Some people you interview and your first question is the equivalent of lighting a fuse to an awesome fireworks display and you just sit back and enjoy the show. Interviewing Martin Gaffuri was definitely one of those experiences. Here, I catch up with the ‘Goat.’
iRunFar: Martin, you grew up in France. Can you tell me a little about that?
Martin Gaffuri: Yeah, I grew up in France, about 40k west of Paris, between Normandie backcountry and a city called Mantes La Jolie. The literal translation of Mantes La Jolie is ‘Mantes the Beautiful,’ yet nothing about it actually was, or is, I should say. Perhaps the way riots and drug dealing were executed were the closest to beautiful this city could get. Not the best place to grow up. At all.
However, a hostile environment doesn’t always make for a poor life experience. Just like in the mountains, if well taught and guided, the experience can become outstanding.
I couldn’t have wished for a better childhood, and I owe it to my caring and giving parents. They have had the heavy task of giving me an education to send me through life as well geared up as possible. To put perspective on the outcome of how good of a job they did at that, I do feel now like I can accomplish anything.
iRunFar: Sweet. So what are some of your earliest memories there?
Gaffuri: One of my earliest memories was riding my brand new tricycle. Any other kid would probably have done a few laps outside and gotten bored. I was not like any other kid, which is why I purposely described giving me an education as a heavy task.
Instead, I’d rather ride my bike inside, in our tiny living room. To cheer myself on I yelled, “Salad, salad, salad, salad!” And during each short lap I banged every corner and piece of furniture. One last detail, this could last for hours… Had I grown up in the U.S., I would have probably been fed Valium days and nights. I was lucky enough to have understanding parents who’d value extra energy rather than try to shut it down.
iRunFar: Ha, great. The virtues that you are known for now—boundless energy and enthusiasm—showed themselves from an early age?
Gaffuri: Yeah. Outdoor activities were a great way to channel that energy and give my parents a break! It never lasted very long…
Living where I grew up, there were no beautiful mountains or cool beaches to exercise, yet I always seemed capable of finding a way to have my own little adventures.
Two stories deserve to be told to once again illustrate both the immense job my parents had in dealing with me and the limitless troubles I was getting into.
I was three when I learned to bike on two wheels, and I loved it. So much so that I was spending afternoons doing rounds in my front yard, and I couldn’t have been happier. As preventive parents, they had closed the gate at the end of the slightly downhill alley way from my house to the road, to ensure I wouldn’t get run over by a car. What else could go wrong?
I must have been around five, on my daily biking routine when my older neighbor, Elodie, offered to come and bike with me. Any other kid would have enjoyed the company of a friend to play with and ride a few rounds. I was not like any other kid. It must have taken me less than two minutes to come up with the wonderful idea of challenging her to a race down the alley way. Getting our engines in position, ready, steady, spin!
The time difference two kids can create in a 25-meter-long bike race is quite slim, so I gave it all to go for the win. I was much more of a doer than a thinker back then–sometimes I still am–so two things should have occurred to me beforehand but didn’t. First, there were only two meters between the finish line and the gate. And the second, my bike had no brakes.
I went smashing head first into the gate at full speed, and broke one of my two front teeth. A sign of victory I carried for four years until my adult teeth grew to fill in the hole in my smile.
iRunFar: Wow. What’s the second story?
Gaffuri: The second story still includes a bike, but this time, I didn’t need a partner to fine tune my free-riding skills. A quiet afternoon at the park biking, I thought it was time to take on a hill that was steep enough to look scary and, thus, not appealing to any other kid. I wasn’t like any other kid…
At that point I had a new bike and had learned how to use my brakes. What could possibly go wrong? Well, after I took a deep breath and launched myself down that steep hill, braking as hard as I could to slow me down, I reached a three-meter wide gravel path. Nailed it, I thought, as I let go of the brakes. Little did I know about momentum back then, I carried on across the footpath, down another hill, and right into the creek that was running at the bottom!
Oh boy, my parents who saw the whole performance dug me out of there. They could have lectured me, shaken the dickens out of me for doing such dangerous things or getting all wet and muddy. Instead, I was asked if I was hurt. I wasn’t. So they said, “What a ride, do you want to do it again?”
