Drama at Ehunmilak as Ultras Stopped Mid-Race

The weather has been in the news a lot this summer, but not for the usual reasons. It’s been sunny and warm throughout much of Europe. Where you’d normally wonder about whether to take the heavy duty waterproof, or just the standard one, you’ve more likely been concerned about where to fit the factor 50 suncream in your pack. It’s been a glorious summer for running.

We travelled out to the Basque Country for the third year in a row to cover their fantastic Ehunmilak race. You’d think that this area would enjoy hot, dry summers but in fact it’s got a fairly damp climate and it enjoys its fair share of mud. I think that’s why we like it so much here – it makes us feel at home. The weather has been very changeable this year, but nobody minds a bit of rain do they?

We’ve developed a good system for covering this race over the last couple of years. We see the start of Ehunmilak at 6pm (which means ‘one hundred miles’ in Basque), then we go to the first aid station to see how the early part of the race is unfolding. Then we head back to see the start of G2H (the 88k race) at 11pm, then head back out onto the course to various aid stations. We get to see some of the beautiful Basque countryside and villages, experience the incredible atmosphere at the aid stations and meet some of the volunteers. It’s a joy to be honest. But ultras in the mountains are an unpredictable beast and nobody could have foreseen what was about to unfold.

As the Ehunmilak race set off it was warm and some big, fat spots of rain fell in Beasain town centre. But it didn’t seem like anything to worry about. It continued to drizzle, on and off, for the first couple of hours of the race, but it was a refreshing kind of rain, and it felt like it was clearing the muggy atmosphere. Runners had been given a warning at the start that there may be some storms during the night, but again, this is pretty standard in the mountains. The favourites, like Javi Dominguez and Ewa Majer, pressed on.

start Ehunmilak
The start of G2H

It was dry when the the G2H race set off, though the competitors were also given a warning about storms. We set off to the aid station at Larraitz where hundreds of people gather to support the runners even though it’s 1am. We were looking forward to experiencing the atmosphere there. Ominously we heard rumblings of thunder. A few minutes later the sky began to light up in spectacular fashion. We thought it would pass through pretty quickly though.

Once we got to Larraitz the rain was pretty heavy, so we sought refuge in a nearby bar. The thunder and lightning continued. The key issue was that from Larraitz the G2H runners begin a big exposed climb over Txindoki, a rocky and pointy 1300 metre peak, a place that you wouldn’t particularly want to be if there was a storm.

We started to hear from the organisers that the race was going to be neutralised at Larraitz, which meant that all the G2H runners would be held there, in the hope that the storm would pass, then the race would continue. Similarly the Ehunmilak race was neutralised, with runners held at Azpeitia. By now it was past 1am, the rain was coming down hard and the thunder and lightning seemed to be getting worse.

Start Ehunmilak
Start Ehunmilak 18
Spectators Ehunmilak
Spectators brave the weather at 1am

With no prospect of the storm passing in the next few hours, the organisers, with a very heavy heart, had no choice but to cancel the race. They set about the task of getting all the runners back to Beasain. To give them credit, I didn’t see any runners kicking off about the race having to be stopped. They were disappointed, but they accepted that it was necessary.

The organisers just had no other choice. It was too dangerous for runners to be out on exposed mountain tops with electrical storms. Unfortunately it’s part and parcel of running in the mountains and safety has to come first at events like this.

If we want to enjoy races in the mountains we also need to know when we cross the line into a run becoming too dangerous to continue and we also need to accept that we are at the mercy of the weather. These races are here every year and it is just a race. When we think about all the things that go wrong, it puts it into perspective. And there’s still the marathon on Sunday…