Kersplat, over I went, sprawling out face first over a rather rough, rocky trail. “Oh dear,” I thought to myself, “is that the end of my race?” I quickly got up and assessed the damage, thankfully just a bloody knee and elbows, plus a bit of a winding, so with a quick “it’ll be reet” (that’s ‘it’ll be ok’ for folk who don’t speak Yorkshire) I was back on my way, with minimal time lost. Phew.
Five and a half hours earlier we’d started at Zermatt from in front of the church, in cool but dry conditions for the 46k race. As you can see from the profile, it’s not exactly flat – it’s one of the Sky Runner World Series races – but being a glutton for punishment I chose this as the first ever (bit over) marathon distance race I’d run. I’m not a great runner on the flat, or on smooth surfaces, but give me a mountain trail and I’m right up for it.
Frédéric and I had travelled up that morning for the 7.30 am start, so timing was tight getting to the start line. As usual, the loo queues were rather long, meaning I only just made it to the start line in time. Which also meant we were rather nearer the back of the crowd than I’d ideally have liked, but hey, as this was my first ever attempt at this distance I figured I’d take it easy in the first 3rd of the race anyway. It was a very fresh morning, and I’d opted for 2 layers and a headband as the forecast was for 0 degrees at the top of Gornergrat, with 45 km/h wind – rather cool. As it turned out I should have stuck with just one as I soon overheated, and half way up Gornergrat had to take a layer off.
Off went the gun, and we trotted out through the village and across the bridge. Zermatt always brings back so many fantastic memories as I’ve now started a lot of races here. As usual the start was special. The ambiance in the streets is always amazing, with so many people turning out to cheer us on. It’s hard to explain to people who’ve never competed, but there’s something very powerful about group spirit encouraging you on to achieve things you wouldn’t be able to do on your own.
The relative ease of the first kilometre or so on the road quickly ended as we started our way upwards on a narrow path. There were the usual bottlenecks and jams, and quickly I got into a comfortable rhythm, taking care not to overdo it at this early stage. Still a long, long way to go! Half way up Sunnegga the trail levels off and we started a long traverse in the forest, already with views of Zermatt way down below. Here it was possible to run at a decent pace, and I was surprised at how long the path continued on the level before once again rearing its head upwards. Coming out above the tree line there was quite a procession of runners, making it hard to overtake, but I wasn’t too worried about that at this stage.
At Sunnegga we got beautiful views of the snow-capped Matterhorn, plus a feed and the relative respite of the first descent. I grabbed a quick drink and a Mule bar – yum, one of my favourites – and ate it on the descent (a habit of mine from bicycle road races, I don’t like stopping much). By now people had started to spread out on the trail and there were some significant gaps, making it much easier to run faster. Down through the pretty mountain hamlets we went, across the stream at the valley bottom, and then the biggest climb of the day started: Gornergrat. It’s a long, and in places steep, climb, but the views make it well worth while. Coming up to a ridge and seeing the tip of the Matterhorn emerge, getting bigger and bigger as you go up, is quite incredible.
Before too long I could see the steep and rocky last stretch of the climb up ahead. There’s a long access track that’s fairly level before the last stretch, and it’s another opportunity to run properly (if you can summon the energy at this stage!) before the final crawl to the summit. I cajoled myself into a slow trot and made up a few places.
Coming over the top of the climb at Gornergrat is something that has to be experienced to be believed. For the previous 2 hrs 15 minutes I’d been climbing through forest, then the high pastures and finally rock debris, but all of a sudden as you come over the ridge the most amazing vista opens out in front of your nose: huge glaciers covered in fresh snow, sparkling white peaks way over 4000m high (Monte Rosa, Castor, Pollux etc) and the roar of the glacial outwash river way, way down below. Thankfully I’d been up here the previous weekend training, so had had time for photos: today, I breathed in the incredible environment and forged on.
The supporters at the summit were amazing, encouraging us up the last slope with cheers and smiles. It must have been cold for them too, whilst we runners were dripping with sweat and thankful for the cool breeze. Time to refill the water bottle with an energy mix, slug down a some water and Isostar, and then it was onto the descent. The first part is great fun, technical in places but also with longer sections where you can safely open the throttle, whilst enjoying views of the Matterhorn reflected in a lake. Then nearing Riffelalp things start to get interesting. It’s much steeper, rocky, and there are lots of places where you really wouldn’t want to fall. Well, I wouldn’t! There was another feed station at Riffelalp but I decided to just grab a quick cup of isostar as I didn’t need food (I’d been nibbling en route) and there was a drink station at Furi, at the foot of the next big climb.
After Riffelalp the trail follows the contours for a while, so it’s eminently run-able. Then (just when you thought you only had to descend) it heads up again, which was hard work after getting into a descending rhythm. The last part of the descent is very technical: tree roots, slippery rock, lots of coarse sandy gravel on what is a very steep track. By now there were people running the shorter 30k course on the same section of the trail, so it got busier. They were obviously fresher than us (46k runners) but overtaking on this section was very hazardous. I got stuck behind a guy who was running well, but just not quite fast enough and decided it was best to wait till the trail widened out lower down than risk injury. Here you’re on loose moraine material and large rocks, and you’d need to be a Kilian Jornet to easily overtake others.
The trail now brought us onto a very spectacular section of the course: the suspension bridge. It’s very high up, and once there are several people crossing it at the same time, it wobbles a lot! We’d been told no one was allowed to run on it, and it was a good job. I think if you did you’d stand a very good chance of a nasty accident.
