The night after I survived Sky Running’s Gem of a course, Zegama, I joked with Killian about how the ridgeline I crawled over would make a great place for a trail if they would move some of those jagged rocks out of the way. Welcome to Sky Running in Europe; an entirely different “sport” from “road running” that combines the ascent and descents of the mountain in it’s purest form! Poles, hands on quads, people descending on their butts, knee deep mud, power hiking! Was I at a mountain trek or a running event? Or a perfect mix of the two on the most historic off road race in Basque Country. Zegama has it all, and for me is the toughest marathon in the world!
I love mountains but I am a little scared of heights so Sunday’s adventure was an eye opener for me. The Aizkorri-Aratz National Park is one of the most scenic in the world and this spring had been experiencing record rainfall causing land slides. The weekend before the race parts of the course were snow covered!
The trip into Bilbao from Barcelona was short. The flight was uneventful and after a couple cappuccinos at the airport Team INOV8 from the UK and Ian Corless of Talk Ultra arrived and our journey into Basque country began!
We arrived in the quaint little town of Zegama Friday afternoon as the clouds were clearing to showcase the spots of snow on the mountains. After a delicious lunch Forrest, Justin, and I took to the wet sloppy trails while Ian interviewed Stevie Kremer who would chick me, podium, and be first American! The race course was marked and it was a mess! I didn’t fall even in my Pearl Streak Road Sneakers but I had no breaks and joked with those ahead of me they better not let me get close. Race day would be different as I would slip early and often spending a lot of time playing in the mud in my INOV8 295s 🙂
Forrest and I caught a ride to our hotel after an afternoon of making new amigos and seeing old friends. Sleep was great Friday night for me as the rain fell sounding like a Lullaby to my tired legs. I was training through Zegama for Ronda dels Cims so I didn’t have huge expectations for race day as earlier in the week Montserrat had taking a toll on me. I was feeling strong though, muy duro, so I figured I could have a decent run. I did run well but I am not a strong hiker and Zegama is a hiker’s course! When the guy who is within seconds of Killian uses poles you know you are in a different sport! Props to Luis Alberto Hernando!
Saturday before the race we caught a ride back into Zegama with Agisko’s Team Salomon Italy. After breakfast Ian took us out on the trail for a photo shoot run. It was fun and I wore my tractionless road flats again to goof off in. The course was even more slippery!
After lunch Saturday I hung out in the Zegama town square waiting for packet pickup and the race briefing. I was given bib 521, the last published number! Apparently the race sells out and is “Hardrock like” in that it also has a lottery so I was excited. After a delicious dinner copying Killian’s meal of Tuna I tucked away in bed early. It felt strange to wake up at 6am as opposed to starting our race at that time or earlier. At the start line Killian would mention the same thing to me. I thought it was very cool that before the race I had to help push him toward the front of the start line. We were way over on the left a row or two back and none of the media saw him at first. He was almost shy about moving up to the front. I realized the kid was a humble person with an incredible talent for the races he competes in.
Another hilarious moment a few minutes before the start was when Stevie came up to me on the wrong side of the barrier asking how she was suppose to get up there. She is tiny so I just reached over and picked her up and put her down next to Emily and Silvia. I was pulling for Stevie since she was raised in Fairfield County, CT and her folks were members of Westchester Country Club both places I spent tons of time in during my twenties. Stevie led most of the race but was passed on the descent by Emily and was a mere seconds from second at the finish when she almost caught Noria celebrating before the finish line. I have lost enough races to know that feeling of being proud with your performance but simultaneously upset about a loss.
The race countdown was in Basque: (Ten: Hamar, Nine: Bederatzi, Eight: Zortzi, Seven: Zazpi, Six: Sei, Five: Bot, Four: Lau, Three: Hiru, Two: Bi, One: Bat, GO! Venga!)…. The pistol was fired and we looped town in an attempt to thin out the 500 plus starters. I found myself near the front on the first climb and was shocked when everyone started to hike not even a kilometer into the race! Wasn’t this just a marathon? I realized that running I wasn’t going much faster so I joined in on the pain train determined to become a European mountain runner!
