Uno ... Dos ... Tres ... Urrrrnggghhh!

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, October 1997

Uno ... Dos ... Tres ... Urrrrnggghhh!
Six thousand years of triumphant Basque sport have come down to this moment, when the toughest mother from the world's toughest race attempts the near impossible.

By Tad Friend

In a dusty pelota court in the old Basque village of Arcangues, Migueltxo Saralegi squares his shoulders and throws his hands to the sky. Wearing blue shorts with white thigh pads, a leather waistcoat, and two black tummy belts, he cuts a heraldic figure. Saralegi's reach is actually to expand his lungs, but his aspect makes one imagine he's summoning ancient gods.

Now the stone lifter bends over a lead-filled block of granite. Grasping handholds on its far side, he bucks the awkward object onto his padded thighs, his face crimsoning as his lungs explode in a whoosh. The stone weighs 250 kilograms ù 550 pounds. Saralegi slides his hands to the stone's base and then jumps back while levering it end over end to his chest. For the third combination in this dance of balanced force ù Saralegi should be the hero of every mover who ever schlepped a grand piano ù he drives his torso back again and boosts the stone to his left shoulder. He cradles it there, then removes his hands and pirouettes before shrugging the stone onto a foam hassock.

Two hundred tourists give Saralegi a polite golf clap. Rich Germans and Brits sprung from four gleaming buses, they are kitted out in red "Basque" berets and cloth belts, and everyone carries a glass of rum punch. After witnessing dances, a pelota match, and woodcutting, they are in a folkways frame of mind ù curious to see more Basque exotica, but emotionally disengaged. Saralegi has a parallel view: He drove two hours into France from Pamplona solely for the money. He gets about $400; the tourists get a show. No harm done.

Yet the 29-year-old actually holds the world's stone-lifting record of 326 kilos, or 717 pounds, and in three days he'll attempt a new mark of 327 before an entirely different audience: knowledgeable Basques primed by a daylong "festival of hunting and fishing." To the Basques, these herri kilorak ù "rural sports," derived from clearing the land and from farming ù epitomize their manly culture. Such contests include log-chopping, scything, handling oxen and donkeys in stone-dragging races, running with 200-pound sacks on one's shoulder, tossing hay bales over an elevated rope, and most impressively, the harrijasotzaile, or stone lifting. Stone lifting is "no longer a folkloric exhibition, or for circus strongmen," the local Diario de Navarra proudly editorializes. "It requires much more strenuous training than a weight lifter['s]." In November and December, when Saralegi bulks up for the following summer's record attempts, he lifts 88,000 pounds per day.

To put it in terms that every American can understand, Saralegi's record of 326 kilos is equivalent to hoisting seven supermodels. Indeed, Saralegi calls the record stone La Gorda ù the Fat One ù as if it were a fleshy but fickle mistress. In cold weather he wraps her in a blanket, and if she refuses to come to his shoulder he mutters, "She didn't want love today." If she balks repeatedly he calls her culebra! (snake) and puta! (whore).

Now Saralegi rolls out a granite ball that weighs only 220 pounds, and the announcer invites the audience to give it a try. Three men come and strain at the sphere, then slink off to general giggling. No tourist has ever lifted it above the instep of an Italian loafer. Saralegi, who's maintained a fixed expression throughout these indignities, whisks the ball to his shoulder in one pull and whips it around his neck six times. The applause is much more appreciative; their representatives' humbling has given the audience a connection to the feat.

Folkway doings in Vitoria

Afterward, as the tourists are herded off to a ghastly "Basque" feast, I try the granite ball myself. By straining till my eyeballs fill with blood I nudge it perhaps six microns. "How much does he think I could lift?" I ask Edurne Percaz, the voluble brunette who works at a Pamplona gym with Saralegi and who is serving as my translator. (Saralegi, who suffers interviews warily and whose Spanish has an elementary-school flavor, is happiest conversing in Euskara, the k-, x-, and z-riddled tongue spoken by one-fourth of the 2.5 million Basques.) His surprisingly gentle hand envelops my biceps; next to his 290-pound Clydesdale frame I feel like Ichabod Crane. "Fifty kilos," he says in Spanish, "but tell him 70 to make him happy.

