By Kasie Enman
Over Memorial Day weekend, while most other Vermont runners were taking part in VCM, I flew out to Spain for the Zegama-Aizkorri Sky Marathon. I have a goal this season of completing the SkyRunning race series and Zegama would serve as race #1. Iâ€™ll be hoping on a plane on a monthly basis through October to races all over Europe and the western US, including both extended stays and weekend getaways. The logistics alone of traveling to all these races is daunting to me, but when opportunity knocks, I open the door. So off I went.
According to someone who did the math, this course has an accumulated height gain of 5,472 meters. I made a point not to do the math, so Iâ€™m not sure if thatâ€™s total climbing or combined elevation gain plus loss, but either way you get the point - this course wasnâ€™t flat. On my drive from the Bilbao airport, the afternoon before the race, I looked around and felt at home. The landscape reminded me of the green mountains with rolling hills, forests, and sparse populationâ€¦ with the exception of the occasional industrial town and the Aizkorri mountain range that rose up out of the land in steep rocky peaks.
I got to the town of Zegama just in time to sneak in a 30 minute shake-out run on the final kilometers of the course, pick up my bib-number, and appease the throngs of children asking for autographs and photographs. They had no idea who I was, Iâ€™m sure, but this race is a major event in their small town and runners are therefore celebrities. I squeezed in some dinner and a short night of sleep before waking up to the sound of pouring rain on race morning. My mud-season training in Vermont and sleep deprivation training as a mom left me feeling very prepared for the day.
It was a whoâ€™s who of international mountain running there. My Salomon teammates, Emelie Forsburg, last yearâ€™s winner, and Stevie Kremer, plus a list of other European women with strong resumes who I would be racing for the first time. For the men, Kilian Jornet, Luis Alberto Hernando, and Marko DeGasperi headlined the field. A lot of the competition is either coming off a ski season or a big ultra, or both, so I donâ€™t think anyone felt totally prepared for what was to come. I tried to keep in mind some good advice from mountain running legend, Jonothan Wyatt, that unlike on the track or the roads where you are racing other people or the watch, on a technical mountain course the contest is between you and the terrain.
European races are notorious for starting on a road in the middle of town where everyone sprints like they all forgot theyâ€™d be out there climbing up and down mountains for hours. My inclination is to start at a more moderate pace, but the problem with that strategy is that youâ€™d get plowed down and then trapped behind slower runners when you enter the uphill single track a short few hundred meters in. So despite not being warmed up and despite being jet lagged and despite being very undertrained for what would turn out to be the longest duration run of my life, I went with it.
By 7k, we came through the first major crossing and I located Emelie and Stevie in my vicinity. They had both successfully run this course before, so I took that as a good sign. I had no idea where the other women were and wished that Iâ€™d brushed up on my Spanish a little better so that I could understand the cheers. Turns out the three of us were in the lead. Each of us had a slightly different strength out on the course. Emelie ruled the downhills, Stevie was a beast on the ups. I was figuring it out as I went. It had been a while since Iâ€™d navigated terrain like this, if ever. There were some downhills where I had to check my speed or add my own switchbacks to avoid tumbling head over heels. Think Upper Walking Boss in reverse plus Sleepy Hollow mud. I had read a race recap from Max King a couple years back mentioning that the fastest way down some of these hills may be on your butt. Yep.
By 21k Stevie and I were still 1-2, trading the lead. I had started to figure out the downhills, so I would pull ahead there. She was stronger on the uphills, so sheâ€™d move by me there. I was pretty stoked to be a factor in the race considering that my training bank was close to foreclosure. I also noted that I was starting to lose my climbing legs. Both my energy stores and my quad muscles were throwing up red flags. Other red flags: I started to fall a lot and every time I fell, a muscle would charlie horse. I think it was shortly after 30k that I lost contact with Stevie for the last time. I was really hoping the course was all downhill from here. It wasnâ€™t. I went with “ignorance is bliss” over studying the course map. Somewhere in the final kilometers the chase pack of women blew by me like I was standing still. I took one final digger and dragged my mud-covered bloody body to the finish line in 5th place.
I was actually very pleased with how this race played out. I took some risks, raced way above my current fitness, and left it all out there on the course. I was out there for almost 5 hours, which is totally unchartered territory for me and I survived in one pieceâ€¦ for the most part. And I was back home in Vermont the next day! Next Sky Race up is the Mont Blanc Vertical Kilometer and Marathon on June 27 & 29th. Iâ€™ll be traveling with my family for that one so I can take some more time to soak it in, between a trip up Mt. Washington and Loon.