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When asked about Zegama, Kilian Jornet replies, ‘It’s Zegama’. In other words, no explanation is needed. The word itself is enough. Zegama-Aizkorri is THE ultimate mountain race.
Located in the heart of the Aizkorri nature reserve, Zegama village is the hub for the Zegama-Aizkorri race. On July 7th 2002 in conjunction with the Amezti Mountain Society, the Zegama-Aizkorri Alpine marathon was created, its main goal to promote and revitalize the Zegama region in terms of economics, culture and tourism.
The race is now one of the most prestigious alpine marathons in the world. It was the European Mountain Race Championship event in 2008 and is now a key race in the Skyrunning World Series.
At 42.195 kilometers it is a classic Sky marathon. The route has an accumulated height gain of 5472m over the Aratz massif and the Sierra of Aizkorri which includes the four highest peaks in the Basque Autonomous Region; Aratz, Aitzkorri, Akategi and Aitxuri at the highest point of the course at 1551m. Starting in the town of Zegama at 296m runners climb to Otzaurte at 652m. From here, following paths and mountain tracks with stunning natural beauty, participants are confronted with forest; rocky slopes, technical ridges and high grazing pasture land. It’s a tough and technical course. A capped field of 450 must cover the terrain within the eight hour cut off.
It is the race that many want to do… like London Marathon or an Ironman event; the race has far more demand than places available. The 2013 allocation of 450 participants saw over sixteen countries represented.
After several years of very wet and cold weather, a race day with good conditions could see the long-standing records of 3:54:18 by Rob Jebb in 2005 and 4:38:19 by two-time world champion, Emanuela Brizio set in 2009 challenged.
However, snow and rain in the days before race day ruled out ‘good conditions’ underfoot. As it happened, race day was a glorious, warm and sunny day. Maybe even a little too hot for some. As 450 eager participants departed from the start line, the early morning mist lifted and what lay ahead was a stunning day of mountain racing by the best in the world.
Kilian Jornet and Luis Alberto Hernando had placed one and two respectively at Transvulcania La Palma just two weeks earlier. Emelie Forsberg and Nuria Picas also had the same result on the island of La Palma, would we see a repeat in the Aizkorri nature reserve?
Last minute entrant, Marco De Gasperi dictated the early pace in the men’s race with Kilian Jornet and South African, AJ Calitz close on his heels. Marco, a world champion in his own right had been injured in the build up to Zegama and although he started the race, his long-term plan was always to pull out at halfway.
On the climb to Otzaurte Kilian and Marco had dropped AJ and pushed the pace. Hands on knees, bent double; they pushed from left leg to right leg at a relentless pace while all behind suffered. Pre race favorite, Luis Alberto Hernando running with ‘poles’ was minutes back.
Stevie Kremer from the US (now living in Italy) pushed hard in the early stages of the ladies race. She is the current long course world mountain running champion and although new to Skyrunning, she was not letting this daunt her. Stevie said post race, “I am new to Skyrunning and although I love to climb I was worried by the technical aspects of the descents, in particular the last descent which dropped from 1551m to the finish line. I wanted a time buffer!”
Behind Emelie Forsberg followed patiently. She looked calm, relaxed and focused. A surprise came from Nuria Picas. Nuria had placed second in 2012 at Zegama and was now lying in seventh place minutes behind the front of the race.
US runner, Dave James who is a USATF 100m champion had his first experience of a Sky Marathon, post race said, “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 he laughed. Welcome to Skyrunning in Europe; an entirely different “sport” that combines the ascent and descents of the mountain in its purest form! Poles, hands on quads, people descending on their butts, knee-deep mud and power hiking! Was I at a mountain trek or a running event? Or was it a perfect mix of the two? The most historic off road race in the Basque Country, Zegama has it all, and for me is the toughest marathon in the world!”
As Marco dropped from the race, Kilian was left alone. He was running within himself. Enjoying the views, the blue skies, the incredible support.
“I drifted away a little,” said Kilian, “I was enjoying a wonderful day in the mountains and then suddenly I heard deep breathing. As I looked around I saw Luis Alberto Hernando, he had caught up with me along the ridgeline, and he was focused. I suddenly realized I had a race on my hands”.
Kilian was correct. Luis Alberto had the bit between his teeth and he was pushing harder than ever before… he wanted to move up from second and top the podium. If Kilian was going to win this race, he was going to have to earn it. From the final summit at Aitxuri the two dropped some 1300m on technical, twisty, muddy and very slippery terrain. Pushing each other to the limit they would alternate the lead. This race could come down to who makes a mistake!
With just a couple of kilometers to go, trail turned to road and Kilian made his move. He opened a small gap over Luis Alberto and at the line he had a handful of seconds to spare. It was an incredible finish and one that was reflected on the faces of both. Bent double, hands on knees they gulped for air. Each a spent force! They had raced hard and the best man had won
Behind, Tadie Pivk from Italy flew around the final bend, arms outstretched. He had made the podium.
The ladies race also reflected the excitement of the men’s race. Early leader Stevie Kremer was caught and passed by Transvulcania La Palma winner, Emelie Forsberg. Emelie was in her element, she just loves the mountains and you can see it reflected in her smile. Stevie was joined by teammate, Silvia Serafini and the two pursued as fast as they could.
Behind, Nuria Picas was having a stunning race, she moved up from eighth on the first climb to now catch Silvia and Stevie and go past them. As Stevie had predicted it was all going to come down to that final descent! Pushing the pace Silvia twisted an ankle and although not out of the race it hampered her ability to chase.
Emelie ultimately was a comfortable winner of the race. Nuria in the final meters of the finishing straight waved to the crowd and high fived… suddenly Stevie appeared! She had made up time on that final drop from the summit. Had Nuria been facing the wrong way, she may very well have lost second place. Nuria turned and ran for the line. It was close, so close that only three seconds separated Stevie and Nuria in the final results.
Zegama is without doubt a highlight of the mountain running racing calendar. The course and the crowd support are like a stage of the Tour de France. Although weather conditions were perfect for race day, underfoot was less than perfect. Despite this, Kilian missed the course record of 3:54:18 by only twenty seconds. The ladies record of 4:38:19 was very safe with almost 10 minutes to spare.
1. Kilian Jornet (Salomon Santiveri) – 3h54’38”
2. Luis Alberto Hernando (Adidas) – 3h54’50”
3. Tadei Pivk (Crazy Idea) – 3h58’07”
1. Emelie Forsberg (Salomon) – 4h48’12”
2. Nuria Picas (FEEC) – 4h49’55”
3. Stevie Kremer (Salomon Agisko) – 4h49’58”
- DATE: 26th of May, 2013
- START AND FINISH: Zegama ( Guipúzcoa ) –09:00 Start.
- TOTAL LENGTH: 42.195 km.
- CONTROL POINTS: 14
- REFRESHMENT POINTS: 13
- FLYING SPRINT: Aizkorri ( 22.58 km )
- ACCUMULATED HEIGHT GAIN: 5.472 metres
- MAXIMUM ALTITUDE: 1.551m Aitxurri
- MINIMUM ALTITUDE: 296m Zegama.
- TECHNICAL PERCENTAGE OF COURSE: 70% approx.
- CLIMATE: Medium mountain, possibilities of intense heat, strong winds, fog or rain.
- TIME LIMIT: 8 Hours
- DIFFICULTY: Very high.
- MAXIMUM NUMBER OF PARTICIPANTS: 450