"I'm sorry," he adds pityingly, "but we are just stronger. It's the race." The Basques believe they are Europe's oldest people, having inhabited the land straddling the Pyrenees since at least 4000 b.c. They have the world's highest percentage of Rh-negative blood and claim to be bigger and stronger and braver than any arriviste Aryans, Franks, and Normans, claim to be the world's toughest soldiers ù claim, in fact, to have landed in America before Columbus. "We do our tasks," Saralegi says. "We have a history with the stones. An Italian man with the same muscles can't pick up our stones ù because he has no reason to."

And with that Saralegi picks up his stones, slides them onto a handcart, and dollies them up wooden planks into the back of his beat-up Peugeot van. Then the world's greatest stone lifter takes a push broom and sweeps up the woodcutter's sawdust, working steadily with workmanlike strokes until everything is tidy, until the job is done.

The streets of this Pamplona neighborhood are full of Basques who are sweaty and cheerful and rather drunk on kalimotxo, their dignifying name for red wine mixed with Coca-Cola. I am equally sweaty and cheerful, and just possibly more drunk. A spontaneous festival has broken out here in Milagrosa: Teenagers thread in and out on stilts; dancers click fingers and shake leg bells as they sing "Azuri Beltza"; children parade in pointed hats crowned with feathers, wearing twin cowbells attached to the backs of their wool doublets. When they hop in unison the streets ring. A man inside a mechanical bull's body that shoots out sparks chases the children about in a cloud of smoke and happy screams.

At midnight we pause for dinner at the Sorgintze bar. We've already hit the Sorgintze four times, acquiring new friends with each pass. I am surrounded by grinning Saralegi supporters gobbling up trenchers of greasy cod and toothsome asparagus. Meanwhile Saralegi, preparing for the record attempt in two days, has already been asleep for three hours at his mother's house in nearby Leitza. In his home village Saralegi can ramble with the dogs and feed the cows and never answer the phone. He can dream tidy dreams. If he raises the stone, he will reward himself only with a gigantic ham sandwich.

"Migueltxo is a champion, a monster," says Josu, shaking his head at such self-denial. "But all Basques can lift 100 kilos ù how much can you lift?"

"One hundred kilos at least," I say, made rash by kalimotxo.

"I can lift 150 kilos," says Zube. I am astonished: Zube works at the Volkswagen factory, but he is as soft and mild as a tub of sweet butter. "But just now I have a bad back," he admits, having caught my eye.

"Men are always boasting about these sports because they have nothing to do, really," Percaz whispers to me before addressing the table: "Women are the kings of the Basque household, and men are the kings of nothing." All the men groan and roll their eyes.

About 2 a.m. the kings of nothing lead us down the street to an outdoor concert for Basque independence. The black eagle of freedom flutters on yellow pennants, and the square is thronged with jarrai, the radical young separatists who last year rampaged through the city of Bilbao, burning banks and buses. The women have brightly hennaed hair, the men a punk look: shaved heads with rattails, piratical earrings, and Che and Amnistía! T-shirts.

The peerless Perurena

Some 500 of the older colleagues of the jarrai, the Marxist-Leninist Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, are in prison. A terrorist group whose name means "Basque Homeland and Liberty," the ETA has killed more than 800 people since it was founded in 1959 to battle Franco, who seemed intent upon genocidal revenge for the Basques' having opposed him in the Spanish Civil War. First Franco's German allies bombed defenseless Guernica in 1937; later Franco exiled 200,000 Basques, put 100,000 in prison, and outlawed the Basque language.

But when I ask about the ETA, everyone frowns. Their extremism is out of favor now that their pressure has led to limited self-determination: Today the Basques have their own schools, television, and police force. Zube gestures to the crowd, as if to say that tonight everyone just wants to drink and throb around. "That is the stereotype Americans have," says Percaz, "that we all shoot people. And your other stupidity is about running the bulls at San Fermin."

Pamplona's eight-day Fiesta de San Fermin, beginning every July 6, was first made traveler's legend by Ernest Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises. Hemingway described an unlucky runner being gored to death, and nearly every year nowadays, as the men flee the rampaging bulls in the daily race through the streets, a drunk American stumbles, forgets to hurl his rolled-up newspaper aside ù bulls charge at movement ù and gets himself ripped a new one.

