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A childhood in South Africa’s bundu helped shape Conrad “the Caveman” Stoltz into the greatest off-road triathlete in history, and training in these wild lands in a wild way has him fitter and faster than ever.
This article was originally published in the July/August 2011 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine. Check back to Triathlete.com for coverage from this weekend’s Xterra World Championship, where Stoltz will look to regain his title.
“Proud.” That’s the translation of Conrad Stoltz’s German-derived surname. Yet it could easily mean free-spirited, fun-loving, unorthodox, sweet-tempered, humble, endearingly disorganized, outrageously talented or pretty darn tough—because Conrad Stoltz is all that and more. Chances are you’ve heard a tale or two about Stoltz’s eccentric, South African bush-born, farm-bred nature. The abundant Stoltz lore offers a glimpse of the curiously complex—yet never complicated—man. He’s a man who has raced triathlons for more than 20 years, earned early success on the ITU circuit, competed in the Sydney and Athens Olympics, and who has dominated the Xterra off-road format, winning an unprecedented four world titles and the inaugural ITU Cross Triathlon World Championships in Extremadura, Spain, in April. He is a man with his sights set squarely on a fifth Xterra world title, and there’s even talk of an Olympic bid in the time trial.
Indeed, Stoltz’s day-to-day reality is the stuff of legends—the stuff that expressly earns his oft-used nickname, the Caveman.
“He’s as tough as iron when you meet him on the race course,” says longtime friend, former training partner and global sports marketing manager for Specialized Bicycles, Bobby Behan. “But off the course he’s a true gentleman. He’s gentle like a bunny.”
But bunnies beware: Steer clear of the Caveman. In the late ’90s, Stoltz trained with a group of South African triathletes on the Olympic short list, living together in an old farmhouse in the village of Cahors in Southern France. Driving home from a swim session one morning, Stoltz struck a rabbit.
“I hopped out and saw that luckily I hit it in the head only. Well, not so lucky for the rabbit. I took it home, skinned it and cooked it with red wine and rosemary,” Stoltz recalled. “One of my training partners looked in the oven and was shocked to see that our ‘chicken’ had four legs!”
Stoltz’s resourcefulness was ingrained at an early age. Says his father, Gert Stoltz, “I gave him a copy of the booklet issued to the bush pilots, ‘Don’t Die in the Bundu.’ I think he must have tried out every bit of advice given on survival. He would disappear for the day and return in the afternoon covered in dust, and of course famished.”
His legendary cycling skills were honed early on as well.
“Conrad’s life virtually started on a bike,” claims the elder Stoltz. “As a high school teacher I cycled to work with Conrad on the top tube, dropping him off at the crèche on the way. When he got on his first bike—a pink one we bought from a swap shop—he just rode off. Perfect balance. He must have been all of 3 years old.”
Stoltz stuck with cycling, not only for pleasure but as necessary transport.
“I was never driven to school—I had to cycle the 4K no matter the weather. Because I hated school so much I was always the last to arrive. Many a morning I had to time trial flat out to avoid being late. When I had time I would detour and ride through the dirt.”
The example set by Conrad’s parents (Gert and Liesbeth) for their only child was a strong one, ripe with equal parts compassion and tough love.
“I once showed him a dung beetle that was trying to roll his ball of dung up a very steep incline,” Gert Stoltz recalled. “The ball kept rolling back, but the beetle kept retrieving the ball and pressing forward. I said to Conrad, ‘That’s how one should live one’s life. One never gives up.’”
It only takes a glance at Gert Stoltz to see where this school-of-hard-knocks resilience originates. Friends call him Tarzan for a reason.
“The man is cut,” Behan said, “and not from the gym, but from hard work. At 67 [years old] he’s got a six-pack, a bulging chest, biceps, triceps—he’s utterly ripped.”
Conrad Stoltz’s rural roots and his parents’ penchant for the outdoors instilled a love of nature, which resonates deep within the Caveman to this day.
“You’ll only ever meet the real Caveman on the farm,” Stoltz admitted. “Perfectly calm, collected, centered and totally in touch with my surroundings.”
The farm he refers to—a working cattle farm—is his family home in Mpumalanga (“the place where the sun rises”), deep in the South African bush. It was a weekend and holiday retreat from Pretoria during Stoltz’s childhood and has since been his parents’ full-time home. There’s limited solar electricity, powering five lights for the entire place as well as Internet access. The connection is weather-dependent—a few cloudy days can literally cut the farm off the grid. In 2008, lacking a proper pool, Stoltz famously hand-dug a single-lane sandbag-lined 25-meter ditch to enable his swim training while on the farm.
