The Modern Caveman: Conrad Stoltz

  • By Holly Bennett
  • Published Oct 26, 2012
Photo: Nick Salazar

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.

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