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Ehunmilak - Over 100 miles through the Basque Country (Spain)

Leading up to race day.

100 miles through the basque country. I signed up for this race towards the end of 2022. After a couple of years having to rediscover what running meant to me, this was the challenge I signed up for. Since, I first started running the Hardrock 100 ultra race in the US had always been a dream and the Ehunmilak counts as a qualifying race. It was time to start the journey to realise that dream. It is not that I completely stopped running in the past years. Adventures in the mountains were still had and the shoes would be laced up with only missing a couple of weeks. The important thing was that the pressure was taken off. So when I signed up in November 2022. A plan was made. The focus was on several important facets: maximising fitness, figure out the nutrition, dealing with the heat and race logistics. In short:

  • Maximising fitness: slowly built up mileage on the trails but being mindful of potential injuries and 4-6 weeks out planned a holiday in Scotland with running and loads of hiking. Afterwards the counter was on +400km in a span of a bit over 3 weeks. I felt ready fitness wise.

  • Race logistics were the second priority. This encompassed what gear to use, what will the pacing strategy be,… Thinking of every problem that could be encountered and finding the optimal to mitigate this in advance of the race or know how to deal with it on the spot.

  • Nutrition was testing and trying which brands still worked and what new things were to be added. I especially trained, how much I could take in. Overdoing it on purpose during runs (>90 carbs) and going on long runs straight after dinner were some of the strategies employed.

  • Mental preparation is key. The goal here was to also embark on a spiritual journey (more on this later).

  • Heat was potentially an issue. Knowing I don’t deal well with heat, a 10-day dry sauna protocol during the last weeks was set up. This was a challenge in itself logistically as well as enduring the sessions. All for the goal of finishing this 100 miler.


Nearly starting

Waking up it still feels slightly unrealistic what is taking place in the evening. There was bad weather forecasted so the race start was postponed from 18:00 until 20:00. Having arrived at Beasain (where the race starts and finishes), I felt surprisingly calm.

Ready to start Ehunmilak 2023

Just taking in the the energetic atmosphere. Drop bags dropped off and having put my kit on, it was waiting until the start. Suddenly my partner noticed that the tracker was not working, which made her slightly stressed. To be frank, I was surprisingly calm in the whole matter. It was sorted easily and swiftly. A final kit check before entering the start area and I felt ready to rumble. The audience was buzzing and there was a calm sensation in the starting area. I had made the decision to start all the way in the back. I was not there to win, but to finish. This would prevent me of getting sucked into the frantic start at the front. The starting line was crossed and the watch started. It was go time.


To Tolosa (km 0-80)

The initial kilometers were on a upwards sloping road before heading into the forest. Only 9,500D+ to go. The plan was to hike uphill (about 550D+ an hour of ascent) and run all the flat and downhill sections. In the initial climbs the legs were already quite tight and had to keep reminding myself that this is always the case. It takes sometimes for the muscles to warm-up so I did not let it distract me. After about a solid hour the first little peak was reached and the crowd was cheering us on. Afterwards it calmed down quite a bit and the field was already getting stretched out. The first aid station was reached quite quickly and a bit faster than the schedule. It was beautiful running in this setting with the setting sun, but the night was quickly coming and I tried to delay turning on the headlamp because in my mind it would be best to save some battery. This was definitely not needed with my Petzl Nao RL. As darkness fell, I instantly started feeling tired. This is one of the biggest realisations I had during the race. Your biological rhythm will kick in even if you are being physically active. 3.5 hours into the run and I was falling asleep already. At the moment this did not look promising. I was not expecting my supporters to be at the second aid station, but it was a lovely surprise to have them encourage me to start the first night.

Leaving the Zummaraga aid station (21km), I was focused on getting through the night and to be honest I remember the least of this part. I can just remember it was mostly wide forest roads with an easy single track descent into Azpeitia about 56km in. That 30km was quite a blur. I didn’t linger in the aid station and got going again. By this time dawn was upon us and the sun slowly started to rise, but also the heat. I chugged along and again there was nothing noteworthy in this section. Not much was remembered except that I was slowly getting hotter. In the downhill towards the first downhill I started having side stiches and it was harder to get food in my stomach. The heat and humidity was already taking its toll. For those that don’t know, let me tell you I am no fan of the heat. Secretly I was hoping that the side stitches would be something bad that forced me to stop. This was the only thought of this nature the whole race. Which was a blessing. Then again, I was not looking forward to the hot day. After reaching Tolosa at 80km and the first live base, I was quite happy but also in a negative headspace. My supporters showed me their beautiful banner which give me some energy. I was still quite tired from the night so I decided to grab some food and then take a 15 min nap. I felt quite rejuvenated after and checked with the medical team for the side stitches. They offered me painkillers which I refused. Not wanting to waste any further time I restocked on bars and gels, switched socks, refilled the soft flasks and headed out into the heat. Running through cities is nice, since the basques are very supportive and they were happily cheering me on. Onwards on the hardest section of the day.


