The American Scholar: Footwork – Clellan Coe
The Zegama-Aizkorri is the most popular running race in the world, but I had never heard of it. Does that equate to never having heard of the Tour de France, Wimbledon or the World Cup? No way. Running is gaining popularity as a hobby, and more and more people care about running at all levels, but the sport still does not have the audience of long-established team sports, or arena-style individual sports performed on a field, or demonstrations of dexterity such as figure skating or gymnastics. The names of trail races don’t mean much to you, and if Olympic runners enjoy a certain notoriety, who else but aficionados has ever heard of Kílian Jornet? Not me. The runners who catch my attention in the news are not the victors but the victims of their sport, like the 21 elite Chinese runners who died last year in a mountain ultramarathon when the weather turned freezing, or the two trail runners who died in Asturias last year, one in training and the other in a race. So when my running partner put the tablet in my face and pressed the play button for a video, and Zegama-Aizkorri’s name popped up at the top, I had no idea. I asked him where it was. I should have guessed from the name. We had just returned from País Vasco, Basque Country, where we had run a 12 km trail race over the weekend, in Santurces, on the outskirts of Bilbao. My mother had left by car and I had pointed out to her the abundance of letters i, t, k, and z in the street signs and store names we saw, starting with the town itself, which in Basque is Santurtzi.
The video released by my friend showed images of the 19th edition of the Zegama race, a mountain marathon, in May 2022. More than half of the 500 places were reserved by the organization for special guests, including runners from the previous editions. For the draw of the remaining 225 spots, 12,000 applications were received, making the odds of entering the race worse than those of entering the Ivy Leagues. The participants were mostly elite runners. It had to be for this race, which introduced me to a new category of mountain running: extreme ridge running.
We had watched a different video earlier – footage of the race we ran in Santurtzi, the Serantes Igoera race, named after the mountain at the top of the racecourse. It was easy to find the part of the video showing our arrival: we arrived last. Yet, all things considered, our arrival was triumphant. During my first steps in the race, the pain in my hip that I had felt before the event turned into something else. My left leg seemed to have no strength. Climbing meant dragging it behind me. When I forgot my leg and trusted my weight, it gave way and I tripped. Riders passed me, and my partner, who had no chance of a trophy that day, quickly saw that neither did I. “Don’t make us last,” he begged. So I ran. And I fell. Not on the sharp rocks of the summit where I had hobbled, but on a forest path carpeted with leaves and moss. I got up and ran. The runners were constantly passing. I tried to follow. My partner, who had urged me to hurry, now urged me to take it easy.
Near the end, returning to town from the slopes above, another pair of runners, a male and a female, passed us. We were now the last, behind us only the escobas—runners bringing up the rear to make sure no one gets lost along the way. Near the finish line, runners were funneled into a looped path between traffic on one side and pedestrians on the other. Both sides lined up with spectators hunched over the boards, making the final 500 yards a happy gauntlet. The video shows me grimacing, but I remember smiling as I ran the last few hundred yards between the rows of cheering spectators. All these people, clapping, shouting, clapping! For me! I was delighted. I felt like I had arrived first, not the last. In the hundreds of races that I ran, I had never seen such a participation rate. It was fantastic.
In the Zegama-Aizkorri race, 42 kilometers from the village of Zegama atop Aizkorri, participants were cheered on not only at the start and finish, but also at every stage of the course. I judged from the video that, just to see the race, the spectators had traversed the same steep, uneven and dangerous terrain that the runners had faced. It must be the Basques, I thought. Ocho Vascos Numbers, literally “Eight Basque Surnames”, but in English titled Spanish case, is a popular 2014 Spanish comedy that pokes fun at the stereotype of Basque people as serious, expressionless people. Does anyone really believe it? They are the warmest, most supportive and enthusiastic people. I had thought so after the Behobia race in San Sebastián in 2019, but now I knew it. Didn’t everyone in the last few yards lean over the divider tape to clap? Not the most popular race in the world, but they were cheering wildly. I felt like they all came just for me. Yes, it seemed like they were only cheering for me, as I told my son.
“They were,” he said. “They were only cheering for you.” He laughed. “There was no one else coming after, no one else waiting and cheering.” He was right. “You was all alone.” We were all alone. The last one. But no one ever hinted at it.
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