Back to the Drawing Board

It’s Back to the Drawing Board as they say. My recent, shall we say adventure that was the Zegama-Aizkorri Maraton was both an eye-opening defeat and a success at the same time. Just so you don’t have to read the whole post, because apparently according to some other high-profile Montrail athlete race reports are…well, boring, I’ll sum it up as the hardest 4:20 marathon I have ever done. I feel like I’ve been hit by a truck and will save you a list of what hurts today except to say everything, my arms especially. That I used my upper body as much as my legs to get me through the race will give you some idea of what the course is like.

Did not know what I was in for!

Despite, or because of, the difficulties of the course it was a pretty awesome experience and one that I won’t soon forget. The course is beautiful, at least what I could see through the fog, mist, rain, and snow. It was harder than any course I’ve ever run/scrambled through, and also probably the first course that I thought I might actually have a good probability of breaking a bone on, and I still had a blast doing it. Actually I really enjoyed that I might break a bone, it means it was a properly hairy course. I did not like having to slow down because of it though. We’ll have to work on that.


A brief recap of our (the American contingent) trip over to Europe: I arrived Sunday to La Palma, a Canary Island, to find out that Dakota “Gran Co” Jones (new Spanish nickname) had just singlehandedly made for a successful trip. Really, no one else needed to race and we should have quit while we were ahead (not really true, just sounded good cus he won). Dakota crushed the Transvulcania 50 miler and beat the unstoppable Killian Jornet in the process. It was awesome. We spent three days in La Palma running around the island and discussing the future of SkyRunning, a little known (in the U.S.) series of races around the world all centered on mountain running. Some of the most difficult races around the world have at one time or another been part of the SkyRunning series. High altitude, huge elevation gain, and technically challenging is the name of the game, and after Zegama I know they aren’t messing around.

Meeting of the SkyRunning Minds

This mini-conference was the main reason for being invited across the Pond and it was successful in getting us, as athletes, excited about trying to grow the SkyRunning Series in the United States. There was much fan fare around this event with media conducting interviews of athletes continually, and a web of excessive twittering, hashtagging, and Facebooking stretching far and wide across the Internet. That I’ll save for another post another time.

La Palma

La Palma is interesting by the way. Not at all what I expected, it’s a volcanic desert island with not much but some great black sand beaches, quaint beach kioskos, and miles of rugged hiking trails that, had we had more time, could be linked together into some epic long runs. For perspective, the 50 miler went from one end of the island to the other, a point-to-point all on one single trail. And there are tons of others just like it.

Zegama Start

Zegama Start

On Thursday it was on to Zegama for my main event. If you see my irunfar interview, apparently I was one of the favorites going into that race. Not sure at all about the course, I studied the profile, the map, and even a 3D flyover of the course. Did it do me any good? Not at all. I am continually humbled and awed by how difficult the courses in Europe are and how these guys can run them so well. Both of my true SkyRunning experiences have resulted in fantastic and absolute defeats that leave me wondering whether I can actually run with the Euro’s or not. I will be back!!! (fist shaking in defeat) To be fair to myself I think I have to realize that both times I was udderly un-prepared for what awaited and both races will result in me re-evaluating and changing my training to be better prepared for my next ass-kicking, at which time I’ll shake my fist and go back to my plotting to take over the Euro mountain running scene one race at a time. Bwhaaa, haaa, haaa. (Sinister laugh)

Unfortunately, in the case of Zegama I don’t believe there is anything in the US that can prepare me for that kind of abuse. It is as if someone kicked me down a mountain lined with large sharp rocks, dunked me in freezing cold water, and beat me with a stick. Wait, that IS what happened. I fell down more times than I can count, slid about half of the second decent on my butt, (not so bad on the grass, only started to really hurt when I got into the rocks. My feet were out from under me before I knew what happened, I landed on my hands (they’re bruised pretty good) and instead of slowing down like you normally would on the ground, I was speeding up down the hill, it was amazing), and then rock scrambled for significant sections of the course over wet, slick rock rarely staying on my feet. Did I mention my body hurts today.

I ended up 15th overall, of which I’m not happy about losing to so many but also feel pretty good about getting through and still finishing strong. I’m most happy about staying comfortably with the leaders until the start of the uber technical sections after the first peak at 18km. I would like to think my climbing ability has improved quite a lot since last year, which means I still have the ability to adapt and improve in order to keep up with my Euro rivals.

Mike Wolfe had a great race and finished really strong over the final miles to wind up in 13th just ahead of me. Dakota, Nick, Joe, and Ian were just behind me and Nikki did great with an 8th place finish and 1st masters. She loved the course despite most likely breaking her hand on a slip and fall similar to mine and said she’d come back in a heart beat.