Handing me another scarlet drink, Percaz explains that for the Basques, this chase down slick flagstones is a way to triumph over death, to feel life coursing through your veins. "You have to grow up watching it to truly understand. That man trains all year long to run the bulls," she says, pointing to a slight, potbellied gentleman, whose training protocol seems to be chugging patxaran liqueur until it dribbles down his chin.

"I could run the bulls as well as that guy," I say. "And next year I will." This is the kalimotxo working its ruination, yet my brainstorm seems fiendishly plausible. I will run every morning of the fiesta, hoping to survive till the somewhat easier encierro, the encierro de la villavesa: All the bulls are dead, so the proud warriors lope in front of a bus.

"You can't run the bulls," Percaz says, tossing her hair. "Not really."

"Anyone can run," I say.

"You don't understand anything," she says. "Nothing. And tell me this while we are speaking of Americans who have no good ideas in their head: Why don't you have topless bathing?"

I mumble something about our Puritan forebears. "Here I can kiss my friends on the lips in public," she interrupts.

"But not with the tongue," I counter.

"Yes," she says. "Sure, why not? You are 150 years behind us sexually."

"Maybe in public," I say, hazily trying to mount a defense of American debauchery. "But in private we are tremendous bedroom athletes."

"No," Percaz says decidedly. "No, I have been to America."

The next afternoon we drive to Lumbier for a village sports festival. Beside the road an occasional red-tile-roofed village shoots up from the swaths of green wheat and then is gone. They are somehow dustier and more insular than other Spanish villages, and more helter-skelter than French Basque villages. Poplars line the river course and hills crowd in, unsettling the eye like a bunched-up quilt on an unmade bed.

In Lumbier we are nearly bowled over by a parade of 15-foot-high papier-m‚ch‰ "giants," including Ferdinand and Isabella. We follow a huge, sad Don Quixote through the stone alleys to the square. (Quixote was far too inept to be a Basque, but he makes a splendid costume.) Every Basque town has an annual festival, seizing any reason to party: honoring the Virgin Mary, celebrating fishwives, or simply seeing who can pull the head off of a greased goose. Lumbier's festival, for instance, is to celebrate expatriates from the Navarra province, none of whom seem to be here.

Nartxi lumbers in Lumbier

Yet in the square the presentation of rural sports has attracted perhaps 500 people. First is the sokatira, the tug of war, which the Basques claim to have invented. Then comes the aizkolaris, in which two men race to chop through a succession of wide beech logs, teetering atop them with their axes flashing in the hot sun.

Then a special exhibition: Nartxi Saralegi, Migueltxo's 37-year-old brother, places his six-year-old son, Ruben, atop a small log and hands him a George-Washington-and-the-cherry-tree-size ax. Nartxi points to a spot on the log, and the boy makes the first cut. Nartxi touches another spot, lower down. And so it continues for hundreds of tiny blows, including one that narrowly misses Ruben's toes as he slips off the log. When the beech finally splits, the applause is warm and generous.

Finally the announcer introduces I±aki Perurena, a butcher from the Saralegis' home village of Leitza and a legendary stone lifter: He raised the single-lift record from 250 kilos all the way to 318 and still holds records for lifting 267 kilos with one hand and for revolving the 100-kilo stone around his neck 36 times in a minute. Perurena is 40 now, his gingery hair and beard thinning. He is a little chubby, perhaps, and his brow shines with sweat. But he takes the microphone eagerly: "Friends, thanks for gathering to see our countrymen's work made sport. I am happy to see so many of you here, because it means we will never lose the traditions. And it is our traditions, special to us alone, that make us who we are." He stretches his hands to the sky, pauses dramatically, and then runs to the 200-kilo stone with the quick steps of a lover.

As he lifts it four times to gathering applause, I talk with Nartxi Saralegi, who holds his son tenderly but looks a trifle grim. The Basques love Perurena's gusto and still consider him the sport's eminence, though Migueltxo topped his single-lift record four years ago and has raised it six times since. "Perurena is a showman," Nartxi says, "grabbing the microphone though there is already an announcer. I only wish they were the same age, just once, so everyone would see that Migueltxo is better. Still," he acknowledges, "Migueltxo would never be able to make that speech." Migueltxo is like Ferdinand the Bull, possessing none of the I'm-the-man braggadocio required to cross over from athlete to cultural (and advertising) phenomenon. "I try and try to get him to talk, to gesture to the crowd," Nartxi says, "but I cannot even get him to tell me about his feelings."