Luckily, I wasn’t that much of a burning head, so I replied something like, “No I think I’m good.” The lesson was learned the best possible way. I had been given the opportunity to make my own decision. I never rode that hill again.
iRunFar: That’s great. So what about ‘real’ sports? Did you get encouragement from your parents there, too, and what were your first sport passions?
Gaffuri: Having options means you are free to make your own decisions. This is what my parents shot for my brother, sister, and I. Without pushing us in any directions, they gave us the opportunity to experience as many things as possible, sports included.
Even though my biking career looked fairly promising early on, tennis was the first sport I took in a club at the age of six. After two years, about two thirds into a game, I pointed at the sky and said, “Look at that trace this plane is leaving behind, it’s pretty cool.” I said this to the other kid I was playing. My dad who had come to support me suddenly realized tennis wasn’t quite my thing. My parents asked me if I wanted to try something else.
I remember feeling quite intrigued, something else? I had chosen tennis because I had two friends who were already playing so I figured I’d do just like them. Now, I needed to choose another sport? After scanning through my head all the sports I had watched on TV, one stood out—pole vault! What’s not to like about getting thrown up high in the air and landing on a massive pillow? Plus with the countless hours jumping on my own bed, I figured I couldn’t be too bad at it.
Kids’ dreams are not to be broken, so my parents coped with my imagination and sent me to the local athletics club. Obviously, I was way too young to practice pole vault, but it didn’t matter. I had been given the chance to make a decision, and that was good enough for a seven-year-old boy. This is where I started running. Not after my grandparents’ cat, not to escape my furious younger sister who I had pissed off to a point she’d wanted to hit me!
iRunFar: Okay, we’ll get back to running later, but first tell me a little about your education. How were you at school at what did you study in college?
Gaffuri: Coming back to options, I had no clue of what I wanted to do or be when I grew up. Higher education was the best way to give me more time to figure that out, while bagging a few more skills on the way.
In France, you have two main options for higher education. It’s either engineering or business, and even though figuring out what momentum was in physics changed a lot of things in my life, I was pretty miserable at math. Business it was.
I sat in written exams, went on to a few interviews, and I got accepted in one of the top French post-baccalaureate business schools. At 18 years of age, I left home to go study in Angers, a quiet, medium-sized city of 100,000 inhabitants.
Let’s be honest here, I was still the five-year-old me riding down the hill and straight into the creek. The significant difference was that I was now in a grown-up body with money in my pocket and legal for drinking booze. During these five years, I was going to give the word ‘extreme’ a whole new dimension…
After running cross country at nationals four times, I thought it’d be good to go back to run after something a wee bit more concrete. My grandparents’ cat didn’t look as attractive as back in the days, and I found estrogen much more to my taste. And damage was done. I broke hearts and got my heart broken more than needed, but sure was after momentum, my second major life experience.
Somewhere along the way of what feels like a mix of exams and hangovers, I figured out what I wanted to do. I realized I had, alcohol helping, developed solid social skills. I definitely was a people person. I wanted to work in the sport industry, and had been told I would never make it, as only a few did. Challenge accepted. I had always been told to make options for myself, and I sure wasn’t letting anyone tell me otherwise.
Three years later, I had worked in footwear-product marketing at the Salomon global headquarters, in apparel-product marketing at the adidas global headquarters, and in European communication at the Scott Sports global headquarters. I started to think about taking on a personal project.
iRunFar: I guess we’ve all had our wild spells. Okay, what about running and the mountains? Tell me a little about your passion for both, your first experience of both, and where those two paths crossed and you became a mountain runner?
Gaffuri: While I do have a passion for running, my taste for mountains came very late, to be honest. I did run in the mountains quite young, though, but back then had no idea that it was an actual discipline.
My mum and dad used to spend winter seasons respectively working at the tourism office and as a ski instructor in a little village of the French Alps. When they had me, they came back to where they grew up to get full-time jobs.
We still returned almost each year to that village on family trips. Most of the time in winter to ski, but we’d eventually go there in summertime to enjoy fine and quiet mountain environments, away from packed and roasting-hot beaches of the so-fashionable Mediterranean coast. My family couldn’t care less about fashion, and I’m still very proud of that down-to-earth attitude.
My very first running experience was initiated as we were planning a hike with my parents, brother and sister. My dad showed me the route of the hike on the map and from that trailhead, how to get back to the chalet, on foot.
