Zegama – Aizkorri needs no introduction to those who follow Skyrunning. It is a course that has created many a story over the years.
Located in a natural park, Aizkorri-Aratz, it brings respect and excitement to every mountain runner that toes the line.
In July 2002, the Village Council decided to revitalise and bring life to the local area, in order to achieve these objectives the Zegama-Aizkorri Mountain Marathon Association was created. Today, the AIA-renovated Alpine Marathon has a reputation in the world as one of the world’s most prestigious mountain marathons.
Part of the Skyrunner World Series it is the ultimate mountain marathon test. In 2008 the European Championships were hold on this very course. When Kilian Jornet was asked about Zegama, he quite simply said:
“Zegama? It’s Zegama!”
In other words, nothing more needs to be said. It has a reputation that demands respect from the higher echelons of the mountain running world.
Zegama followed just 7 days after Transvulcania La Palma in 2012 and therefore we almost had a re run of the La Palma race. Of course, conditions were a little different. The dry heat of La Palma was replaced by torrential rain, mud, cold and the occasional snow blizzard.
The American contingent who had raced well on La Isla Bonita transferred en-mass to mainland Spain with a couple of additions. Nick Clark representing Pearl Izumi and the ‘hot tip’, Max King. Max had everything in is his favour; speed and a mountain pedigree.
As it happened, the American contingent had a lesson on European mountain running and never got in contention. For many of them they could hardly stand up in the tough conditions and as Nick Clark crossed the line he exclaimed
“Now THAT is a mountain race!”.
It was a shock to the system. Dakota Jones victorious just a week earlier had taken the race easy, a pre-race plan as he had nothing to prove after topping the podium at Transvulcania. In comparison, Kilian Jornet had something to prove and now had some running in his legs… midway through the race he applied the pressure and once again proved that he is the king of the mountains.
In the ladies race Oihana Kortazar showed her dominance over this Sky distance and we started to get a glimpse of a star in the making, Emelie Forsberg. Nuria Picas also set her stall out for a year-long process of podium places over all distances, from marathon to ultra. Anna Frost tired after a dominating Transvulcania performance decided not to race at Zegama and keep some powder dry for another day.
* PLEASE LOOK FOR UPDATES posted 26th April marked in BLUE
The 2013 race is going to see some great representation from top ranking teams: Salomon, New Balance, Adidas, La Sportiva, Arc’teryx, Valetudo Skyrunning, Inov-8 and Scott.
Zegama this year is two weeks after Transvulcania and although that would work well for additional recovery, it doesn’t necessarily work well for travel budgets, so, we wont have Sage Canaday, Timothy Olson, Anton Krupicka, Joe Grant and the ‘other names’ joining the Zegama party.
The Mens Race
Kilian Jornet will be a dominating force at Transvulcania La Palma and I see him on top of the podium, two weeks recovery is a life-time for Kilian and after his dominating performance in 2013 I see him replicating the win at Zegama. He has just flown around the Transvulcania La Palma course and set a new course record. Respect!
His sparing partner, Marco De Gasperi, a legend in mountain and Skyrunning unfortunately has now pulled out of the race with a knee problem. This is a great shame, we all love to see Kilian and Marco go head-to-head.
This almost certainly means that we will have a re run of the 2012 Zegama race and also the 2013 Transvulcania… Kilian’s main competition will now come from Luis Alberto Hernando. Luis was second behind Kilian at Zegama last year and is almost certainly in some of the best form of his life at the moment. He pushed hard at Transvulcania just over a week ago and was leading the race at the final summit, ultimately loosing his lead to Kilian on the descent. His race on the island of La Palma is even more impressive considering it was his first ultra.
Missing from Transvulcania and deciding to run the ‘Sky’ distance in 2013 is Andy Symonds. Andy comes from a traditional fell/ mountain running background and just like Tom Owens, he will love the conditions here. Both Andy and Tom have withdrawn from Zegama I am afraid. In an email from Andy Symonds, he says, “We’re both injured!! can you believe it.. Tom’s got some pretty bad tendon rumpture in his foot and I’m limping with a duffed iliopsoas… neither of us have run for several weeks (much more for Tom). And so, no Zegama this year.. booo.. :-(” A real shame not to have these two top performers at the race. Speedy recovery guys.
