The Zauberlehrling: A Chat with Philipp Reiter
I wonder how many people have underestimated Philipp Reiter due to his adolescent looks, only to be pounded into the dirt by him in a race. This guy really is the baby-faced trail assassin and, at the tender age of 21, he’ already racked up an impressive list of wins and podiums in Europe, as well as a sixth place at Speedgoat, his US debut. His youthfulness belies a maturity and worldliness that makes him an interesting, informed, and downright fun character to interview. I caught up with Philipp recently to hear about his mountain upbringing and how a man named Gripmaster got a hold of this raw talent and turned him into a Salomon poster boy in his German homeland.
iRunFar: Philipp, tell me where it all started. You were born in south Germany right?
Philipp Reiter: Yeah, I was born in Munich, but my mother comes from Austria. She is still Austrian, because she wants to keep her nationality. My father comes from where we live now and they met in Munich where they studied. So I was born there and then we moved back to where my dad comes from in the mountains because it is beautiful there and they always wanted to move back.
iRF: Is it situated in the heart of the mountains? What altitude?
Reiter: Well, I live at 400 meters, so it’s not really high. It is the beginning of the Alps which is quite nice because, on the one hand, you really have the sharp, rocky mountains which are quite high if you go a little further into Austria and, on the other hand, it’s hilly with beautiful lakes.
iRF: It must have been a idyllic place to grow up, surrounded by so much nature and adventure?
Reiter: Yeah it was, my parents always took us outside, not for competition or anything but to show us the beauty and to take us away from computer games and TV. [laughs] Yeah, but that’s good because that’s what kids do at that age, eight to 12, usually they hang around indoors and don’t really have activities. So they made it more interesting for us with outdoor adventures and I was happy that they did that.
iRF: What kind of adventures were they doing with you?
Reiter: Yeah, for example, rock climbing, walking, we went camping with a campfire, grilling some sausages! Really just being outdoors, seeing the stars in the evening, it was fantastic.
iRF: Was it an instant love affair for you with the mountains? Like, once you had experienced it, you wanted to do it all the time?
Reiter: Yeah, yeah. You know Karl May? He wrote the Winnetou and Old Shatterhand books. Karl May is from Germany and I’ve read all those books maybe three or four times. He describes these adventures; they fight against the enemies or they travel around the deserts of Africa. I know they are not true because Karl May has never traveled himself. [laughs] Someone told me that afterwards and I was so amazed by all his stories! I was like, “Really!? That can’t be true!” [laughs] But I got inspired by those books.
Then, was I was 14 or 15, it’s a teenagers age, and I was against everything. I was like “I don’t want to go skiing!” [laughs] It’s skiing, it’s not even exhausting, it’s just fun! I just wanted to hang around with my friends and play computer games. But I saw an advertisement for a ski-mountaineering race and I was like, “Mum, mum, I want to take part, it looks good!” So she said, “Yeah, of course we will support you but you have to train!” That was quite smart from her because obviously I couldn’t do it without training, you’d totally explode! So every Friday we went to a ski slope or, if we went for the weekend, then I would first climb up to the top and then back down and then once again with my parents. Then afterward we would go to the bakery as a treat! I love the bakery.
iRF: Great, so how did you do in the ski-mountaineering race, Philipp?
Reiter: I didn’t win or kill everyone! I did love overtaking all the other guys who were older than me and had all the light equipment, though. In ski mountaineering, equipment is quite important and I had skis and boots from my father because they didn’t want to buy me new ones because they didn’t know if I was going to keep on doing it! That was great, I was like, “Come on! Competition! Faster!” Then the local shop owner asked me, “Do you want to go to the next race as well?” It was two weeks later, really close to where I live, so I was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah! Now I’m trained, of course I’ll do it.” So I kept on doing that, from race to race.
iRF: So that’s how you first got into mountain sports, then? That was your first introduction to competing?
Reiter: Yes, that was the start for me.
iRF: And how long were those races back then?
