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The Great Running Traditions of the Basques
by Andy Milroy
Basque Running Footmen
The earliest recorded reference to Basque runners comes from the early 16th century. At this time, at least in England and France, and it seems in Spain, it was common for aristocrats to employ runners on foot to carry messages or run beside their coaches. In France this post was usually filled by Basque runners, which gave rise to the proverb "To run like a Basque."
From the early 16th century at least, Basques were already in service as distance runners. In Rabelais Grand-gousier sends "the Basque, his lackey, to seek Gargantua in all haste." An author at the end of the 16th century says "From the country of Bearn, come lackeys the best fitted for running that one could wish."
Another 16th century writer, Henri Estienne, recommends that anyone seeking to impress should claim that any letters have been taken by "your Basque, who runs like the wind."
In 1566 a lackey of Vicomte Francois-Armand de Polignac ran from Le Puy to Paris -- which was some 100 leagues/400km in distance -- and back in seven and a half days. According to a later authority the name "lackey" and Basque were almost synonymous at that time.
Henry VI of France came from the Bearn/Navarre region and perhaps it is no coincidence that in his reign in 1592 one of the first recorded footraces took place at Rheims over a distance of 82km.
The chief function of these Basque runners would be in the service of the master of the household. With the coming of the French Revolution in 1789 and the destruction of the Ancient Regime, the employment of Basques as running footmen seems to have come to an end
According to the expert on Basque rural sports, Rafael Aguirre Franco, it was in the 18th century that the traditional running competitions began in the Basque region. Running competitions of some kind must have existed before this, but the korrikalaris -- two men match races -- might well have begun when now unemployed former footmen returned home to the Basque country and challenged each other to decide who was the best runner, wagering on the result.
The earliest references to the Korrikalaris appear when they competed in prize money races at traditional Euskaras celebrations. In 1833 Olaberria from Elgoibar won second prize of 160 reales in a race in Markina, Bizkaia.
The races in 1883 in Markina-Xemein seemed to have been shared between Malaecheverria and Antonio Echaniz who took the first prizes, one of which was 240 reales; it is also possible that Malaecheverra was the name under which Antonio Echaniz competed.
One of the most famous families of korrikalaris was emerging during this period. The Igarabide family were called "Juanagorri" from the name of their farm house. All farm houses in the Basque Country have names and originally people were known by the name of their farmhouse, instead of by their family name.
The head of this family was Domingo Igarabide, born in 1829 in Betelu, Navarre. He was a man famous for his legendary endurance. He participated in bets involving grass cutting, [another basque competitive sport!] and running races, being most famous for his win over the route across the mountain between Betelu and Villafranca de Oria and return. His sons, Martín Miguel, Santiago, and Antonio were also korrikalis.
The traditional Basque races were distance events, never being under ten kilometres, more typically 20 kilometres or further, with the occasional 100-km race. These match races, involving betting between two runners in a challenge to run a particular course, closely parallels that which had developed in England in the 17th century onwards.
However these Basque challenge matches involved both endurance and the ability to discover the shortest way from point A to point B. There was no fixed route to follow, only the start and finish lines, allowing runners to choose their own shortcuts.
When challenges became public events, the local towns began supporting their favourite korrikalaris. In order to prevent this from influencing the outcome of races, specific routes were laid out. This encouraged competition not only between the two opponents racing on a given day, but also against the time taken by anyone who had previously run the same course, since records of earlier races were kept.
It looks possible that at least one basque korrikalari sought his fortune abroad. A Spanish runner called Antonio Genaro, a name not unknown in the Basque region, first appeared in France in 1855 running a long distance challenge (a return match) against a racehorse at Longchamps in Paris, which seems to have lasted nearly six hours.
Genaro then traveled to England in 1856 and ran a four hour match track race with George Frost, the Suffolk Stag, at Garratt Lane, Wandsworth, London on 1 January, 1856 to see who could cover the greatest distance in the time allowed.
At 10 miles in 1:07:15, they were together. At 14 miles Genaro stopped, when Frost was declared the winner (1:38:02). British observers believed Genaro was forced to stop because he had run on a full stomach; he himself had commented that he was not at all fatigued.
Genaro had been well supported by Spaniards living in London. 32 years old, Genaro was said to have smoked a cigar and wore a matador's cloak and rosette prior to the race.
Unfortunately further information about Genaro's origins and later career are unknown. However taking into account the duration of the two events that are known, it would seem probable that he was a traditional Basque runner.
