Jono Wyatt is a bona fide legend. Genuine running royalty. He’s also the kind of guy you want to sit down and have a beer with. Unfortunately, he’s currently ensconced in the snowy Val di Fiemme in the Italian Alps, so I had to make to do with a telephone call where we had a good, old-fashioned chinwag about his adventures, travels, races, and life in general.
iRunFar: Jono, you’ve just been working on the junior Nordic ski world championships. How’s that been?
Jonathan Wyatt: It was good. It’s quite well known in the valley here for the Nordic sports. Last year they had the world Nordic ski champs and this year they had the juniors. It’s good, they’re keen to bring in events and there is a lot of expertise in that area, so I help out a bit with the English translation and that sort of thing. We have a good crew now and when they need anything at sports events, they give me a call.
iRunFar: Great, so you’re like the celebrity who comes and gives the event a bit of razzmatazz!?
Wyatt: [laughs] Yeah, that’s right—the ‘go-to’ guy for the media.
iRunFar: I want ask you about long before the celebrity status started [laughs], all the way back to the late ’70s in New Zealand when you were a young kid. What was it like growing up there?
Wyatt: I guess you don’t know any better [when you’re a kid] but I think it was perfect. New Zealand is well known for being outdoorsy and we seem to have a real passion for sports and that was a really nice upbringing to go into. I’ve got an older brother and an older and sister and they were into their sports, so I just tagged along. My mum and dad were also very keen to get us out into the outdoors, whether it be tramping [hiking] or playing soccer or whatever. So, yeah, it was a good upbringing.
iRunFar: Cool. So you started early?
Wyatt: Yeah. We have a good club system too—I think it’s a bit like the UK—where you get involved with a running club from a really young age and get taken up through the ranks. I think it’s a good system for all levels of sport.
iRunFar: You had the clubs and you also had your older siblings to look up to. Your brother, Andrew, was a pretty good runner too, wasn’t he?
Wyatt: Yeah he was. He was a good national-class runner, funnily enough it was my sister who was really keen. She had a bit of talent as a youngster but that sort of didn’t quite get her far enough. My brother wasn’t keen at all about running, I don’t think he had the real passion for it through his teenage years. He had real talent for it, though, and when he put his mind to it he could get the results.
iRunFar: Were they your first role models that got into running originally?
Wyatt: Yeah, that’s right. My father used to run from university days and my uncle was a runner and won a couple of junior New Zealand titles. Running was always there in the background, actually maybe a bit more than the background [laughs]—running was more like the foreground. But when I was young I was more interested in team sports early on, running came along a bit later.
iRunFar: When you did start running though, Jono, did it become apparent quite early that you had talent or did it take a bit of time for you to find your feet?
Wyatt: With running, you sort of know pretty quickly if you have a future or not. [laughs] So, I was at the sharp end pretty quickly from when I looked at running seriously. I guess, even my coaches, back in the day, would say that, “If you stick at it, you could be good.” So it was sort of natural for me, it felt easy and I enjoyed the social aspect when we went away on the club trips. We had a great relay team and I’m still good mates with some of the junior runners that I grew up with at the club. We might not talk every week or anything but we certainly keep in touch with what each other are doing.
iRunFar: Cool. So it was cross country that was your first passion? That was before you started making your mark on the track?
Wyatt: Yeah, that’s dead right. In fact, cross country is probably where I’ve always been best—you know, running up and down the hills. So that was what I got into first-up. Then, like you say, I sort of wanted to take it a bit further and run internationally, so I had to knuckle down and concentrate on doing specific track work. I’ve always enjoyed more the purity of cross-country running—I’m not talking about world cross country, which is very much manicured tracks. The New Zealand style of cross country is running through farmland and jumping fences and things like that.
iRunFar: Fantastic. Even with all your competing and success, Jono, you view running more as a lifestyle, though. Would that be correct?
