American Alex Nichols will run the Zegama-Aizkorri Marathon this weekend for the second time. (He dropped last year due to injury.) In this interview, Alex explains what the Zegama course is like as well as the culture the Basque fans create around it. He also discusses his 2014 race schedule and what shoes he might use to tackle Zegama’s variable terrain and predicted bad weather.
Be sure to check out our detailed preview of the men’s and women’s fields at the Zegama Marathon to see who else is running this weekend.
[Click here if you can’t see the video above.]
Alex Nichols Pre-2014 Zegama Marathon Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Bryon Powell of iRunFar here with Alex Nichols before the 2014 Zegama-Aizkorri Marathon. How’s it going?
Alex Nichols: Pretty good, yeah.
iRunFar: Zegama is pretty nice, eh?
Nichols: I know. Well, right now it is. I would say two hours ago it was not so nice.
iRunFar: And then four hours ago it was nice as well.
iRunFar: It’s kind of intermittent here.
Nichols: That’s the story of the week. It seems like downpour and then sunshine—all over the place.
iRunFar: Yeah, we’re just looking out at the course here. Pretty spectacular backdrop for an interview but also course to run this weekend.
Nichols: For sure. I was just saying it’s the perfect profile. If you came here and you wanted to summit everything, you would do the Zegama course.
iRunFar: So it’s a pretty natural… it’s a marathon, but it’s really a natural looping course.
Nichols: Yeah, definitely. There are only a few spots where they kind of added on a little bit, but otherwise it’s just right on the ridge the whole time.
iRunFar: You were here last year.
Nichols: [laughs] Yeah.
iRunFar: Explain to Americans what Zegama is like—the course first.
Nichols: The course is… I mean, it’s just steep. It’s always steep whether you’re going up or down. It’s also a huge mix of forest, high alpine, anything you can think of, it’s got it. Even this last section is fast downhill on a road. But then, yeah, just the experience—I’ve tried to tell people that it’s kind of like the Tour de France where you have so many fans lining the side just cheering for you all the way really far back there. I don’t know how they get back there. Yeah, just huge crowd support—it’s really fun to be right in the middle of it.
iRunFar: Is there anything in the U.S. that you’ve seen even close to that fan support?
Nichols: Yeah, not that I can think of. Maybe if it was the Boston Marathon or something like that.
iRunFar: But, a trail race in the country…
Nichols: Right, and it’s not really close to anything. Zegama is a tiny town. Like I said, I don’t know where these people come from, but there are going to be thousands of them out there.
iRunFar: How was the weather out there?
Nichols: Last year was actually great. I was talking to a couple people and they were saying how it seems to alternate. Every other year you get either rain or great weather. So this might be a pretty rough year.
iRunFar: It’s supposed to be a pretty rough year weather-wise. I can assure you there are still ridiculous numbers of fans out there—10 in the morning could be literally at the freezing line with rain and snow. The descent—there’s a lot of climbing early, you run on the ridge and it’s pretty technical—then you come to the descent.
Nichols: Yeah, some of them are just super rocky. That’s kind of what I’m most nervous about. There are spots where it’s so technical that you’re trying not to walk even though it’s downhill. Yeah, I’m just hoping to stay on my feet and try to go as fast as I can, but it’s going to be tough for sure.
iRunFar: It’s really different than… I mean, you had some good success on the whole Skyrunning Series last year especially at Pikes Peak, but that’s not a technical descent.
Nichols: Yeah, the first mile going down Pikes Peak is probably kind of similar to what we have here except this is a few miles instead of just one. So, yeah, it will be interesting, but I’m looking forward to it.
iRunFar: Do you feel like you can open it up here, I mean, you have almost nine kilometers of road downhill at the end.
Nichols: Yeah, exactly. I was eyeing that on the map today. That will be nice. Yeah, I mean, there are spots on the rest of the course, too, that aren’t crazy. Like I said, it’s a mix of everything.
iRunFar: You just showed you had some solid speed, was it two weekends ago? Did you run the Greenland 50k?
