Wet and Raucous Race at the 22nd Zegama Marathon
This article originally appeared on Trail Runner
As local Basques say: "Zegama is Zegama," which is another way of saying--Zegama is truly in a league of its own.
The 22nd annual Zegama-Aizkorria trail race was held this weekend in the Basque region of northern Spain, and yet even the sustained rains before, during, and after the event didn't stop an estimated 30,000 spectators from coming out to support runners. Once again, Zegama put on a show.
Five hundred runners descended upon Zegama, normally a quiet village of 1,500 inhabitants tucked into the mountains about an hour southeast of Bilbao, to tackle the 26-mile, 9,000-vertical-foot circuit course that starts and ends in town. Despite the treacherous weather and the chocolate pudding-style mud, ("el barro" in Spanish), it was a wild ride from the gun.
Trail Runner was reporting live on the ground. Here's what went down.
The Men's Race
With a stacked international field and the absence of Kilian Jornet--who, last year, under unusually dry and fast conditions, won for the 10th time and set the course record in 3:36:40--the men's elite runners were ready to battle.
Favorites included Remi Bonnet (France), Manuel Merillas (Spain), Jonathan Albon (UK/Norway), Robert Pkemboi Matayengo (Kenya), Elhousine Elazzaoui (Morocco), and several other high-ranking mountain runners.
The start of the 2023 Zegama race was a wet one. Bonnet, who won Zegama in 2018, is known widely around the European running circles for having one of the best uphill games in the business, and he took to the front early as the beginning started with a significant climb. If there's one section that most represents the spirit of Zegama, it's the "Sancti Spiritu," (Mile 12), a steep rocky exposed section that's always lined with screaming spectators and cowbells. Some even camp out the night before to gain a favorable spot in the action. Officials have reported 3,000 spectators on this steep section in past years.
"There's just nothing like Zegama. It's like the Tour de France in some sections, where the crowd is really close and there's a bunch of noise and they're pushing you along. But here it's on steroids."
First to emerge from the rain and fog was Matayango from Kenya, followed closely by Bonnet and Albon. Bonnet would overtake the lead at the highest point of the course, Aizkorri, at just over 5,000 feet, the race's halfway point, but Albon led shortly after the climb. He was reeled in by Merillas, from Spain, and Elazzaoui, from Morocco. Merillas had moved his way up from seventh to the lead and would fight off Elazzaoui to win in 3:42:01, less than 30 seconds ahead of Elazzaoui.
Merillas, the 2020 SkyRunning World Champion and winner of the UTMB's OCC 50K last summer, was hoping to not have to sprint finish with Elazzaoui, and found his move with only a few miles to go. "I managed to take off during a section at 40K [mile 24.9], taking advantage of a small, more technical section which Elazzaoui wasn't able to follow me," Merillas said.
Second-place finisher Elazzaoui was elated by his performance. "It was difficult today. I don't have experience in the cold; I live in the desert! So, for me, getting second place today was a dream."
Albon would arrive a few minutes later to round out the podium in 3:45:01. "I was leading at the top of the last ascent," Albon said. "I missed an early aid station, too. I was surprised I could climb as well as I did without the gels. But I think it may have affected the downhill; my legs just weren't quite there." And that's where Merillas passed him after "sticking to me [Albon] like glue." From there it turned into survival mode.
Overall, Albon was happy with this performance. "This was about as good as I could expect."
With 15,000 runners applying for only 500 spots, it's an extremely tough race to get into. Essentially, a registration window opens up every January. There are officially 500 slots for the race, but nearly half of them are already earmarked for elite runners, top finishers, and those who have finished all previous Zegama races. There is then a lottery held for the remaining 225 spots, with preference given to those who have put their name in the lottery but haven't yet been drawn.
Despite the barriers to entry, Albon can't recommend Zegama enough for any North Americans who want a one-of-a-kind trail experience in a unique European setting.
"There's just nothing like Zegama," Albon said. "It's maybe like the Tour de France in some sections, where the crowd is really close and there's a bunch of noise, and they're pushing you along. But here it's on steroids. It hurts your ears. The passion for this race, in this town, is unheard of."
