[Editor’s Note: Stevie Kremer, an American mountain runner who has been living in Italy for about the last year, finished third at the 2013 Zegama-Aizkorri Marathon on May 26th. Here is her race report.]
The famous Zegama-Aizkorri race was to start in six minutes. The view was picturesque, but I was just too nervous to notice. I had just enough time for one more ritualistic bathroom stop before we get it on and it’s a close shave getting into a good position at the start line. But thanks to my friend whom I just met the day before, I was lifted over the partition rope and into the perfect starting position. This saved me the classic showdown at the not-so-O.K. Corral where latecomers have to hustle and bustle it with the rest of the latecomers.
“Crack!” The gun went off and we sprung into action, consumed by the immense cheering of excited onlookers, the likes of which I have never experienced before. When I think about it, that is one of the many beautiful experiences of running within the European mountain running circuit.
I knew who I wanted to keep in eyesight: Emelie Forsberg, Nuria Picas, Oihanna Kortazar, and Silvia Serafini, all great runners and only just a few names to mention as there are so many great athletes within the European circuit.
As the raced started, I tried to keep up with the lead runners during the first half kilometer, which formed a loop around the small town of Zegama. This loop worked as a natural distance-er, spreading runners out to avoid bottlenecks before the steep climbing.
I hit the climb hard and began to dig in. I wanted to play to my strength as an uphill runner, so I knew to push as hard as I could at the beginning before arriving at the long, steep, and very technical downhill, which came toward the end of the race and which was what I had feared since signing up for the race.
The start of the climb kept Emelie, Nuria, Oihanna, and me together. But after about one kilometer, I decided to give it that one extra push and try and get ahead. Looking back, that may have been a mistake because the others knew the course and the obstacles that lay ahead, while I, on the other hand, did not. But at that point, I didn’t care; I just ran up, not looking back, hoping to keep that pace going.
I guess you could say I did keep the pace for a little while. I gauged it off the fact that I was running with the same three or four people. One man, with whom I ran most of the uphill, had a long, dark ponytail, which threw me off every so often as I lifted my head from the ground, thinking it may be a female, but, thankfully, at that point, it wasn’t.
The terrain of the trail varied and so did my pace. I ran where I could and hiked where I had to. Five kilometers passed and I was the first girl. Before the race began, I thought that leading this race even for a step would be impossible and, therefore, I was shocked. I decided to go out on a limb and create a goal in my head to try and arrive first at the 10k mark. After that happened, I thought to myself, “Heck, you can be the first girl at the halfway point.”
The halfway point arrived, and so did I… but I wasn’t alone. As the top was nearing, so was Emelie. I could hear screaming and cheering for Emelie; and although we have been known to resemble one another, I knew at that point, people weren’t mixing us up, she was RIGHT behind me and coming in hot.
We arrived at the top of the first mountain, and what a beautiful sight! For a week, the weather had been cold, rainy, and even snowy; but the skies had cleared for this race and it was a breathtaking sight. At least that’s what I assume, as I was too busy looking at the ground below to really take in where I was running.
As Emelie took over the lead, I started forgetting about the lead and started realizing that I was losing steam. Not being one to eat during a race, I was pleasantly surprised to remember that a friend had given me a 2X caffeine energy Gu right before the race that I stuffed into the handy dandy butt pocket of my Salomon running skort. As quickly as I could, not missing a step, I ripped open the top and inhaled the Gu as fast as I could, hoping the effect would be just as quick as the consumption.
As the top became something of the past, and Emelie began her speedy descent, I started feeling the caffeine. Thank goodness. As the technical, rocky descent started, so did my downhill crawl, which consisted of sliding, scrambling, falling, and yup, a little walking. My hope of keeping up with Emelie vanished, as she ran off in the distance.
The next ten kilometers continued with steep, muddy slips and slides and hopes of no more girls nearing me. At the next point in the race, around kilometer 31, Emelie was completely out of sight. I was on my own, or so I thought. My teammate, Silvia Serafini, had come out of nowhere (although she was apparently not far behind the whole time), looking as though she was just starting a leisurely afternoon jog. While I was a complete disaster, slipping and sliding down the steep, rocky, grassy hill, Silvia gracefully, yet with rocket-like speed, flew down the hill, passing me like it was nothing.
At this point, I was uncomfortably in third place and started to feel defeated. There wasn’t much uphill left and downhill certainly wasn’t my strength. Emelie and Silvia were both in front of me and with my hopes slowly diminishing, I figured Oihanna and Nuria couldn’t be far behind. In my head, I was hoping to keep a top-five position.
The hill came to an end and a flat part began, and I began feeling more energized and picked up the pace. I soon saw Silvia not far ahead and made it a goal to catch her. Somehow it happened and I just kept going. We both cheered each other on and stayed together for a little while. As one of the final water breaks came up and a seven-kilometer downhill was left, I noticed Silvia wasn’t behind me anymore. I didn’t know where she had gone. I assumed she wasn’t far away, so I just made it a goal to let everything go and give it my all.
As I was thinking this, the cheers started getting a little louder, and although supporters were absolutely amazing to me, I knew a little more had to be happening. And sure enough, there came Nuria Picas flying by me. As she breezed by me, she shouted “Come on, Stevie, come on,” and that did it. I was now in third place and I was determined to keep it that way.
The downhill wasn’t very technical; I would call it a small jeep trail with mud and rocks, but definitely runnable and fast. I just let my legs do the running and guiding. Sure enough, I passed one man, then another. Kilometer 40 came and I knew I could do it. Two more kilometers to go… that’s only about a mile. Anyone can run as fast as they can for one mile. I knew the end was approaching as pavement appeared and I could hear the broadcaster on his microphone announcing the finishers.
At this point, I was done looking behind me to see if anyone was coming. I knew this would only slow me down. I kept my eyes forward and just let my legs go. The screaming became louder and I knew I was entering the finish line. The line of spectators at the finish line was unimaginable; they were lined up a half-kilometer from the actual line, cheering and screaming, blowing horns and sticking their hands out for high fives. At this point, no one was in sight, both in front of me or behind me and I thought I was going to have a comfortable third-place finish.
After giving high fives to spectators both young and old, I came around the final bend, and there it was: the big Salomon finish line and Nuria Picas hadn’t even crossed yet! She had just received the Catalan flag from a fan and was excited about her second-place finish (which almost didn’t happen, if I had only put a little more zip in my step). The cheers became louder and she quickly realized I wasn’t as far behind as she may have thought. She crossed the finish line three seconds before me, running into the arms of the winner, Emelie Forsberg, before embracing me and telling me what a great race we had (and how she almost hadn’t beaten me). Would I have run faster had I known she was THAT close? Maybe, but one can never really be sure!
Overall, it was truly an amazing experience. From the taxi ride from the airport to Zegama on Thursday evening, where the taxi driver and I did our best to communicate in Spanish (I took it in high school and studied in Costa Rica) to the finish line, the three days I spent in Zegama were ones I will never forget. The race was hard, but the spectators, fellow competitors, and organization made me forget about the pain and remember my great experience.
Thank you to Salomon, Team Salomon Agisko, Smith Optics, and everyone who supported me and cheered me on!