Nichols: Yeah, Greenland 50k, yeah. Yeah, I did that race. It’s a pretty flat 50k, but it’s still a trail race. It had maybe 3,000 feet of climbing over the course of it.
iRunFar: Was it 3:18? What was your time?
Nichols: 3:13, yeah.
iRunFar: Course record?
Nichols: Yeah. I was even surprised by how fast that was. I’ve done some speedwork, but…
iRunFar: Zegama is obviously a pretty huge deal. What was your thinking about squeezing in a trail 50k two weeks before?
Nichols: It was the last hard training run essentially. I did one other kind of long run in between, but yeah, just trying to get more of a race effort in.
iRunFar: Gotcha. It was a 50k, but it was 3:13. That wasn’t even the full time duration you’re going to run on Sunday.
Nichols: I know. That’s kind of the crazy part. I was trying to think of, like, Okay how can I squeeze in a four-hour race to get ready for this, because it’s a four-hour race.
iRunFar: A four-hour race would be one heck of a day here.
Nichols: Yeah, exactly. So that was kind of my thinking but not even nearly as tough as this.
iRunFar: You did do a bunch of the Skyrunning races last year. How did your season go in general?
Nichols: It was kind of all over the place—from dropping out at Zegama last year, ellipticaling a ton, and then getting back in shape for Chamonix. That went pretty well. Then I sort of rolled with the progress and kind of got better as the year went on.
iRunFar: Do you work on anything in particular in terms of your running to prepare for these races?
Nichols: It’s more just been the accumulation of doing more races like this and getting used to what it’s going to be like. Incorporating powerhiking into training, seeking out as technical of stuff that I can find in Colorado Springs, which is kind of hard—we have pretty flat, kind of smooth trails.
iRunFar: Your racing is training for the next race in part.
Nichols: Yeah, I think that’s actually how things work out the best for me—to not get too serious about one race because that’s when I blow up and train too hard and get injured.
iRunFar: So you just look at the season as a whole?
Nichols: Yeah. I mean, the best training is always a race. If I can do a race and recover, then I come back stronger than I was before.
iRunFar: What does the rest of your season look like? Do you have any other highlights coming up in the next few months?
Nichols: I’m still kind of trying to figure it out. I’m going to run the World Championships at Chamonix again.
iRunFar: Marathon distance?
Nichols: Yeah, and I’m doing the VK there, too. Then after that, it’s kind of up in the air. I’m trying to get the whole Skyrunning Series points in, so hopefully three of those.
iRunFar: The Skyrace distance.
Nichols: Yeah, so you need total three races to score. Unfortunately, the World Championships doesn’t score in the series total.
iRunFar: So then you’ve got to seek a few more out.
iRunFar: We talked about how steep these descents are here. It’s going to be muddy as heck out there. You’ve got a lot of arrows in the Inov-8 quiver for a course like that. How do you choose one over the other?
Nichols: I was pretty sure I was going to run in the X-Talons just because they’re really good in mud—you know, that perfect British slop that they’re used to. But after running the course today, I just don’t know if they’re going to be quite enough shoe. They’re pretty soft between the lugs, so I might go Trailrocs. That’s kind of what I’m leaning towards, yeah.
iRunFar: So a little more protection but a little less traction?
iRunFar: In the scale of things.
Nichols: That’s what you have to remember. They’re still a trail shoe. I ran those in that muddy North Face year and I was running up things that other people were sliding down.
iRunFar: It should work out alright.
Nichols: Yeah, I think the trade off just to have that protection on the downhill should be good.
iRunFar: When did you arrive here in Zegama?
Nichols: Last night. Just barely getting in enough time to get used to the time change hopefully.
iRunFar: How have you figured that out over really last year having a lot more international travel on your schedule. How early do you feel like you have to get over to really be at your best or close to your best?
Nichols: Yeah, I think I’d probably like another day. But last year before the Chamonix Skyrace, my flight got delayed. I didn’t arrive until Friday and the race was Sunday. Even that one turned out okay. I think as long as you can force yourself to sleep through the night the first time, then you’ll be alright. But it’s not ideal, that’s for sure.
iRunFar: Well, even if it’s not ideal, best of luck out there on Sunday and have fun.
Nichols: Thank you. I will.