Friday, July 24, 2015

Hobbling Around Europe Part 1: Francia, Pais Vasco y Ultra Trail de Ehunmilak

Hobbling Around Europe Part 1:  Francia, Pais Vasco y Ultra Trail de Ehunmilak

"We can make it if everything goes right.  We can make it if everything goes right."  I'm late as usual and Megan and I rush into downtown Prescott to borrow Josh's car to drive to Phoenix and try and board my flight.  Last time I borrowed Josh's car the timing belt broke.

We made good time down the 'hill' and I think to myself 'I am good,' when the tire blows.  I'm not sure what my problem with motor vehicles has been lately, its been a rough year, besides Frank.  Frank is the shit and is tough as nails.  Frank even went unscathed in the tumblings that destroyed my ankle a few weeks ago while chasing bulls, besides a broken windshield which one could argue isn't truly a part of Frank's essence.  

Luckily for me Josh is more responsible than I am and had all the necessary tools to throw on the spare in the back.  I lose about ten minutes but we fly into the airport and board just in the nick of time.  I made it,  with lots of sweaty hard work, and just by the skin of my teeth.  Unknowingly I had set the theme for the next month of my life.  It seems like everything has been close, hard, and relatively stressful.  But then again, this is how I travel.  Traveling for me is not a vacation, it is not relaxing, and at many times not even enjoyable.  I guess like all adventuring should be, whatever adventuring means.

My boarding pass says Oslo Norway.  Norway?  As much as I would love a trip to Norway, I had already begun to question trying to fit in a Norway trip right before my Spain/France endeavors this summer.  Luckily for me, United airlines loves engaging in the habit of selling more tickets than they have seats on the plane. An hour later I'm going to Paris instead with a hefty flight voucher to boot.

Ten hours later I'm in Paris, and none of my things are.  I file a claim and they say they'll send it here on the next flight, which means I need to find something to do for 24 hours in Paris.

I'm not very good at cities.  Especially when I've been awake all night and don't have my things.  I spend the day walking around Paris and riding the metro.  I wonder how I'm going to get to Spain.  Up until now I had thought a lot about buying another motorcycle and riding around Europe.  When reality started to sink in, I realized that the expense and logistics of actually doing this would be too much.  I'm already broke and its day one of a 10 week trip.  I knew I didn't want to take trains or buses.  Zipping around and paying top dollar for speedy trains to tourist destinations is not why I am here.  I find a bike shop and overpay on a new bicycle.  My trip just turned into an impulsive bike packing trip.

What a terrible idea.   Even at the time, I knew it wasn't the wisest decision I've ever made.  I am not at all prepared for a bike touring trip.  I have a huge backpack full of climbing, running and camping gear.  I have no idea how I'm going to get it on the bike.  I have no idea where I am going or what routes there are.  I don't even particularly like cycling trips.  I've done a number of them in the past, around the southwest, one from Costa Rica to Mexico, and every time I relearn that I'm not very good at it.

So here I am.  24 hours ago I was going to Norway to run fjords and mountains and motorcycle to Spain.  Now I'm in Paris about to ride a bicycle through farm country until Pais Vasco when I will finally hit some mountains.  In retrospect I feel unsure about these decisions, unsure if I regret not going to Norway, unsure if this is going to be fun, if this is going to be worth it.

After an incredibly stressful night, I'm back at the airport to pick up my things that I am unsure will arrive.  They do, and I spend the next few hours figuring out how to pack them onto the bike.  I feel the need to get out of Paris as soon as possible.  I needed out of the city and wanted to be on the bike.  I load onto a train for about an hour heading due west towards somewhere I don't remember where, unload, get on the bike and start heading south, or west, just kind of towards Spain.  I figure with Spain to my south and the ocean to the west it would be kind of hard to get lost.  Without a map or idea of what I was doing I set off and the first stage of my trip, finally, and it felt good.

In Paris, it was recommended that I head to the coast.  There was word of a coastal non-motorized cycling route  that spans the entire western coast of France all the way into Spain.  Traveling with no guide or map is interesting.  Never knowing what is around the corner, never really knowing when the next town was or the next resupply.  On a bike, its a constant balance between finding the least traveled road with the least traffic, but also making sure the road goes through and continues in the general direction of travel.  I probably spent 3 or 4 hours of each day being completely lost and retracing the way in which I had come, just to find a way through. 

