“Zegama is Zegama.” That’s what those who’ve experienced the Zegama-Aizkorri Marathon, the iconic mountain race in Spain’s Basque Country, often say when they refer to it. Sometimes, it’s said while shaking one’s head in disbelief, but it’s also always said with a smile. The simple expression refers to the course, the runners, the fans, and, occasionally, the shenanigans that transpire after all is said and done. It’s another year and, once again, the legend of Zegama and the race’s inclusion in the Skyrunning World Series have brought together an all-star cast.
Women’s 2014 Zegama Preview
One of the great things about a stacked field in a short race… especially on a technical course, is that anything can happen. There are a handful of well-known names that can win this race and, probably, an equal number of Basque runners that the rest of the world knows little about. Here, we spell out the women we think could win.
While the snow is still settling from Emelie Forsberg’s (pre-race interview) ski season, she was quite enthusiastic about her chances two weekends ago at the Transvulcania Ultramarathon. However, she took a fall amidst the crowd in the early going and later withdrew to receive stitches for an arm injury. She’s back to scaling mountains… and I expect her to be hungrier than ever. Given that Emelie won Zegama in 2013 after taking third in 2012 (post-race interview), she’s got to be the favorite this year.
Last year, American Stevie Kremer (in-depth profile) (pre-race interview) took third at Zegama (post-race report), but she was less than two minutes behind Forsberg and a mere three seconds behind Núria Picas. Later in last year’s Skyrunner Skyrace Series season, Kremer beat Forsberg at the Mont Blanc Marathon and Limone Extreme to win the series over Forsberg. It will be exciting to see this intense rivalry get underway a new in 2014.
Elisa Desco of Italy is a major wildcard in this year’s race. She took third at the 2008 World Mountain Running Championships and then crossed the line first the next year before being disqualified and serving a two-year suspension for a doping violation. Last year, she beat Kremer to win Sierre-Zinal and took third at the Mountain Running World Championships. More recently, she won the vertical kilometer and half marathon at Transvulcania. On the roads, she has PRs of 1:12 and 2:36 in the half and full marathon, respectively.
The Podium and Beyond
Núria Picas is enjoying an incredible start to her 2014 season. She’s already come close to wrapping up an overall Ultra-Trail World Tour victory with wins at Transgrancanaria (post-race interview), Ultra-Trail Mount Fuji (post-race interview), and, just this past weekend, The North Face 100k Australia. Even though she’s über-fit, it’s hard to see Núria having enough spring in her step only eight days after the TNF100 to win Zegama this year. That said, a podium spot isn’t unthinkable given how sharp Núria is right now. She’s been second the past two years after taking ninth in 2011.
Basque runner Maite Maiora boosted her name recognition a great deal in taking second at Transvulcania two weekends ago. Like Picas above and a few other women to be discussed, a recent top ultra performance detracts from her chance to win Zegama outright, but not to place well. Last year, Maite took fifth at Zegama 10 minutes behind Forsberg. She was eighth and a full 25 minutes off the front at Zegama in 2011. Look for her to finish in the middle of the top 10.
Uxue Fraile (pre-race interview) was recently third at Transvulcania, half an hour behind fellow Basque runner Mayora. Uxue has taken seventh at Zegama each of the past two years.
Kasie Enman won the 2011 World Mountain Running Championships, cementing herself as one of the world’s best mountain runners. Last year, her season started midyear after the birth of her child. With more or less a full year of training since then, there’s no reason to think she won’t be in full form at Zegama. We’ll see. She may be held back by a knee injury that she’s dealing with.
In 2012, Oihana Azkorbebeitia was fifth at Zegama and the Basque champion for winning the half marathon at Orozko. After taking a year off racing to give birth, she’s back.
Leire Aguirrezabala is yet another Basque runner to keep your eye on this weekend. She was fifth at last year’s Limone Extreme and only 12 minutes behind winner Kremer and just four minutes behind third place Forsberg. Last year, she won the ‘Spanish Cup’ as well as the Basque championship. This year, she’s won the 82k Transgrancanaria Advanced race and the marathon at Transvulcania. She comes from a track background, having won the Basque national championship at 1,500m in the past.
