Sherpa is good

Sherpa is good

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Into the Wild: John Yatsko

This article was original published in Mud Run Guide on August 4, 2015.

If you think you know John Yatsko, but you don’t know him personally, there is a good chance that you don’t know really him at all. Perceived as smug, dismissive, and blunt - there is much more to the story...

As it will become clear, I am a John Yatsko apologist. I am not saying that John is perfect, or even that he should be emulated. I am just saying that he is, for the most part, misunderstood and misinterpreted.

Of course, John would have no interest in my explanation. He would most likely discourage it. He is content to just be who he is and he does not worry about what other people think of him.

And yet...

Outside of my wife, Rose Wetzel, few people in the OCR community know John as well as I do, and it is from that position that I frequently feel compelled to explain. Not to defend him, really, because in the end we all need to take responsibility for our words and actions, but rather to fill in the missing pieces; to provide context that might help in the translation.

The first time I ever saw John Yatsko was the first time anyone in OCR saw him; at the starting line of the Spartan Temecula Super in January of 2014. He stood out not only because he was a stranger in the elite OCR crowd, but because he had worked his way up towards the front of the starting line. His long blonde hair had a Hunter-esque quality to it, and his shorts were in the style of Hobie Call. If you go back and watch the video of that race, John held back at the start, accelerating slowly. But it didn’t take long for him to make his presence known.

John finished in third place that day, behind Hobie and Hunter, and he showed up on Sunday with a look of determination. I remember that start very well, because this time our eyes were on the new kid, and with Hobie not racing, everyone was wondering whether he could get the victory over Hunter. What I remember most was his now famous “Yatsko hop,” right before the start, and the speed with which he blew off the starting line. Many people around me were laughing, because we all knew that no one else in that heat was going to be able to run that pace for very long.

But the obstacles slowed John down just enough to let Hunter do what Hunter does. And on that day, Hunter would once again stand atop the podium, with John in second. It was a good weekend for John’s entrance in to the sport, and it was the beginning of what would become a long string of victories.

It is interesting to see how someone who is so short on words can be such a polarizing figure. It’s easy for people to read, and take sides in, the on-line battles between Hunter and Bear, but John had a Facebook page for only a brief moment in time (which he never really posted on), and he eventually got rid of his cell phone. John was mostly quiet; like, Cody Moat kind of quiet.

To some, John came across as being smug or arrogant, especially in the beginning. He didn’t usually say much, and when he did, it was direct and to the point. He is a black and white, tell it like it is, kind of guy, and he doesn’t spend much time dwelling in the nuances. As for racing, he would definitely rather beat you than to talk about beating you.

Whatever lack of social etiquette you might want to attribute to him, he was equally as honest. Sometimes uncomfortably so. For instance, I remember the athlete panel at the Spartan World Championship when John was asked about the Vermont course. His response was basically that Killington was not such a big deal compared to the mountains he trained on right outside of his backyard. While many took the answer to be arrogant and disrespectful, the fact is, it was true, as can be verified by anyone who trained with John in Flagstaff. John was just stating it exactly how he saw it.

Despite his laid-back manner, John was calculating with his workouts. They were frequently long and grueling. While many just viewed John as a fast runner, he worked diligently to get better at the climbs and carries. His casual nature gave the impression that this was all natural and easy to him, but he worked hard behind the scenes.

There was another aspect to John that some people didn’t care for, and that was what appeared to be his borderline contempt for the sport he was dominating. He made it clear to everyone that he was just there to earn money to pay off his school loans. Before I knew John very well, this attitude mystified me a little bit as well, until I learned why he thought the way he did.

John loves running. And he has a great deal of respect for good runners. Rob Krar, the now famous ultra runner, lived across the street from John in Flagstaff, and John used to say that because of Rob, he wasn’t even the fastest guy on his block. If you asked John how he felt about OCR he would tell you that he finished 180th place at the 2011 NCAA Cross Country Nationals, and then he suddenly started winning all of these obstacle course races, so clearly OCR must not really be a serious sport with serious athletes. In his eyes, he couldn’t reconcile how he could be winning in a legitimate sport if he was not even close to being one of the top runners in the country.

Rose was one of the first to explain to John that OCR is not just about running, and that he was successful because he was fast, strong, and had good climbing skills. She convinced him that most of the 179 runners who beat him at cross-country nationals weren’t strong enough to be successful at OCR; that this was an entirely different sport that demanded a much different skill set. She must have made an impression, because around October 2014, I remember John telling me that he was starting to really enjoy the races and the athletes and the OCR environment.

It seems unfair to talk about the issues that some people had with John without also talking about all of his supporters. A number of people approached John after every race to chat or grab a photo with him, and I imagine most of the people on the race circuit might describe him as “more personable” as time went on. This was mostly due to John’s reserved and cautious personality, but I believe he also just got more comfortable with the sport and his place in it.

There was a 15 year old girl who was a huge fan of his. She wrote John a letter, and John asked Rose to bring a copy of Mud and Obstacle to a race with her so that they could both sign it and mail it to the girl. I believe he even attended her birthday party, which was held close to Flagstaff.

To most, John was known as the guy who didn’t own a computer or a phone, and who camped out in the hills the night before races. Although NBC didn’t mention it during the Montana Spartan Sprint episode, many of us knew that the Montana race was the last one John planned on doing this year. The rumor was that now that he had graduated, he was heading up to Alaska to get on a fishing boat.

Rose and I spoke to John in the parking lot after the Montana race, knowing that this might be the last time we ever saw him. Even John didn’t seem certain of what he was going to do, and he kind of liked it that way. His life was an open book now, and he didn’t seem to be in a hurry to write too many pages ahead.