Reiter: They were about one hour. They were tough, too. Your heart rate is much higher than while running an ultra race. So then I got into the German National Team for ski touring. That sounds quite official and good but, in fact, all the ski mountaineers of my age where there! To be honest. [laughs]
iRF: Well, it still sounds really good! [laughs]
Reiter: It sounds really good! The German National Team! So ski mountaineering was my first introduction to endurance sport. Once I started, I was thinking that I had to do something in summer as well to prepare for the winter season. First I started hiking with poles uphill. This is why I’m using my poles in a lot of races now; I have the ski-mountaineering background. Then one time I saw a guy running up without poles, just running, and I was like, “Okay, that’s my new challenge! To run up!”
iRF: And had you run before in school or on the track?
Reiter: Not really, a little in school, but everyone was so bored with running there. We had this ‘Cooper Test.’ You run on the track for twelve minutes and see how much distance you can gain and you get a score. Everyone was so bored by that, we all tried to hide behind trees, people were like, “I can’t run, I feel so sick!” Nobody showed up. [laughs]
iRF: So running wasn’t on the radar at all in school. But tell me about the change, after you saw that person run up the mountain and you decided that was your next challenge. How did it feel for you?
Reiter: It was just the challenge that I could reach the peak running. When you look at the mountains [points to the mountains behind us], they seem so far away and so high but you then think, “Okay, we have been there two days ago and we ran up there in one hour and a little bit!” I am always surprised that it’s possible. I also recently did my first 100k race and I think, “100k, that’s f***ing long!” After every run it feels unbelievable, every time. Yeah, it’s just amazing what the body can achieve.
iRF: Going back to that experience of seeing the guy mountain running. How was it when you tried it for the first time? Do you remember it?
Reiter: Yeah, it was horrible! [laughs] There is a little peak in Bad Reichenhall, the town where I live, and it’s very common to go there after work. People go there in the summertime to see the sunset. It’s very steep. It’s 400 meters uphill in less than 2k. It’s still one of my favourite peaks. So, I tried to run up that one first. I really wanted to run all the way and not walk! I didn’t have the heart capacity to run all the way so I ran on the spot for a little while every 100 meters to get the heart rate down and then ran another 100 meters and did the same. [laughs] But I did not stop!
iRF: Good job, Philipp! After that, did it feel good? Did you want more of the same?
Reiter: Yeah it felt great and my body adjusted. Then another shop owner who also has a running club asked me, “Philipp, do you want to do a mountain-running race?” So I was like, “Yeah, yeah I want to do that. It sounds cool!” It wasn’t so difficult to win the junior category. You have to push, of course, but it wasn’t too difficult. After that I became a member of the shop owner’s running club and once a month we traveled to other mountain races.
iRF: So when you traveled to these races as a junior, were you results always good? Did you win most of the races?
Reiter: Either won or on the podium. It felt great!
iRF: Ha ha. You are now known as one of the ‘faces’ of the Salomon Team, an integral part of the group really. How did that come about?
Reiter: Well my friend and I, every day we would try and make a personal challenge. There is one really famous peak where l live, it’s the second highest in Germany, called Watzmann (2713 meters). We had the idea to climb it three times in one day. It took us 16 hours or something. [laughs] It’s a popular mountain and a lot of people from Germany hike the whole day to get there once and we passed them, like five times. [laughs] They were like, “What are you doing?” Another project of ours was ridge crossing… So this were the kinds of thing we were up to. I think we got inspired by Kilian’s Quest at that time, too. They were the first episodes and we were, “Okay, let’s do some adventures!”
The local shop owner had also been on the German Salomon Team when they started, so when he heard about our projects he asked me, “Philipp, do you want to run the Transalpine-Run with me?” I looked it up on the Internet and it was an eight-day stage race. I had holidays at the same time so I was like, “Okay, let’s cross the Alps!” He said, “Philipp, you know you have to practice running downhill for this?” I remember the first time I ran downhill I was totally dead for one week. [laughs] I couldn’t walk, it was impossible. My mother had to take me to school! So I realised, “Okay, eight days! Is this really a good idea?” I was really afraid. I had never done that, to do a marathon almost every day. My longest run at that point was maybe 20k. So we started, Stefan and I. He had taken part six times so he’s a well-known face there. People were like, “Stefan, who are you running with?” And he was like, “That’s my team partner,” pointing at me. “That’s a boy,” was the usual shock reply. [laughs]
iRF: [laughs] Pretty funny, and you were a boy! What age were you you then, 17 or 18?
