New Zealander, now 45 years old, trained in architecture and i decided that running was a better way to see the World. So raced track / cross country and road with bests of 10k 27:53 and half marathon 62:37.
Discovered mountain running at 25 years old and have enjoyed the racing on natural terrain and the like minded people you meet. So six world mountain trophy titles and one long distance mountain title later I am still enjoying being in the mountains as much as ever.
I worked with Nike as a sponsor for 15 years before moving to Salomon where I also worked on events r&d and on the junior running academy but since last year i have been working for La Sportiva in r&d for trail, sky and mountain running products.
I have had great experiences and opportunities and so to give a little back I have joined the World Mountain Running Association (WMRA) council where I am its president.
You have been equally successful on both the roads and in the mountains, what are some of your proudest achievements and favourite races?
Cross Country is where I was better suited but at the international level the races are / were too flat for me. Road racing I enjoyed a lot, the way you have to stay both relaxed but nailed to your limit the whole time makes road racing really tough but rewarding.
Let’s talk about 3 highlights in different circumstances. I had a great time at my first international mountain race held in La Réunion, 1998. I was totally unknown and the race was up the side of a volcano (not active) finishing on the lip and the organisation changed the course at the last minute so nobody really knew how far it was (17k in the end with 1500m+). It was the World trophy and I got the win, needless to say I wasn’t unknown after that so I enjoyed being able to fly under the radar there.
We brought the World Mountain champs to New Zealand in 2005 with the help of close friends who worked to make it happen. It was my home town of wellington and winning at home is always special
We found a race in Ovronnaz, Switzerland, only uphill about 8k and 1300m of climbing. It took around an hour to finish but we took 4 hours to walk back down because the refreshment points turned into wine tasting bars on the way down! It shoes that there is plenty of character and interesting gems of events in our sport when you look a bit further than the more crowded mass participation events that usually dominate the news.
Channels like Ultra168 help a lot to help promote the smaller races and give us an idea about the breadth and depth of events out there.
You have become quite involved with mountain running, what has changed and stayed the same compared to when you were competing?
I have always been involved with mountain running because when I started there really wasn’t trail as we know it today. Sky running already had a dedicated following but wasn’t present in a large number of countries back then.
I think mostly mountain running has stayed the same over the years until recently. It has a long history of steady growth but the World of trail and off road sport has grown much faster around us. Mountain Running has been left behind somewhat from a commercial point of view, however it always has had, and continues to have, a strong base of support and extremely high level of talented runners. We know that together with our patrons the IAAF we have to move to stay relevant to the mass participation of runners while retaining the great level of competitive racing we enjoy today. Announcements will be coming soon as to new developments for mountain running.
The issue of doping has become more prevalent in trail and mountain running. What are your thoughts about dealing with the issue?
I can say that until recently mountain running because of its association with the IAAF and using the Whereabouts Adams and WADA system was the only organisation controlling antidoping in our off road running sport.
It’s easy to say your sport is clean when you don’t test so saying doping is more prevalent is likely incorrect given that today tests are actually taking place now for trail running rather than only in Mountain Running. I am not sure what Skyrunning is doing today. I am a realist and I raced at two Olympic Games. I knew that my competition in front of me was taking EPO before a test was developed for it. One of the reasons I left track racing was that, so I know without testing a sport doesn’t realise what can be the problem.
The incentive due to prestige and prizes and runners pride creates an environment for doping no question where a few runners will always search for an unfair advantage. This is the realist in me and so i know that using a robust system that treats athletes rights fairly is very important. It’s not just about catching cheats because the controls placed on athletes are a necessity and time consuming and the clean runners appreciate the efforts but quite rightly expect a fair and reasonable approach.
Mountain Running makes sure it tests at all World competitions as well as all of the World Cup’s including Masters events and we run a programme of out of competition testing. We would do much more with more funding of course but we try to intelligently focus the effort to be as effective as possible.
Who do you think are some of the rising stars coming through at the moment? Are there any Kiwis we should be looking out for?
Well, I live in Italy so I know you will probably have a better view of who is coming through in the southern lands! I don’t nominate names because I like to let young runners develop in their own time. I am not a fan of putting kids on a pedestal who then are on fire for a season or two, they start doing longer and tougher races racing way too much and then before you know it there is a big setback. When I worked with the kids I brought this long term thinking to the young runners I worked with but I could see that often they feel the pressure of wanting to perform for the sponsor and was a reason I didn’t continue working on that.