Heading south to Catalunya, Emma Roca will be racing yet again… in the name of science. She’s literally testing herself with two ultras and the Zegama Marathon in just over a month to see how well she recovers. The race is already a bit speedier than Emma’s forte, so with so many racing kilometers under her belt, including a fourth place at Transvulcania (which involved her rolling her ankle late in the race and limping across the finish line), expect her to finish in the second half of the top 10.
Others to Watch
- Ibarbia Aitziber (Spain) – 13th Zegama 2013; 11th Zegama 2012
- Nerea Amilibia (Spain) – 11th Zegama 2013; 9th Zegama 2012
- Landie Greyling (South Africa) – 9th IAU Trail World Championships 2013; 5th Kepler Challenge 2013 [Added 5/20]
- Uxoa Irigoien (Spain) – A Basque runner with a speedy short-distance resume
- Stephanie Jimenez (Italy) – 15th Zegama 2013; 3rd Transvulcania Half Marathon 2014; 4th Transvulcania VK 2014; 6th Zegama 2011
- Eva Moreda (Spain) – 2nd Spanish Cup 2013; 3rd Haria Extreme 2013 [Added 5/22 on advice of local refuge hosts]
- Paola Romanin (Italy) – 2nd Limone Extreme 2012; 5th Skyrunning Sky Marathon World Championships 2010
- Maria Dimitra Theocharis (Italy) – 4th Limone Extreme 2012
- Izaskun Zubizarreta (Spain) – 5th Zegama 2011
Men’s 2014 Zegama Preview
One could probably write 5,000 words previewing the men’s race at Zegama this year. I will try not to do so, as a preview shouldn’t take longer to read than the actual race! ;-)
Contenders for the Win
Two weekends ago, Luis Alberto Hernando consciously took advantage of the fact that Kilian Jornet had a mere 100 kilometers of running in his legs in all of 2014 to win the Transvulcana Ultramarathon (post-race interview in English y en Español). Having been runner-up to Kilian at the past two editions of Zegama and by a mere 12 seconds last year, you’d better believe that Luis Alberto will do all he can to beat Kilian again in the early season while he has a chance. With the course record at 3:54:18 (Rob Jebb, 2005), I’ve got to believe that Luis Alberto’s 3:54:50 from last year is the fastest second-place time in the race’s history.
Kilian Jornet has had another two weeks to train for Zegama after his second place at Transvulcania (post-race interview) on very little run training, but he spent some of that time on skis preparing for his upcoming attempt at the Mount McKinley speed record. Still, another 100 kilometers or more of running (and the cooler weather that Zegama is known for) means that Kilian is all the more dangerous. Besides, Kilian has won the past four Zegama Marathons, so he’s once again the favorite. If the weather’s good, he could take another shot at Rob Jebb’s course record, which he missed by only 20 seconds last year.
Watch out for Brit Tom Owens (pre-race interview) who was runner-up to Kilian in 2011 in a spectacular 3:58. He also took third at Zegama in 2012. After a year away from racing due to injury, Owens is eager to show the world what he’s capable of… and he certainly thinks his sixth place at Transvulcania two weeks ago is not representative of his current fitness.
While a bit of a long shot, you can never count Marco De Gasperi (in-depth profile) (pre-race interview) out at a mountain race. It would be hard to say that De Gasperi isn’t cumulatively the best mountain runner over the past decade and a half. He’s got five World Mountain Running Championships (all in up-and-down years), he’s held the vertical-kilometer record, he’s won just about every major mountain race in Europe. While at 36 years old he may no longer be at the very top of his game, he’ll be in the fight for sure.
The Podium and Beyond
Last year was one heck of a race at Zegama with an unheard of four runners going under four hours. After Jornet and Hernando, both Tadei Pivk of Italy and Zaid Ait Malek of Spain crossed the line in 3:59. Pivk, who is also a top ski mountaineer, was third at last year’s European Skyrunning Championships at the Dolomites Skyrace. He was also the Italian Skyrunning champion in 2013. A Moroccan living in Spain, Ait Malek took fifth at Limone Extreme last autumn, while beating Jornet in the short downhill race also held at Limone. In early March, Zaid was second behind Pau Bartoló at the 82k Transgrancanaria Advanced race.
A Romanian runner living in Spain, Ionut Zinca won last year’s Giir di Mont in front of a strong field. Later in the season, he was second to Kilian at Limone Extreme by less than 90 seconds. Clearly, Zinca is strong and more than capable of running technical terrain.
