Everything had gone to shit long before I arrived in Azpeitia. Some combination of heat, dehydration, early race enthusiasm, I still don’t really know. But just 50k into Ehunmilak’s 163k I ached, all over, like in the early days of the flu. I staggered down the steep, rocky descent to town, mostly sideways, stepping off the trail to allow less afflicted runners come past. The first woman was long gone, but the first team, the first women’s team, the first vet60, the first vet60 women’s team all came by. It needled me that they thought that here was another cocky prick who’d gone out to fast. Who’s to say they were wrong.
If it hadn’t been my first time at Ehunmilak I’d have binned it there. As it was, the option of quitting was always one reserved for Future Ally. As long as I thought I could make the next aid station, I would continue. Thoughts of racing, of time and position, had been tossed aside, but I still had a big cushion over the cut-offs and enough dumb pride to soldier on.
A few flights of concrete steps bring you abruptly into Azpeitia. Narrow, dimly lit, cobbled streets lead towards the aid station. A dog barks in the distance. There is the crash of breaking glass as a barman takes the bins out at the end of his shift. I shuffled through this film noir landscape, oblivious to the photogenic seediness of it all.
A couple of bystanders, perched on street corner, started to clap as I approached. My leaden trudge turned into a reluctant trot. I managed a smile and a muttered Eskerrik asko, then turned the corner into Azpeitia’s main square.
And there were lights and noise and people. Hundreds of people.
Barriers formed a long diagonal across the square. On each side were spectators, 2, 3 and 4 deep, every one of them clapping and cheering and shouting. I made my way through this sudden caucophony, breathlessly thanking everyone I could, picking up high 5s from 3 and 4 year old kids up way past their bedtime. Totally stunned, it took me minutes to find my whistle for the aid station kit checkers. (Tied to my pack, same place it’s been for the last 3 years.) I staggered around in a daze, spilled soup down my front, then headed out the door and back across the square, to just as frenzied a reception as I’d had on the way in.
For context, it was 1 o’clock in the morning and I was running on my own. Those in front of me had been and gone, those behind were still minutes away. This was not the rapturous reception of a local hero, a Jon Aizpurru or Javi Dominguez or Imanol Aleson. It’s what they do for everyone.
More narrow, cobbled streets bring you out of town, this time past the fronts of the bars. Basque cider is strong stuff, and the enthusiasm of those with pints in their hands was ramped up accordingly. Dare I say it, it might have been better than Kima. The pain was forgotten. I felt like I was running 4 minute kilometres.*
There was a spring in my step as I bashed up the steep climb back into the hills. Not a very spingy one, and it didn’t last long, but it was there. It was at this point that I really decided I was going to finish. If a couple of hundred people could stand around the streets in the middle of the night to cheer on random strangers, I could slog through another 110k.
These experiences always makes me reflect on our attitude to sport in the UK. It’s not unheard of for races to ask supporters to refrain from clapping at the finish, lest they disturb the neighbours. That’s not a worry in the Basque country. The neighbours are next to you. One of them has a cowbell. The other has an accordion. The guys outside the bars were stotious Friday night bampots, but their support was absolutely sincere. They’re not taking the piss, they’re not smirking. They genuinely think you’re the man just for taking part, and they want you to know it.
I wasn’t sure if I was going to go back to Ehunmilak, but writing this now I might have talked myself into it.
*This isn’t as wrong as I thought it might be. 8’13” on the way into Azpeitia. 5’13” on the way out, if my watch is to be believed.