After we were done with the hike, I tightened my shoe laces and was off for a run down to the chalet, secretly hoping to beat my parents in their car. I didn’t.
I had had quite a fun time flying down that singletrack, jumping over rocks and roots, and trying to be light on the steep sections. I would spend many more years racing track and cross country, but I had nonetheless very much enjoyed what I would later call my first trail run.
iRunFar: That’s a great little story. You’ve traveled a lot, too. Where have your favourite places been and what have you learned from other cultures and lifestyles on your trips?
Gaffuri: I have been lucky to see a fair bit of our world, indeed. All over Europe, Canada, USA–Arizona, California, Colorado, and Utah mostly–Australia, New Zealand.
Until this year, Lake Tahoe was on top of my list. It’s like Annecy, France where I live now, but much bigger and higher. That was until this past February when I set foot in New Zealand. I can’t describe how attractive this place is. Like any other person who visited these islands would tell you, “You need to experience it to know.”
Discovering new countries and cultures surely puts your own in perspective. I’m pretty lucky with my own, and especially food-wise. Everywhere I go that I can’t find smelly cheese, I feel homesick…
iRunFar: Maybe you can start a new business of importing the smelliest, bad-assest French cheese. Ha! Back to your running. How has your career progressed? Can you tell me about some of the highlights you’ve had and what memories stand out the most?
Gaffuri: The cold had seized up entirely the shaking muscles on my skinny bones, water was dripping from my hair as a light rain was steadily pouring on us. My numb feet were stepping in a puddle of mud trying to get the blood back flowing. We were all standing in line, packed against each other, a knot in the stomach, waiting for a gun to fire and launch the charge.
I never went to war, but my first cross-country race at the age of seven felt everything like it. As the years went by, I got used to such atmosphere, tangible tension and fierce competition. When you’re half bent over an elastic string that you know can slap your quad so hard you could bleed and all the people around you are elbows out and geared up with six 15-millimeter spikes under each foot, you better be ready for battle. There was always strong mutual respect for the competition, but no mercy.
It taught me to be over-confident in order to perform at my best, challenge my limits, others’ limits, and from time to time stand on that wooden box for a few seconds of glory. This attitude I have developed while racing shaped my personality, a lot. I don’t give up, I play hard and can last longer than a honey badger digging out a hive.
Since that first race, there have been countless races, but this remains as my most emotional memory of racing.
To give you other highlights, it’d say that Tarawera this year was one of them. I ran the race I wanted. Smart and managed. I didn’t win because I was racing against stronger runners, but the fact that I got to share that experience with someone who matters a lot to me made the experience even more memorable.
The other ones are yet to come, and I’m excited about this season, and the upcoming Skyrunning World Championships.
iRunFar: You’ve really stepped it up the last couple of seasons and have enjoyed some impressive results. What’s changed and allowed you to make the difficult jump up to the next level?
Gaffuri: I am unsatisfied by nature. I never really looked back at where I was before to focus on where I’d like to be… And there is still a lot of grunting and training to get there.
My dad being an entrepreneur before me, I guess this is the way I was raised. Not celebrating reaching a goal but spending time and energy getting there. Because as an entrepreneur, missing your goal means no payday at the end of the month. And you don’t spend time celebrating either since the minute you reach your goal, a new month starts and along comes your next goal.
It’s the same for me with running. I saw that I wasn’t too far off runners who were part of teams. So my goal was to find a way to measure myself against these guys through a ranking. Skyrunning looked like the most relevant to me so I decided to give myself the means to see what I was capable of doing. To keep it simple, I called back my coach from my cross-country years, and stopped drinking like there was no tomorrow almost every weekend. It did the trick.
However, I firmly believe that the difficult jump is yet to be made, going from where I am now to one of the best.
Our sport is beautiful, but if we get our heads around our own little world, we’ll see that the discipline is extremely young and with all due respect to my fellow competitors, the level still low.
No offence to fast road peeps, but I don’t want to see the discipline I love so much become faster and flatter on groomed trails. I have seen tough cross-country courses rewarding agility and skills become nothing but speed races on freshly mowed grass. What a shame.