To Etzegarate (km 80-130)

Heading out into the sun again it was all about managing the heat and making sure to keep having food in me. The first climb went well and there were some fountains with cold water to keep the body temperature down. Heading into Amezketa felt good, but I also knew the hardest climb was about to be on my path. Luckily my supporters had just the right tune.

With some new energy I started on the longest climb in the middle of the heat. Focussing on keeping moving. Luckily there were a couple of other fountains/streams heading up. A fellow runner notified me of another well up ahead and I saw about 200 meters ahead of me a brick well with a roof on it. Arriving at it I realised it was just a big boulder. My first hallucination. As of that moment I started mistaking branches and tee trunks for snakes and tigers. Quite an experience. Nevertheless, we kept trucking on for several hours until I reached a cold section in the wind to take a 5 minute nap. Having bagged the biggest climb I felt sure that this would not go wrong anymore. The downhill was great with some lovely single track sections through the forest. Temperatures dropped again and immediately my speed picked up again. Having reached the last aid station before the next live base the sun was startin to set. My supporters gave me a cheer and I felt good. I ran out of it ready to get to Etzegarate. It was mostly through a forest with thick fog. The fog does not make it easy to see with a headlamp. After several steps it was looking upwards to spot the reflecting markers and look down to the feet to avoid treeroots. This went on for several hours and started to catch people. I came across a lady who was scared and not feeling comfortable in these conditions so I stuck with her to make sure she got to the next aidstation. Your race is not more important than the wellbeing and safety of others. The progression towards the live base slowed down but and was starting to feel very tired again. At this point we are around 30 hours in. Having reached the live base I got food in me and went to sleep for a solid hour. Also because I would have loved to do Aizkorri national park during sunrise.


To the finish (km 130-170)

When I woke up I felt awake, although my feet were not so comfortable, but after sorting the kit out we kept on moving. Another climb and it felt smooth, I was picking up people left and right. Climbing through the forests to reach the next aid station for some lovely soup from friendly volunteers. Then it was back to moving forwards as the sun started rising. The reward at the top of the climb was absolutely stunning. A great sight to behold above the clouds.

Ehunmilak Aizkorri Sunrise above the clouds

Having enjoyed this view there was a great technical descent. I was moving so fast that I started calling Line to make sure she was at the finish line in time. Unfortunately, I misjudged how far along I was and there was still plenty of time left on the trails. The morning sun started heating up the valleys again. I realised at one point though that sub 40 hours was still possible and I started gunning it with about 2 hours to go. Arriving at the last aid station I got my water bottles filled up, took a couple of snacks and continued running. I ran nearly the whole way. I kept moving passing about 30 people in the final section alone. People wondering what was wrong with me that I was still moving so fast and also encouraging me. Passing that amount of people lit my fire even more. Arriving at an intermediate water stop somebody told me another hour. I told him that it should be 28 minutes and bolted of in the distance. I got disoriented in the last part after the final downhill and thought it was still much further so I quit running. After walking for a bit I realised it was actually relatively close and started running again. Arriving at the finish line in 40:06:27. Happy with the race that I ran and running the final section the second fastest out of everyone.


Conclusions

In my opinion I ran a smart race. The heat was difficult, but I adjusted accordingly. Slowing down and making sure I could keep getting food in my stomach. This slowing down allowed me to pick up pace later in the race. What I found the most difficult was the lack of sleep. This I must honestly say, I have underestimated. However, we take this with us to future adventures. These races are all about learning and this one had perfect execution. It was also quite a spiritual quest for me.

Ehunmilak Supporters

Trying to get rid of the numbers and how far was still left, but instead focussing on the feet on the ground. The birds singing, the wind flowing. These journeys through the mountains challenge is deeply but they also allow for depth within. Lastly, the support I had along the course kept me going as well. It was great to see Line & Yannick as it urged me on to move forward.


For a first 100 miler I could not have wished a better experience.






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