If you talk to people living in the world of mountain running they will all tell you there is this amazing race in Zegama you cannot miss. It attracts year after year some of the very best long distance mountain runners and is a core race of the skyrunning world series.
After I saw last years race report on youtube I knew I would have to do this race very soon. See for yourself how beautiful this race is. It is a full Marathon (42.2km) with start and finish on the village square of Zegama. 2736 meters incline is a big number as it is, but with the same amount downhill this results in an average of 13° gradient throughout the whole Marathon.
My schedule for the event was far from ideal but I knew what was coming, was well prepared for it and had the right mindset. I flew on Saturday evening from London to Bilbao where I rented a car. I arrived in Oñati at midnight, which was half an hour out of Zegama. When I had breakfast the next morning I met a few runners who did not had the chance to get a starting slot for the race because the numbers are very limited. Only 450 runners get accept through the ballot process and Millan Salva told me they got rejected the past six years. So they decided to come here to cheer the athletes on.
Once I arrived in the mighty town of Zegama I realized the dimension of this race considering the size of the town. So many volunteers were there to make this an event to remember; apparently this is THE event in everybody's calender in the whole area.
I decided to start in my Kinabalu shoes. I expected them to withstand the conditions better than the Trail Rocket. The weather forecast was not very pleasant to say the least; it said 8° in Zegama and 13mm of rain for the day. Luckily there was not much rain at all on raceday. But still mud and wet underground of all sorts would be your loyal companion at all times. These are not the sort of conditions I like because I seem to be less effective than my competitors.
I just received another new toy from Scott, the best hybrid running pants I could have wished for! They have a pockets on either side where I could put my gels and gloves without them bouncing about. They are super comfortable and I will wear them a lot whenever I go for a longer run and plan to take things with me.
So I stood at the starting line extremely motivated for this race. You could not ask for a better field. Kilian Jornet won the race already 6 times, Transvulcania winner Luis Alberto Hernando Alzaga and my teammate Marco De Gasperi were the athletes to look out for, but the depth of the field was incredibly high. It was no surprise to expect a fast race even though the conditions were so bad.
Right after the start the top athletes set a very high pace. I knew that it would be suicide to go with one of the fastest groups. As this will be my longest run until now and I had to be careful with my resources. My gameplan was to stick to a comfortable pace until I would reach the summit of Aizkorri (kilometer 22) which I expected to reach well beyond the 2 hour mark.
After a first tough uphill the field was already fairly stretched. Trying to take the uphills as easy as possible but pushing the flatter sections I found myself soon in a position where I thought would be a good position for me just outside the top 10. I reached Otzaurte (km 7) which gave me the first big boost. I thought more than thousand spectators were lining the path into this sharp climb. The atmosphere was ear-piercing and simply gigantic when everybody cheers you on as if we were Gladiators! Now I know what it must feel like when you climb the Alpe d'Huez in the Tour de France. (Marco De Gasperi in the picture)
Soon the paths got smaller and even muddier. This climb was followed by the first technical downhill. I considered myself as a rather good downhill runner. I could imagine the likes of Marco De Gasperi and Kilian Jornet would be faster than me but I had to realize that this was a great weakness of mine. The whole bunch of athletes I left behind me on the last uphill rushed again past me. When I tried to increase my speed I started to slip on the wet stones, in the mud or grass. Nothing seemed to help. If it only was dry I kept telling myself. With great difficulty I could withstand a fall.
The uphill to Aratz (first summit after 16km) was interstratified with little downhills which did not allow me to get back to the position I was a minute ago. My mind started to work and I thought my time will come for sure when it's going to be less technical. Hah, what a mistake, this was just the beginning! During the following downhill to Sancti Spiritu, I did not only slip but fell also a couple of times. I must have lost well more than a minute on the athletes around me and a few others just passed me.
The next uphill was the last big climb of the course up to the summit of Aizkorri. The top was packed again with supporters and spectators. And again they dragged you over the last meters of the climb.
I knew the next bit would be quite a technical part along the ridge of the mountain. But soon there was no real path anymore and it was more of a climb. Because the rocks were sometimes quite sharp I had to pause for a moment to regain balance. To make things worse it started to snow! This was the moment when I realized I couldn't orientate myself to the front anymore and had to make sure I would get out of this in one piece! A drop of 300 meters in about 700 meters distance is not fun. And finally I started to really slip. Not once. Not twice, but many times.
At this point of the race I started to feel the distance and because the race did not quite go the way I was hoping (not only position-wise but also physically) it was hard to maintain the motivation to push myself. The muscles got tired of all the balancing acts. As the fog started to kick in I sometimes could not see the next signpost (the race is absolutely perfectly flagged though) and there was no athlete I could follow. This forced me to stand still again and again until i spotted the next sign.
To get back to Zegama you have to cross the ridge again at kilometer 30. Apart from a few counterslopes this is the last uphill of the race. This in mind I pushed more or less as much as I could (which was not that much anymore). A long 12 kilometer downhill to Zegama finishes this race off. I lost count after a total of beyond 20 falls, once I even tumbled over a branch and landed flat on my front but luckily I fell in soft mud.
I crossed the finish line after 4 hours 21 minutes as 31st. It was a tough day in the office. It was certainly not the result I was looking for but I witnessed an epic race, maybe even more so because of the conditions. I was covered in mud from tip to toe and was happy I made it to the finish and to my surprise my legs did not feel that bad either. I enjoyed every moment of it and am glad I made the trip to the Basque country. I am also happy with some parts of my performance. Before the race I thought 4:15 would be a realistic time. Considering what I have lost in the technical parts I know I would be at least there. In addition when I compare my finishing time with other years I would have been close to a top 10 ranking.
The guys in front of the race went absolutely mad (results). The first four athletes would have set a new course record. It was Kilian Jornet who won it in a time of 3:48 in front of Marco and Hernando finishing both in 3:50. I have great respect of their performance and everybody else who finished this race.
I am not sure yet if I will go back to Zegama because it uncovered quite a few weaknesses but something tells me it was not my last time in Zegama. I would definitely wish for good weather next time! And in addition I did not get the chance to see the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao by Frank Gehry. This is one of my absolute favourite buildings in the world so there's another reason to come back.
The next stop of the skyrunning world series will be Sierre-Zinal for me. In the meantime I hope I get the opportunity to represent Switzerland at the European Championships in Gap (France).