Korrikalari Races in the Nineteenth Century
At the time of the Second Carlist War (1872-76) the korrikalari Santa Cruz could beat anyone. His records were reportedly amazing, running from Lesaka to Irunnea in half a day, and also possessing great climbing ability (being sometimes pursued by soldiers who were running after him) in the Urkiola alentours.
Among the nineteenth-century korrikalaris competitions were the 124-kilometre Tolosa-Pamplona-Tolosa race in which participants wore the traditional loose shirt, sandals, long trousers and a sash around the waist. Another of the traditional races in Biscay was the Durango-Bilbao route, which, on some occasions, included running there and back.
At the end of the century competitions began to cover longer distances, such as Aia-to-Getaria and back. Numerous Basque athletes tested their endurance in this race, but "Napar-zarra" showed his absolute supremacy in 1908.
Napar-zarra, the racing name of Francisco Echarri, had beaten the French runner Neven in the bullring of Donostia-San Sebastián in September, 1907 . Pitted against the "Juanagorri" father and son team over the Aia-to-Getaria and back course, who ran the race as a relay, he still came through to win. However if the father in the Juanagorri team was Domingo Igarabide, he would have been close to 80 years old by then.
Another famous run was the so-called "Lecumberri league" (actually 6,040 metres), (Legua de Lekunberri) which was considered to be impossible to run in under 20 minutes. It was a difficult route, all uphill from Lecumberri to Azpiroz Pass. The 17-kilometre stretch from Billabona to Aia was also the setting for a number of trials.
At the turn of the century there was an upsurge in interest in point to point multiday events in France. In October of 1903 for a bet, a Korrikalari, 64 year old Marquestan from Angelu, Laburdi, reportedly went from Bordeaux to Paris, covering 600 kilometers in 6 days.
A race between the two cities was staged in 1903 with a distance of 611 km/380 miles from Bordeaux to Paris. It was won by Francois Peguet in 114 hours 12 minutes with Emil Anthoine in second place. It is possible that Marquestan took part in this race.
In the early part of the 20th century the industrialization of the Basque region saw its population gradually moving to urban areas. However people at local fiestas still wanted to see such korrikalaris races. Now becoming more of a spectator sport than a personal challenge, organisers took the korrikalaris events to enclosed areas. In 1903 the San Sebastián, Tolosa, Azpeitia and Eibar bullrings were built, and from that time on races increasingly began being held in closed-in arenas of this type.
On the 24th of June, 1906, the korrikalari, Sebastien Lasa from Alegia, raced Juan Bacho in the fronton or pelota playing field of Errenteria. A later race at Eibar in July 1911 however was actually held in a bullring, on a circuit which seems to have been 133 metres round, with the inside edge of the track marked out by stakes. The korrikalari Garrinaga, wearing a jersey with vertical dark and white stripes and shorts, ran the 60 laps to cover 8 km in 25 minutes. Alf Shrubb's world track record for the marginally longer 5 mile distance was 24:33.4 set seven years earlier.
Such a striped jersey is shown being worn by a korrikalari in another photograph. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the local football teams, Bilbao and Donostia, wear stripes.
Some Basques competed in more than one sport. For example, Jose Maria Irizar from Beizama in Gipuzkoa, was both an Aizkolari, or axman, and a korrikalari. In a famous competition in March 1912, he cut twenty 54 cm diameter tree trunks before running 14 kilometers in the bullring.
The Development of Spanish Distance Championships
The Spanish Athletic federation, from its inception, was faced with the traditional betting based korrikalaris. It would have been only realistic of them to adopt a more tolerant view of these semi-professional events. The development of the Amateur Olympic Games in 1896 had led gradually to the emergence of a group of `amateur' distance runners in Spain, distinct from the Korrikalaris. The extent to which these top Basque runners who competed internationally also took part in korrikalaris events is unknown.
In 1917 the first Spanish Athletics Track Championships was held. The events from 800 to 5000 metres were dominated by Juan Muguerza, who seems to have been a runner with Basque links. He won the 800 metres 1918-21, 1500 metres 1917-21 and four of the first five 5000 metres titles 1917-19 and 1921.
Other Basque distance runners made a major impact on the emerging Spanish Cross Country championships. The races in 1918 and 1919 were won by Víctor Errauzquín and Julio Domínguez, and those from 1921 to 1927 won by José Andía, Miguel Pena, and Amador Palma, with only the 1926 race not being won by a Basque runner.
