Thursday, August 18, 2016

Touring the Swiss Alps at the 2016 Sierre-Zinal 31k

Last Sunday, I had the great pleasure of joining 3,500+ mountain athletes for the 43rd edition of the Sierre-Zinal 31k in Valais, Switzerland. This race is one of the European trail running "classics'', so I was thrilled to be able to steal away from a family vacation to tackle its ridiculous climbs, and join the cowbell-laden crowds to cheer on some of the worlds fastest mountain runners. I finished exhausted, inspired, and humbled...there's nothing quite like racing in the Alps!

(Course profile - lots of climbing up front!)
There were no big goals for this race, aside from getting some good pictures and sharing a beer or two with some new friends. I've learned when stuffing a race into a family vacation it's best to leave a small footprint on the family plans - get in and out in 24 hours, never use the race as an excuse to do (or not do) any family activity, and don't return from the race a crippled mess that falls asleep at the dinner table. If the cousins don't even notice you were gone, you pulled it off! I snuck out after lunch in the Jungfrau Valley on Saturday, jumping on one of the impeccable Swiss trains to head to Sierre.

(the Jungfrau Valley)
(Family hike!)
As soon as I stepped off the train, I noticed something very different - everyone was speaking French instead of the German tongue that was dominant in the northern Jungfrau area. It didn't change the generous Swiss hospitality, and I was soon adopted by a table of Swiss friends geared up for the race that insisted I try every wine from the Valais area. They let me know if I had gotten off one stop sooner, it would still be German, and a few stops more it would be Italian. How strange! Although now that I think about it, one rarely has to drive more than 20 miles to find a neighborhood that speaks Spanish over English here in California. Cultural geography always reigns.

(Does this sign translate to "be careful" or "it's okay to dance and sing down this trail"? Both apply in the Swiss Alps)
My new Swiss friends were long time law school buddies here to celebrate a 60th birthday by biking 100k to Sierre, enjoying wine and food in a five hour dinner, then hiking the Sierre-Zinal race the next morning. Hey, my kind of people! They were in the "tourist" section of the race, a group of 2,268 that would begin at 4-6am with the intent of hiking the course in 5-10 hours. I was in the "runner" section, one of 1,200 who would start at 9:45am, finishing in 2.5-5 hours. We would likely see each other on the course, where it is tradition for the tourists to step off the trail and cheer on the runners. Fun! We would all face ~7,400 feet of climbing, nearly all of which was in the initial five miles, so I'm sure there would be plenty of cheering in both directions.

(the "runners" are ready to go!)
Thanks to the late start time for runners, the mid-70's weather cooked the starting corral into a potage of un-deodored sweat. Among the many dialects were a familiar montage - target splits, training, which of the elites were favorites this year, and did you watch Mo Farah last night win gold in the 10k. Runners around me referred to the aid stations and their target splits with ease, and when they heard I was American, could list off the American athletes who had done well here over the years - "You know Joe Gray? Ricky Gates? Sub-2:40. Very fast. Could almost catch Kilian Jornet and Marco de Gaspari. Stevie Kremer won here, Megan Kimmel second last year, in 3 hours. You over 40 years old, my friend? You need to run 2:38 to catch Jonathan Wyatt. He owns the overall and Veterans course record. Now Kenyans here this year. We will see. But you must go fast, very fast." Many had done the Sierre-Zinal more than four times, and it was a permanent part of their club schedules. This race was clearly a big deal.

(And we're off! Kind of...)
(Up we go!)
As the gun went off, we quickly slowed to a crawl as all 1,200 runners threaded into the two-wide trail that went would climb 1,300 feet per mile for the next three miles. Phew! I was about half way in this crowd, already wishing I had lined up earlier. No problem though - everyone was super fit, and it didn't take long for the pack to move about as fast as I would have done anyway. Some of the grades were almost too steep to hike - I was glad I opted for the inov-8 X-Talon 212's and their soft rubber to grab everything possible. Before too long, the town of Sierre was blur down in the valley below us.
(Squeezing into the single track)
(No pushing please!)
(Some local tunes along the way!)
At Beauregard (4 km), I realized my sunscreen was slipping off my body in the hot sweat and asked if they had some extra. Nope. In fact, if it ain't water, hot tea, electrolyte drink, fruit, raisins, chocolate, or cheese, you're outta luck. But all those tasted pretty damn good.

(Starting to run again)
(Breaking out of the tree line to incredible views)
We broke the tree line at Ponchette (12 km), and the views were jaw-dropping. Long trails full of runners hugging the mountain line, with the snowy 4,000m+ peaks of the Weisshorn, Zinalrothorn, Obergabelhorn, Cervin, and Dent Blanche in the background. This IS AMAZING! Once past the climbing, I started clocking 7-min miles along the flatter sections, passing dozens of runners. Slow on the climbs, fast on the American in the Alps!

(Another stoked runner)
(Heading to an aid station)
(Fast running on the flats)
(Euro runners flying by me on the downhill...a regular sight)
By Tignousa (16km), the heat and technical footing was taking its toll on many and slowing half the runners to a hike. Although we had gotten through the big climbs, there were still plenty of sections of hands-on-knees climbs over the granite stones. One guy passed out in front of me, face into the dirt, and had a half dozen runners at his side within seconds. Whoa...let's be sure to keep those fluids going!
(Load up!)
(Runners take over the ridge line)
(Amazing views!)
The crowds were super fun at Hotel Weisshorn (20km), complete with alpenhorns, music, and "tourist runners" enjoying picnics as we all went by. Such a great way to see a race! In fact, all the towns from here on were packed with locals cheering with all they had. It felt just like the Tour de France.
(Hotel Weisshorn)
(Climbs aren't over yet!)
(Mountains everywhere!)
(The descents get crazy at the end)
(Epic single track!)
(Heading into Zinal)
(And there's the finish!)
At Nava (25km), we hit the high elevation point of ~8,000' and begin a gradual descent that would become brutally steep in the last 2km. The European runners were impressive with their mountain skills, and I found myself getting passed by many as entered the final chute in Zinal. I finished in 4:12:51, just barely cracking the first 1/3 of finishers. The top finishers cleaned up with amazing times - Mamu Petro from Eritrea (2:32) and Michelle Maier from Germany (2:56) taking the top spots - it was hard to fathom how one could go that fast! (all results)

(Done and done!)
I shared a beer with fellow finishers, sharing our stories of triumphs and epic views, then skedaddled out to head back just in time for dinner. Aside from the sunburn and ear-to-ear grin, my family didn't suspect a thing. Only my soul and quads knew otherwise....

Cheers and bon cours to my fellow mountain athletes, and a big thank you to the race directors and volunteers for an amazing adventure! I highly recommend it if you can fit it in.



  1. Good to run with you! An amazing day and you pictures are great.

  2. looks like fun, I really need to get out and travel the world running all the amazing races. Oh wait I'll need to win the LOTTO first

    1. Yeah, I'm pretty lucky that way. My secret ingredient is frequent flyer miles from a lot of work travel, which I use for flights and hotels for races and travel. Makes those red eye flights to NYC a bit more easier to swallow.


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