I look back at my own progression as a junior runner moving up to marathon distance only after my mid 20s and after I had done my best over the shorter distances. The result was that I was always hungry for the new challenge when I did move up.
Your incredible course record at Sierre-Zinal was set in 2003 and has yet to be broken despite the likes of Kilian Jornet among many others giving it a fair crack over the years. Did you think it would last as long as it has?
To be honest not at all because in 2003 i was training for the Jungfrau marathon and after hearing I had 10 minutes on second place I eased back on the last 10k! And In fact for sure the Jungfrau record i ran is a stronger time. That said, Sierre Zinal is a course really well suited for the way I run. You basically climb for an hour there and then the race really starts because it’s very fast running until the last 4 kilometers downhill.
What can you recall from that amazing day and what were your feelings at the time?
It was a super hot day and I remember thinking I can’t wait until I get up into the open where there would be some breeze! In some ways it was easier to run fast then. I was on my own early on and could just run my own race. Today there is such a stella field that it can actually work against fast times with people watching each other a bit more. For sure the runners there have the talent to do it so someone just needs to decide to have a crack at it.
You began your running career on the tracks before progressing up in distance to the marathon before hitting the mountains. Was this your initial plan?
I really never had a long plan. Who does when you’re 15 and you just want to run fast! The progression though looking back now just made sense.
Starting in cross country before racing track to realise my full speed potential (not that great!) helped a lot when I began on trails and mountains. I progressed up in distance rather than the type of racing so while running marathons I was doing marathon distances also in mountain running. It was completely natural that I raced longer distances as I got older given the base of endurance was growing while the speed component became harder to maintain.
The training for track, road and mountain races can be quite varied of course but what were some of the key elements of your training philosophy, and who were some of your mentors?
Yes, I think the basics cross over to all forms of endurance running and even across some other endurance sports such as cross country skiing that I have been involved in too. Then there is specific work you need in order to tailor your training to the needs of the event.
I had mentors through my early days, Bruce Kerse from hutt valley harriers, Graham Tattersall from wellington harriers and of course my dad who watched all the cross country races and used to say it was harder work watching and running to the different parts of the track than racing!
LSD played a part in my training, that means Long Slow Distance. I had a good base and that was the foundation of any training block. Speed endurance was a key second element and i had 4 – 5 months of training without major racing to prepare for a season, especially an international season. I think people wrongly thought i could race every week during the racing season and that’s just because of talent but in actual fact it was those months of careful work to be as strong as possible and allowed me to hold a peak for up to 4 months of racing.
New Zealand has a proud tradition of distance running with the likes of Arthur Lydiard, Rod Dixon, yourself and many others. Do you see this tradition continuing?
I think New Zealand is a fantastic place to be a long distance runner but even better to be a trail runner. i loved the off road running i did on the farms behind where i grew up and in the native forests that were also close by so i see that any young passionate runner will thrive and do well. The tradition helps in that people can see that with hard work and drive it’s possible to do well in this competitive sport.
What does your own running lifestyle look like today?
I look out the window and if it’s a good day I’ll get the shoes on and run up into the mountains close by! Running after 20+ years of racing and training is still my relax time and my wife and I both are on the same page where we just love being in the forest and mountains with the smells and sounds that surround us. I will get out for 4 hours + and 1500m+/- on a fairly regular basis. However in the winter i stop running and just go out on the cross country skis.
You currently live in the Dolomites, a beautiful part of the world that I think everyone should visit, how is life there compared to your home country?
For me comparing to where i lived in NZ I think the biggest difference that relates to sport are the seasons. In a Wellington winter i might be battling through horizontal rain or be inspired by the clear crisp mornings while in the Dolomites we are covered in snow. there are four very distinct seasons in the dolomites. Of course in New Zealand we grow up near the sea so that’s something i miss of course but there are more similarities than differences when you think about it as people in every country share similar outlooks on life, especially when it relates to sport.
Thank you so much for your time, it has been a real pleasure. Any chance we might see you at a race down under any time soon?
Yes, I am sure i’ll be racing again down south as I am nowhere near to retiring just yet.