Amador Palma, with three Cross Country titles and the 1923 5000 and 1925 10000 metres track titles was a major figure, as was Miguel Cialceta who took the Cross country title in 1932 and the 10000 metres the following year. Together with the dominance of Juan Muguerza, this shows how important the korrikalaris tradition was in the development of Spanish distance running.
In 1919 these new upstarts were challenged by the traditional korrikalaris and in a new event over the 20km between Behobia-San Sebastián the two sets of distance runners competed against one another. The winner was Juan Muguerza in 1:17:50.
International Korrikalari Races in the Twentieth Century
The Korrikalari traditional running matches were still strong. Over longer distances, in 1921 Navarrese Vicente Erro covered the classic Tolosa-Pamplona-Tolosa course, 125 km, in little more than 15 hours.
The shorter Zarauz-Aia route was perhaps the most famous, being the setting for countless number of bets. Tragedy struck here on 21st May 1922, when the Franco-Belgian Leon De Nys competed against Jacinto Etxenagusia. De Nys was a professional runner who had run 15:27 for 5000 metres and 33:46 for 10000, both on the track in Paris. [This placed him in the top 20 runners in the world in 1921 at the former event, and in the top 30 in the latter.]
Etxenagusia had beaten Erro earlier in the year, but perhaps the 13 km distance of the Zarauz-Aia race was too short for him, especially against a world class runner like De Nys.
At 11:30 a.m., under a relentless sun, Jacinto Etxenagusia set off. The Belgian followed three minutes and forty-five seconds later. De Nys took 54 minutes and five seconds to run the 13 kilometres separating the two towns. Etxenagusia dropped panting to the wayside. He died two days later after intense suffering.
Betting was still the driving force between the korrikalaris. In 1934 Joaquin Marichalar, from Lezo in Gipuzkoa, bet that he could go from the small village of Lizardi, in Intxaurrondo, Donostia-San Sebastián, to the summit of the Ulia mountain, with a load of 50 kilograms on his shoulder, in less of 50 minutes. He completed it in it 41 minutes, winning the bet.
Pedro Iradi was the major Basque runner in the 1940s, both professional and amateur. On three of the five occasions they met, he beat his main rival Eulogio Gurruchaga. On the 4th July 1943 he won the Donostia-San Sebastian to Urnieta in 1:15:07, 83 seconds ahead of his rival.
The 1950s saw a new generation of korrikalaris. Francisco Landa Garmendia, born in Azpeitia, but based in Olazabal, was one of an increasing number of such runners.
The tolerance of the Spanish federation towards runners making money from the sport was shown in the 1950s when the Catalan 1500 metres runner, Tomas Barris, was adroitly getting around the existing regulations on payment. He reportedly was totally supported by the Spanish federation, who never interfered, apparently realizing that such strategies enhanced the standing of Spanish distance running. Gordon Pirie was part of the small group who followed Barris' example.
Perhaps Barris was the contact that led to Gordon Pirie, who had broken world running records in the fifties, winning the silver medal at 5000 metres in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, racing in korrikalaris events in the summer of 1962.
Pirie was to compete in two pursuit type races in the bullring at San Sebastian in Spain against a local korrikalari. The races were over 10,000 metres and involved Pirie starting on one side of the bullring and his opponent on the other.
One of his opponents was Juan Cruz Azpiroz, from Arruitz in Navarre, who seems to have won the second race, in which Pirie was less competitive. As with all korrikalaris events, the races were essentially betting events. Spectators gambled on when one runner would catch another and on the times individual runners would take to complete parts of the race. The whole environment was strangely alien to Pirie, used to British athletics where betting had been strictly excluded since the nineteenth century.
The End of Traditional Korrikalaris Races
The popularity of open road races developed in Spain in the 1970s following the world wide jogging and running boom. Sport clubs and local fiesta organisers put on races in which hundreds of people participated. Distance running was no longer a secret expert skill, known only to the korrikalaris.
One of the major last runs by a korrikalari may have been by Isaac Rueda from Bilbao who in 1971 set the "record" of 1 h.17 ms from the exit of the Plaza of the City council of Llodio, passing by the hermitage of Santa Lucia, the source of the Espino and Mount Pagasarri, to arrive at the Plaza de Espana, Bilbao.
The Korrikalaris - distance runners who would compete with only one other athlete - and betting money on the race - gradually disappeared from the bullrings and roads of northern Spain. The expert of Basque popular rural sport, Rafael Aguirre Franco, said in 1999 that although 15 years before in the mid-1980s the korrikalaris were very successful, in races like that from San Sebastián to Pamplona, "Today, nevertheless, the popular races prevail."