Wyatt: Oh yeah, for sure. Even, in general, in New Zealand, I often had overseas people telling me that they go out in Wellington and they can’t believe how many people are out running at lunchtime in and around the city. I think, all Kiwis grow up with running as health and fitness—that starts off at school-age years and then, with me, I’ve been able to develop it into a lifestyle and it’s kind of my job as well. I never really say I’m a full-time runner, but I’m definitely a good part-time runner, that’s for sure. [laughs]
iRunFar: I think that’s a little bit of an understatement…
Wyatt: That reminds me, I had to laugh because I was just reading today on a news website that in England, I think it is, that in school now as punishment for the kids they are going to make them run around the school field. [laughs] One of the former champions, might be Dave Bedford or someone like that, he was saying that it’s an absolute travesty—running shouldn’t be punishment, it should be something that’s enjoyable and be thought about how good it can be.
iRunFar: Wow, it is an awful travesty that they see running as punishment…
Wyatt: [laughs] Yeah that’s right. I’d would have been wanting to sign up for that school! [laughs]
iRunFar: I wanted to ask about your first trip away to compete, when was that?
Wyatt: Gosh, I remember my very first trip away was with the New Zealand development team and we went to Australia. That’s always our first international port-of-call for a Kiwi… crossing the ditch and competing against the Aussies. So that was my first trip away. I was maybe 16 or something like that and everybody on the team had to be under 23, I think. We actually had really good support back then and I suspect that it hasn’t been that easy to continue all the financial support over the years to develop the runners. I certainly had the benefit of a couple of good programs when I was coming through.
iRunFar: From cross country you moved to concentrating on track during your mid to late teens. Why the switch?
Wyatt: That was because I wanted to target some of the major events, the first big one was the 1994 Commonwealth Games, in Victoria, Canada. As that was in the Northern Hemisphere, that meant that I had to miss the New Zealand cross-country season anyway. I actually ended up doing back-to-back track seasons for a couple of years.
iRunFar: How did it feel at those big events? I mean, you represented New Zealand at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, world championships and, as you mentioned, the Commonwealth Games, too. What were those experiences like?
Wyatt: I think the Commonwealth Games, especially, are fantastic. The world championships and Olympics are massive in terms of level and size of the events. The Commonwealth Games have probably grown a bit bigger but the games in Victoria were very much the ‘friendly games’ and they are a great stepping stone to make a transition from national or Australasian level up to international competitions.
iRunFar: Being at that very top level, Jono, did you feel pressure to perform?
Wyatt: I’m telling you, training for something like that, you’re training for a Northern Hemisphere summer and I’d be down doing my track work in New Zealand in June. Freezing cold, Wellington winter rain—that’s certainly hard work and character building. [laughs] As far as results go, though, I was always my biggest critic—I’d put the pressure on myself. I wouldn’t say I ever even looked at any negative publicity or anything like that, it was all coming from me.
iRunFar: So there’s never a point, a realisation, where it dawns on you and you’re like, ‘Wow, I’m running at the Olympics, for my country?’
Wyatt: In a way it’s never dawned on me. I don’t think it’s anything particularly special. At the end of the day, no matter what the event, you could break it down into a simple running race and you’re getting yourself in the best shape possible and you’re trying to get in front of the other fourteen guys on the start-line. I definitely try to keep it in its most simple form and not get hung up on anything else. Once you do get into the world championship and Olympic level, there is a bunch of other stuff that you have to deal with—and trying to go back to your normal routine can be a bit more of a challenge. On the other hand, I always tried to take in all the interesting sides of it as well—just the crazy amount of people or even some funny stories like going on a bus trip back to the Olympic Village from a training track and after about an hour on the bus, asking the bus driver if he knew his way back to the Olympic Village and he says, “It’s my first time in the city!” [laughs]
iRunFar: Great. So going from that level of track running into mountain running in ’98 must have been a bit of a contrast. You’ve said that you were disillusioned with track running at that time. What caused that?
Wyatt: I had a fairly tough couple of races in ’97. I did a really long tour in Europe where I was trying to get starts at some of the bigger track meets and dealing with race directors when I didn’t have a proper manager myself. The whole merry-go-round, business-like aspect to track and field wasn’t something that I was very keen on. I remember one time turning up to a race and thinking I had a start and the people at the event not knowing who the hell I was… I had to watch it on TV even though I had traveled all that way. It was definitely the toughest tour I ever had but also one of the most fulfilling as well, personally. I used it as a bit of a tour around Europe, the first time I had spent a decent amount of time in a European summer. So, yeah, I used it to also enjoy the architecture as well.
iRunFar: That was the start of your love affair with Europe?