If you can win such a competitive trail race–like Lake Sonoma this year–off a treadmill, then this isn’t the discipline I want to race in. We need these races, as such speed remains a skill and beautiful to watch, but, personally, Skyrunning is where I will keep trying to step up my game.
iRunFar: Your new business, Twiinkly, sounds exciting. Can you give me the story there, how it came about?
Gaffuri: The idea of Twiinkly sprung as I was racing Transvulcania last year. Not that I am more famous now, but I was back then just another runner having a blast on this unique course. Yet, strangely enough, people were taking photos of me. Actual spectators were taking photos of me on their smartphones. Pretty cool, I thought, I’ll have lots of photos for my race report. I had never been so wrong! Amongst all the shots that had been taken and probably uploaded online, I struggled for hours to only find a handful. The idea of Twiinkly was born. Twiinkly is a new media that allows all spectators along the course to take photos of the runners and share them on a public visual timeline.
iRunFar: That’s exciting, Martin! You have your own business now but a few years back you applied and were one of the final choices for the Salomon job that Greg [Vollet] has. What would the Salomon team and marketing look like if you had gotten that job? What would you have done differently?
Gaffuri: I made the decision not to take that position, so I can’t say what I would or wouldn’t have done. I still love the Salomon brand and its value, and believe that Greg is doing a great job.
iRunFar: Okay, so on a more global scale, then. What would your perfect vision for trail running’s future be?
Gaffuri: Perfect doesn’t exist, so thanks for asking me that question. Let’s dream a little here.
I have been witnessing the trail running scene evolve since 2006. From a few outdoor core brands pushing trail running specific products to the market, to road running companies seeking to get a share of that growing market, brands were the first to ‘create’ that market. Then, sponsorships allowed a few of the top athletes to achieve their passion being sponsored for running in the mountains. By now, races have popped out everywhere, throwing more athletes in the mix and to higher levels, money was a question raised more and more, as a logical extension of that market now generating millions of dollars worldwide. And I believe it’s a good thing. Now, the frame of my perception of trail running is set, let’s set a perfect vision.
First, I believe all the people who are bitching that race-entry fees, gear, footwear, and what not are too expensive, they can go run in the mountains in their undies or better yet try and put together a race. Ranting has never made anything better.
Second, the money to support the athletes in the sport would come from running brands, as sponsorships and/or bonuses. Since a brand cares for their athletes’ images, as per say it’s associated with their own brand image, they will ensure positive and inspiring behaviour, not to mention the obvious ‘clean’ state of the athlete. I firmly believe that trail runners are not dumb people. And if one can obtain valuable results, one should be able to promote themselves to get support. This would also allow runners to chose races for their history, epic course, more than, “Oh yeah, there’s is a massive amount of cash for first, so I’ll go give it a shot.”
Prize money, I still say yes, at one condition, drug testing. For each race that offers prize money, each runners who is eligible to receive cash only shall receive the money if they are part of the government drug testing list that Olympic athletes are on. We run ultra distance, I think we can handle the pain of a needle.
And finally, the peak of my utopia is mountains, mountains, mountains! Races for many people like me are a way to explore new mountains, with like-minded people and a recommended route that should keep the danger level as low as possible. (Let’s hammer this one more time: there is never zero risk in the mountains.) And I’ll extend that to one more step, elite runners and mass runners will have to run different races. That most likely will make people think I’m a elitist douche. Well, that’s okay because, one, I don’t mind people not liking me, and, two, sometimes I really am that elitist douche! Being from Europe, I see races with thousands of participants. Where the heck is the feeling of adventure when surrounded by hundreds of participants anyway?
People don’t have the same training, the same level of fitness, the same technical skills, and that’s okay! You can’t challenge each ‘group level’ with the same course. An easier course will fit the masses but become boring for the elites, and a hard course will please the elites but become a major danger to the masses. One approach that I really like and will support as much as possible is the ELS Alpine Run.
iRunFar: How and when do you actually unwind, slow down, and take it easy?
Gaffuri: Ah! I am tempted to say at night since I need a lot of sleep, but quite often my mind plays tricks on me and keeps challenging me in my sleep. Basically, I take it easy when I get to turn off my brain, not my legs. It happens a few weeks a year, where I remain completely Internet free. It usually leads to 12-plus-hour nights and I end up getting sick as my body and mind are too relaxed… a good reason to keep the pace full speed. :-)