Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Conquering the Matterhorn Ultraks 46k in Zermatt, Switzerland

There is a stillness to Zermatt, Switzerland, that honors the majestic mountains cradling this historic town. You can feel it from the moment you step off the train and stroll up the auto-less streets filled with alpine enthusiasts from around the world, sipping their viesse beers and coffee while basking in the glow of the ever-present Matterhorn. The serenity is magical, and deserving of pilgrimage. It’s a perfect stage for the inaugural Matterhorn Ultraks 46k, a monster of a race that has attracted 800+ trail runners to run on the edge of the Alps and celebrate Swiss-style. A perfect European bookend to last weeks Pikes Peak Marathon - I couldn’t be more excited!
(Zermatt fills with trail runners for the Ultraks)
(No cars in Zermatt...just horses and golf carts)
(Summer is beautiful here!)
When I say Ultraks is “a monster of a race”, I am not exaggerating (for once). The course climbs over 13,000 feet in ~29 miles, alternating between runnable single track, shale-lined ridges at 9,000 feet, and technical climbs/descents that leave your legs shaking like a newborn foal. It’s nearly double the vert of the Pikes Peak Marathon I did six days ago, and anytime you start calling Pikes Peak a “warm up race”, you know you are in rarified air. I ran the last 2k of the course backwards upon arriving to get an idea of what we were in for, only to ascend 1,300 feet in the first mile. Yeah, this one is a biggie. For those not wanting to go the whole way, there were options for a 16k, 31k, and free kids race (93 entries!).

(A course worthy of the Matterhorn)
Ultraks is also a Skyrunning Series race, and as such, Team inov-8 had a few top notch runners toeing the line. Eirik Haugsnes from Norway, Florian Riechert from Germany, and Anna Lupton from the UK would be taking on some of the top names in Skyrunning, including Kilian Jornet, Emelie Forsberg, Silvia Serafini, Luis Alberto Hernando Alzaga (2nd to Kilian at two races this year), Cameron Clayton (also doing the Pikes/Ultrak double), and more. Kilian was the favorite, having just set a Matterhorn Ascent record in Italy three days previous (town square to peak and back in 2 hrs, 52 min…how nuts is that? Great interview about it here). The weather was ideal, short of the rain clouds expected around 2pm that anchored my goal of finishing in 6-7 hours.

At the 7am start, I had a chance to say hi to San Francisco-based Matthew Laye (who was ready to rock this course, poles and all), Meghan Arboghast (tackling the 16k in prep for UTMB next week), Martin Cox (one of the fastest mountain runners around, doing the 31k), photographer/journalist extraordinaire Ian Corless, and our team supporters Natalie White and David James who would be out on the course for morale and a few fun miles. I hopped the fence to get in the corral, and karmically paid for my rudeness when my camera quietly fell out of my pocket (it was later found). It was going to be an iPhone run today! Whoops.
(Catching up with Kilian before the race)
(We're ready to roll!)
As the church bells rang out at 7am, a tight-knit group of fifty ran through the town and headed up to the first trail (mile 1). Cameron Clayton, fresh off his 5th place at Pikes Peak, set the pace with a pack of Salomon jerseys on the first set of switchbacks, which soon mellowed out into some runnable single track along the ridge. I paced behind Anna Lupton, who surged up the ridge to the first aid station (Sunnegga, mile 3) just as the sun brought the Matterhorn into view. Outstanding! The Matterhorn does resemble the image on a box of Toblerone chocolate or the Disneyland rollercoaster (sans blue yeti...at least so far), but as its visage grew more ominous with every step, I was pleased my frame of reference was now acclimated to the proper magnitude. This is the most photographed mountain in the world for a reason – it is simply breathtaking when viewed in person. Speaking of breathtaking, next up was Gornergrat, the big climb of the day to 10,000+ feet, and everyone pounded liquids and snacks to prepare.
(The sun lights up the Matterhorn)
(Yeah,,,not quite as majestic)

(Let's climb!)
(Anna Lupton leads us through a rocky section)
The climb was a beast, and I couldn’t help but lose about 20 places to the hiking-pole-savvy European runners blazing trail left and right (most of them view the actual trail as a “suggested route”, which is allowed). The view at the top was incredible, and we could count 29 of the 45 big Swiss mountains on the crystal clear horizon, as well as a huge permanent ice glacier. Amazing! As a side bonus, I was having no trouble with the altitude and cruising along nicely. I guess once you shock the lungs at 14,000’ in Colorado, acclimation comes quick!

