Manuel Merillas: Relationships with the Mountains

Manuel Merillas, the 2023 Zegama Marathon champion, has spent years building relationships with races and mountains, and his list of future goals is long and varied.

By and on May 23, 2024 | Comments

The story of a Spanish ultrarunner growing up in the rugged mountains and learning their trade through simply living in the terrain isn’t a new narrative, but Manuel Merrilas of La Cueta, Spain, has had his own twists and turns in his story of becoming a professional ultrarunner.

Raised while working cattle in the Valseco area of southern Spain, he found his footing in the mountains while moving the animals from pasture to pasture whenever he wasn’t in school. And when not tending livestock, he was out playing in the hills.

When he found running as a teenager, he was drawn to mountain running rather than the road or track. After knocking at the door of the front end of competitive races, a potentially career-ending Achilles injury had him reassessing his training, racing, and motivations. But after a nearly two-year break from racing, he returned stronger than ever with a new fastest known time (FKT) on Mont Blanc in 2021 and a win at the Zegama Marathon in 2023.

A multisport athlete who excels in trail running, ski-mountaineering racing, and mountaineering, Merillas has big goals for the future. The most immediate? Lining up for the 2024 Zegama Marathon for another shot at winning the coveted chapela.

Manuel Merillas - 2023 Zegama Marathon - first man

Manuel Merillas winning the 2023 Zegama-Aizkorri Marathon. Photo: Zegama-Aizkorri Marathon/Igor Quijano

A Childhood in the Mountains

Born in 1991, Merillas grew up in the mountains. His childhold village has a population of somewhere around 50 people. His family had cattle, and Merillas worked moving the animals around the terrain to find them the greenest pastures. The family had two huts in the valley, and they would move the animals between cooler, shaded slopes and warmer ones depending on the season and weather.

Merillas was out in the mountains every day that he wasn’t in school. It was a lifestyle of movement and living not just in but with the mountains. Working the land and the livestock and being in the mountains was part of his lineage. It was in his blood.

But it wasn’t all work for young Merillas. When recounting his childhood, he says, “Life was being in trouble in the morning, being in trouble in the evening, trouble during the night. Just a chill life with the livestock and living a really easy town life.”

Manuel Merillas in snow as a kid

Manuel Merillas growing up in the mountains with dogs. Photo courtesy of Manuel Merillas.

As with most active kids, he didn’t think of his activities in terms of training. From a young age, he was constantly moving, riding bikes, picking mushrooms, or heading down to the river to bathe. Everything involved walking or cycling around.

As he got older, he got involved with karate and soccer, but soccer stuck. Merillas said, “Technically, I was not very good at football, but I ran very fast and was very brave when it came to playing guys in a match.” He called himself “half good” and played all of the positions. He took up running not for the sake of running but to get faster and more agile for soccer.

In his late teens, Merillas dabbled in athletics and road running and eventually tried mountain running, which he liked more. At 18, he joined the Spanish army, which allowed him to be close to the mountains and keep running. It also reinforced his commitment to discipline, a trait he would carry into his running career.

A Focus on Running

Merillas’s path to becoming a professional mountain runner wasn’t quick or easy, and an injury in 2016 nearly took him out of the game for good. He points out that it took him 14 years of work to become what he considers a “correct professional” in the field of trail running. He views his journey as a source of pride and finds motivation in getting better at his trade day by day, year by year.

Starting his mountain running career by racing locally in Spain, Merillas quickly found himself near the front of competitive fields. He focused on the shorter end of ultras, but he also dabbled in longer distances. In 2012, he placed third at the Ehunmilak Ultra-Trail 100 Mile. The following year, he was 16th at Zegama, which started a deep and meaningful relationship with the race.

Merillas embraced the focus required to excel at mountain running. He explained that he learned to live with discipline from his parents, and the lifestyle was reinforced during his time in the army. Early on, he realized that he was good at the sport, but in an era when it seemed that only Kilian Jornet and a handful of others were making a living off the sport, he didn’t expect it to become a profession.

Over the next several years, Merillas continued to run near the front of big fields. He placed seventh in both the Transvulcania Ultramarathon and Zegama in 2014. In 2015, he won the Travesera Picos de Europa, another race he’s developed a long-term relationship with. Then after finishing fourth in Zegama in 2016, he was finally forced to address an Achilles injury that had been plaguing him, one that no one was sure he would fully recover from.

