More Than Splits: 2023 Zegama-Aizkorri Race Analysis

“Zegama is Zegama, is not made by the runners, but by the entire public and the entire organization that make it a special race” – Kilian Jornet

Zegama is one of the best trail marathon races in the world. Since 2002, the winner has been crowned with a txapela and an axe to display in their trophy case for a lifetime. As one of the more passionate races on tour, Zegama routinely brings out a large crowd where fans cheer on favorites and encourage them over the toughest peaks on course. To highlight what the human body goes through during this race, and the training leading up to it, COROS is breaking down the data from 1st place male Manuel Merillas. Through this analysis, all fans can get an inside look at what it takes to win at Zegama.

Manuel Merillas Watch: APEX 2 Pro

Data Analysis provided by: COROS Training Hub

Training Prior to Zegama

Manuel Merillas

COROS Education: Training metrics tracked in the Training Hub helps athletes decision making on how to prepare, train, and race an event.

When we begin to look at Manuel’s training leading into Zegama, a few things pop out right away. Normally when looking at elite runners, many of the same concepts are in place. With Manuel however, he goes against the grain and trains in a slightly different manner.

Base Fitness: For many elite runners, you’ll see a build in fitness followed closely by a peak and then taper/race. When we look at Manuel’s, you’ll see a massive base building phase from January through March followed by a steady decline to a more reasonable Training Load. Manuel put in a massive 2 month training block reaching a peak of 342 Base Fitness (The highest we have seen outside of a transcontinental attempt). With this amount of training being unsustainable over the course of a year, Manuel dropped his Base Fitness down to 232 heading Into Zegama which is on par with many elite ultra-runners looking to contend at global events.

Pace Zone Distribution: When training so often, you’re going to see most of your Training Load/time spent in Zone 1. This helps athletes develop a robust aerobic base which will sustain training and racing over the course of a year. What is interesting regarding Manuel’s chart however is the amount of time he still gets in zone 3, 4, and 5. Its rare to see a marathoner/ultra-runner get time above Threshold as they rarely focus on this. Manuel however spent roughly 21% of his total time above threshold while training.

Cross-Training: Similar to Kilian Jornet, Manuel puts in a ton of time cross-training. Ultimately, there is only so much force/stress your legs can take before you introduce injury or overtraining. Manuel accumulated roughly 45% of his total Training Load from cycling in 2023. Cycling was a major part of Manuel’s Base Fitness build and a focus point of his training leading to race day. Having the ability to add additional training without risking additional impact on the legs can be a valuable tool for any athlete.

Threshold Heart Rate: Lastly,Threshold Heart Rate Zones are a critical part to understand for any athlete as they head into a race. For a race like Zegama, you’re going to function primarily in your Aerobic Power zone, but need to have the ability/stamina to tap into each zone throughout the day as you conquer peaks and downhills. Manuel built his Threshold Heart Rate to 171 heading into race day.

Zegama Race Analysis

Manuel Merillas’ Race File:

Checkpoint #1 (Start-8.5 Kilometers)

Manuel clocked a time of 43:26 and was in 11th place across the mat.

Analysis: Manuel took his time and ensured his heart rate remained lower overall for more energy later in the race. Manuel went through the first checkpoint with an average heart rate of 151bpm which falls within his Aerobic Endurance zone. At this level of race, it’s amazing to see how different athletes attack the course/competition. Risk it all for glory, or trust in a pacing strategy!

Checkpoint #2 (8.5-13.5 Kilometers)

As the race begins to unfold, there is some jockeying for position. Manuel has maintained his strategy from the first checkpoint and only has seen minor changes in position overall. Manuel has climbed a spot to now be within the top 10 (10th). Remi Bonnet remains out front and has opened a 4 min advantage over Manuel.

Analysis: Manuel remains calm and is allowing his body an easier start. Manuel averaged 130 bpm over this section and a true average pace of 5:31/km. Interestingly, Manuel actually averaged a 3:23/km Effort Pace as this metric factors in your historical heart rate data compared to the gradient/terrain you’re on. Due to his high efficiency and enormous Aerobic Base (see pre-season training), Manuel is holding a fast Effort Pace and knows this will pay off over the 41.5km course.

Checkpoint #3 (13.5-16.1 Kilometers)

One of the highest peaks on course, Checkpoint 3 is a great chance to see how everyone is climbing as the field begins to thin out. Over 90 minutes into the race, this is where anyone who has pushed the pace above Threshold early, begins to fade. Manuel has passed 3 individuals to now sit in 7th. Leader Remi Bonnet still maintains the lead with a 4+ minute gap to Manuel.

Analysis: The story remains the same to this point. Manuel has held 117bpm* (Aerobic Endurance) and he’s sitting at 8:21/km. This uphill section has required more energy overall for those athletes extending their effort.

*It should be noted that Manuel was using poles on the uphill sections which can hit your watch and impact the optic heart rate sensor connectivity on your wrist.

Checkpoint #4 (16.1-19.6 Kilometers)

The first true downhill section of the course and the story begins to build! For those athletes who pushed early, this is a welcome retreat from the intensity. For those that took the uphill a touch easier, this is a chance to maintain effort and eat into the leaders time. Remi Bonnet has now fallen to 2nd, but is on the heals of 1st place (Robert Pkemoi).The gap to the leaders is now shrinking as Manuel is in 7th and has reduced his deficit from 4 minutes to 2:55.