Basque Ultra Runners
With the decline in the very long races that had distinguished the korrikalaris, Basque runners sought a greater challenge than that available in the marathon. Aguirre Franco has said "In general, I believe that the men and women of the Basque Country are very hard... the main characteristics are the force and hardness. Our sports demand a concerted effort ...the tests last much longer than those outside. "
It is not surprising that at least one Basque looked to the longest race then available.
An English translation from the Spanish book "Ultrafondo 100km" by Jose Antonio Soto Rojas records "We have to go back to 1975-1978 to find the beginning of the 100 km races in Spain. The unknown Ricardo Toro Sánchez took his first steps in this tough and not very well known race in Spain, winning in the Condom 100km in France in 1977 in 8:03."
Sanchez was from Guipuzcoa in the Basque Country. In 1975 he had run 100km on the track in San Sebastian in 7:26:13. This seems to have been a solo run, which harks back to the Korrikalis traditions, rather than the open races of the marathon boom. Possibly the appeal of the track race was its similarity to the bull ring races Sanchez undoubtedly saw in his youth.
However eventually because there was at that time no support for 100km races in Spain, and it was very expensive to travel abroad, Sanchez retired temporarily after his great win in Condom.
Alfredo Uria - Korrikalari
Other Basques were to follow his example in tackling ultra races. Alfredo Uria is regarded by some Basques as a korrikalari. Born in Baracaldo in 1940, he did not begin his running career until 1970, when he beat the record for the ascent of Mount Pagasarri with 29 minutes and 46 seconds. In 1976 he made his first long distance run of 492 km from Oviedo-San Sebastian-Tolosa. The following year he ran 600 km from Barcelona to Bilbao in 88:17:15.
Uria then turned his attention on the shorter standard events of mainstream Ultrarunning, winning the second Santander 100km in 1981, before running 100 miles on the track in Bilbao in June the following year in 13:04:09. Later that year, again at Bilbao, it was claimed that he covered 275.192km in 24 hours. In 1984 on an indoor track at Masnou, Uria ran 233.896km in 24 hours.
In March 1983, perhaps once again emulating earlier Korrikalaris, Uria ran from Bilbao to Madrid, covering a reported 399.194km in 48 hours. On the other side of the Pyranees, in Biarriz, in France, Sanchez ran 157km in 24 hours on the road in November 1988.
Perhaps it was the Korrikalaris tradition that drove Alfredo Uria to even greater distances. In the heart of the Basque country, in his home town of Baracaldo, Uria set a Spanish 6 day record of 814.995km in 1995 and the following year, at the same place ran 1000 miles on the track to set the fastest time then known, 12 days 17 hours 59 minutes and 19 seconds.
However it is not just in ultra distance events that the Basque running traditions continued.
Basque Runners on the World Scene
One of the later amateur Basque runners to make an impact on the world scene was Francisco Arizmendi who won the International Cross Country Championships in 1964. However probably the greatest of the Basque cross country runners was Mariano Haro from Guipuzcoa. Second in the International Cross Country Championships in 1972, '73, '74 and '75 and third in 1963, Haro also won the Spanish Cross Country title nine times, the 5000 metres title five times, the 10000 metres also nine times as well as the steeplechase title in 1967 - 24 national senior titles in all. When he set a Spanish Hour record of 20,493 metres in San Sebastian in August 1975, his distance had only ever been surpassed by then world record holder, Gaston Roelants of Belgium.
When the women's Spanish Cross country championships was begun in the late '60s, from 1967 until 1978 it was dominated by the Basque runners, Coro Fuentes, Belen Azpeitia and Carmen Valero, with the latter also taking the national title in 1981 and 1986.
Greater Basque performers were to emerge in the '90s. Martin Fiz, born in Vitoria in the Basque country, took gold in the marathon at the 1994 European Championships and at the 1995 World Championships Marathon, and silver in the 1999 World Championships marathon. A marathon was later named after him. The Martin Fiz Marathon is held in the Basque town of Vitoria-Gasteiz each year.
Returning to the Mountains
But the mountain heritage of the Basque runners is not lost. Each year the Zegama-Aizkorri mountain race is held over the classical marathon distance (42km) with a total elevation gain of 5,472m on the Aratz massif, the Sierra del Aizkorri and four of the highest peaks in the Basque country. The start is at Zegama, 296m leading to a gruelling course along mountain paths and trails to reach a maximum altitude of 1,551 metres. Web: www.zegama-aizkorri.com
The 2004 race was won by the Italian Mario Poletti with a time of 4:06:46, from Basque runner Zuhaitz Ezpeleta 4:08:45 with Esteve Canal (Catalan) with 4:17:00. The female winner was Anna Serra (Catalan) 5:27:51, from fellow Catalan runner Ester Hernàndez 5:29:18, with Basque runner Madier Mendia in third 5:32: 56.