Miguel Heras missed Transvulcania due to injury so we currently have a question mark if he will run at Zegama. In form he is one of the best runners in the world, so, he will most definitely mix it up at the front. Tofol Castanyer recently raced the Three Peaks in the UK and had a good race but was not used to the ‘navigation’ element of UK fell running, he too has the potential to win, particularly when running on Spanish soil.
Michel Lanne from France had a great race over the tough and technical trail at Trofeo Kima in 2012 and has been racing regularly in the build up to this Spanish race. He will arriving in form and ready to take on the front of the race. Just this week he has been on the trails with Kilian.
Inov-8 have Alex Nichols and Ben Bardsley taking part and they may very well be two dark horses. Ben is well versed in fell and mountain running and will almost certainly come into the race a little under the radar… one person who knows and respects Ben’s ability is Andy Symonds. Expect a surprise! Also watch out for South African fast man, AJ Calitz, he may well struggle a little with the terrain, technicality and temperatures at Zegama. But a surprise can come from anywhere…
Other contenders are Michel Rabat, Nicholas Pianet, Dai Matsumoto, Toru Miyahara, Dawa Sherpa, Dave James and Daniele Capelletti.
The Ladies Race
The ladies race will be a battle royal and although the men’s field has a top quality field I can’t help but think that some real excitement and a nail biting finish will come from this select group of women. Of course, Oihana Kortazar is returning to hopefully repeat her 2012 victory. She will be fresh as she will have not raced at Transvulcania. However, I am going to go out on a limb and predict a podium place, if not a win for Stevie Kremer. Stevie (from the US and now living in Italy) may not be a name too familiar to many but believe me, she has all the class and ability to create some waves over the ‘Sky’ distance in 2013. She has just recently placed on the podium in a very tough race in Italy (overall podium, not the ladies) and after seeing her perform at Sierre Zinal and other races, I think Stevie will be the surprise package of Zegama.
Nuria Picas once again had a great race at Transvulcania 2013 and will come to Zegama ready to push hard and go full speed for the win. She had an incredible 2012 season and performed over all distances always making the podium and in most cases, she stood on top of the podium. She is a true champion and a great ambassador for the sport.
Emelie Forsberg had a superb race in 2012 and she will be back fighting for the podium. She can go downhill like no other and as she showed last year, she took the final descent at break neck speed and got on the podium. She is wiser, stronger and more experienced now. She is going to be fired up after her incredible run at Transvulcania and just missing Frosty’s CR by a couple of minutes. I think back 12 months when I first met Emelie, Zegama really was her first big race… boy she has come such a long way in twelve months. What does the future hold for her?
Silvia Serafini is also another great potential for a podium place. I don’t see her on top of the podium… she is still very much a lady who likes speed and good running terrain BUT she is learning fast and has heaps of talent and ability. Just this last weekend, the 18th May, she set a new CR in The Great Wall run in China.
Anna Frost gets a notable mention. She won’t be racing this year. She missed Transvulcania due to injury but just this last week has had some good news and she is now back on the trails, albeit slowly and one step at a time. She will be back!
Emanuela Brizio will lead the rest of the ladies gunning for one of those coveted podium slots. Maud Gobert, Stephanie Jimenez, Debora Cardone, Sarah Ridgeway and Anna Lupton make up the main contenders for the 2013 edition.
1. SPAIN: Maratòn Alpina Zegama-Aizkorri – 42k, Zegama – May 26
2. FRANCE: Mont-Blanc Marathon – 42k, Chamonix – June 30
3. USA: Pikes Peak Marathon – 42k, Manitou Springs, Colorado – August 18
4. SWITZERLAND: Matterhorn Ultraks - 46k, Zermatt – August 24
5. ITALY: Skyrunning Xtreme – 23k, Limone sul Garda – October 13
Terrain: 13km of dunes and approximately 30km of sand.
It was always going to be a make or break day and stage 4 of the Marathon des Sables did not disappoint.
For the ladies, Laurence Klein went into the stage with a strong lead that was close to 30 minutes over Megan Hicks with very strong Jo Meek pushing Megan for the 2nd slot on the podium. Laurence was going to need to have a bad day or Megan was going to need an incredible day to take the lead. As it happened, both happened.
