Have you ever heared of Sierre-Zinal before? That would be a shame but one thing is for sure – it is one of the most iconic races you can do as a mountain runner. If you look at who won the editions you will find that most of the finest runners will come back year after year to see who is the champion. It has also been called “the New York marathon of mountain running” which gives you a good idea of the status of this race.
This year the elite starting list included 80 runners from all over the world. There is a long tradition of Columbians making an appearance. But there were also runners from East Africa including Mamu and Toroitich, two of the biggest names in recent years of mountain running. Otherwise multiple world champions like Wyatt (2 wins and course record) or De Gasperi (3 wins) were not missing either.
It was always a goal of mine to do this race. But because there are always so many excellent runners at the starting line you might end up quickly outside of the top 30 if you are not in the best shape. Coming after a win at the K42 of the Swissalpine with a 34 minute lead I was probably a medium fish in a very tiny pond. It was not easy to estimate how I would perform on such a big platform. I knew the big barrier is always a time of under 2:40 hours. All runners who manage to get below this mark are mentioned on their homepage which would give you a feeling of being part of a somewhat exclusive circle. But as a first-timer it is hard to tell what my potential would be.
The course can be divided into three parts. It starts in Sierre (585 masl) with a long and steep uphill to Chandolin (2000 masl). From there the race leads you on the undulating alpine trails past Hotel Weisshorn to the highest point with 2424 masl. The last 5 kilometers drop down into the town of Zinal (1675 masl). It takes a complete mountain runner to do well on this course.
Being on the bus from Zinal to Sierre I realised that I forgot my Garmin. My initial reaction was “oh shit, what’s not on strava never happened” and “I need my Garmin, I won’t know how far I am and what altitude I am at and how long it’s probably gonna take me”. It just showed me what control freaks we are so I dealt with it in my head fairly quick and had a laugh about it with my mate Daniel Green.
Waiting and warming up in the starting area I realised 20 minutes before the start that I had to do something about the heat and dry conditions. I decided to look for a fountain or a stream – anything liquid really to cool myself down. There was nothing close so I decided to go to the Rhone which was a few minutes away to fill my bottle. Even though I couldn’t drink this water it was the best thing I could have done to prevent my body to heat up more than it would anyway.
I went back into probably the fourth starting row to not get run over because most runners will overpace themselves anyway. The first kilometre was on the road and I kept myself back and found myself on the heels of Jonathan Wyatt so I thought he must know how to pace this race. After the first few bends I found my rhythm and started the pursuit of the guys who were in front of me. On the first 5 kilometres it climbs 1000 meters. Most of the steep climbs I speed-hiked up there and was just as fast as those running except the first few who started to disappear in the distance. I felt pretty good and knew the race wouldn’t start before Chandolin. It just so happened that I ran a lot with the former triathlete Cedric Fleureton. I think he tried to get away from me quite a few times but we were always within 50 meters of each other. It was not until at least half way when I learned that we were in 6th and 7th position.
We had also two African runners around us. We passed them way before Chandolin and I almost forgot about them. When they passed us they seemed to take off on the undulating trails towards Hotel Weisshorn. But then again they were struggling too and we caught one of them and for some time I was in 5th position not far behind 4th place. I couldn’t believe that I was running in the middle of world class athletes I was really surprised – and this was only about 5 weeks after my graduation!
Well I got caught again and as I knew there must be better downhill runners around I knew I had to fight off the other competitors who were not far behind. I feared the worst that I would end up outside of the top 10. But somehow I managed to stay strong on the steep part downhill into Zinal. Thanks to my Scott Kinabalu shoes I had always perfect grip. My final sprint to catch Cedric ended prematurely as cramps kicked in immediately. And as I slowed down towards the finish line I realised on the last few meters that the last 5 seconds were ticking away to get a sub 2:40 time! I threw myself over the finish line in 2:39:58. I am now the 65th runner in 43 years of the race who managed to stay under 2:40! I was quite surprised by this achievement! It is hard to compare this race with what I have done in the past (especially Duathlon) but I would expect this to be one of my finest results.
My target wasn’t to race for a certain place but to optimise my end time which would probably give me the best end-position. If I passed someone it had to feel natural. If you pass someone for the sake of passing him because you feel like it, you usually regret that rather sooner than later.
What did I see of the scenery? I got to tell you: absolutely nothing! What a shame that was, passing five stunning 4000+ meter peaks with glaciers and I didn’t notice anything. All my senses were just focused on how I felt, where my next foot would make contact with the ground and so on. And my missing strava upload..: I might have stayed beyond the 2:40 mark considering the distractions it would have given me and the additional weight (as the watch makes half my body weight it is quite significant! lol).
What surprised me was that I reached Ponchette in 6th position and still felt really fresh. I would have estimated that I would lose a lot more time against the top guys and would be further down in the ranks. Looking at the splits it was even my strongest section! But the splits are solid throughout and there was no weak phase where I had to recover from.
After the race I was completely exhausted - both physically and mentally. The legs were not aching but very very tired. My cardiovascular system needs to recover for another strong performance at the Jungfrau Marathon just four weeks later.
I am so looking forward to come back to Sierre-Zinal! If you like mountain running you absolutely have to do this one!
Running shoes: Scott Kinabalu RC
Running shorts: Scott Trail Run Split shorts
Running top: Scott RC shirt
Glasses: Scott Spur
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