Gripless in Gipuzkoa (slip sliding in Spain) (Running)

The rain in Spain falls mainly… in the Basque country. Or so it seemed to us as we counted down the days to Sunday’s iconic mountain race Zegama-Aizkorri, with the weather ranging from light drizzle to diluvian downpours. Over the years British runners have done very well at this race – Rob Jebb held the record since 2005, Ricky Lightfoot won in 2009 and Tom Owens gave Kilian Jornet a run for his money in 2011. Having seen the course it was easy to see why – a lot of the terrain was like you might find in a tough fell race in the UK; some steep, some technical, some fast but above all a lot of wet and mud, and all of that without the altitude that typically disadvantages Brits travelling to European mountain races (the highest point is just over 1500m).

But instead of relishing the advantage I might have the wetter the course got, waking each morning to more rain deepened my sense of foreboding. In a massive oversight I’d failed to bring any studs with me – I’d been very impressed with the Sense Ultras on the technical 56km of La Bouillonante and hoped they would be grippy enough for Zegama. I had heard it could be “a bit muddy” so had tried to get my hands on the more aggressive ‘Softground’ version before travelling, but with no luck. As race day approached, various other possibilities turned up for getting a pair, but they all fell through and I lined up on Sunday, in the rain, wearing a pair of shoes that are amazing on dry ground but that I knew didn’t have enough grip for the steep, muddy ground I was about to race over.

Although training and racing had been going well, I hadn’t managed any big hills in preparation for this race – eight weeks and counting to process my newborn son’s passport application had stymied a trip to Scotland which would have helped, but without that I decided to rein in my ambitions a little. 4 hours 20, which would have placed me in the top 15 in all previous editions of the race, seemed a reasonable balance between ambition and flatland realism. I’d also heard that the start at Zegama is notoriously fast and that many people burn out. Having suffered through the ‘start fast and try to hold on’ tactic in my last two races I aimed to be outside the top 50 leaving the village.

For the first couple of hours things went OK. I had to concentrate really hard on the climbs, picking my foot placements carefully to avoid slipping over, but my cautious start seemed to be paying off and I was steadily passing the fast-starters. Descents were a different story, and I was slipping all over the place, which was frustrating since they are usually the strongest part of my race, but they were mostly gentle enough that I was able to hold my position then start picking people off on the next climb.

One of the several thousand souls at Sancti Spiritu (the other thing this race is famous for is the support of the spectators, on some sections it feels like you are in the Tour de France!) told me that I was 12 minutes behind Kilian, which, after 2 hours of racing seemed encouraging in the circumstances; I was still feeling easy and like I had plenty of racing in me. However, from reccying the course I knew the toughest descents (steepest and muddiest) were still to come. At the summit of Aizkorri the ground turns very technical with steep, polished and wet limestone on the traverse to Aitxuri. I was in a group of three and managed to stay with them to the top of the race’s steepest descent. Then it started. Rock turned to steep grass and mud interspersed with rocks and I was on my arse for the first of countless times. By the time I emerged onto ground where staying upright and running once again became feasible I felt lucky not to have broken any bones. The group I’d been with were long gone.

That descent felt a lot like my early days of racing on skis; competent enough on the climbs but a mixture of scared, embarrassed and frustrated on the descents. In addition to the time you lose directly by falling, it is pretty exhausting, especially when you fall hard, and it’s difficult to get your mindset back into racing once you’re back on more reasonable ground. I persevered though, and caught a runner on the long undulating section who had clearly gone off way too fast (he was walking on the flat!), and another in a similar state at the top of the last big climb.

The descent to Zegama is cruel. To go direct would be quick and steep, but instead the race does a big out-and-back traverse. On reaching the final summit you feel you must be nearly there, but actually there is more than 10km to run, much of it ankle deep in mud! I managed OK for a while, holding my own at the front of a group, but then had a series of falls, including one very bad flying face-plant that left me winded and despairing. I lost touch with that group but luckily the gap behind me was large enough that I didn’t get passed again despite now being in ‘survival’ mode.

The last half of the race had been so bad, and I knew I was in a much lower position than I had hoped to be, that I was expecting a disappointing time. As I hit the road just above town I glanced at my watch to see it wasn’t actually going to be too far outside the 4:20 I’d been aiming for. It turns out the field was stacked this year; I ran 4:26 for 39th place, a time which last year would have earned me 22nd, and in other years much better than that. The first four managed to break Rob Jebb’s record, Kilian by 6 minutes (on his 7th attempt, mind you!). I find that incredible. The only thing I could imagine would make it slower underfoot would be snow (which they do get, some years). Just goes to show what good athletes pushing each other can achieve.

It’s difficult to estimate how much time I lost because of my mistake with the shoes. Directly on the last two descents I lost about five minutes on those around me. Factoring in slipping on the climbs, on the other descents and generally exhausting myself falling over repeatedly feels like it should add up to a lot more. Three days after the race my legs feel fine but my arms and shoulders are in a bad way from all the falling. I hate to be left with a feeling that I very nearly had a really good run, but thankfully I’ve got a whole summer of racing ahead of me to improve.

Nice video of the race here.