"Zegama is no a very technical track."
Those were the first words of English the Zegama race director put out there as the course preview got underway the evening before the race. And for the most part he was telling the truth; it's just that when the course did get technical - between the second and third summits in particular - it got really technical (as running races go). But let's not get carried away here, we're talking class two rock hoping with a few very short sections of class three hands-on-rock action over a stretch of maybe four miles.
The challenge on the rest of the course was really about dealing with the grade, which for the most part was pretty steep. And then of course there was the weather. Wet rocks, wet grass on looney descents, slick mud, and trails sliding off the side of the mountain (literally). I lost count of the number of times I hit the deck, but generally speaking I was moving faster on my ass than on my feet, so the butt surfing actually worked out pretty well.
The race went out hard, as they always seem to do in Europe. By the time we had completed a circuit of Zegama and begun the first ascent I was probably in 30th place. But that was fine, I was sure half those guys would be coming back to me by the time we topped out on Aratz - the first summit of the day.
Yeah, that never really happened. As it played out, I would pick up some runners on the climbing, generally lose ground on the descents and then salvage a few positions over the last 10 kilometers of downhill to the finish when the endurance factor started coming into play. On the techie crux of the race through the middle section, and the ensuing parachute drop, I probably gave up close to 15 places, while also almost losing my head to a loose rock from above that whistled within a meter of me at break-head speed midway through the steepest drop of the day.
I survived. My ego took a pretty good bruising though.
I love negotiating technical alpine terrain, but I guess I'm just never in that much of a hurry to do so when in the environment. I tend to consider alpine jaunts as time-on-feet training - or just pure pleasure - as opposed to some kind of performance outing, and that was brought into sharp focus at Zegama.
I simply didn't have the technical chops to compete - or even want to try and compete - with the Basque boys around me. Finding myself way back in the pack up there as I did on race morning, I guess I just wasn't motivated enough to put body parts on the line. Maybe if my uphilling had been stronger through the early stages of the race, I would have been compelled to take some risks, but my climbing/pow-hiking wasn't good enough and so I found myself pussyfooting around up high with a mindset more focused on getting through the race in one piece than on rapid movement.
Maybe I'm getting old. Or maybe, as others have speculated, we U.S.-based trail runners just don't have the occasion or opportunity to rip on the kind of courses that make up the Skyrunning circuit in Europe and across the world. Of the three Skyrunning races I have participated in, I have been humbled by two (Sierre-Zinal and Zegama) and done okay at the third (Pikes Peak).
Sierre-Zinal is not a particularly technical race, but the opening ascent is much steeper than anything I typically run or race on over here. Much like Zegama, therefore, my 'race' at Sierre-Zinal was essentially over once the first 5,000 feet had been negotiated. Pikes Peak, on the other hand, is neither technical nor that steep, rather it is a race about pacing, altitude management and running, and I have performed decently there. Yes you ascend close to 8,000 feet, but at no point during that race should you be hiking (unless of course the altitude gets the better of you). The trail gains 8,000 feet over 13 miles, which works out to an average grade of about 11 percent, or 600 feet per mile. Some would describe that as amateur hour in the mountains (dubbed 'douche grade' by some of the rate-of-ascent purists in the U.S. mountain ultra scene), but the general reality of running in the Mountain West, especially when it comes to racing, is that grades of between 400 and 800 feet per mile are - for sustainability reasons - the angle at which our mountain trails are generally cut.
And I'm fine with that. It just means that I perform at a pretty mediocre level on steeper pow-hiking grades. For as much as I love to ascend steep terrain, I've never felt the need - nor desire - to rip on it. Good job I don't race on uber-steep terrain too often then, I guess.
Interestingly (all things of course being relative), my fourth shot at a Skyrunning race will come in July on a course that I actually know quite well, and a race that straddles the middle ground between the Euro-style Skyraces and standard U.S. mountain races.
The Speedgoat 50k never gets that technical, but is certainly 'nastier' than Sierre-Zinal or Pikes Peak with regards to terrain. The grades are steep, but with the exception of one hillside, never so steep that the course can't be covered in its entirety at a running cadence, while the altitude tops both Sierre-Zinal and Zegama, but doesn't come close to Pikes' above-timberline action.
The beauty, strength and draw of our sport lies in its variety. I love to race it all, but also recognize where my strengths lie.
People ask me, for example, if Western States or Hardrock is harder (expecting Hardrock to be the answer), and I typically tell them that they're both incredibly hard. For me, Western States is way more punishing physically than Hardrock because it's almost 100% runnable and a race in the true sense of the word, whereas Hardrock is a painfully slow high-altitude grind where you're on your feet for almost twice as long and negotiating sections of legitimate mountain terrain. But you get to hike for hours on end and really don't get too involved in the competition aspect of the event. Patience and perseverance is the name of the game there. Western States is a running race held on grades that play into my wheelhouse, which is the reason, I think, that I have done quite well there and have performed comparatively better than my (somewhat compromised) Hardrock effort. But make no mistake, the last 20-40 miles of both races are - or can be - excruciatingly painful.
I guess the conclusion to this rambling and disjointed post is that the disciplines of mountain, trail and ultra running are hugely diverse, and therein lies the greatest draw of the sport. It is the rare talent that displays mastery of all terrain and distances. From long to short races, from buffed to gnarled, there is a slice of something for everyone.
The passion for the mountains that the Basque people displayed in Zegama was a joy for me to experience, and that, at the end of the day, is what our sport is and should always be about.