The Women's Race
Blandine L’Hirondel, from France, was a clear favorite at the start of the women's race, but it was China's Miao Yao, a 2:30 marathoner, who first made it to the famous Santi Spiritu climb. Unfortunately, Yao burned too much too soon on the earlier miles and was overtaken by Daniela Oemus, from Germany, who would go on to take a commanding lead after passing a few women.
Swiss runner Therese Leboeuf would pass Yao near the halfway point as she tried to reel in the field, but Oemus was showing her talent on the rocky terrain up high. All the while, Caitlin Fielder, from New Zealand, was making her way steadily toward the front and cruised in second place for the runnable downhill section near the end. But it was Oemus that would eventually break the tape in first in 4:31:54, with Fielder only minutes behind in 4:34:04, and Leboeuf in third, in 4:37:41.
Oemus didn't know she was in first place until she saw the finishing tape. "Somebody [on the course] told me I was in sixth, and when I took two more girls, I thought I was fourth," she said. "Also, the course was steeper than I thought. And I also didn't expect it to be that muddy. I knew it would be muddy but not that much." She recalled six miles into the race where she saw someone ahead of her fall and slide on their butt down a particularly muddy section. She took a similar approach. "I'm not a downhill runner, but maybe now because of that I am!"
Fielder, who lives and trains in Andorra, looked strong all day. An artist, trained marine biologist, and former amateur boxer, Fielder brought grit and experience to the course. "To run this historic race--it's iconic," Fiedler said following the race. "Finishing second is a dream, and I'm super happy with today."
"The Real World Cup of Trail Running"
Greg Vollet is Director of the Golden Trail Series, which started as a sub-ultra league in 2018. He is also the Global Running and Community Marketing Manager for Salomon, where he's been since 2010. Vollet is hopeful that it will continue to grow and become "the real World Cup of trail running."
"What we want to achieve here is to create a show, a trail running show, while respecting the values of trail running," said Vollet. "Every show has actors, and here [with the Golden Trail Series], I am talking about actors. When you don't have actors, you don't have a show. I want these actors to become professional actors. Our business plan is simple: We want to grow the sport."
The Golden Trail Series, in his view, is a way to attract further support for trail professionals to continue performing at the highest level, and to create a true league. But as much as these events are fast races up front, they also attract committed age-group runners interested in testing their mettle on the same rigorous courses. Supported by Salomon, the Golden Trail Series--both the National Series and World Series--now has events in 23 different countries. Vollet and his team seek to grow further into other countries, including more events in the United States and possibilities for growth in China by 2025.
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Unlike the UTMB World Series, which focuses mainly on ultra-distance events, The Golden Trail Series offers a targeted calendar of sub-ultra distance races, which Vollet thinks works to their advantage under most circumstances--but perhaps less so with American runners. "The U.S. seems much more inspired by ultra races than shorter distances right now," said Vollet. "But we're not really competing with ultras, as the two are totally different sports."
After an estimated 30,000 spectators showed up to Zegama for the weekend's race, Vollet and his team are indeed fostering an atmosphere of celebration, competition, and community. They even brought 600 cowbells to distribute to willing spectators, to crank up the octaves and welcome in every runner to the finish line and, eventually, a warm shower.
Golden Trail Events Coming to the U.S. This September
The next race in the Golden Trail World Series will be the Marathon du Mont Blanc on June 23 in Chamonix, France, not to be confused with Ultra Trail Mont Blanc by UTMB, which happens later in August. The Marathon du Mont Blanc, which includes distances from 10K to 90K and a VK, is one of the highest attended races in the Golden Trail Series. After that comes the Dolomyths Run, on July 15 in Italy, and Sierre Zinal, the crown jewel of the World Series, on August 12 in Switzerland, which will feature some top-shelf American talent, including Jim Walmsley, Allie McLaughlin, Grayson Murphy, and others.
There are two Golden Trail World Series events coming up in the U.S. this year, the Pikes Peak Ascent on September 16 in Colorado, and the Mammoth 26K, on September 23 in California.
Missed the Action at Zegama? No problem. Watch the full race, via livestream replay, all six hours of it, here.
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