Why are Basque such strong endurance athletes?
The running abilities of the Basques over at least the last 500 years is evident. Obviously living in a mountainous and demanding environment for almost certainly thousands of years has developed great endurance capabilities among the Basque people.
Juan Cruz Azpiroz, the Korrikalari who had run against Gordon Pirie was tested by the German physiologists Woldemar Gerschler and Hans Raindell at Freiburg University in 1956. The originators of the system of interval training and specialists in the development of the cardiovascular system, Gerschler and Raindell were amazed at Azpiroz's capacities. He had extraordinary strength. Usually he combined the sports of the aizkolari (wood-chopping) and korrikalari in the bull ring of Tolosa, Gipuzkoa. In 1963, he cut twenty trunks of 54 cm and then ran 20 kilometers, in only 2 hours, 38 minutes and 36 seconds!
The Basque cyclist Miguel Indurain, five time winner of the Tour de France, was born in Villava, Navarra which historically was part of the wider Basque region. Tested at the University of Navarra, Pamplona in 1995, he is credited with "the lowest resting heart rate on record (beats per minute) - 28 bpm" in the 2004 (Guinness Book of World Records). The average resting heart rate is 66-72 bpm, with even most athletes having 40bpm.
Indurain also has a lung capacity of 8 litres and a heart capable of pumping 50 litres of blood per minute. This is "double that of a healthy man." Perhaps this research on Azpiroz and Indurain gives an indication of perhaps why the Basque runners were, and are, so formidable....
The remarkable deep roots of the Basque nation in terms of language, genetics, etc is undoubtedly reflected in their running traditions. It has similarities with that of the legendary Tarahumara Indians in Mexico, in that it involves betting, community involvement and can cover great distances. The Tarahumara are also renowned distance runners living in mountainous terrain.
The Basques remain an active people. The average Basque is more likely to take part in sport than inhabitants in the rest of Spain, and there are more sporting facilities in the region as a result.
This article just scratches the surface of Basque distance running. It is likely that in such a betting culture, a running race might well be part of a combined challenge that involved other Basque sports, such as wood cutting, stone lifting or dragging, races carrying bags of corn, or grass cutting, in many ways perhaps foreshadowing the modern triathlon and other multi-sport events. The tradition and history of the Aizkolaris, or wood cutter, coming from the same Basque rural sporting roots, will be similar to that of the Korrikalaris, and perhaps sheds more light on the latter's history.
Throughout the entire 19th century aizkolaris were known by names such as "the man from Beizama", "the boys from the Gorrizu house", "the group from Nuarbe", "the lad from the Beunza farmhouse", and so on, not by their own names.
In this there seems to be a degree of similarity with the korrikalaris, with the "Juanagorri" korrikalaris family for example. Aizkolaris trials were completely ignored by the newspapers of the day.
As with the Korrikalaris races, the bullrings of Tolosa, Azpeitia, Donostia and Eibar started in 1903 were the centres for a countless number of different dragging and chopping competitions, starring famous aizkolaris. These aizkolaris, like the korrikalaris, "Napar-zarra", used nicknames like "Atxumberria", "Korta", "Keixeta", "Kotaberri" and "Arria".
After the Spanish Civil War trials and exhibitions were held, with major contests held in the San Sebastian bullring in the 1950s. However this sport has continued until today.
There is still much work to be done on researching the history of Basque distance running. Little is known of the feats of the Korrikalaris in the nineteenth century, and earlier. There must be many more Spanish national long distance titles that were won by Basque athletes.
The spirit of the korrikalaris still lives on - the modern distance runners of the Basque region are described in the local media as being korrikalaris, and at least one famous traditional route, the race over the 6,040 meters Legua de Lekunberri, has been held sixteen times in recent years. The "impossible" twenty minute barrier of the Legua de Lekunberri (6,040 meters) has been broken - Andrés Martinez Modrego ran the race 19:37 in 2003, with the first woman, Rosi Talavera, clocking 22:44.
From the point of view of both the Basque sporting culture and of the history of distance running, it is very important that the memories, stories and information on the this remarkable running tradition are recorded and publicised.