Injuries and Mountain Guiding

Injuries are often a part of any runner’s story, and dealing with insertional Achilles tendinitis in 2016 nearly ended Merillas’s narrative in the sport. It took a year and a half of dealing with the injury to finally get surgery on the calcium deposit that was causing the issues. He’d tried as many non-invasive solutions for the pain as he could before finally seeking help from a specialist and settling on surgery. Merillas said that nearly 70% of people don’t recover from the operation completely, but his doctor believed that he could return to a high level within two years if he was patient with his recovery.

Merillas didn’t sit idle in the time after the surgery. He made plans for the future and enrolled to become certified as a mountain guide. He created training and racing plans for himself for the following five years and recovered enough to pass the physical parts of the mountain guiding courses.

Shortly before his injury, he started a notebook with all the personal mountain projects he wanted to complete, including FKTs on some of the iconic routes in Europe. His list of goals provided the motivation to stay disciplined in his recovery. He said, “I had many plans for my challenges in the mountains … that I personally want to do. And I said, ‘I have to get recovered.'” His notebook proved to him that he wanted to get back into the mountains at a high level.

Manuel Merillas skiing with Zar

Manuel Merillas skiing with his dog, Zar. Photo courtesy of Manuel Merillas.

He seems philosophical about the injury and the setback. “To be able to build, we must be destroyed. So I practically destroyed myself whole to go little by little.” After two years without racing and after earning two mountain guiding certifications, Merillas was ready to return to the race scene. He put the mountain guiding certifications to the side to fully focus on being a professional runner.

He describes himself as “a gunpowder cartridge without a fuse.” He’s all or nothing, and now that his Achilles was recovered enough to run, he was going to give the sport everything he had.

Zegama Marathon and Travesera Picos de Europa

Merillas first ran Zegama in 2013. He’s now run the iconic race seven times, winning it in 2023, and is slated to line up for an eighth run in 2024.

Manuel Merillas - 2014 Zegama Marathon - start

Manuel (center in blue) just after the start of the 2014 Zemaga Marathon, where he finished seventh. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

After finding himself near the front of the field in 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016, with the win remaining elusive, Merillas was forced to take 2017 off to recover from his Achilles surgery. He returned to the race in 2019 and placed seventh. In 2022, he moved up to third, and in 2023, he finally won the race and the accompanying chapela.

Earning the Basque-style beret given out to Zegama champions, and being able to give it to his uncle, was a huge achievement for Merillas. His uncle viewed Zegama as the pinnacle of marathon-distance trail running, and he dreamed of having his nephew win it. He thought a win there would cement Merillas’s place as one of the best in the world. Being able to finally present his uncle with the chapela in 2023 meant a lot to Merillas, especially after a decade of trying. He says that he was able to live out his uncle’s dream for him.

Manuel Merillas - 2023 Zegama Marathon - Sancti Spiritu

Maneul Merillas on his way to winning the 2023 Zegama Marathon. Photo: Zegama-Aizkorri Marathon/Igor Quijano

Zegama isn’t the only long-term relationship Merillas has cultivated with a race. Since his first attempt at the Travesera Picos de Europa in 2013, he’s viewed it as the most difficult mountain running event available. He placed seventh in his first run at it, second in 2014, and then won in 2015 and again in 2018, 2019, and 2021. After placing second in 2022, he was back on the podium’s top step in 2023.

It’s clear Merillas loves the event in the way he talks about it. “I am in love with peaks … in love with that area. There is no place like it.” For him, it’s more than just a race. When running other events, “it’s like I’m missing the air, and when I go and run this race once a year, it’s like I take a breath of fresh air that lasts me all year.”

Family Life

Merillas currently lives with his family in La Cueta, Spain, the highest town in the province of León. With just 10 permanent residents, it’s a tiny tourist destination where visitors often outnumber the residents. Further up the road, it’s nothing but mountains. The impossibly steep terrain is the perfect training ground for an athlete who crosses disciplines between mountain running, mountaineering, and ski mountaineering.

Merillas shares his life with his partner, Claudia, and now 22-month-old son named Nel, which is the Asturian version of Manuel. This carries on the family name into its fourth generation while paying tribute to Merrillas’s wife’s Asturian heritage.

Manuel Merillas with son on shoulders

Manuel Merillas getting his son started in the mountains early. Photo courtesy of Manuel Merillas.

It’s taken a strong partnership to allow Merillas to pursue his running goals while raising a child. Merillas is quick to point out, “I like to say I am not only me, but we are the family.” He considers both he and his partner professionals in how they work together so that he can pursue his running. Merillas’s days start early, and after a calm breakfast, he heads out for his main training session. He’s generally back by noon to have lunch with his partner while their child naps. Then they play together as a family, and later, Merillas heads out for another training session. Whenever possible, he likes to take his kid out in a backpack and head up into the mountains.