Grit and sacrifice are no strangers to the Stoltz family. Liesbeth Stoltz’s father qualified for the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics in the 880 yards and the mile. But he was a sheep farmer and could not be three months away from the farm—competing in the Games involved taking a train to Cape Town followed by a ship to Amsterdam. Despite his grandfather’s forfeit of the Olympic dream, athletics have always played a primary role in the immediate clan of the Caveman. His father coached track and field, and his mother taught PT (the South African equivalent of American PE), and when Stoltz took on triathlon, Liesbeth Stoltz found the sport to her liking, working her way through various federations to her current post as president of the African Triathlon Union.
The young Stoltz’s first multisport competition was an IronKids event at the age of 14, followed soon after by a father-son sprint race.
“There were older boys and younger fathers in the race,” Gert Stoltz recalled. “But when I said, ‘Let’s go!’ we outsprinted them all.”
Stoltz was seldom beaten in any triathlon. When he won the African Championships in 1993 as a 19-year-old he caused a stir. When he won the South African Championships the following year there could be no doubt of his sporting talent. That made it easier for Stoltz’s parents to bid adieu as he pursued a professional triathlon career in France.
“Our only condition was that he sustain himself,” Gert Stoltz said. “Otherwise he had to come back and start a ‘real’ life. It was quite a hard time for him, but I am sure the dung beetle philosophy pulled him through. Although Conrad is a very likeable and caring person, he has a head as hard as a rock, and once made up, is not going to change it for anything. Combine that determination with talent, courage, fearlessness and a relaxed temperament, and you have the makings of a great athlete.”
Stoltz’s early experience overseas was far from easy. From his base in Cahors, he traveled the country, chasing money and glory—or at least adventure. One weekend, he hopped a train for Le Triathlon Internationale de Narbonne, a prominent race where the organizer had agreed to meet him and provide accommodation for the night. The race director was a no-show, and with hotel prices in the touristy enclave beyond his hand-to-mouth means, Stoltz dined on a can of corn and pondered his options.
“I figured the police station might have a vacancy. Probably not too spacious and I couldn’t be guaranteed a view, but certainly within my budget. I reckoned sharing space with supervised criminals was safer than sleeping under a bridge or on a park bench,” Stoltz reminisced.
The bemused gendarme gave the “Triathlète Sud-Africain” a lengthy once-over, but agreed to let him sleep on the hard foyer floor, bedded down atop his bike bag and amidst a smattering of cigarette butts.
“My dad would say, ‘Every year you come home with nothing but a big bag of dirty laundry. You better pull up your socks and make a living,’” Stoltz said. “I was really shy back then—English was my second language—so to go after sponsors was very hard. It took a huge mind shift. Rugby and cricket were the only sports where you could earn money at that time in South Africa. My parents were supportive, but they also gave me a kick in the backside when I needed one.”
Nowadays, the financial side of things may be easier, but Stoltz is hardly swayed by the trappings of wealth. As Behan said, “He’s not superficial in any way whatsoever. He still drives this Toyota Cressida his dad bought back in 1988. It’s falling apart, but that doesn’t bother Conrad. He’s such a down-to-earth, low-key guy. It’s one of the things you love about him. He would never tell you he’s a world champion.”
The only fancy gadgets that do impress the Caveman are those that allow him to play hard and fast—bikes and motorcycles.
“My mountain bikes and dirt bikes combine two of my passions—nature and the challenge of negotiating technical terrain. Covering beautiful, rugged terrain at high speed helps me balance my mental and physical game,” Stoltz said.
His longtime sponsorship with Specialized (Stoltz is the longest-term sponsored athlete currently racing in the elite ranks for the cycling company) is a perfect pairing. It affords Stoltz direct access to the latest and greatest toys—which he frequently breaks and needs replaced. The relationship also allows him to provide the most extreme field-testing imaginable for the company. Says Behan, “He’s a big guy and he’s really hard on his equipment. I mean really hard. Instead of finding the smooth line, Conrad rides straight through, and whatever the hell is in the way, he hits it. We basically have to custom-make tires for him that are Caveman-proof. He’s tough on his gear but he also communicates in an incredibly articulate way how the equipment performs and how it might be improved. When it comes to R&D, his feedback is indispensable. He’s the reason we have the Epic 29er down to almost nine kilos.”
Stoltz rarely lets mechanical failures derail his rides. “Armed with a big rock or an old inner-tube, I can usually fix anything,” the Caveman claims.
Stoltz has been vital to the development of Avia’s trail shoes as well, and he takes great pride in his namesake model, the Avia Avi-Stoltz. He also derives an edgy sort of pleasure in showing how the shoe’s color palette balances against the red of a bloodied foot. On more than one occasion, Stoltz has finished an Xterra run bathed in red—nowhere more frighteningly than in the 2009 Xterra Richmond race. Having gouged his foot on an underwater rusty steel girder at the swim start, and sporting a makeshift bandage, Stoltz raced to victory before finally succumbing to shock and blood loss. Emergency surgery immediately followed, along with a second surgery soon after to battle an ensuing infection—largely due to Stoltz’s insistence on training with the intent to race one week after the original injury.