Reiter: I was 18. So, after the first stage, I just went to the hotel and lay down, took some cake from the shelf and thought, Oh man. I have to do this for seven more days! But the next day we were quite good and, I think we were in third position overall. Stefan really pushed hard and wanted to be on the podium but on the last downhill he got cramps in both legs and he was sitting down crying. [laughs] I gave him my poles and we hiked down. The next day was the longest stage, I think almost 50k, and he suddenly said, “Philipp, I’m not tired, I’m not hungry, but I do not want to continue!” I was like, “Stefan, I should say that! Come on, we’ll finish the stage, we can hike it in eight hours.” I had my mobile phone with some reggae and apres-ski music, so I put it on the speaker and tried to motivate him. [laughs] It worked and we finished the stage.
Then he wanted to stop after that and I told him that it was only the third stage of eight! Then ‘Gripmaster,’ he’s the German Salomon Brand Ambassador, said that we should run with the Salomon women’s team so we could keep a slower but good pace and we reached the end of the eight days. After that Salomon Germany asked if I wanted to come on the team. They said, “We saw you at Transalpine and you did a good job.” It was a great chance for me. Normally it’s the athletes that have to ask to try and get on the team.
iRF: It must have been really exciting for you at that age to be asked if you wanted to join, right? You realised how big of a deal it was?
Reiter: Yeah, I had already bought a lot of Salomon products. It was amazing. So we only really have three big trail races in Germany, Transalpine-Run, Salomon 4 Trails, and then the Zugspitz Ultra. When you are part of the German (Salomon) Team, you are asked to do as many of the three races as you want. So there was Zugspitz in 2011, not the 100k at that stage, no way! But there was the 70k too, which I did. That was almost double as long as any run I had done before. But I did it and I won! That was the biggest buzz! So Salomon then said, “Who is this guy? He is able to win that race.” Gripmaster really supported me.
iRF: So the Salomon Germany Brand Ambassador’s name is Gripmaster, or is that just a nickname you have for him?
Reiter: That’s his nickname, and he gives everybody a nickname, too. I’m called ‘Zauberlehrling,’ the translation would be ‘the young apprentice.’ I’m known by that name in Germany. He gave me the name; he gives everybody names! [laughs]
iRF: After your win at Zugspitz, which was a big breakthrough win for you at such a young age, how did things change after that?
Reiter: After that, Gripmaster brought me to Font Romeu for the Salomon week of Kilian’s Classik in 2011. Then I got to meet all the guys I only knew from Facebook and online. I was like, “Wow!” I met Greg (Vollet) for the first time and all the other big names… and Kilian (Jornet)!
iRF: Cool. So how was that experience for you, Philipp, being in Font Romeu with all those other famous runners? It must have been pretty exciting for you?
Reiter: It was very strange! I was happy that ‘Gripmaster’ was there because my English was not good at that point. In Germany, you learn the words but I had no idea how to actually speak and have a conversation! Then, after Font Romeu, I got the chance to run the Transalpine race again in 2011, this time with Julian (Chorier). Before Salomon had the chance to tell him I was going to be his team partner, I received his email address and wrote to him, something like, “Hi Julien, I’m Philipp Reiter from Germany. I’m 18 years old and am so happy to run the Transalpine race with you!”
iRF: Ha ha! But you hadn’t met him at that point?
Reiter: No! He also didn’t know that he was running with me! I wrote, “I’m only running since a year ago and it’s an honour for me!” Later Gripmaster told me that he received an email from Julien with just a big question mark followed by my mail to him! He was probably just like, “Who the he*l is this guy writing to me!” Afterward, it was great. Since then, things have just kept on going well.
iRF: How do you feel your progress is going in your trail and mountain-running career? Do you feel like you still have a lot to learn and improve upon?
Reiter: Yeah, absolutely. Now the running calendar and the race opportunities that I can choose are huge with some amazing races all over the world. I’m studying, I want to become a mathematics and biology teacher. With Salomon, I have the chance to travel and see some amazing places that, as a student, I could never afford… Never, never, there is no chance! So I see it as a real honour to be part of the team and to have this support.
iRF: At the start of each year, is it a case of you picking your own calendar or does Greg recommend some races for you?
Reiter: Greg suggests some races and says, “What do you think about this and this?” And you can choose and say, “No, that’s not good for me because…” So it’s pretty easy. Even during the season, if I feel tired or want to have an extra race, for example then it’s very easy to change.
iRF: So you raced in the States last year, at Speedgoat. How was that experience compared to, say, racing and traveling in Europe?