The few days that it took me to arrive at the coast were pretty fun, albeit mildly boring.  Riding your bike through central and southern farm country on small roads  is awesome....for about half a day.  At a certain point every cow, every field, every stone barn, and every stone cathedral starts to blur together and look the same.  Oddly enough some of the funnest times were when I was lost, hopping fences and walking the crop fields, pushing my bike through the endless rows of greens.

I arrived at the coast somewhere north of La Rochelle, a town so stereotypically French I almost couldn't believe it.  I found the cycling route and trails somewhere around this time and started making my way south on 'The Velodyssye,'  the 1,250 km route that spans the French coast.

The bike culture is amazing in France.  I spent the first couple of days riding utterly confused, simply because people respect cyclists.  They actually don't mind slowing down and waiting to pass you until they can give you plenty of space.  Everywhere I went in France their were numerous other riders enjoying the countryside.  The Velodyssye is just one of the many large non motorized cycling routes in the country, and I was happy to be on it.  The southern section of this route takes you through the pristine beaches and forested southwest region of France.

I can't count how many times I felt like I was in Prescott, or Flagstaff, riding my bike through the pines on single track, just like any other day back at home.

I was so surprised and pleased by the forests in southern France.  In some places the forests would run right up to the beach, and terminate in the sands just before the waves.  The long stretches of abandoned beaches provided constant relief from the heat and humidity of the long days, and it was always nice to be back in the trees immediately after swimming and running on the beaches.

*          *          *

I didn't really even know I had crossed into Spain.  I knew I was close and I had come into town to try and find my way towards San Sebastian.  Suddenly I could understand people.  Well, kind of.  It has been some three or four years since I've spoken Spanish everyday, and the dialect in Pais Vasco is not exactly the the Mexican ranchero slang I'm accustomed to.  But I could communicate, and it was great.  I hadn't talked to anybody in a while.  

I ride into San Sebastian.  I had heard a lot about this place.  It's apparently considered to be one of the highlights of European tourism.  Food, culture, beaches, etc.  I had done a google search of San Sebastian before I arrived somewhere in France, and read these opening lines on the Lonely Planet's webpage:

         "It’s said that nothing is impossible. This is wrong. It’s impossible to lay eyes on San 
          Sebasti├ín (Basque: Donostia) and not fall madly in love."

Anybody want to guess what I did???  I laid my eyes on San Sebastian...and wasn't all that impressed.  I went swimming and got some food and headed for the mountains.  The next day I finally arrived in Beasain, the start and finish of the Ehunmilak 100 miler I was going to 'run' in about a week.  I was lucky enough to get put up by the local alburgue.  This 'Hospital de Perigrinos' is one of the many housing options for pilgrims making there way towards Santiago on one of the many 'caminos.'  El Camino de Santiago is one the most famous pilgrimages in Europe, and I had unintentionally fallen into it, and would continue to interweave it into my own way west in the forthcoming weeks.

The 'Hospital de Peregrinos' in Beasain.

Beasain is about 10k from the village of Zegama, a small, nearly unheard of town in Pais Vasco; that is unless you are a trail runner.  The Zegama Marathon is one of the most famous mountain runs in the world, and has served as the World Skyrunning Championships.

The next morning I pack up my running pack and head for the course.  The course winds its way up and down into and out of the forests and up above treeline several times before finding its way back to Zegama, en route traversing highly technical, rocky terrain and accumulating a staggering amount of elevation gain for such a 'short', 42km, run.

The mountains here, are not very big, considering elevation.  But what they lack in height they make up for in ruggedness and prominence.  The trails up these mountains are classically European, opting for steep direct lines rather than meandering and switch-backing. 

Once up, the rocky tops make for some fun yet difficult running.  The Ehunmilak runs much of the same course as Zegama, only in the other direction. 

As much fun as I was having that day checking out the Zegama course, I couldn't help but think forward to race day.  These technical rocky trails were fun today.  The ridiculously steep climbs doable now.