Ten years ago Nartxi, a Navarra champion in woodcutting but never world-class, saw his youngest brother's career languishing in Leitza. Migueltxo's only training was lifting the stone, as it had been since age 11, when he spied a 65-kilo stone around the house and found it "a temptation." At 18 he was stuck on the 280-kilo stone. So Nartxi installed Migueltxo in his house in Pamplona, had his wife cook him special fat- and sugar-free lunches and dinners, and built him a training area in his garage, where he would lift stones regularly with Nartxi when he wasn't lifting weights with his trainer. Nartxi became almost a father to Migueltxo, even more so since their father died last year.

"I control everything," Nartxi says simply. "I am sharper, more open-minded, and I have more concentration ù many times I have made Migueltxo lift when he is not feeling like it." Nartxi's frustration is evident: To make ends meet, both men must work at the Gymnasio Jolaskide, Migueltxo as a fitness trainer, Nartxi as a receptionist. Nartxi believes he could go much farther in the sport, for he has the mind and passion of a great lifter ù but it is Migueltxo who has the body.

Ah, but you are weaker:
the champ

That body has been reinforced like a missile silo. I later ask Saralegi's trainer, a slim, bullet-headed man named Jose Luis Tovias, what I would need to do to become a stone lifter. He laughed for a while. "Go to Lourdes," he said at last, ashing a cigarette. "Seriously? Well, first get your weight up to 130 kilos," he suggested, plumping me up 50 kilos, "but by eating only proteins. No hamburgers, no lamb. No alcohol. Then the basic exercise is the squat, because the most important muscles are the quadriceps and the back. Migueltxo does 500 kilos" ù 1,100 pounds ù "five times in a row." Saralegi also bench-presses 450 pounds and curls 200 pounds. Eight years ago he totaled his car but emerged unscathed. The doctor told him, "Your body was ready for a big shock."

"Migueltxo doesn't have the quick strength in the wrists and the knees to be an Olympic weight lifter," Tovias said. "He has a slower force. But it's mentally more difficult. He has time to think between the three movements, time to feel his body falling apart." Saralegi knows he has only a few more years to make records and hopes to reach at least 330 kilos before his knees give way.

Here in Lumbier comes the hope of the future: Perurena's 13 year-old son, Inaxio, will lift a 90-kilo stone four times. His father hovers nervously as Inaxio makes the sign of the cross and tips the stone back on shaky, coltish legs. Perurena can't resist helping a little on the final lift, so the referee requests a relift. Inaxio staggers under the weight but ultimately raises it, to sustained cheering. Then Perurena lifts 250 kilos four times, huffing and clutching his lower back in between reps so that the audience bends and jerks with him in silent unison, willing the stone up. After the last hoist he spreads his arms in happy exhaustion. "I want to be like my father," Inaxio tells me, his face reverent.

Perurena then comes over to talk, crowding me cheerfully with his elbows and stalking the conversation like a boxer, his blue singlet soaked with sweat: "We are not force men only ù we have feelings," he says. "The stone gives me everything. The view of my life always has the stone in the middle of it." He folds Inaxio in a sideways hug. "When he was three I let him start touching the stones-and it's important that he's listening to this interview. It's not just the lifting; it's the life. Lifting and teaching Inaxio to lift are different pages of the same book."

And Saralegi, I ask? "We are very different," he says. "My son should learn from Migueltxo how to train, which I never did so much. But Migueltxo's focus is to hold the record stone ù that is his only goal, his only interest in this task of ours. For me, I will do this the rest of my life. Even when I have no hair, when I am as bald as the stone, I will be lifting with pride in my job. And the people will come see me to encourage, and to relish the effort."

Migueltxo Saralegi eyes La Gorda nervously, as if his mistress had picked a fight. Two days ago he added a kilo to it and spray-painted the new number in red: "327 K." He also lifted it in practice. But now he stands on a small platform in the Salburua fields outside Vitoria at 5:30 on a hot, still Sunday afternoon with several thousand people watching. It is a strange, jerry-built venue, removed from the rest of the festival happenings. Basque television broadcasts all of Saralegi's record attempts, so the stage bustles with cameras and technicians and is further checkered by five sponsors' banners, including Volkswagen and Kaiku Milk. For the record attempt he'll be paid about $12,000 ù enough to buy a new van.