Analysis: When compared to the uphill section, We can see Manuel has gone from averaging 117-130bpm to now holding 144bpm. Manuel has made the decision to push a touch harder on the downhills as he has additional energy from not exhausting the uphill section. Manuel averaged 4:02/km pace. The lead is shrinking and Manuel is inching closer.

Checkpoint #5 (19.6-22 Kilometers)

The halfway point of the race makes up Checkpoint #5. Hitting the tallest peak on the course, athletes are firmly into their strategy now and performing internal self-checks to see how their tactics are performing on race day. Remi Bonnet has gone out flying and it’s clear that his strategy is to push the uphills. Re-securing the lead, he has maintained his gap, but Manuel is continuing to take the uphills easier and has let the lead grow to 3:31.

Analysis: Manuel is controlling his uphill efforts and saving his energy for the downhill sections. During this section Manuel has allowed his heart rate to reduce to 140bpm.

Checkpoint #6 (22-23.2 Kilometers)

A small valley on top of two peaks, this section is short, but at a high altitude. Athletes that didn’t over-extend are going to be able to make up time here as they can push on the flatter terrain. Remi Bonnet maintains the lead, but his lead has shrunk and Manuel has brought back some time and now is only 2:29 behind.

Analysis: Manuel is pushing the flats and downhills. He has lifted his heart rate to 152bpm which is creeping into his Aerobic Power zone and eating time into his competition. Manuel averaged 6:01/km over this duration.

Checkpoint #7 (23.2-26.6 Kilometers)

Game on! Following this section of the course, there are only 15 kilometers left to the Txapela & Axe! Sitting 2:10-2:30 into the race, anyone that has extended their efforts early are going to feel the effects. For those who waited, it’s time to push. Past leader Remi Bonnet has dropped back on the downhill to recover and now sits in 4th. Robert Pkemoi takes over the lead coming through in 2:29:59. Manuel has jumped to 5th 1:53 behind.

Analysis: It’s go time for Manuel. Recording the highest average heart rate so far, Manuel is pushing Threshold on the downhill sections! The effort has resulted in an average pace of 4:49/km.

Checkpoint #8 (26.6-28.5 Kilometers)

Jon Albon was able to overtake Robert Pkemoi and now owns the title of leader on course! While there was a shift in the lead, there was a move being made just a few hundred meters behind! Manuel has again decided to push on a flatter section and has worked his way up into 4th. Sitting only 39 seconds behind Jon, Manuel is now into 4th position and can see all of the virtual podium competitors.

Analysis: Manuel is going for it. Holding an average heart rate of 173bpm, this is the highest it’s been so far within the race.

Checkpoint #9 (28.5-30 Kilometers)

30 Kilometers in and another athlete has entered the mix fighting for the lead. Elhousine Elazzaoui is now only 11 seconds behind leader Jon Albon. With this being an uphill section, Manuel has backed off the pace again and remains in 4th place 46 seconds back. Well within striking distance as the remaining portion of the race is a net downhill.

Analysis: Manuel continues to push only as hard as needed on the uphills to maintain contact. Running at an average pace of 7:58/km, he gave up 7 seconds total from the past timing mat.

Checkpoint #10 (30-34.2 Kilometers)

We have a new leader! Manuel Merillas has jumped into the lead on the downhill run to the finish. Sitting only 3 seconds behind him is Elhousine Elazzaoui hot on his heels. As the race has gone, it’s remarkable to see the approach all athletes take as they race to their strengths. Elhousine has remained steady all race, and Manuel has allowed gaps to open on uphills as he trusts his downhill abilities as a runner. We are now less than 7.5 km to the finish and its going to be a fight to the end!

Analysis: To no surprise, Manuel’s heart rate jumps above 160bpm again and averaged out at 164bpm. Not only this, but on technical terrain, Manuel is averaging 3:59/km Effort Pace as he speeds down the mountain.

Checkpoint #11 (34.2-37.8 Kilometers)

We have reached the part of the race where metrics are less meaningful, and its down to internal dialogue and mental toughness. Manuel holds a 4 second lead over Elhousine and the gap to Jon Albon has now hit 1 minute 36 seconds. Behind Jon is 4th place Remi Bonnet another 4:17 seconds down. The podium is set, but who is going to come out on top?

Analysis: The downhill ability of Manuel continues to pull ahead. As noted above, we now have only 4 kilometers to the finish and it’s about digging deep.

Zegama Finish Line

This is absolutely incredible! Having paced his race to perfection, Manuel Merillas crossed the line as the 2023 Zegama Champion! Following 27 seconds behind was Elhousine Elazzaoui and in third place with an incredible effort is Jon Albon!

Analysis: Manuel Merillas hits 186pm as he surges towards the line. With 2 kilometers left in the race, Manuel lifted his effort and surged for 10 minutes while holding a 183+ heart rate. This is well into Manuel’s VO2 range and at times even exceeded this. Relying on his pacing and early season base build, he had the energy and ability to surge for this world class victory!

COROS Training And Performance

We want to give a special shoutout to Manuel Merillas on his incredible training and race day performance. Utilizing specific training and tracking of their metrics, Manuel continues to improve as an athlete and push his own personal limits. By following tools such as Base Fitness, Effort Pace, and Heart Rate strategies, Manuel was able to secure the top step in one of the most prestigious trail events in the world!

For all COROS athletes, they have the ability to train and track all meaningful metrics to help them on their next road to the start line. Whether you’re looking to improve your overall fitness, or dial in your race day strategy, COROS is here every step of the way as you head out on your next journey to explore perfection!

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