Jonathan Wyatt on his way to victory in Wellington (© Tomo Šarf)
Jonathan Wyatt is the ‘Mr Versatile of the endurance running world. A sub-28 minute 10,000m runner on the track, an accomplished cross country athlete and a Olympic marathoner the 33-year-old Kiwi is a gifted all-round athlete in the privileged position of being able to choose to compete at a high level on a variety of terrains.
And yet Wyatt feels most at home attacking gruelling and punishing climbs into the sky – he is a five-time World Mountain Running champion (World Mountain Running Trophy), the undisputed King of the Mountains.
With a wiry light frame the New Zealander, who attended the same High School – Hutt Valley – as Commonwealth 1500m champion Nick Willis, is the ideal build for ascents to the point where he has almost proved untouchable in the discipline of uphill mountain running.
Wyatt, a 5000m semi-finalist at the 1996 Atlanta Games, failed to finish over the distance at the following year’s World Championships in Athletics, Athens, after falling sick.
Lacking in motivation for track running a friend suggested he give a mountain race a go in his homeland in 1997 and less than a year after taking up the sport he won the first of his five World titles in La Reunion.
“I’ve always been a very strong cross country runner,” said Wyatt, “more so than on the track. I was always put on the hilly leg in road relays and I am a bit of a natural on the hills. I came over to Europe in 1998 and I really enjoyed the lifestyle, living and training in the mountains. It is a nice close-knit community with a real family atmosphere. I not only get along with the other athletes but also the race organisers and directors.”
World titles followed in 2000, 2002 and 2004 and since then he has pretty much dominated the uphill global scene.
The downhill element notorious for its daredevil descents – is an area he has generally steered clear from in the past to avoid injury and lengthen his career.
Wellington – a once in a career experience
In 2005, however, he decided to enter the uphill/downhill World Championships held in his home city of Wellington and did not disappoint his supporters.
“It would certainly be one the highlights of my career,” he said. “The chance doesn’t come around too often to compete in front of 10 or 12,000 home fans and it is something that is probably not going to happen again.”
Not ideal preparation
Wyatt trains an average of between 90-95 miles a week and these days rarely returns to his native land. He lives at 1000 metres altitude near the town of Bolzano in the Italian Dolomites, where he lives with his girlfriend, Antonella Confortola, an Olympic cross country skiing bronze medallist in Turin.
But while his partner became an Olympic medallist this year, Wyatt lost his World Mountain Running title in unfortunate circumstances.
Two days before the event in Bursa, Turkey he was running the race course when he was attacked by two dogs. He was hospitalised, given five injections and anti-rabies tablets.
Wyatt explains: “Before an event you hope things are as secure as they can be but I suppose you can’t control everything. The dogs were protecting their area and both got me on the backside and on to the ground before help came.”
But although Wyatt describes the experience as not “ideal preparation” for defending a World title the tough-as-teak Kiwi refused to pull out and bravely finished second behind Colombia’s Rolando Ortiz.
There is little doubt Wyatt can be a force to be reckoned with for some years to come in mountain running. Yet one of the perplexing elements to this strand of the sport has been the lack of Africans, who despite their dominance on the track, road and country, have been virtually invisible in mountain running.
While Wyatt does not dismiss their threat he has an interesting theory as to why this has not happened.
“I don’t think with their long flowing style Kenyans, for example, are not as naturally suited to running the hills as they are on flat ground,” he explained. “The mountains require a shorter stride. I also think the manager’s of these athlete play a big role in telling them to run road races rather than the mountains. But if they are a top quality runner they will run well on the mountains.”
Olympic Marathon target for 2008
Wyatt, however, plans to scale down his mountain running next year to concentrate on the marathon with a view to the Beijing Olympics keen to add to his appearances in Atlanta and Athens (he was 21st in the Marathon). He intends to run a spring marathon next year in either Hamburg or Zurich in an effort to gain the as yet unspecified Olympic qualification mark set by New Zealand and he has not ruled out having a bash at the New York Marathon next autumn.
But while he will “dabble” with mountain running next year the bigger picture is Beijing.
“I would like to improve on Athens,” said Wyatt. “A top 20 place is the minimum aim. I’m not saying I can win a medal but my dream would be a top ten finish.”
Steve Landells for the IAAF