Imagine you’re on a race start line with 600 hundred fellow runners in a small market place surrounded by buildings on every side, except for a narrow street in front of you lined with spectators in party mode. This is the street that will take you out of the town and onto a brutal mountain marathon course. Then the loudspeakers kick in and begin banging out the sound of a strong, powerful song… immediately you feel your heart rate increase and watch as your skin covers itself in goose bumps. You look to your right and see one of the local runners wipe a tear away from his eye. This race, this particular start line, on what is usually a cold and wet Sunday morning in May, brings out emotions like no other. This race is Zegama.
The pace is too fast for a mountain marathon… but this Zegama
Ten seconds before the gun goes off the starter begins the countdown… 10, 9, 8 ….. 3, 2, 1, bang! All runners start moving at the same time. The pace is too fast for a mountain marathon, but this is Zegama… the adrenalin is pumping like you wouldn’t believe. You know right then that you are in for a tough day.
I’ve been lucky enough to be run the Zegama-Aizkorri Alpine Marathon four times. The race starts in Zegama, which is a small town in the autonomous community of the Basque Country in northern Spain. As a mountain running event, it has grown rapidly in popularity since it was first staged in 2001 and always attracts a stellar field of both male and female athletes.
It is a tough and partly technical course that makes a 42km loop of Zegama’s surrounding mountains, with a total elevation gain of 5,472m (16,300ft). Its highest point is the summit of Aizkorri, 1,551m above sea level. The view from the mountain ridge of Aizkorri is probably both beautiful and great – for those who have been lucky enough to experience it! I have run over the mountain two times now but have never seen anything more than rocks, fog, spectators, my own feet and the backside of the runner ahead! This is not bad luck or coincidence. It is because Zegama has around 180 rainy days a year… so it’s a 50-50 chance as to whether you get a summit view or not. Either way, the terrain is often wet and muddy and I wear my MUDCLAW 300 to get the best grip possible.
I actually think the weather is one of the things that makes the Zegama race so special. The rain, fog, deep forest, muddy trails and rocky summits combine to serve up a course that has a kind of mythical feel and atmosphere. On top of this is the extraordinary electric ambience created by the masses of spectators lining some of the toughest parts of the course. The Basque spectators don’t stand and passively watch the race from the sidelines, they fully immerse themselves in the occasion. Cheering, shouting, clapping, singing, pushing… they do this for every single runner who goes past.
Zegama: The Tour de France of mountain running
I live in Norway and have travelled to many parts of the world to run in lots of races but I can honestly say I have never experienced anything quite like the crowd support you get at Zegama. It is one of the best races in the world. It is also how I imagine Tour de France cyclists must feel when making their way through the huge banks of super-enthusiastic crowds that line the way to the summit of Alpe d’Huez. When you race Zegama you never forget it. The memories of my visits there are some of my absolute favourites, and much of that is down to the role the spectators play.
All the above (the tough course, the mythical atmosphere, the ambience with the spectators and other runners) is of course what gives Zegama its charm and popularity. For many of us runners these things are what bring us back to race in this part of the world time and time again. But if you look deeper into the history of running, you discover that it’s no coincidence ‘Zegama is Zegama’ and that a race in the Basque country has grown to become as popular as this one has.
The Basque people have a long history of being strong endurance runners, especially fearsome mountain runners. The proverb ‘to run like a Basque’ was frequently used in France back in the 16th century. At this time it was, at least in England and France, and it seems in Spain too, common for aristocrats to employ runners on foot to carry messages or run beside their coaches. And this was often a post held by a man from the Basque Country as they possessed then, as they do today, excellent skills for running long distances in mountain terrain.
Betting on Basque Country running races
Following the French Revolution in 1789 and the destruction of the Ancient Regime, the employment of Basques as running footmen seems to have come to an end. But this did not stop the Basque runners! While they previously ran for the rich aristocrats, now they started doing two-man races called korrikalaris. Big bets were placed on the runners, who each wore a traditional uniform with a loose shirt, sandals, long pants and a scarf around their waist.
These races were always longer than a distance of 10k and held on the same type of rough terrain that the Zegama event is staged on today. As popularity in these races grew, whole villages and towns would come out and support their own local runners. Given all this history it’s no surprise that the Basque people remain so passionate about their mountain running.
1 Running: A global history, Thor Gotaas, 2008, Gyldendal Norwegian Printing AS
2 The Great Running Traditions of the Basques, by Andy Milroy