Alex Nichols (in-depth profile) (pre-race interview) dove headfirst into Skyrunning in 2013, taking third place in the Skyrace Series. His best result was his second-place finish at the Pikes Peak Marathon in August. Last year, he also took seventh at the Mont Blanc Marathon and eighth at the Limone Extreme. He clearly fared best on the least technical Skyrunning course, so the incredibly technical course at Zegama could be a hurdle.
Being young and fearless could be a big advantage for Cameron Clayton (in-depth profile) at Zegama this weekend. I’ve not personally witnessed his technical running prowess, so I can’t comment as to whether or not his bravado translates into downhill speed. Regardless, I’d fully expect Cam to take it out with the big dogs here.
Eirik Haugsnes (in-depth profile) gave the Skyrace Series a go in 2013 starting with his best results, a fifth at the Mont Blanc Marathon before taking ninth at Ultraks. He did not have a strong race at Limone, where he finished 29th.
Norway’s Thorbjørn Ludvigesen (in-depth profile) is a climbing machine who can hold his own on the descents. He made his Skyrunning debut at Limone last year with a second in the VK and ninth in the Skyrace.
Much of the remainder of last year’s top 10 will return. From fifth through 10th, only last year’s ninth place runner, Daniele Cappelletti isn’t entered. All Spaniards, here’s who’s also in from last year’s race:
- 5th – Cristobal Adell (Spain) +12:42
- 6th – Jokin Lizeaga (Spain) +14:02 – 5th at Zegama in in 2012
- 7th – Alfredo Gil (Spain) +15:10
- 8th – Hassan Ait Chaou (Spain) +21:01
- 10th – Aritz Egea (Spain) +22:46 – Aritz is clearly proficient on technical trail, having also taking third at Limone Extreme last year. He was fourth in the Skyrace Series in 2013.
While he finished a disappointing eleventh in 2013, Michel Lanne (France) was fourth in 2012 in 4:06, so he’s certainly a threat for a top-five finish. He was third at last year’s Les Templiers, showing that he’s still on his game.
Others to Watch
In this incredibly strong field, here’s another list of men who could challenge for a spot in the top 10.
- Pau Bartoló (Spain) – 5th Les Templiers 2013; 6th Cavalls del Vent 2013; 22nd Zegama 2013
- Fabio Bazzana (Italy) – Italian Trail Champion 2013; 6th Limone Extreme 2012; 27th Zegama 2013
- Raúl Cámara (Spain) – 2012 Castilla y León Mountain Running Champion; 2nd K42 Argentina 2013; 2nd K42 Mallorca 2014
- Oscar Casal (Andorra) – 6th Pikes Peak Marathon 2012; 10th Pikes Peak Marathon 2013; 18th Zegama 2012
- Javier Dominguez (Spain) – 3rd TNF Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc 2013 (post-race interview); 24th Zegama 2013; 27th Zegama 2012
- Martin Gaffuri (France) – 7th Ice Trail Tarentaise 2013; 8th UROC 100k 2013; 13th TNF EC 50 2013
- Oli Johnson (UK) – 7th World Mountain Running Long Distance Championships 2011; 10th Mont Blanc Marathon 2013
- Manuel Merillas (Spain) – 4th Cavalls del Vent 2012 & 2013; 7th Transvulcania 2014; 16th Zegama 2013
- Marc Pinsach (Spain) – Former skimo champ/Kilian’s partner; 6th Ultraks 2013; 7th Limone 2013 [Added May 22 thanks to Mauri Pagliacci]
- Michel Rabat (France) – 8th Zegama 2011; 12th Zegama 2012; 17th Zegama 2013
- Vitaly Shkel (Russian) – 2nd Mount Elbrus VK 2013
- Pablo Villa (Spain) – 9th Transvulcania Ultramarathon 2013; 3rd K42 Mallorca 2014
- Greg Vollet (in-depth profile) (France) – 10th Zegama 2012; 13th Zegama 2011
Call for Comments
- Who do you think will win the men’s and women’s races?
- Any runners with a shot at the top 10 that we missed? Spanish friends, let us know some of your favorites not on our list!
- With so many runners mentioned, surely some of these runners won’t be racing this weekend. Let us know who that may be!