Laurence unfortunately struggled very early on in the stage and was taken ill allowing Megan and Jo to run ahead of her. By the time time she arrived at CP4 at around 40km’s she was already well over an hour behind putting Megan as overall race leader in the race. In the dunes, Jo was pursuing Megan and she was just 5 mins behind. However, Megan continued to run strong and by the finish she had completely dominated the long stage putting her well ahead of all competition. Brits, Jo Meek and Zoe Salt continued to have and incredible 2013 Marathon des Sables and not only finished second and third on the stage but are now in these places on the overall general classification. Zoe Salt had in incredible ‘long day’ and had closed on Jo at the finish with a gap of just 94 seconds.
Mohamad Ahansal hand finished 3rd yesterday and many wondered if he had a chink in his armour? I however thought he was playing a game, showing some vulnerability so that he could pounce when the time was right. In the dunes, Aziz El Akadf from Jordon (winner in 2012) was just ahead of Mohamad Ahansal by seconds… he was pushing hard, as he ran past I could hear him breathing. The dunes sap strength and energy but these guys make it look easy. Bounding from left to right foot they stride past me. First El Akad leaped from the top of the dune and then Ahansal. The race was on! Ultimately though it was short lived, El Akad couldn’t hold the pace and blew up allowing Ahansal to run away with another stage victory in a stunning 06:54:47 (El Akad finished 10th in 08:29:34).
Chasing behind was Salameh Al Aqra who not only took second on the stage with 07:13:55 but also is now second on general classification. Antonio Salaris had another strong day with a third place in 07:29:45.
Highest placed Brit, Danny Kendall was worried by the long day but he had a wonderful day in the sand finishing in 8th place in a time of 08:17:16 and this now puts him in 10th on GC.
The long stage of the Marathon des Sables is the day that all runners dread and need to treat with respect. It is the day that everybody has to dig deep, to find that inner strength to achieve a finish. This year in particular after three incredibly tough stages, the 75.7km day was going to be a crunch day. As Mohamad Ahansal had said the previous day “this is the hardest Marathon des Sables I have ever done”. Nobody here would disagree with him. One word has been used unanimously around the camp, ‘Brutal’. It’s a word that I often here at races but believe me, this ‘MDS’ has been exactly that, brutal.
The long stage had a mixture of terrain but ultimately it was all about sand and dunes.
The race is split with the top 50 runners (inc first 5 ladies) starting three hours after the rest of the field. At 0830, just under 1,000 runners left the depart, rabbits for the 50 elite who would chase them down.
It was going to be a day of heat, tiredness and the desire to make the finish in less than 34 hours. A long flat straight was followed with a climb through a col and then more flat running with mixed terrain of rocks, sand and small dunes. Of course runners run from checkpoint to checkpoint but the first target is CP4 that has it’s own cut off time. Many runners arrive here as night falls or in darkness and start impromptu fire to cook, eat and relax. Some sleep a little and then push on.
CP4 to CP5 was the larger dunes at meters high, a rollercoaster of sand and then the long push to bivouac and then end of another incredible day.
As I write this, the race has been underway for 28.5 hours and we still have approximately 100 runners on course. Two of these are my friends, as mentioned in a previous post, Didier and Gilles. These are the story of the Marathon des Sables. I stayed up all night watching runners achieve a dream by crossing the line… some cheering, shouting and clapping. Other runners too tired, too broken to show any emotion. It’s here that faces tell stories. Ekes glazed, seat dried on foreheads and cheekbones. Cheeks hollowed through dehydration and effort. It’s a look of the brave, it’s a look of exhaustion it ‘s a look of ‘I did it!’
The emotion is for all to see. It’s those moments in the dark when a runner cries with tears of relief and happiness that shows that the fatigue, the sacrifice, the dedication and the commitment to achieve a goal are all worthwhile.
Time has no relevance. The journey is what counts, the experience and the ability afterwards to say ‘I completed one of the toughest endurance challenges on the planet”
To all who achieved and all who failed trying, I salute you.
- Mohamad Ahansal 06:54:47
- Salameh Al Aqra 07:13:55
- Antonio Salaris 07:29:45
First Brit Danny Kendall, 8th in 08:17:16
- Megan Hicks 08:45:19
- Jo Meek 09:52:35
- Zoe Salt 22:21:32
- Mohamad Ahansal 15:29:54
- Salameh Al Aqra 16:14:41
- Antonio Salaris 16:36:52
First Brit Danny Kendall, 10th 17:59:43
- Megan Hicks 20:15:07
- Jo Meek 21:26:26
- Zoe Salt 22:21:32