I almost looked the part of a true Euro racer in my new Compressport Trail Running shorts and calf sleeves but my old Team INOV8 tank top was quickly wrapped around my arm with my Good People Run Buff as the sweat started to drip off of me. The clouds were lifting but it was humid and going to be a perfect day to run! I kept Stevie in site as she was the lead woman just ahead of Emily. We had warmed up earlier in the morning together and for a World Champion she is quite humble and down to earth. The afternoon before the race in search of Stevie’s protein bars I found myself shoe shopping for women’s shoes. I laughed at the irony of racing in Zegama with such an elite female mountain running star who was such a typical country club girl. I found myself getting chicked again at a Sky race but enjoying myself tremendously!
The climb wasn’t the difficult part of the race for me. It was the muddy slippery downhills where the European runners were bombing them at top speed with no regard for safety! I have become a much better downhill runner since I moved to Arizona but this experience bordered pure insanity! I was so scared I couldn’t help but laugh.
The aid stations were out of control! People were screaming and yelling “Animal” and “Venga.”. You better believe I was a big bad fast trail animal! The fans seemed to be on the steepest sections, in the slipperiest snow, towering the jagged peaks, and around the deepest mud puddles! At times when my back and legs were burning from the uphills I smiled and told them I was “vengaing” as fast as I could! The highlight was the peak! The crowd was four to five deep! How did they get up there? It was the New York City Marathon at over 1,000 meters above town! I played into the crowd put my hands over my ears and yelled to them in Spanish that I couldn’t hear them. They roared. Apparently I was the only one sans shirt so I constantly had officials and course marshall asking me where my mandatory gear was. I had a tiny Gore jacket zipped into the back of my shorts so technically I was within the rules and regulations. I just smiled, pointed to my zipper pocket, and pushed on. The oranges at the peak were amazing! I must have eaten two or three. There was a time I was thirsty on the ridge line so I ate some snow.
On the first climb above tree line I stopped to take in the views of the snow-covered Pyrenees amazed that I was being brought there to race perhaps the World’s hardest 100 miler in just 3 weeks!
After the slick descent from the jagged ridge-line section the aid station I was so shook up the aid station volunteer offered me his Cerveza which I chugged before I carried on. The trail that followed was flat in comparison and very enjoyable to run. We climbed one more time onto a peak before the last few miles of fast wet downhill into town. After the race I joked that only the last kilometer was runable in a full stride for a big runner like me. I was humbled by Zegama but truly fascinated by Sky Running.
The evening after the race we all shared stories, danced, and drank. We were treated to an incredible rendition of basque opera by the local waitress before we boogied to very bad Spanish techno music.
Monday was a lazy day. I missed my flight arriving at the gate in time to see the plane to Madrid taxi away. It was just as well as I had left my Gore jacket in the disco with my wallet. Somehow Killian had found it and gave it to Ian. When I got back to Zegama from Bilbao I was sorted. Later Monday afternoon after I was rebooked on a Tuesday flight and a much needed nap Team INOV8 Manager Natalie White and I went for a nice run. We got to enjoy parts of the National Park not on the race course! Natalie found it comical that I was wearing Pearl Streaks instead of INOV8s and slipping everywhere. Monday night we had one last dinner in Zegama with Team INOV8 who had a rough go of it Sunday. Talk Ultra’s Ian Corless tweeted a few funny pictures to Emily and Killian before we called it a much needed early night. Alex got me to the airport on time Tuesday and caught his flight also! When I boarded my flight we were two for two! Much better than Sunday’s finishing average for the INOV8 athletes and our poor odds for catching our flights Monday morning.
After 30 hours of travel I ended Tuesday in Westcliff, a tiny frontier town in Southern Colorado, ready to catch a nap and run with the guys from the Copper Canyons!