They say that you need a plan for every race. I decided on my plan for Zegama as I was standing in the crowd of runners lined up under the inflatable starting line arch, after the traditional Basque folkdance that you may have seen on some YouTube videos of the race. My plan was to enjoy it as much as possible.
This seems like an obvious plan, and a good one, but I think it’s often a backup plan, somewhere behind a PR, or a time goal, or even a scheme to DNF at kilometer X if things don’t feel right. This can be a way to end up feeling miserable or frustrated at races. If you aren’t going as fast as you would like, you feel bad about your failure, you turn to Plan B — having a good time. Sometimes by then it’s too late. But I wasn’t a podium contender and I’d gotten sick on the flight to Spain, so winning the race, or crushing some personal PR, were both unlikely.
The music swelled, the announcer started yelling, and we were off. First a little loop around the town and then up, up, up to Aratz, the first summit of the course. I passed Kilian Jornet’s mom in the first kilometer. I did a pretty good job of not slipping on the mud during the climbs. I avoided getting stabbed by anyone’s poles. I stopped at all the aid stations for drinks and food, thereby avoiding the biggest mistake I’d made at my last race.
After the first climb to Aratz we ran down through San Adrian’s cave to Sancti Spiritu (just like on YouTube) over some fairly technical sections, and I was going well. Then the climb to Aizkorri started and I went into the pain cave. So steep. So relentless! But I remembered my plan, and the physical pain did not become psychological or spiritual pain. Eventually I got to Aizkorri’s summit in thick fog, drizzly rain, and gusty winds that blew the water into my eyes and made it hard to see. This was the low point, enjoyment-wise, of the race. The most technical parts of the course were upon me, and I had no energy to run them with any verve.
Fortunately, there is an aid station at the summit of Aizkorri, and I used it heavily. Drank a lot. Ate a lot of oranges and bananas. Tried an unfamiliar Euro-brand energy bar which was pretty palatable. Time to go.
Over the next ten kilometers I would fall on my ass somewhere between ten and twenty times, which works out to between 1 to 2 falls per kilometer. Keep in mind that I hadn’t fallen on a trail run at all in almost two years before this race. The rocks were designed by God to be difficult to run on. The slipperiness from the rain made things even better. But I didn’t fall on the rocks, I fell on the grass. Course goes straight downhill over muddy wet grass at a steep angle — if you were expecting anything else you must be mistaking me for Kilian or Emelie.
Thankfully my grateful attitude and my savvy pre-race plan got me through this section in reasonably high spirits. I was now at the runt-end of the field but I was happy! The sun came out as the trail leveled out in a flat meadow surrounded on all sides by the choppy white ‘Zegama rocks’ and I swear: I’d never been anywhere like this before. It was beautiful, and if you think Salomon put all the pretty parts of the Zegama course into their videos, you’re wrong. They missed this.
One more notable event must be related before my tale comes to an end. Within the last kilometer, I came upon a little dog. He was brown with long floppy ears and big brown eyes. He was standing in the road all by himself. I was still racing. But I remembered my plan. I stopped and fed him a tortilla de patatas that I was carrying from the last aid station. I think he liked it.
A race like this demands thank-yous. Thank you to the organizers, volunteers, and spectators who make Zegama Zegama! Thank you to Tiger, Squak, and Green mountains for teaching me to run uphill. Thanks to Chirico, Nightbird Gulch, Chimney Gulch, and Amphitheater trails for teaching me to run downhill. Thanks to the Gorge Waterfalls, Dirty Thirty, and especially the Rut 50K for teaching me how to play this game and for punishing me when I screwed up. Special thank you to the Rocky Mountain Runners who helped make me a strong enough runner to finish this race and enjoy it. In a race where everyone was wearing some kind of running club kit, it was nice to show my own affiliation. Thanks to the Lord Hill 10K for getting this racing party started back in 2011. Thank you to Mom and Jim for coming to Spain to watch. Thanks to Heidi for everything beyond trail running and for watching so many Kilian videos with me. Thank you to my dog Pele. He shares almost every mile that I run and he would really love this course. I wish I could have run Zegama with Pele. He would definitely have waited for me.
[This blog post first appeared on Carey’s blog: Pup Ears]