Saralegi rosins the stone's edges as if he were dusting it with diamonds. Incongruous trikitixa, Basque accordion ditties, play on the loudspeakers. "We have to be very quiet for the moment of the great deed," the emcee bellows, "quiet like we are in church." Saralegi grimaces ù all that silent expectation only increases the pressure. His best friend, a plumber named Ibon, towels Saralegi's red, sweating face.

Nartxi fixes his brother with his fierce green eyes. "You are going to do it," he commands. Migueltxo scuffs at the floor with his special red and white shoes, and Nartxi, who misses nothing, insists, "The floor is not as bad as we thought ù you are 100 percent!" In fact the stage is much too bouncy, and its planks are dangerously far apart. After Nartxi checked out the footing yesterday he told Ibon privately, "Migueltxo won't do it."

"It is too hot, and the floor is very bad," the TV announcer intones, and Nartxi whips around, glaring. But Migueltxo's concentration is such that he hears none of this. He turns to stare out the back of the stage into an empty green field, taking huge breaths that echo through the microphone. Two black eagles rise above the field, circling on the convection currents. He mimes the lift to himself, picturing where the stone will touch his body. Beside him Nartxi shadows the movements in tandem, leaning in as if to merge his strength with his brother's.

Then Saralegi turns and begins. He hoicks the weight to his thighs, his eyelids closing over with the effort. The huge stone seems to be squeezing him. After a steadying pause, he jumps back and pulls it to his chest. This is the lift's crucial maneuver ù akin to balancing a plate on a stick with your nose and jumping back to steady it, only the plate is top-heavy and weighs 719 pounds. But Saralegi's heel catches in a crack and his body shivers sideways. Nartxi, miming alongside, has his notional stone shoulder-high, but Migueltxo's stone hovers just out of control in midair. Ibon and Nartxi leap forward, but Migueltxo has already thumped the stone onto the tuffet.

The applause is generous and encouraging, and he gives a scrunchy-faced wave. But he stares angrily at the stone, measuring its edges with his hands. As Ibon wipes his face again, he murmurs, "The floor is a whore." Only once has he nabbed a record on the second try ù the first effort saps 20 percent of his energy ù but Nartxi doggedly psyches him up: "Breathe, breathe!" Migueltxo braces and heaves, but the stone makes it only halfway off his thighs. He waves again but looks crestfallen.

Nartxi tries to spin the failure. "In a way it's good," he says afterward, "because the people need to see that this is not easy to do, that he requires good conditions." Meanwhile, a Viscayan stone lifter named Zelia is metronomically hoisting a 150-kilo stone, aiming at his own record of 52 lifts in ten minutes. Zelia has asthma, and by the time he has broken the record with 56 lifts he is utterly out of air and topples sideways into his handlers' arms. The crowd loves it, the drama as much as the record.

But Migueltxo, who hasn't much use for Zelia, remarks that "that record is easier, because the man can always lift the stone. In my record, sometimes the winner is the man, sometimes the stone." Rendered smaller and more loquacious by defeat, he now sits readily for an interview with Diario de Navarra. "The first problem is that the stone was very heavy," he explains ù a funny line, were his intent not so methodical.

Almost drowning out Migueltxo's plain talk are the hugely amplified announcements of Tom Knapp, an American trapshooter in the neighboring field. Knapp throws two clay targets into the air, shoots one, ejects the cartridge, shoots it, and then shoots the other target. His buttery voice rides over the cheering, announcing "A muy rßpidas Berelli! And so easy-loading!" It becomes clear that the exhibition is purely an ad for the Berelli rifle. Knapp mentions Berelli 30 times in a minute ù "It's like having two Berellis in one ù a semiautomatic Berelli and a pump Berelli!" ù as he blows balloons and vegetables to smithereens.

Nartxi listens to all this odious persuasion ù "I have a new product from Berelli for the ladies of the house only!" ù with surprising care, sifting, within his manager's role, for promotional tips. "If Migueltxo were an American it would be the best," he says at last. "He would understand..." He gestures delphically, a glyph of love and frustration. "He would understand that part of the job is to sell himself." But Migueltxo pays it no mind at all, only rolling his eyes and waving good-bye as he's ushered off for his urine test.

Photographs by Dan Burn-Forti

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