The thought of running these routes  after I had already run about 80-90 miles and some 30,000 ft of elevation gain was enormously intimidating. 

Like most mountains in Europe, there is a rich history of human endeavors deep in the mountains.  Old churches, refugios, old buildings I have no idea as to what uses they'd served.

The Ehunmilak course runs up into and through this old cave/refugio.
Most of my time in Beasain was spent resting and recovering.  I was generally exhausted from riding my bike across France to get to Beasain.  My ankle hadn't recovered as much as I had hoped, mostly due to me reaggravating it continuously every few days, not letting it heal by doing things like running the Zegama marathon course.  Oh and riding my bike to and running up Txindoki.


On the way up Txindoki.
From the top Txindoki.
The next few days were rather stagnant.  Trying to rest and let me ankle recover.  I had reaggravated it on Tuesday while bouldering and then again on Wednesday descending Txindoki. I tried not to say much to anybody, I tried not to admit it to myself, that all the time and money and energy I had put into getting here, and this race was going to come down to a decision I would make the day of the race.  Injured and under trained, I waited for Friday.

*         *         *

The Ehunmilak Ultra 100

I have a uncontrollable trait of just going for things.  Regardless of whether its intelligent, advisable, or practical.  This whole trip is an extension of this, and I couldn't live with myself if I didn't run.  I hadn't had a long run in about 3 months.  I had run maybe a total of 5 times in those 3 months due to a combination of taking a mid season break and then getting injured.  

Oh well.  Fuck it.  Lace up and run in the mountains.

Photo courtesy of
I felt really good the first 60k.  I was having fun and enjoying the atmosphere of my first european race.  The energy and the people is unlike anything I have ever experienced.

Photo courtesy of
The wheels began to fall off somewhere around midnight I think.  I get asked a lot for advice from people running there first hundreds.  I always tell them that, 'Its extremely important to know and have the confidence that you will feel better.  When you hit those low points, those moments of suffering and emotional weakness, that it will get better and you will feel better.'  I waited all night for it to feel better and it never did.

I don't want to dress this up too much with philosophical bullshit and spiritual nonsense.  I went into one of the hardest races in the world under trained and injured, and I had a really hard time.  That's really all there is.

Photo courtesy of
I had made a lot of friends in Beasain.  The community had welcomed me with open arms and were excited to see an American run this race.  Finishing Ehunmilak was maybe one of the stupidest things I have ever done to myself.  Their is racing, their is finishing, their is suffering and overcoming and gutting out finishes.  I'm not sure when you cross the line into detrimental effects to the body from these things.  At some point, I just made up my mind that I was going to finish.  It was going to be ugly and dangerous, but I wasn't going to stop.  I felt I owed it to everybody that had helped me get here, and I wouldn't have been able to live with myself if I didn't finish.

I'm not very proud of what I did.  I'm dissapointed and wish I had run better.  I don't ever care about what place I get in a race.  I just want to feel good about my run, and that I ran to my potential.  Most importantly I want to enjoy myself and have fun.  I want my races to add to my overall experience and make me feel happy and accomplished.  My personal experience at Ehunmilak didn't do any of that, and for the first time in my running career, I have begun to seriously doubt why I do these races.  I'm not talking about that feeling you get in the middle of an ultra, something like 'I am never going to do this again,' and then the next day you sign up for a another race.  I have spent that last couple weeks seriously reconsidering and rethinking my role in the sport. I am not an athlete, I am not very interested in 'the sport' of running, and when I see myself becoming more concerned with competition rather than enjoying myself, being active and being in nature, I have to take a step back and regroup.

I want to run free, without cameras, without mandatory gear, without watches.  Once again I need to find that spot where I am having fun and enjoying my time running.  This probably means I am not going to be very competitive at the upcoming races.  I guess I'm at a point that I don't really care.  I'm going to run for the experience, for the fun of it, and I am going to enjoy these things as much as possible, and I feel really good about it.  I have switched to the shorter, marathon version of Desafio Somiedo, and I am really looking forward to the race.

Nos Vemos a Somiedo!!!

The following video has nothing to do with running or me, and more to do with me missing home and missing playing music and my guitar.  Todd Snider is one of the best current songwriters and storytellers and he makes me miss America!!!