A cloud does not know why it moves in just such a direction and at such a speed, it feels an impulsion… this is the place to go now.
But the sky knows the reason and the patterns behind all clouds, and you will know, too, when you lift yourself high enough to see beyond horizons. Richard Bach – Illusions : The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah
Vintage documentary footage of sky races in the nineties is playing on the big screen of the conference room. The film features images of Fabio Meraldi and Matt Carpenter going head to head, tearing up and down mountains, in flawless style, all over the world. Their running is free, uncontrived. The lines picked for the races are direct, steep, with perfectly clean aesthetics – a cafe to summit to pub approach. A fourth class scramble is considered technical running and glissading down couloirs is part of the game. There is no conquering here, no arrogance, but a simple desire to fully engage with the environment, to challenge human physical and mental limitations. The mountain comes first.
I am here in La Palma, with an eclectic group of international athletes, to take part in a four day conference organized by the founders of the International Skyrunning Federation, Marino Giacometti and Lauri van Houten, to discuss the future of the discipline. I’ll touch on the outcome of the conference in a later post, but there is one piece I’d like to highlight here. Beyond the hot and often controversial topics cycling through the blogs and ultrarunning media such as money, elitism or nationalistic rivalries, what I witnessed above all during my time in Spain was a true coming together. A coming together of runners from many countries, representing many different brands, but all sharing a common approach to the mountains. We raced, we talked, we partied, we created more camaraderie and more healthy competition in the true sense of the word, coming together. Running up and down mountains is, despite what we may think sometimes, a pretty small, niche discipline. Seeing a unified culture emerge over the years has been and continues to be critical part to the development of the sport. One guiding principle must always remain at the forefront of this process of becoming: the mountain comes first. Always.
The race was tagged, tweeted, facebooked, blogged, with photos and videos from before, during and after so you all know the official story. From a guy running the race, this was my perception of how it went down. A kid in gold aviator shades carrying all his food in a backpack took the lead on the first climb and never let up. In the process, he was challenged by Colonel Muff himself, but managed to out hike the Muff’s running on the last cobblestone climb. In the meantime, a skier with calves and quads bigger than yours and mine combined went so hard he fainted on the last descent. He somehow picked himself back up again before fainting again at the finish. The kid declared him dead by laying a rose on his body and went off to drink more champagne than ever previously in his life. I was straggling a ways back, getting passed by a guy with a moustache and a tennis ball wedged in a quad sleeve intended to help with a hamstring injury. I felt confident enough though for a good race as I caught and passed a Frenchman with a pirate earring and an Alaskan a bit cooked from being away from the snow. The soon to be 100 meter downhill world record holder also came back to me as did the Wolfepaw who forgot to wear his pelt for the occasion. The two of us powered by Csaba “the man you want to be when you grow up” Nemeth, but I gradually fell apart with ripped, bloody toe nails on the interminable last downhill. Upon reaching the beach, I was caught by a German teen blaring German pop music on a radio strapped to his vest who suggested we run it in together. My legs weren’t having it on the last climb and he was cramping on the flats, so we made for a comical, hobbly duo. He offered me one of his walking sticks which I politely declined, but we still finished hand in hand narrowly avoiding getting frosted (who was incidentally a very, very long 30 seconds back.) Such is the way you race in the Canary Islands.
Zegama – Aizkorri
Lying on my back on a pile of sharp rocks, soaked to the bone and breathing deeply, I calmly take inventory of my bodily damage. My hand is numb from the cold making it hard to distinguish whether I’m feeling blood or mud on my hip. I try to look down at my foot that is throbbing, but I’m blinded by blusters of sleet. A Spanish runner, who witnessed the wipeout, is leaning over me asking, “Okay? Okay?”. Yeah, I’m okay. I just need a minute or two perhaps. I’d just got through the most technical part of the course off of the summit of Aizkorri and had gotten a little overzealous from the new found grip of my shoes on wet rock. Up until then the course had mainly been a mix of soaked grass and deep mud making it somewhat challenging to manage in a pair of bald, Nike road flats. A tight hamstring from the previous weekend’s Transvulcania was also protesting the sloppy conditions and not being the most cooperative on the uphill sections. I slid most of first grass downhill on my butt and thought for a second that things weren’t going to be that bad, until I hit rock and instantly revised my position to- this is gonna suck. Right from the get go it was clear that I was missing two crucial things to be successful in this race- studded shoes and a mullet. Yet, despite the adversity, it was hard to feel anything, but excitement to be out on the hill. Last year, a reported eight thousand spectators came out to cheer runners on and this year felt no different. On each climb, I felt like a (struggling) bubble of champagne being squeezed out of a bottle, up the trail lined tight with people screaming Animo! Animo! Venga! Venga! I translated this in my head as get up the hill you vengeful animal. People here love the mountain and love the race. Their passion for both permeated the weekend making for a most thrilling experience. When I finally got back into town, I was handed a beer, a baguette and cheese at the finish. At packet pick up the day before, racers are given a bag of local beans and a jar of honey. Food and wine flows freely from there on out, all in celebration of a good day out on the peaks. Such is the way you race in the Basque Country.