(Poles were a definite advantage)

(Most of the trails were quite runnable...if you want to run the trails)

(Trail runners make their way up Gornergrat)
(Seriously steep at the end)
(On the ridge...we're getting there!)
(The trail at 10,000 ft)
(Single track to heaven)
I struggled a bit with the technical descents, per usual, slowing for the more steep and sharp sections that are foreign to my California-spoiled form. The inov-8 Trailroc 255’s were holding well, but I lost about 30 places inching down what others would leap before letting a few runners be my mountain guides. We had to stop briefly for some local sheep that were blocking the trail, until one pole-wielding runner started smacking butts and clearing a path. Thank you, farmer Christophe!

(Ummmm....on your right?)
(Kilian cruises under the Matterhorn, photo courtesy of Ian Corless)
(Emelie Forsberg having fun, photo courtesy of Ian Corless)
As we finished up the descent and tackled the short climb from Riffelamp, my legs groaned when I passed the 20k mark. 20k? We’re not even halfway done?!? I was already three hours in, so despite this race only being 4k longer than a marathon, it was an ultramarathon in every sense of the word. The terrain kept my thoughts present as we zig-zagged down to the river, ran along the waterfall, then crossed a suspension footbridge towards the edge of town. Never a dull moment!

(Never get tired of these views!)
(Across the suspension bridge...don't look down!
(Grunting up the Schwarzee)
(Looking back at the river valley we ran down)
The locals were out in force as the base of Schwarzee (mile 14), and we began our hands-on-quads power hike up the second big climb of the day. The sweat ran off my nose in the hot switchbacks, but within a mile of climbing, I had my rain jacket on for warmth as the cool mountain wind started to bring that promised rain storm. I refueled at the top (mile 17), and took delight in plunging down the nicely graded backside alongside the mountain bikes. I could spot Matthew Laye and my friend Nico up ahead and hustled down to have some company for the next big climb.
(The Shwarzee keeps on rollin')
(Right up to the shoulder of the Matterhorn)
(And here comes the descent!)
As the trail switched to single track near the bottom, my gazing got the best of me and I caught a toe and went careening head first into the rocky trail. There was an “uh, oh” moment as I realized it was going to be either taking rocks to the torso or head off the cliff and hope it works out. My subconscious decision to hug a rock (instead of fall off the mountain) brought the unforgiving stone into my rib cage with enough impact to knock the wind out of me, and I was soon flopping around like a fish out of water gasping for air. Two fellow runners were nice enough to pull me back onto the trail and on my feet, and after a few minutes, I caught my breath and began walking down the trail again. Self-analysis report - ribs hurt when taking deep breaths or twisting (bruised?), rain jacket is now torn off my torso, shoulder and hips scraped up, but everything is still working. I got up to a jog, but noticed that any stumble would seize my breath, so I took it easy and thanked my ribs for doing exactly what they are supposed to do. It could have been much worse if I had fallen off the Matterhorn! I popped a couple of Aleve and kept on trucking’.
(Heading up the last big climb of the day)
Dave James was at the creek at the bottom of the climb, and gave me a high five as I started up the last climb of the day (mile 19). He said Eirik was in 5th and Anna was in 3rd…outstanding! Kilian had pulled ahead with two others to lead the race, while Emile Forsberg had a solid 15-minute lead in the Women’s race. It was hard to imagine they were already over an hour ahead of me, but that’s how fast these guys move!

(Another great shot from Ian Corless)
The last climb was larger than I recalled from the map (but then again, aren’t all last climbs?) and full of Swiss, German, and Japanese tourists taking in the sites of the Matterhorn and some nearby waterfalls. I sensed a deep cultural appreciation for the mountains among all these smiling faces, and they were happy to step aside and give out a “Hop! Hop! Hop!” or “Allez! Allez!” as we went by. The clouds were coming in faster now, cooling off what would have been a hot day on the ridge.

(Up on the last ridge)
At mile 21, we hit the top of the climb and onto some delicious single track stretched along the “hunters route” on the ridge with Zermatt just a row of toy houses on our right. Such a beautiful stretch, yet it felt so remote…this course really has it all. The trail was smooth enough I could shuffle along at a 9 min/mile pace, and much to my surprise, I began passing a few slower runners as they hit the 5 ½ hour mark and got that "ultra reality check". We hit one last aid station at the Hotel Trift (mile 24), a little chalet nestled in a protected valley that certainly had the friendliest dogs on the course. With a few licks and cups of Coke, I power hiked the last little climb with my abbreviated steps.