Many people tried to convince Merillas that his lifestyle would have to change after becoming a father. He said that they told him, “Hey, you’re gonna’ stop doing this or you’re gonna’ stop doing that,” but Merillas doesn’t feel that he’s had to make major sacrifices. If anything, he thinks his life is better because he gets to share it with his son.


Zar, a border collie, is also a huge part of Merillas’s life. He describes it as Zar being his shadow and he being Zar’s shadow.

Zar entered Merillas’s life after he left the army. He’d always had dogs in his life, but hadn’t been able to have one while serving in the army. After leaving, his uncle had a new litter of border collies, and Merillas was looking for a dog that would be strong enough to run with him in the mountains. The timing of Zar coming into Merillas’s life coincided with injuries and other personal problems. He calls Zar his guardian angel.

Manuel Merillas dog Zar

Zar. Photo courtesy of Manuel Merillas.

Zar does everything with Merillas, from running in the mountains during the summer to ski mountaineering training in the winter. He can run at 30 kilometers per hour for long periods of time and loves to stay outside. Merillas says that if Zar were to race Zegama, he’d break the course record by over an hour.

Merillas knows that Zar won’t be able to run with him forever. He’s philosophical about the idea that Zar is just a chapter in his life, but he is the whole book for Zar. Thus, he’s committed to giving him the best life possible.

Building Distance for the Future

Merillas’s notebook is filled with potential future mountain projects, and he still has many ideas that motivate him. He describes them mostly as personal challenges and projects, something that he’s no stranger to. In 2021, he broke the FKT for the roundtrip on Mont Blanc from the town of Courmayeur on the mountain’s Italian side, which had stood since 2015. He holds several other FKTs in Spain.

The goal is always to be getting better. This simple motivation keeps him competing, training, and returning to the notebook to complete more projects. Merillas continues to rely on his disciplined lifestyle to help him reach his goals. That, and his love for moving quickly through the mountains.

At 33 years old, Merillas has the wisdom of a runner who has endured a serious injury and returned stronger than before. He understands that if he wants to increase his running distances, he has to do it slowly. And with a goal of eventually running the Hardrock 100, he’s keeping his eyes on the future.

Merillas says he’s been the young runner who did too much, too soon, and he paid the price with a serious injury. He’s not about to make the same mistake again. When he first returned to racing after the injury, he focused on events that were less than two hours long. Then he moved up to four-hour distances. At the 2021 European Skyrunning Championships, he raced for six hours, won the 65-kilometer event, and set a new course record by 83 minutes. Now, he feels strong enough to race the 100k CCC this summer, which he expects will take him more than 10 hours.

Then, there are the personal mountain projects. He’s got the speed record for the Matterhorn “between his eyebrows” and will continue to try for the FKT on the iconic mountain. He’d also like to go for the speed record on K2, a mountain in Pakistan and China that he’s dreamed of climbing since he was a kid and remains one of his top goals in his notebook.

And while the list of goals is long, first, there is another Zegama finish line to cross, and hopefully, another chapela waiting for him on the top step of the podium.

Call for Comments

  • Do you have a Manuel Merillas story to share? Please do!
  • Have you ever had an injury that nearly ended your running? How did it force you to reevaluate your relationship with the sport?
  • Do you have a furry running companion that could break the course record at Zegama?
Eszter Horanyi

Eszter Horanyi identifies as a Runner Under Duress, in that she’ll run if it gets her deep into the mountains or canyons faster than walking would, but she’ll most likely complain about it. A retired long-distance bike racer, she gave ultra foot racing a go and finished the Ouray 100 in 2017, but ultimately decided that she prefers a slower pace of life of taking photos during long days in the mountains and smelling the flowers while being outside for as many hours of the day as possible. Eszter will take any opportunity to go adventuring in the mountains or desert by foot, bike, or boat, and has lived the digital nomad lifestyle throughout the west for the past seven years.

Eszter Horanyi

Bryon Powell is the Founding Editor of iRunFar. He’s been writing about trail running, ultrarunning, and running gear for more than 15 years. Aside from iRunFar, he’s authored the books Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons and Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running, been a contributing editor at Trail Runner magazine, written for publications including Outside, Sierra, and Running Times, and coached ultrarunners of all abilities. Based in Silverton, Colorado, Bryon is an avid trail runner and ultrarunner who competes in events from the Hardrock 100 Mile just out his front door to races long and short around the world, that is, when he’s not fly fishing or tending to his garden.