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Running wild in the Basque Country

by editor
Monday 11th July 2016
 
 
On the weekend that Mark Cavendish tweeted ‘the Basque fans are, without doubt, the most incredible roadside spectators in the world. So passionate. So supportive. Gives me goosebumps.’ I find myself in Beasain in the Basque Country at the Ehunmilak race, experiencing some Basque enthusiasm myself. 
 
An hour from Bilbao and the Guggenheim, 40 minutes from the beaches of San Sebastian and right in the heart of the Goierri - the Basque Highlands - this area is a perfect spot for a running trip. And if you’re looking for post-race nutrition, this region is one of the gastronomical hotspots of the world. 
 
Little known in the UK, the Ehunmilak race has been going for 7 years. Two friends from Beasain visited Chamonix to run the UTMB and thought ‘we could do something similar to this, but Basque-style, back home’, so they did. This attitude alone makes me love this race. And as far as I can see, they didn’t follow the standard tried and tested route of creating a big ultra trail race - get big sponsors on board, get some famous elite runners to take part, market it like crazy, make it a big commercial brand. No, they decided to do it their own way. They recruited local support (their main sponsor is Ternua, a sportswear brand based locally and everything needed for the race, even bottled water, is from local producers), they paid great attention to getting the details right and they don’t pay elites to come and run here. This is very much a race for the popular runner. And the fantastic elites who do enter just get treated exactly the same as everybody else.
 

pasta party

But ‘the same as everybody else’ here means incredible Basque hospitality. In my experience that has been fantastic pre-race information, with every detail covered, it’s a pasta party in the UK equivalent of a Tudor mansion (with wine), it’s a level of care for runners beyond anything I’ve ever known before, it’s passionate support all along the course and at all hours of the day and night, and it all makes for a unique race experience. 
 
There are three races at Ehunmilak: Ehunmilak (which means one hundred miles in Basque and is, as you’d expect, a little over a hundred miles long with about 11,000m of ascent), G2Haundiak (88km with almost 6000m of ascent) and the Marimurumendi (a marathon with 2300m of ascent, which was only added last year). None of these races are for the faint of heart because the ground makes for very tough going. IThe Ehunmilak is thought by many to be harder than the UTMB and is definitely a candidate for the hardest ultra in Spain. The mountains might not be as big as Alpine ones, but there sure is a lot of climbing and there are some dastardly technical descents. And great news for the British: this area gets a lot of rain and not only is it incredibly green and lush (think the Lake District or Wales), it’s also known for being very muddy! Inov-8 is the shoe of choice for many in this region. 
 
The organisers have thought of everything, from a very sweet mini map book to stash in your pack so you know exactly what’s coming, to a free gift of a foldable cup (which is on the mandatory kit list as there are no plastic cups at the checkpoints to reduce waste), to brilliantly marked courses and fantastically stocked aid stations, to a finisher’s jacket (bettering the traditional finisher’s gilet). I guarantee that you will be well looked after if you do this race.
 

EHM tradition

But what’s so incredibly special about this race is the thread of Basque tradition that runs through everything in it. At the start there are traditional Basque dances and songs, at the checkpoints there are people playing traditional Basque xylophones and the winners of each race are rewarded with the coveted ‘txapela’, a Basque beret. You really feel like you are getting an insight into the Basque way of life. They are incredibly proud of their traditions, their landscape, their food and their just their points of difference from the rest of Spain in general and trail running is a huge sport here.

EHM spectators

Everybody (and their dogs) come out to support, encourage and praise, and every runner is made to feel like the winner. It’s a very family-centred society here and people carry their children across the line before getting a big kiss from their mama! The finish line is a very emotional place and it creates a very special atmosphere.  
 

EHM family

The course itself shows off many historical sites, such as the Tunnel of San Adrian, which was built in Roman times (and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site), the Camino de Santiago pilgrim way and Zegama, made famous by its iconic race and accompanying gurning photos of runners tackling its devilish climbs in terrible weather. I was really surprised by how green the landscape is. The big climbs reward you with stunning vistas. We visited Zegama to check out some of the route, climbed in mist but emerged through the clouds near the summit and it felt like we were on top of the world. You might be at 1300m, rather than 2300m in some races in the Alps, but the views are no less stunning.  
 

EHM views

Beasain, where all the races start and finish, has everything you could possibly need, including fantastic hotels and restaurants. And if you take your family out to the race there are many things to see and do in the region. We visited one of the famous cheesemakers in Idiazabal, went to natural parks with great hiking trails and historical and cultural treasures galore, took in incredible views of their iconic Txindoki mountain, tasted their famous cider and even visited a Mongolian festival. The area is a real hidden gem and trail running is huge there. As well as some great races they have ‘trail station’ networks, which are a waymarked routes of varying distances and varying levels of difficulty. Just grab your backpack and follow a route. There are even places within the network where you can have a shower. 
 

Zegama

Ehunmilak is a race that’s steadily growing in popularity, and it’s doing it organically, mainly by being awesome. They had a set of ideals and they’ve stuck to it. It has incredible character, using the region’s rich history and tradition to make it unique. The fact that they have 1500 volunteers tells you all you need to know about how much the locals of this small town want to support the race, and if I say that the number of volunteers is the same as the number of runners it says it all about how well runners are looked after. The Basque Country may well be, and deserves to be, the next hotspot for trail runners from all over the world to visit. 
 
You can find information about the Ehunmilak races at www.ehunmilak.com
 
With thanks to the organisers of Ehunmilak, Maider and Goierri Turismo, and Sergio Mayayo at Carreras de Montana
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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