What a course, what ambiance, what a tough run! I finally got to run this mythic race after having to drop out before the start last year due to a nasty accident a week before.
Ayaho had already completed the course last year in what was her first ever running race (5 hrs 55mins, good on her) so she’d been giving me lots of insider info. In a nutshell, “It’s steep, so steep… And so looooonngg! Oh, and hard too…” You get the drift. 31 km with 2200m to climb and around 800m to descend certainly makes for a tough workout. My winter training buddy, an amazing trail runner, had cramped up badly around ⅔ round the course last year and limped to the line in a still very respectable time. My other partner in crime, the amazing Billy Burns, won the race back in 2000, but there was no way I’d get anywhere near his performance, that’s for sure. I lack the extra pair of lungs he tucks away inside his rib-cage.
I was worried about my knee at the start: typically it had been fine going uphill, but the extra force on the knee during downhill stretches had been painful only 3 days earlier. Ayaho showed me how to use kinesio tape, and I was delighted to discover that it did exactly what it says on the tin. Magic.
At the start so many people sprinted off, despite the incline. I was surprised they went so hard from the off in what is a long race, but there’s a good reason for this tactic: when 1500 runners funnel from the road onto a single-track trail, there’s a major traffic jam, and if you’re not near the front, well, you’re going to lose a lot of time. Which is what I did. Oh well, it was nice to get my breath back and to not overdo it early on. Once on the track it’s exactly as Ayaho had said: steep and long – and hard! Onwards and upwards through the forest, with quite a lot of mud after such a wet summer. It’s very hard to overtake on the trail, which leads to people taking shortcuts at hairpin bends, and generally scrambling over rocks and undergrowth in order to pass. All of which eats into energy reserves.
At the first feed station I was on schedule so had a very quick drink, and then forged on, past the wonderful locals out encouraging us, playing accordions and ringing cowbells. Up went the path relentlessly until finally I arrived in the clearing just before Ponchette (1870m), greeted by the sun peeking out behind the clouds and a glorious view across the other side of the valley. It was time to take on liquid and solids at Ponchette, and then onto the rolling track and road taking us to Chandolin. Here it flattens off and there are long stretches that are runnable (rather than the crawlable steeps of the early part of the course), but it’s tough getting back into run mode. I settled into a bearable rhythm, taking it easy on the downhill stretches to make it easy on the knee, and was delighted to get to Chandolin slap bang in the middle of my scheduled time. Not bad going, but could I keep it up?
The field had started to thin out now, but there were far more spectators cheering us on, a major bonus. Cowbells galore rang in our ears, and the cries of “allez, allez, hup, hup, hup” resonated along the trail. So many people turn out to support the runners, it’s incredible.
The views started to open out above the tree line, bringing home just why this is such a mythic course. It’s also known as the race of the five 4000m because when the skies are clear you get amazing views of five of the Swiss 4000m+ peaks: the race is breathtaking in many ways.
As we neared Hotel Weisshorn I realised I’d started to overtake people. They seemed to be tiring, whereas my diesel engine was starting to kick in. Monitoring my time I realised I was likely to be ahead of schedule by Hotel Weisshorn, the second highest point in the course, and sure enough when I got there I was around 8 minutes ahead of where I’d hoped to be. Wow. So time for a very quick drink and to take in a gel to keep me fuelled for the last third of the course. “Now let’s get the show on the road,” I though to myself as I forged on towards Nava.
Up here the going can be quite technical (read rocky, uneven, not easy to run on and far too easy to fall on). Added to which after all the rain there were long boggy sections where we had to squelch through mud. Fun! I had little idea of how long the long descent from Nava would take me, but I figured I’d be close to the 4 hour mark by the finish, which was very motivating. Full steam ahead!
Onwards and downwards, I could see the long trail stretching out long the contours way in front of me, Zinal a distant microscopic hamlet way, way down below. I love this sort of trail, one where you’re on a balcony surrounded by stunning scenery AND that’s got a slight downhill pitch to it so you can start to motor. So memorable, really an amazing trail. I steamed past lines of tiring runners, had fun in the technical sections and before long could see Zinal much closer – but still way below. Just before the last feeding station I got stuck behind 2 people on the narrow trail but figured it was best to wait till the trail widened out at the feeding station to overtake. Another guy came up behind me, breathing down my neck, way too close. Seconds later I heard a cry as he tripped over a rock in the path and tumbled down the steep slope! Idiot, he was running way too close and couldn’t see the ground in front of him. Thankfully he was ok, but quite cut up from the rocks.
Zinal’s rooftops were coming into view, but were still way down below. “Wow, it’s got to be a very steep descent at the bottom,” I reflected, and then before long found myself on it: steep soft earth with tree roots all over the place, trip hazards galore. Then onto a steep grassy slope which some were absolutely tanking down. A girl I’d overtaken about 5 mins earlier came flying past – and I was going fast, I have no idea how she managed to descend so quickly and stay upright. Fabulous. Flying past other runners, leaving a bit of leeway to one size while squeezing past whenever possible, then into the first of the crowds and… another uphill! Agh, no, **please** no more uphill now! Then through the tunnel and onto the tarmac for the last few hundred metres to the finish line. Ayaho was cheering, the crowd was cheering, what a great reception. One last dash for the line and I’d done it: 4 hours 2 mins 37 secs, not bad for a first try, and the longest ever race I’ve run. I’d had 3 weeks of bronchitis which cleared up 8 days before the start, followed by a niggle in my left knee when I got back to training, not exactly the ideal preparation, but on the day everything came together to create a wonderful experience.
Ayaho had taken 13 mins off last year’s time (she’d started at 05:00, while my start was at 09:30) so was very pleased, and less tired than last year I think. We met up with local friends for the post-race meal and had fun soaking up the ambiance (there was a wonderful alpen horn band playing hauntingly beautiful music) and the sun whilst sharing tales from the trail. What a day it had been. Sierra-Zinal, we’ll be back!