“When I was 18, I almost lost the same foot after I got a bad case of gangrene from a chainring gash,” Stoltz recalled. “I was scheduled to race ITU worlds a few weeks later, and I begged the doctor not to cut my foot. I had no idea how serious it was. The doc said he thought the gangrene had gone into the ankle joint and he’d have to amputate. But I was so young he wanted to give me a fighting chance. After some hectic surgery he told me to forget this pro sports thing—I probably wouldn’t run again. Within weeks I was cycling one-legged. Ten months later I won the All African Triathlon title in a three-man sprint.”
Then there was the wrist. In 2005, Stoltz broke the scaphoid bone in his hand and tore the cartilage in his wrist. The doctor threatened a series of screws and bone transplants if Stoltz did not adhere to strict orders—three weeks of complete rest, followed by a gradual return to the treadmill and the indoor trainer. So Stoltz ran hard on the beach and trails, mountain-biked and even wake-boarded. Sick of the stench from the sweat-drenched cast, Stoltz had a friend slice the plaster open with an angle grinder. He washed it thoroughly, replaced the cotton gauze with a Gore-Tex T-shirt, drilled ventilation holes all over the cast and zip-tied it back together. His doctor was mortified.
Stoltz explains his lack of patience: “Overcoming injuries caused by trauma seems a lot easier to deal with than overuse injuries. We athletes recover much faster than normal people. And after the horrific things I see the cattle recover from, I think we tend to be a bit sorry for ourselves.”
While the Caveman’s approach to injury may follow a “grunt and go forward” philosophy, his athletic record could easily belie an athlete whose every minute is tied to a tightly disciplined training regimen. But Stoltz is the last person to lay out an organized plan. Early on, he trained under the tutelage of notoriously hard-driving triathlon coach Brett Sutton (lasting all of six weeks), followed by a decade with South Africa’s ITU sport development director Libby Burrell. Then, feeling he knew his own body best and preferring a less structured approach, Stoltz set out on his own.
In 2009, however, struggling with a return to form following the Richmond foot incident, Stoltz looked up former colleague Ian Rodger.
“In 1999, as part of the Olympic team selection we had a series of lab tests. Ian was the sport scientist in charge. Halfway through my Peak Power test he called the rest of the staff to ‘come watch something special.’ I was pushing 512 watts,” Stoltz said.
Stoltz found his old friend on Facebook. Their newly paired training method emphasizes minimalism, yet produces undeniably powerful results.
“We train as little as possible to still be able to win. Whereas everyone else trains as much as they can and hopes for the best,” Stoltz said.
PHOTOS: A Day With Conrad Stoltz
When asked about his peak training volume, he confesses, “I have no idea. Maybe 20 hours? Ask Ian. All I know is that 8K is a good swimming week, training seems easier than ever and I don’t feel like I need three months on the couch at the end of the season.”
He continues, “Last year, at 37, I was the fastest I had ever been. That’s a very powerful thought. Age is not my limiting factor.”
Motivation doesn’t seem to be, either.
“I’m not that goal-driven. I enjoy the journey more than being able to say ‘I did (blank).’ Although being world champion does feel much better than not being world champ.”
Behan has first-hand experience with Stoltz’s casual attitude toward training.
“He’s the best procrastinator in the world. When we trained together, everything would be put off. At 10 o’clock at night he’d say, ‘Shit, I have to train!’ We’d end up running through the middle of Jonkershoek Nature Reserve in the pitch black. I’d be deathly worried about snakes—a reasonable thing to worry about in Africa—thinking, ‘This is the Caveman—I’m in trouble!’”
Indeed, Stoltz’s preference for procrastination often puts his training after dark. He also tends toward some rather unusual sessions. After his twice-over foot surgery, he finally followed his doctor’s orders for a tediously slow return to running.
“I hadn’t run for three months. Then I was cleared to run for six minutes. Every second day. Then eight minutes. Every second day. Finally, one day I could run pain-free. I was a new man. I ran shirtless on a warm African evening on my beloved grassy sports field at Stellenbosch University. The full moon was up over the silhouette of the mountains. I was floating along as if on a cloud. I felt incredibly alive. In fact, I felt so alive I decided that running without any clothes would make me feel even more alive. It did. Every now and then I would pass through the sprinklers, which was even more fun.”
Despite his semi-bohemian lifestyle, Stoltz is not one to shy away from hard work.
“When we were training under Libby, she couldn’t figure out why we were always so tired, why I had blisters all over my hands,” recounts Behan. “Conrad had had me help renovate his house in Stellenbosch. It was hard manual labor, working a sledgehammer for days. He’s not afraid to get down and dirty if there’s work to be done. He spends his off-season laboring on the farm. And he’ll rope you in if he can. He roped me in, and I’ve never been back for that sort of work!”
