The Ehunmilak: A Cultural Crushing - Page 2
A Race of Extremes
Ehunmilak runners pour forth from the start in Beasain town plaza and funnel through the cobbled streets, flanked by over 1000 spectators. The well-marked course then loops clockwise through the mountains of Gipuzkoa province, climbing to a high point around 4500 feet, linking farming valleys to historic towns.
Throughout the first night, hundreds of locals taking a vino tinto (red wine) or a coffee, jump to their feet, and cheer from the barricades as runners charge through Azpeitia—one of five small cities on the course—much like the Running of the Bulls. Until dawn, you will hear the constant cries, “Oupa!” and “Animo!” (“Go!”) Daylight brings cathedral bells and cowbells, white chapels and giant crosses on green slopes.
Aid stations offer homemade salami and cheese—you know you’re in the Old World. The course even includes a canopied, mossy section of El Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage route that has traversed northern Spain since the ninth century.
For the record: the rain in Spain does not fall mainly on the plain. The Basque Country enjoys a climate more akin to Scotland than to the dry meseta to its south. A delicate misting, known locally as siri-miri, pervades. This is Green Spain, and the weather can be unpredictable: In 2010 a snowstorm midway through the race forced officials to pull many runners from the course after they almost walked off of cliffs on the wrong side of Txindoki, an iconic mountain of the Sierra de Aralar range that you summit around mile 60.
In 2010, first-place finisher Imanol Aleson of Azkoitia in the Basque Country, recalls persevering through the whiteout with another runner. “We were incapable of saying a word because of the cold … We were frozen.” Last year, the race began in clear, hot conditions and ended in rain.
Expect varied terrain: mud, forest singletrack, native grass, slippery bedrock, gravel road, pavement through neighborhoods, cobbled streets, ancient quarried steps, trails of riverbed rocks, thistle patches, cowpies and sharp six-inch vertical limestone fins. The footing takes a toll.
I quit at mile 70, after tweaking an ankle when my foot got lodged between two limestone fins. American Ricky Denesik, a veteran ultra trail runner who also attempted the Ehunmilak, says, “The footing was the hardest thing.”
Even with my DNF, I have fond memories of the experience: the pre-race pasta dinner in a 15th-century mill with wine on tap; a silent spectator holding the reins of a thick-necked white Andalusian horse; the full moon from up high, lighting the surrounding peaks like volcanic islands in an ocean of white mist that veiled the valleys below.
It is a first-class event manned by 1500 volunteers with a deep appreciation for the mental and physical rigor it takes to go the distance. If you finish, someone will fire a popgun over your head and shower you with confetti.