(The Hotel Trift tucked into the mountains)
(Zermatt comes into view...we can hear the cheering!)
(Some steep stuff to finish)
I could see the church tower next to the finish line, but given that it was the size of my fingernail, we still had quite a descent ahead of us. We plummeted 3,500’ vertical in the next three miles, and my quads swore they would never forgive me. But then they heard the cheering crowds lining the square, and eased up to cruise in in for 76th place in 7:02:34. (all results) My ribs and shoulder were still hurting, but the slower pace meant my legs felt better than expected. I took a seat next to a couple of French runners, who handed me a beer and began seducing me into other French ultras for next year, just as the first few raindrops fell. What a day we had! And we’re already planning the next one.
(Eirik Haugnes sprints in for 9th, photo courtesy of Ian Corless))
Kilian Jornet had won the race in 4:43:05, with Luis Alberto Hernando Alzaga (4:44:47) and Nicola Gollinelli (4:45:57) coming in soon afterwards, all of them well exceeding the expected 5:15 winning time. Swiss runners, Marc Lauenstein (Sierre-Zinal winner) and Ultraks ambassador Martin Anthamatten were fourth and fifth respectively. Emilie Forsberg (5:41:16) handily won the Women’s division, with Silvia Serafini (5:44:37) having a strong second half to claim second, and Nuria Dominguez Azpeleta (5:59:19) passing Anna Lupton in the final mile for third. Eirick (5:03:15) had held on for 9th after running out of gas in the final climb, while Anna Lupton (6:01:59) held on for 4th, and Florian had completely imploded but hung tough to finish just a few minutes ahead of me. Not bad, team! We're now 4th in the Skyrunning team competition with one race left in the Series!
We got ourselves cleaned up (and my ribs taped up) and took over the lobby of the Zermattenhof Hotel for beers and snacks as the rain fell heavily on the final finishers. Eirik was so impressed with all the runners still coming in, citing how difficult that last descent would be in the mud, saying “I don’t know how they do it for so long…they are incredible”. What a great sport we have where the first ten finishers can look at the last ten finishers with such honest admiration! My bruised ribs and bloody shoulder were nothing compared to the facial lacerations and swollen ankles around the table, yet everyone had found their way to the finish line. Runners and spectators alike agreed this had been one of the more challenging Skyrunning races, but also one of the most beautiful. Given how many pictures and memories I had, it was miraculous I only fell once!

(Great memories, great course!)
My grand Skyrunning experiment now concluded (three races, a whopping zero points...but some incredible memories!), I embraced the full post-day I had to relax. Although my injuries limited my options, I found great solace in relaxing in the sun with a rosti (hash browns with cheese and bacon), taking a post-sauna nap in the solarium at the wonderful Parkhotel Beau Site, finding Swiss trinkets and Matterhorn-shaped chocolates for the girls, and completely overdosing on fondue and Alsatian wine for dinner. The Swiss certainly do have a great way of celebrating the mountains, and I would highly recommend the Matterhorn Ultraks to anyone wanting to taste it all.

(Yeah, this is a food ad...but it does look just like it!)
My thanks to the Race Directors, amazing volunteers, my fellow Team inov-8 runners, the trail angels who pulled me back on course, and all the adventurers who shared the day with sweat and smiles. You have opened a new window to my soul, and it will forever face the Matterhorn, inspiring my dreams with these glorious memories. I know I will see you again!


  1. Great write up Scott! It was fun reliving the day on Sunday. I hope your ribs heal up in time for IM. I'm excited to run the 46k next year!

  2. A fine story:) I was one of two others norwegians finishing the long 46 k. So give my regards to Eirik when you see him again! The race were great except for the 2 downhills in the end. I froze on the last one...i don't like hights.....
    But still - i just loved Ultraks 46 k :)

    Tim Bennett, president of KONDIS - an norwegian organization for endurance sports

  3. Beautiful pictures! You always make these hard races sound like so much fun. Even with broken ribs!

    Hope you are healing in time for IM Lake Tahoe!

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  5. Scott, Forgive a potential spoiler for your next post, but congrats on moving from your injuries here all.the.way. to the heating tent in Squaw. Well done, as always. Looking forward to your race recap!


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