Wyatt: I really enjoyed it. I think even following that trip I spent at least three or four months, over the next few years, in the European summer and then going back to New Zealand. Just having that ‘endless summer’ for about seven to eight years in a row was really good. [laughs] But also with track and field, it’s so measurable and when you’re running your best times it’s really motivating but as soon as the inevitable drop-off in performance starts you either move up distances or move onto other things. I needed, I guess, to keep it fresh and not get too bogged down. Like I said, cross country was what I did and really enjoyed and I wanted to go back to that or do something similar. Mountain running was definitely similar in many respects to cross-country.
iRunFar: The time was right in ’98, then. Did it feel like a natural progression?
Wyatt: Yeah, it was perfect. I didn’t know very much about it all. It was only when a couple of other Kiwis who and been out to Austria in ’96 to run there and then the follow-up season around Europe, suggested it. I was pretty well known at being good at running up hills and they said I should give it a go and encouraged it. My first ever mountain race was at the top of the South Island [in New Zealand] at the national champs and it was quite inspirational when you’re up there and racing up the mountains in beautiful old New Zealand. It wasn’t too hard of a decision to make. [laughs]
iRunFar: Did those two guys know what they were unleashing on the mountain running world when they got you involved!?
Wyatt: [laughs] It’s funny because in ’98 I was in New Zealand training and they were spending some time in Europe and talking to the other European runners saying that they had a ‘secret weapon’ for the world champs. It was the only time I was unknown. I didn’t have that for too long.
iRunFar: [laughs] So mountain running and the mountain lifestyle has obviously had a huge impact on your life since then. What was it that made that so?
Wyatt: It’s funny looking back because it now it all seems like it fell into place. The thing was that I used to do most of my training out the back of one of the places where I grew up. It was an amazingly hilly type of farm. I would often do two and half and three hour runs and just not even step on pavement. There was one major hill where I could run from home and get to the top in about 50 minutes to an hour — that’s what I really enjoyed doing. Then to come away and find that there was a whole series of races that were just like what I enjoyed training on was just brilliant really.
iRunFar: And what about the whole scene, did that appeal to you, too? I guess it was a whole lot more grounded and homely than the track and field circus?
Wyatt: I think you hit the nail on the head. You can easily contrast it to the track and field scene which is not just about the distance runners—you have the sprinter and jumpers and throwers. Mountain running is so much more friendly. I guess it’s one of those things where you race hard and then all sit around together and have a beer and, depending on the country you’re in, the local food at the end of the race. That social aspect is something that I love as well and, in contrast to track and field race directors, the mountain running ones have become really good friends. They’re trying to do their best to promote their town and are often keen to look after some of the good mountain runners. Later on you just become good friends, you’ve got something in common.
iRunFar: Cool. Are you full time living in Italy now?
Wyatt: This year I was actually thinking about going back to New Zealand for a bit of the summer but I actually quite like being here to support Antonella [Corfotola, Jono’s wife] and what she is doing with her cross-country skiing. I managed to get out a few times myself on the skis too. I actually really enjoy that. There is such a crossover between those two sport, running and cross-country skiing. I’m enjoying the European life.
iRunFar: I wanted to ask about Antonella. You two have both competed at the Olympics, her the winter games and you the summer games. That’s really cool…
Wyatt: Yeah, well, she’s done a bit more than I have…
iRunFar: She even has an Olympic medal [4 x 5k cross-country ski bronze from the 2006 Turin games], I hope she doesn’t give you much of a hard time about that?
Wyatt: [laughs] She doesn’t tease me too much. She probably could, though. She’s been at four Olympic games and, through no fault of her own, couldn’t do the qualification races to go to Sochi. But she’s done amazing things in skiing. To get to four Olympic games and to win a medal is a fantastic achievement.
iRunFar: It’s incredible. Where did you guys meet?
Wyatt: We didn’t actually meet at a skiing race unfortunately—her running is a fair bit better than my skiing. [laughs] We met in Austria, where we first started talking and then 2004 when we had a few more conversations. Me and my very broken Italian trying to impress her. The story is that the head of the Italian mountain running team at the time, when we were all having lunch at a restaurant and the Italian tables were all full, she got told my the manager that her English was the best and to go and sit with the English speaking gang. The rest is history I guess. [laughs]
iRunFar: That’s a nice story…
Wyatt: Yeah. But it’s the environment you grow up in. Here in the valley [Val di Fiemme, Italian Dolomites], cross-country skiing is a big part of the lifestyle and her father was a good cross-country skier and she started as a four of five year old. On the other side, if she had grown up somewhere else and started running, I think she could have gone just as far in the mountain running or cross-country running world.
iRunFar: Yeah, but even now she is doing pretty damn good…
Wyatt: She’s really enjoying running. Certainly up until the last year or so, cross-country skiing has been the priority and there has been a bit more pressure on that side. So the running has been more like, whatever comes, comes and she hasn’t stressed about it. A more relaxed attitude can often lead to better results.
iRunFar: Cool. Speaking of a relaxing, you turned 40 last year…
Wyatt: It was a little more than last year. [laughs]
iRunFar: [laughs] It’s definitely a milestone but did it make you approach races or how you look ahead to future challenges in a different way?
