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Zegama Is Zegama
There was a fragile silence in Zegama, a village buried in a hollow in the lush green mountains of the Basque Country – a silence soon to be shattered by pandemonium. For the past 18 years, one Sunday a year, Zegama is pulled out of it's quiet and becomes the center of the world’s maddest mountain race.
By 8 A.M., the sun is already heating the roads around the church, where many of the day’s competitors are also warming up. The tension is palpable. For many, this particular morning is the realization of a long-held dream. Unless you’re one of the world’s elite runners, getting a race number for Zegama can take up to a decade. In 2019, only 2% of the 10,000 people in the ballot got a place. It’s the race of a lifetime.
At 9 A.M. the trail running world holds its breath - they’re off! The 500 competitors stream out of the village and into the mountains. Zegama 2019 is underway.
The race is the length of a marathon and climbs over 2,736 metres (8,975ft). Leaving the village center the course is a loop that tackles the surrounding mountains including the emblematic Aizkorri summit, which is rapidly followed by the highest point in the Basque Country, the 1,551m (5,100ft) Aitxuri.
“Zegama is Zegama”: the phrase is on everybody’s lips. It’s a race that has become mythical, and this exalted reputation is due, in large part, to the Sancti Spiritu segment to the Aizkorri summit. Thousands of spectators flock to it forming a human chain, strung out over 2.15 kilometres (1.4 miles) and 526 metres (1725ft) of vert, that startles and delights the runners they have flocked here to see.
The comparison with a mountain stage from one of road cycling’s Grand Tours is inevitable, and some compare it to Alpe d’Huez, one of the icons of the Tour de France. The Basque spectators are in place well before the front runners, and they eagerly look down the mountain to spy them on the trail as it exits a tunnel below.
A little before 11 A.M., the local hero breaks into view. The Catalan, the king of trail running – though absent from his Basque back garden for the past two years – Kilian Jornet. He leads the race over the Aizkorri, en route to his ninth victory in Zegama in 3 hours, 52 minutes and 47 seconds.
“To win nine times is like a dream. Coming here in 2007 and winning for the first time was incredible, but now, 12 years later… I feel at home here. What makes Zegama so special is the spectators, the organisers and the volunteers. You just have to come and experience it to comprehend.” - Kilian Jornet / Spain
The crowd massed along the trail are respectful of the runners’ space to move. Every runner is cheered along, but some stop and share a special moment with the spectators. Certain runners, bent over to they point they’re skimming the slope, stand up, incredulous. This is a moment they don’t want to forget.
“This was my first time, and I’ve waited for it so long that on the climb I talked to as many people as I could. It was just magic. You’re carried all the way along by the crowd.” - Zuriñe Frutos Gutierrez / Spain
“It’s a very special moment. You stop focusing on your body and your breathing. There is so much noise, so many people I know here who are shouting my name, that it’s always very moving for me.” - Oihana Azkorbebeitia / Spain / 12-time Zegama finisher
"This climb is amazing every year. You have to get to the bottom pretty quickly to make the time cut, but also fresh enough to make the best of it. If you’re fried at the bottom of Sancti Spiritu, the rest of the race is going to be very long!” - Mikel Legarreta Astiasaran / Spain (10-time Zegama finisher)
“I was cramping from the 14th kilometre on, and Sancti Spiritu was what kept me going. I wanted to relive it. Last year, when I was in first place, it was pretty unique! And so I did a better time this year than last, because I was annoyed I’d been cramping…” - Remi Bonnet / Switzerland / 2018 winner
“There are no words to describe the climb of Sancti Spiritu. It’s an energy, a feeling! The crowds are magic, all the eyes carry you upwards and really say something about the passion of these ‘runner-spectators’. It’s a truly intense moment that everyone should experience once in their trail running career!” - Thibaut Baronian / France / 3rd in 2019
To general surprise, Eli-Anne Dvergsdal won the women’s race, in 4 hours, 36 minutes and 6 seconds. The Norwegian had never raced longer than a half marathon and, despite the heat, she came within two minutes of the women’s course record.
“The hottest year!”
With temperatures of over 30°C (86°F) - higher than ever previously seen at Zegama - the race was particularly tough this year but at the finish line it was smiles, and a lot of cramps!
“On the climb, I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to smile the whole way up, but at the same time I was suffering so badly that I wanted to cry. It was incredible. I don’t think I’ll experience anything similar again… unless I come back!” - Toni McCann / South Africa / 1st time racing in Europe
“It was my first time at Zegama, I only started trail running four years ago. The atmosphere here is incredible, magic. It’s complete madness. I was going too fast at points, because of the crowd. I told myself several times, ‘Stop, slow down, or you’ll die! I hope to come back next year. “ - Ginevra Cusseau / Italy