Mongolia's first-ever youth skyrunner is Natsagdorj Luvansharav. There is a great story here.
I arrived at the Youth World Skyrunning Championships in Fonte Cerreto, Italy, earlier than the athletes. I had registered for the meet referees' course that consisted of many hours of training, both written and physical. I passed the final evaluations and became, in the words of my instructor Paulo Pires of Portugal, “North America's best skyrunning referee.” I am now the first and only certified skyrunning referee in North America!
My very first assignment as a referee was to work the starting line at the Youth Skyrace at the World Youth Championships. I chose the starting line because I thought it would be the least likely place on the course where I may be involved in a decision to disqualify an athlete, something I dreaded.
The Skyrace includes a vertical climb of 1,000 meters, followed by a 21K run around up and over several steep mountain peaks that are nearly 3,000 meters in elevation. It ends with a steep vertical descent over rocks and scree. It is a grueling race.
The runners are required to carry specific gear that provides for their safety and protects them from the elements. This gear must be carried in a pack that includes water, food, a thermal blanket, a windbreaker with a hood, head covering, ID and a cellphone or GPS tracking device.
It is the responsibility of the meet referee to check that all athletes both start and finish with this gear. If an athlete is missing any one item they are prohibited from participation.
I called athletes to the start and I carefully inspected the gear of each individual. When Luvsansharav arrived at the check-in, his pack was missing most of the required items. At first I thought, “Is this a setup? Are they testing me as a meet referee?”
Those who know me as an educator know that I have a tendency to circumvent “the rules” when it comes to the welfare and participation of a student or athlete. This would not be the first time administrators would put me to the test!
Disqualifying an athlete before he gets a chance to run would be awful. After all, this guy came all the way from Mongolia! I tried to communicate with the athlete. He did not speak English, Spanish or Italian. I turned to the head referee Paulo and told him the situation. Paulo spotted the athlete’s father in the crowd and was able to communicate with the dad. He explained that the athlete was missing many items and would not be able to participate.
What happened next: The spectators in the crowd rallied, producing a thermal blanket and all the necessary gear. Luvsansharav's gear was inspected and he grabbed a place near the back of the starting line with no time to spare.
Oh yes – by the way, Luvsansharav won the gold. He is Mongolia's first-ever World Skyrunning Champion!
The support of his fellow competitors, spectators, and yes, even the officials, helped get him in the race and achieve the top step on the podium. I have coached runners and skiers for nearly five decades. Never have I witnessed this display of cooperation.
As I said to the Czech coach in discussing the interval starts -- I love the interval starts. As a runner passes another, they encourage the runner they are passing to run with them -- “It is not me against you, it is all of us against the mountain.”
When you are a skyrunner, you are part of a family. We are all in this together!
Thanks, World Skyrunning community. You are a special group of human beings! Thanks especially to Paulo Pires for being a great mentor and role model to all skyrunning referees. You could have said no gear, no race. Instead, you worked for the athlete, not against him. You were firm, yet compassionate. I look forward to working together with you in the future.
In America we have an expression for what occurred. We say, “It takes a village.” Thank you to “the village of skyrunners” for providing this experience and to Natsagdorj, congratulations. See you next year!
Editor’s note: John Kerrigan of Duxbury is a coach and co-founder of the U.S. Youth Skyrunning program and traveled to Gran Sasso, Abruzzo, Italy, for the Youth Skyrunning World Championships held August 4-6.