Reiter: For Europeans, we always look to the US and think, “America! The land of every opportunity!” It’s great once you get there, then after a while I was happy to come back to Germany. The mentality is totally different and I’m German so that’s even more special than the other European nationalities. [laughs] I really like it when I have a plan and am punctual with time and things like that. [laughs] It was a great experience, though.
I was there one month. I stayed in Salt Lake City, Lake Tahoe, and then San Francisco. I had loads of crazy experiences. I was using the Amtrak trains and now I understand why nobody uses them in the US; it was just horrible! I got really open-minded from the travel, too. Sometimes when I talk with my friends back home and the only topic they can talk about is sports… And they list all the results they had or talk about other athletes. I am so bored by that!
iRF: So your own mentality has changed through a couple of years globetrotting with Team Salomon and racing in other countries?
Reiter: Yes, definitely. It’s so great. Even just to improve my English, that’s perfect. Now I can take part in the discussion groups that we have and the S-LAB program!
iRF: You have ran a few skyraces too now, Philipp, and there has been a huge increase in exposure for skyrunning, both in Europe and the US, in the last couple of years. What’s your view on the expansion and continued growth of these type of races?
Reiter: It’s great. Three years ago nobody would have talked about a skyrunning calendar. Now you have the European Championships and World Championships. The ISF, Lauri and Marino, are doing a really good job.
iRF: Do you plan to run more races on the skyrunning calendar in the next couple of years?
Reiter: I would call myself more a ‘Running Mountaineer’ as opposed to a ‘Mountaineering Runner,’ so I really like the steep climbs and races where there are parts that we hike, technical sections, and being at high altitude. So most of the skyrunning races, I feel, really fit to my personal tastes.
iRF: Apart from being an extremely talented runner, you have also built up a big social-media following. You seem to be quite proficient at communicating with your fans and growing your fan base. Is it an important part of being a well-known runner, do you think?
Reiter: Yeah, I’ve learned that it’s quite important. I look at it like, for a sponsor it’s not interesting to have one guy who can run 10 hours on his treadmill in his cellar with a heart rate of 180. It’s great athleticism; he’s a good sportsperson; but he can’t really communicate with the people. For me, at first, it was quite hard. It’s like a show sometimes. Now that I’m considered a ‘leading face’ for German trail runners and the fact that in northern Germany there are really no mountains, I think people from there get inspired by my projects and things I post on Facebook. I hope I give them new ideas and make their everyday life more interesting. Hopefully they say, “I want to go to the Alps as well; it looks so great over there.”
That’s my philosophy, I don’t want myself becoming a ‘hero’ in the trail-running scene. I want to get other people to try out the sport and see what’s possible. I want to get them to motivate themselves. Social media is a huge deal. I have the advantage that I’m quite young and I look even younger. [laughs] It sounds a little bit weird but that attracts a totally different type of runner, the young generation of trail runners. It’s exciting.
iRF: Cool, Philipp. You ran your first 100k this year which seemed to go really well for you. What about a 100-miler? Is it something that you plan do do at some stage?
Reiter: Not now, but in the future, definitely. Things like Julien doing the Andorra race (Ronda Del Cims) or Hardrock or Diagonale des Fous would be nice. A race that is technical and steep. Not now, though, my body could probably do it now and I could handle it mentally but, you know, what’s afterwards? There must be something more!
iRF: You mentioned earlier about your German side. You like things quite structured and planned. What have you got lined up for the next, say, two or three years?
Reiter: I’m studying now and am being supported by my family. I live at home in my parents’ house. They say, “One or two more years (of you living here) is okay because we know you’re not lazy!” I’m not lying around on the couch every night! [laughs] So they really support me. For me, I see this as a period of my life. I don’t want to do it forever. I will always be in the mountains and exploring but not really racing. Right now I have my studies and my training and then the day is over! It’s very limited and there are so many other interesting things and, at the moment, there is no chance to do those things. I also have lost lots of friends that are not involved in the sports so that’s the other side of the coin. So, for me, it’s limited. It’s not forever. I will be doing this for at least the next five years though, that’s for sure!
iRF: Have you any goals or dreams for those next five years, Philipp?
Reiter: Hmmmm… Maybe to beat Kilian once! [laughs]