Safely over the bridge and down to Furi, where to my horror, there was no drinks station! Agh! All the information said drinks at Furi, but no, there wasn’t a drop in sight. So I was faced with a very steep and long climb in the now baking sun with only a few mouthfuls of liquid left in my bottle. “Ah well, just get on with it,” I thought. I went through a bad patch going up to Schwarzee, though I guess everyone did as I actually clocked the 3rd fasted time for my Vets category. I didn’t know that at the time though, and had to grit my teeth to get to the point where the Matterhorn came back into view, this time much closer. I slotted in behind a lady who was climbing at a great pace for me, and we started making up places again. On chatting with her after the finish I found out that she’d won her category last year, and came 3rd this year!
It was with some relief that Schwarzee came into view: the last 200m of the climb had been a grind, and I was a little fearful for how the last major climb would go. The feed station at Schwarzee is the last for 11kms (including lots more climbing too), so I stocked up well. They had wonderful gooey bars, and I tucked away a few and put one in my back pack for later on. This was my longest stop in the race, and it took me a while to get going again on the descent. By this stage there were far fewer people on the course, which made the descent to Stafel easier. Previously I’d only been through Stafel at night in the winter, during the Patrouille des Glaciers, so it was incredible to see how different it is in the summer. Wow, we essentially climb up over what is a massive glacial outwash plain, with moraine debris strewn all over the place. Except in winter it’s covered with snow so you don’t really see any of it.
At Stafel there was a time limit (see the video for the relief of those who *just* made it, and the honourable acceptance of those who didn’t), but by now I had oodles in hand. At the back of my mind I wondered how Frédéric was doing. He’s an amazing mountain runner, and had started out slower than me, so I wondered whether I’d soon be seeing him again…!
Once over the glacial outwash stream the trail forked: 30k runners went straight back to Zermatt, and us 46k masochists had to turn away from Zermatt and once again head upwards in a major way. My bad patch seemed to be receding, and once again I started running along the more level sections, still taking it easy though as the trail goes back up to 2750m here. I slotted in behind another runner who was going at a nice pace, and decided to stay behind him, at least for the time being. The trail goes up and up and you really get the sense that you’re entering a new wilderness; a remote and less-visited area than the popular Gornergrat and Schwarzee areas. Half way up I started to think the guy in front was slowing down. Or was I going faster? Either way I was starting to feel pretty good, so I downed a gel, had a slug from my bottle and accelerated past him. And then others. And more. Hey, this was fun. My second wind was kicking in, the views were stupendous (right opposite the Matterhorn, with Gornergrat and Rothorn to its left), the trail was starting to level out: it was time to motor!
This is the sort of trail I love: high up on a balcony, stunning views, few people around and the feeling that you’re moving AND totally connected to the incredible environment. Now I couldn’t see anyone ahead, and those I’d passed were quite a way behind, so it was a glorious time to thoroughly enjoy just being up there. Which is when I tripped! My left toes must have hit a rock, and over I went. A moment’s lapse in concentration perhaps – I think I had just taken a drink – it’s so easily done in a long race like this. The good news was I was fine, so I took an ibuprofen tablet and forged on. Quite ironic that I should stumble on a FLAT section of the course, after all the super steep stuff we’d had to deal with!
The descent to Trift is steep, and before I knew it I was catching someone who must have hurt his ankle. I wished him ‘bon courage’ and headed on down to the feed station at the Refuge. “6km more to go,” said the wonderful volunteers as I downed one last cup of Isostar, and then it was onto the last climb of the day. Oh my goodness, it was a slog. I power hiked over it, using the poles as much as possible to keep me moving forwards, and then all of a sudden I could see the minute rooftops of Zermatt way down below.
Just as I started the descent, the sound of a ‘Cors des Alpes’ – an Alpenhorn group – wafted up from the village, as if luring and welcoming me back. I’ve always been a sucker for the sound of these instruments, particularly in the mountains, it’s so evocative, and it boosted my spirits no end. Onwards and downwards I went, letting the brakes off as much as I could, very motivated by being close to the 7 hour mark. If your legs aren’t totally shot by this stage it’s a hugely fun descent. I made the most of it, overtook a few more, and then found myself on the outskirts of Zermatt. There are a couple of small rises to get over, and now I willed myself to run over them and keep the momentum up. Into the town, back onto tarmac after 7 hours or so on the trail, and all of a sudden there in front of my eyes was a gorgeous Swiss beauty sunning herself in a bikini, shouting, “Allez Aleestaire, allez!” Which had me thinking, “Actually I think I’ll stop and come and have a chat…” and put a huge grin on my face.
Then all of a sudden, there it was, the last corner, the throngs of people cheering, and the final straight to the finish line. All of which helped me create one final turbo boost of speed. I’d finished in 7hrs 7mins 56 secs, which I was totally delighted with. And I was even more delighted when I got a text message from Ayaho telling me I’d got 3rd place! With 4 different races all finishing at the same place, and so many age categories too, it’s impossible to know how you’re doing till after the finish. Unless you’re Kilian of course… I’d been aiming for 8 hours, so it was very nice to be back down safely much earlier. It turned out I’d run the last sector the fastest in my category (a similar trend in Sierre-Zinal too), so it seems I’m getting better at going downhill these days 😉
What a course, what ambiance! The longest, hardest and best run I’ve ever done.
After the finish it was time to rehydrate, stretch and clean up the grazes – ouch. It was really good to then meet up with Adrienne Stecchi, the lady who’d unknowingly helped keep me going up to Schwarzee. What a wonderful fun person she is.
Frédéric and I met up and enjoyed a well-earned meal together, and after sharing our experiences of the race, despite our tiredness, already the talk was of ‘next time…’ Until next year, Matterhorn Ultraks!
In the meantime, huge thanks go to the amazing Billy Burns for constantly challenging and encouraging me, Eugene Venter for helping improve my technique, to my wonderful wife for all her support, and to Kenzo for already running as fast as dad in the mountains. Heaven help me in a year or two!