Behan’s obvious admiration for his friend stems in part from this man-of-the-land ethic: “He’s grown up hard. He really is a caveman; there’s no other way of saying it. He’s an enigma. I’ve never met another guy like him. And yet there’s no badness in Conrad. There’s not a bad bone in his body. He would never wish anyone ill,” Behan said.
Not to say there’s nothing that ruffles the Caveman’s fur. When asked what irks him, he answers without hesitation, “Cheats, smokers and arrogance. In that order.”
Stoltz is a popular figure in small-town Stellenbosch, the endurance sports hub of South Africa and his home away from the farm. Dan Hugo, South Africa’s next generation of Xterra athlete and likely someday successor to Stoltz’s crown, speaks with reverence for the local icon.
“As 12 years my senior, Conrad played a lead role in my corruption from clean-cut high school student to athlete journeying the road less traveled,” Hugo said. “His infectious perspective, paving his way to the top with a casual yet passionate ‘doing-it-my-way’ approach inspired me to go against conventional wisdom. It was mythical and appealing, this Stoltz thing.”
Of course, boys will be boys, even if an icon, and Stoltz loves nothing more than a prankish laugh. Recalls Hugo, “A favorite memory is of Conrad trying to fit a condom over his plaster of Paris wrist cast so he could compete in a post-race midnight naked mile swim, kitted with fins and a boogie board. I unfortunately lost the lot between three guys and had to purchase the rubber.”
Now, Stoltz and Hugo compete side-by-side as Specialized teammates.
“I still idolize much of the character, the defiance, that is Conrad,” Hugo said. “I get the impression he often enjoys racing more than any other. It’s a style that never takes it too seriously but will crush you around the first swim buoy.”
Never too seriously, that is, until the 2010 Xterra World Championship, a race dedicated to his father. Gert Stoltz may seem like a firm man, the kind whose feelings remain inside, who greets his only son with a strong handshake and a smile after spending the majority of the year a continent apart. But the bond between father and son Stoltz is clearly apparent. According to Behan, “It’s not the kind of relationship where they’re hugging and saying, ‘I love you.’ But the deep respect and love is there in the silence. In the quiet between the two, the love and pride is obvious.”
Stoltz’s love for his father was never more evident than in the raw satisfaction he exhibited at the finish of the 2010 race. Gert Stoltz had successfully battled colon cancer a few years prior. Yet the disease reared up again in June 2010, and by October the ever-stoic elder Stoltz had taken a turn for the worse.
“Usually I just race for myself. But the 2010 Xterra worlds was much more emotional,” the younger Stoltz recounted. “When my dad started getting really sick I wanted to go home, support him and help my mom run the farm. But my dad said no, that I must race worlds and make him proud.”
And race he did, demolishing the field by more than five minutes (the second largest margin of victory in Xterra World Championship history) and crossing the line with a look of pure primal ferocity.
“My dad is an exceptionally proud man, so it was the only time I crossed the line with built-up aggression,” Stoltz acknowledged.
The victory certainly seems to have been bigger than the race in which it was won—since March 2011 Gert Stoltz’s health has dramatically improved.
Though the Caveman possesses absurd strength, it’s his softer side that is core to his being—an aspect which teammate Hugo has witnessed.
“You need only see some of his photography, or his smile when talking about fly-fishing, to appreciate the subtle sides to the man,” Hugo said.
Ask Stoltz about his budding new romance and you’ll swear he sounds like a gushing schoolgirl. As he proclaimed in a recent blog post titled “The Caveman Has Met His Match,” he has forged a fast connection with now-fiancée Liezel Wium, a South African professional netball player. [Since the writing of this article, Stoltz and Wium were married.]
“We spent a weekend on a friend’s houseboat three weeks and six days after we started dating. We had a lot of quality time together, and by the way we bonded I knew there was no point beating around the bush. We get on like a house on fire. The cliché is right: You’ll know when you know. We’re not traditional and we don’t care what people think.”
What people do think is that it just might be the greatest athletic pairing to grace South Africa’s green and gold.
“The joke in Stellenbosch is, ‘When those genes mix, the kids will test positive without taking drugs!’” laughs Stoltz.
As for the legacy of the Caveman, perhaps the future is best portended from his angle toward the present.
“I want to feel really alive. Every day if I can. For that I need regular doses of adventure, adrenaline, lactic acid, caffeine, chocolate, love, nature. You create your world by what you think and talk about, so I try to stick to the things I like and ignore the negatives as much as I can.”
It’s easy to imagine those nighttime runs, under the full moon and the South African sky, will continue to figure prominently, whatever Stoltz’s future holds.