Wyatt: It’s a nice round number but, for me, it was sort of more around my late thirties—38 or 39—that I definitely changed from a more performance-orientated mindset to more thinking about what’s out there that’s a little different and looking for new experiences, rather than always going back to the same type of races. So that happened a bit before the fortieth. I was actually prepared for this question because I just finished watching another forty year old winning a gold medal tonight—Ole Einar Bjøerndalen won his 12th Olympic medal.
iRunFar: I saw that too, that was unbelievable. I guess 40 definitely isn’t considered over-the-hill anymore. It’s now official… [laughs]
Wyatt: No, not at all. Not in professional sport now anyway, when you have all of that support and infrastructure behind you. In the old days it was like you did your sports as a youngster and then you had to go off and get a job because you didn’t have enough means to keep it going. Now sport is the job. I think the big thing as you get into the later years is that you have to keep enjoying it or else the fire dies. Competition is such a small percentage of what an athlete does, the rest is all the hard-graft and that has to be enjoyable. When I go out and do my training, that’s what I love to do more than anything—be out in the hills and forest and go running.
iRunFar: Has your role with Salomon changed too over the time you have been involved with them; from an athlete role to a more ambassadorial role, perhaps?
Wyatt: Possibly a little bit. I would probably say my very, very top years of running were before I started with Salomon. I think the culture in Salomon is such that we all want to race hard but we want enjoy what we’re doing, too. Enjoy the places where we go. It’s more about giving exciting and new experiences to the athletes as much as the whole ‘doing well at races’ thing. I think that’s where Salomon has done well, not just sending the same people to the same race but more like working with each individual athlete and saying, “What excites you for this season?” Certainly my role has developed, I’ve really enjoyed the product side of things because that’s my background—being a former architect! It keeps my interest going in design. Also working with Greg [Vollet, Salomon Team Manager] and helping the athletes to achieve want they want to do. I also work a little bit around the community managing as well. So I sort of have my fingers in a few pies—my role is multi-faceted at the moment.
iRunFar: With your history and years spent within the world of running—Olympic and Commonwealth Games, world championships in both track and mountain running—what’s your view of the boom that’s happening now in trail running?
Wyatt: It’s amazing. It’s interesting that it hasn’t happened at the same pace in all countries. Some countries, like France, really boomed early with the longer trail races and now we’re seeing the likes of South America really take off. It’s quite exciting actually, coming from Europe, last we did ten days or two weeks down to South America and just seeing how everybody was so excited by this new things called ‘trail running.’ [laughs] It’s great to be part of something that’s growing and people are really enjoying. It’s something that works on so many different levels—it’s healthy, it’s motivational, people can see their progress as they get fitter and they get a chance to connect with nature. Put all that together and you definitely have a winning recipe.
When I started, I came into mountain running but I became aware of these other aspects, like Skyrunning that was really popular in the early nineties but faded a way a little bit. Then in the last few years it’s taken off again with a bang. The cool thing is that there is so many types of running you can do just based on the terrain—Skyrunning fits in mostly in the high mountains, trail running can exist in lowland areas and then there’s ultra trails. There are just so many different races, events, and cool experiences to choose from these days that I think it’s super exciting.
iRunFar: You feel like the future is bright for the sport, Jono? You don’t fear that it’ll lose its soul?
Wyatt: I think there will always be pure events. As one event becomes more commercialised, you’ll see new ones pop up that are more back-to-basics. I tend to feel that there will always be something for everyone. The big question that people ask is, “Do you think trail running should have Olympic aspirations?” Obviously, when that topic crops up the inevitable questions about commercialisation, sponsorship, money, and the problems associated that—like doping, the dumbing down of a true trail running course—would become issues. I think unless you can have the Olympics and still have incredible trail running races that are open to anybody who wants to put their feet on the start-line, then we’re probably better off without it. The true value of trail running is that anybody can do it—it’s not a closed sport.