A recent addition to the Arc'athlete team, Florian Reichert started his career as a track & field athlete, and his focus gradually shifted to road racing. Growing up with a deep love for the mountains, though, he began transitioning to running in more rugged areas, and is currently looking forward to the 2013 Skyrunning season. His first race was at the Maratòn Alpina Zegama-Aizkorri in Spain. Here's his report:
"How much can you learn from a race, its participants, from a mountain? When I watched a short video clip entitled 'Learning at Zegama' about a bunch of trail runners and a mythical race somewhere in Spain's rural Basque country, I'd never thought I'd be the apprentice soon. But there I was, a mere six months later, with a whole season of the most challenging, technical, and demanding mountain running laid out in front of me, participating in the Skyrunning World Series for team Arc'teryx.
I actually come from a track & field background, but I've always found cross country and uphill running to be one of my strengths. And from childhood on, I've had a deep respect and love for the mountains. So it came naturally that I'd end up on the Skyrunning circuit, and I'm incredibly happy that the archetypical bird has given me the opportunity to broaden my horizon – both athletically and mentally –to tackle new challenges, and to live a dream. However, that it'd all start at Zegama was something I wasn't quite prepared for.
Of course, I'd been building up my mileage over the last couple of months, had done some grueling hill drills, fartleks, and uphill intervals. I'd tried to squeeze every vertical meter out of the low mountain ranges in central Germany. And from the start, I knew that the downhill sections would be my biggest problem. But then again, what can you do when you live in a place where the highest elevation is just above 400m?
Race day approached, and everything went smoothly. I'd had some issues with my knee earlier, but icing and the healing hands of a good physio allowed me to board a Bilbao-bound plane with a lot of confidence and an excellent state of fitness. I felt rested, I felt strong, I felt relaxed and positively excited. I closed class twenty minutes earlier (I'm a Spanish, English, and Phys. Ed. teacher at a German high school) in order to be able to make the plane, and everything went as planned.
Not only was I able to practice my Spanish skills a little during the weekend in the Basque country, I also met some incredibly nice people. From the start, it was clear that there's a bond between people who love being outdoors, who love nature and the mountains.
And now I was one of them! Already at the short briefing the day before the race, you could breathe the tradition, the pride, and the myth that's connected to the name Zegama. Traditional Basque music filled the little hamlet as runners from all over the world – amongst them the most talented, skilled, fastest, and experienced mountain runners – assembled and waited impatiently for the Zegama church bell to strike 9 o'clock. And then we were off, a distance of 42km with more than 5,400 meters of ascent and descent ahead of us.
My 'plan' had been to sit back at the beginning and let the race unfold before my eyes. I had run my first marathon last year at the German championships in Munich and finished in a respectable 2:26. I'd done some runs up to 40k in preparation for Zegama, but they never exceeded three hours of running. And now I was in for more than four hours in the most challenging and technical terrain I'd ever encountered.
Well, I didn't stick to my plan very long. I felt super strong and easily went up the first slopes and then the first big ascent up the Aratz mountain (at the 16km mark). I felt so relaxed and confident, took two gels before the climb and drank sufficiently at the nutrition stations. Luckily I had decided against carrying a pack or a waist-belt but instead tested the new Soleus short from the Spring 2014 collection, with five small pockets to store the obligatory windproof jacket, gloves, gels, and some salt pills. Just the thought of probably being the best-equipped runner in the field gave me a huge psychological advantage.
On the next big ascent to the highest point, the Aitxuri (1,551m), I felt strong and easy. Although I didn't feel like I was going up fast, I was constantly passing people, almost effortlessly. The amazing Basque people who'd come out in crowds to watch the race at the steepest and most technical parts of the course, were also a great help, because their shouts of "Animo, animo!" or "Venga, venga!" helped a lot to get up those hills.
I passed the halfway point amongst the top ten runners. Everything was good and I found myself thinking: "Man, that'd be an awesome debut … Finishing somewhere in the top 10!" But then the descent began. I immediately noticed that I got down the incredibly steep and muddy slopes way slower than the more experienced runners. I was lacking experience and confidence in just letting go, leaning slightly forward, and being carried down the mountain. I fell a couple of times and hit a rock with my back and my knee.
However, I was still doing fairly alright. That changed when a South African runner, AJ Calitz, fell just in front of me and hit a rock hard with his knee, which consequently popped open like a wild exotic fruit. Luckily, there was a First Aid station close by (they must've known why they'd put it there!) and I went on. But something in my mind clicked and I couldn't go as fast as before. The little confidence I'd had in my almost non-existent downhill skills – as I had to realize now – vanished, and I couldn't go as fast as before. A shame on the one hand, but it was probably for the better: it was just not worth risking serious injury.
Well, in the end a ton of people passed me on the 12k downhill and I ended up in 33rd place with a time of 4:31:04. I wish I could've done better in my first Skyrace, represented the bird logo that I'm proud of wearing in a brighter light, flapped the bird's wings a little stronger, and make it fly even higher. But for an introduction to Skyrunning I think it was a respectable result. I just raced the best mountain runners on one of the most select courses, and achieved a decent time. And after all, hadn't I come to Zegama to learn? I've gained so much experience in this race – about mountains in general, about running up and – especially – down a mountain, and about the right technique. And I've made new friends and experienced the hospitality and friendliness of the Basque people.
So all in all – from a teacher's point of view – I see a learning curve that's going up steeply, just like the mountains in Zegama. And I'm keen to add another chapter to this curve at the Chamonix Mont-Blanc Marathon in June."
(Photography by Ian Corless)