Basque Country

This is the easy part

Muy Bonito

Zegama and the Basque region of Spain reminds me a lot of New England/Adirondacks area and is very beautiful. It was the first time I’ve been able to really get to know some of the other American ultrarunners as well and it was great to have the opportunity to discuss ideas on how to improve our sport for the better in the future. Overall it was a great trip with a stark contrast from a sunny, hot, dry volcanic island to the wet and lush mountains of the Basque region. While out on a run Dakota and I came up with our fresh new competition idea of a paintball ultra event. Hopefully you can read about it in one of his future blogs. The gist of it would be a start on a wide half mile long starting line, everybody has a paintball gun, and you have no set course but must make it to a final finishing point some predetermined distance away. I’ve been dreaming of an event like this for years and I’m just glad that I’m not the only nut with hair-brained ideas like this. I’ve got a couple more too. I’d make a list of all of them but I don’t want someone ripping them off before I get a chance to put them on. Cus they’re great. Really.

Now on the flight home trying not to move any muscles that I don’t absolutely have to, thinking about where to go next with both training and racing. At times like these part of me never wants to go back to a race like that until some of the guys start moving over to races that I’m stronger in like flatter and faster trail races, and there’s another part of me that wants to move over and try to accept the new challenge of improving myself to compete on their field of battle. It’s a conundrum. I’ve got a lot of questions like: What should I do? Do I modify my training to get better at these races? As far as I’m concerned, it’s a whole other sport that takes totally different training. Do I stick with what I’m strongest at? How do I train for a race like Zegama, and will it even matter if I try? Should I really try to focus on the SkyRunning races rather than do everything? Why would I do that? Maybe I should just still do everything. It seems like more fun that way. So maybe I’ll do another steeplechase in two weeks.

Stick a fork in, I'm done!

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8 Responses to Back to the Drawing Board

  1. Paul Bateson says:

    Hi Ian, you did pretty well to get 15th, maybe the UK type weather helped:) if you want to try more of this you should try Sierra Elvira, 27km in May and a killer, Jarapalos mountain marathon another killer in Nov, AAUT if you want 5 days of tough and high temps and UF160 in October. many more of the skyraces down here plus Pico Veleta in august which I think you could manage, only 50km uphill:) also Ronda101. I also have a new event in mind which will be a beauty.
    See you and Niandi one day.

  2. Ian Corless says:

    Great write up Max and you well and truly sum the race up. Great to read you being so honest and for anyone else reading this, he does not exaggerate one bit! Nikki Kimball did actually break two bones in her hand…
    The European courses are tough and technical. We have courses in the UK very similar. Now that you know what is in store for you, hope you get back to the drawing board as you say and come back with the potential to kick butt. As you said, you have the pace!

  3. Pingback: Thurs, May 24 |

  4. Max, every single person you met in Europe would trade in their running ability for your leg speed in a second. 2:14 marathon ability??? Dude, are you kidding? What the heck are you playing in the mud for man? You could be sweeping the mid city marathon races coast to coast and pulling down close to six figures if you worked on marketing yourself as a quasi Ryan Hall American marathoner who won’t ever be an east African, but sure can run faster than most other white boys!
    Go for the American 50k record, run a sub 5 hour 50 mile, bring back the fast times and forget about breaking your wrist in the woods!

    • Max says:

      Hey Mike, I totally agree, although I don’t know about the quasi Ryan Hall. But on the other hand why be just another marathoner making some money when I can make an attempt at being the best trail runner in the world. Plus, marathons are kind of boring. What I did on Sunday, albeit not my best course to run, was such an epic experience. The racing I do now is what keeps me motivated and enjoying the sport. If I did marathons all the time I’d be done in a year. Playing in the mud is fun, and if it’s not too much mud, I’m still pretty dang fast.

      • mike arnstein says:

        At the top levels of trail running I think there is a lot more ‘luck’ involved, or maybe I should say ‘bad luck’. The difference between what you and another top guy can do on a crazy trail course is limited to how much RISK someone is willing to take. And in this sport when you’re running 12+ mph down some insane trail you’re literally risking IT ALL – which is idiotic in my mind. I don’t mountain bike or do ironman anymore because for guys like us that go really really fast, the sport isn’t sport, it’s gambling with our bodies and lives at times. Not worth it! Wait until you are 45 years old, then you can come and take all the risk you want with a carrier in the retirement phase.
        Go fast man! FAST running is awesome! I’d trade in some ‘fast’ ultra for a sub 2:20 marathon anytime! Make Money! Get Paid – go run and win tons of marathons brother! The dirt and broken bones will be waiting for you anytime. There isn’t a guy in trail running with your cardio engine, not even close!

  5. jjking says:

    Max, it has been great to see you american runners here in the basque country. We love our mountains and our races and it’s great to share that love with you. I think that the fact that our trails are usually quite technical, makes most of us skilled to that. And as you say playing in the mud is fun. I hope you will be back with better weather conditions, and we will be there cheering you all. I didn’t run the race this year, but you all the runner made that day really special.

  6. Useful post and great responses. You put a nice twist to it. Congratulations again on a good job Max.

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