I don’t recall now exactly how John found out about my health condition. I may have emailed him an update, along with the latest OCR news and gossip. What I do recall is that John called me on the fourth of July to ask me about it. That’s when I learned that he wasn’t actually on a fishing boat, but that he was having an Into the Wild type adventure in Alaska.

A month after the Montana race, John had flown up to Anchorage and bought a touring bicycle on Craigslist. He pedaled up to Fairbanks, and then eventually over to Whitehorse, and then down to Skagway. From there he took a ferry to Bellingham, Washington, where he kept riding south.

I know all of this because John knocked on our front door, in Seattle, the night of July 26th, after cycling almost 1300 miles. He stayed with us for two days, and we had a chance to catch up.

In that time, I got John to agree to an interview. I wasn’t sure he would go for it, because while he has no problem opening up to his close friends, he’s still not one to open up to the general public. Perhaps I asked nicely. At any rate, here it is:

Hey John

Thank you for taking a moment to sit down and chat. Welcome to Seattle. It’s nice to see you.

JY: Great to be here, Tim. It’s always a pleasure

TS: At the Montana race, you made it known that it might be your last Spartan Race of the season. What was your reason for the break? And what have you been doing since then?

JY: I realize this is an odd time for an obstacle racer to choose for a break, but it is an obvious choice for a student. I finished my master’s degree the day before the Montana Race, got rid of everything I couldn’t carry, and headed north for one last race while I was still in decent shape. I wanted to take this opportunity while I still have no debts and no responsibilities to do what I’ve always wanted to. So I found a bike on Craigslist in Anchorage and started riding.

TS: What was life in Alaska like? How did you enjoy all of that time on a bike? Give us a “day in the life” look. What was a “best day/worst day”?

JY: Alaska was incredible. I loved it. The high point, surprisingly, was Nenana. I had never heard of it before I rode into town and it’s not the place most people write home about, but it drew me in. I stayed there on the river for three weeks in the same squatter’s shack Jerry Riley used to win the 1976 Iditarod. If you think OCR athletes are tough, go hang out with some dog mushers. Those guys take the cake. As far as low points, the whole first week was an absolute junk show. Day 5 stands out in my memory as the worst. Everything hurt and it rained for 200 miles straight. It wouldn’t have been so bad if I had had waterproof gear, but I didn’t. That was the only time I remember questioning whether the ride was a good idea.

TS: Would you go back?

JY: After cycling through rush hour in Seattle, I wish I’d never left.

TS: What are you plans for the next few months?

JY: I’m trying not to plan things so much. I’m tired of planning. I don’t have any specific destination or time frame. I’m just going.

TS: So, this is what everyone wants to know; will John Yatsko be at the Spartan World Championships?

JY: At this point, the best I can say is probably not. I expect to be somewhere in Mexico by then.

TS: You are known for being a little bit of an outlier in the Spartan World; no cell phone, camping out in the hills the night before a race, etc… Tell us a little about the philosophy of John Yatsko, as you are currently living/thinking about it.

JY: Some people might wonder why I don’t race more often or get a “real job”, and my answer is this: I don’t need any more money. I own one pair of clothes and a lightly loaded bicycle. That’s all I have and I’m happy with it. I will not toil away my best years to save up for a house or some big retirement plan. I prefer to live modestly and continue investing in myself. That way I can make a living whenever and wherever I need to. In other words, I choose to live a Spartan lifestyle. I think our society has a lot to learn from ancient Sparta. However, that does not include arrogance or militarism. We have those down already. If you look up Spartan in the dictionary, this is what you will find:
“Spartan (adj.) marked by simplicity, frugality, or avoidance of luxury and comfort”.

TS: Speaking of philosophy, you and I had a conversation about the Bhagavad Gita last night, what other books do you find inspirational and/or thought provoking?

JY: I try to read as broadly as possible. If I have to pick a few books that have had an impact on me, I’ll go with the Tao Te Ching, Emerson’s essay on Self-Reliance, and Thoreau’s essay on Life Without Principle.

TS: Do you have any parting thoughts for the OCR world?

JY: Big thanks to Spartan Race for all their support and to everyone who has cheered me on along the way. It still astounds me that there are people who care about what I do, but apparently they’re out there. So I thought I would let them know what I’m up to. That said, they may not hear from me for some time. I don’t have a camera and I don’t do the blog thing. I’m not here to document my existence. If I don’t come back, assume I’m dead, in jail, or married. But whatever happens, I’ll be at peace with the decisions I’ve made.

TS: Final thing: What is your “top five” prediction for Spartan World Championships??

JY: Well, we can expect Cody to make things interesting by rallying to the lead after failing at least six obstacles early on, only to be out-kicked for the win by up-and-coming ultra runner Miguel Medina. I predict Ryan Atkins and Jon Albon to have a close battle for third until a volunteer directs them off course. They’ll be found days later, still neck and neck, racing through Desolation Wilderness. The Bear will pick out the 200 lb sandbag from the pile and put himself out of contention. This will leave Chad, Glenn, Isaiah, and Ryan Kent in a close race for the last podium spot. But at the last minute, David Magida will appear out of a puff of smoke to snatch third. Meanwhile, Hunter will be hard at work resurrecting his modeling career, and the sprint specialists, Brakken and Hobie, sidelined by mysterious injuries, will make a heroic comeback the following weekend to podium at Warrior Dash.

So there you have it, my predictions for the 2015 Spartan Championship:
1. Miguel Medina
2. Cody Moat
3. David Magida
4. Chad Trammel
5. Glenn Racz
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