Sierre-Zinal 2019. I was part of a very special race! For me, it was a short and welcome escape from the concrete jungle Berlin into the Swiss Alps and a slightly different long run. It was very tough for me, but that’s what I signed up for. Especially as a road runner on this steep terrain.
The day before the race, Kilian Jornet (at that time 6-fold Sierre-Zinal champion) said something very interesting about the course. Having studied the course from videos, I knew exactly where his thoughts came from. But now, having experienced the course myself, I even more so agree with it:
”What makes this race special is a combination of a great ambiance between organizers and athletes, the landscape of one of the most beautiful valley in the Alps and a field that is always good, with a race that doesn’t fit anyone, to steep and technical for road runners and to flat and untechnical for mountain runners.Kilian Jornet
If you haven’t followed the race you may ask what has been so special about it. Well that’s easy: Firstly, the most competitive field in trail running came together. And secondly, Kilian Jornet smashed the previous course record and so did Maude Mathys in the ladies. A historical race, which received a whole new chapter this past weekend. But more about this later.
My lead up to the race was everything but good. In July, I only collected 1’166m of elevation on Berlin’s roads. Moreover, I had to take a break from running for almost two weeks due to an ITB issue. Nevertheless, I just couldn’t let this unique opportunity slip, even though it probably would have been a smart move with the big autumn road marathon goal in the back of my mind.
The best of the best trail running athletes – Sierre-Zinal-experienced and rookies alike – made a pilgrimage to Zinal to compete with each other, break records, or chase a long-desired victory. And I, the rookie and road runner, wanted to mix it up with them.
This was only the second trail race in which I dig deep and pushed it from the start (the previous one was the Jonkershoek Mountain Challenge Lite 25km/1’200m in South Africa in 2016). And what shall I say: it was tough. Very tough! From the start, it was going uphill. First, about 1km on a wide road with a very run-able gradient. My goal was to save some energy on the upcoming steep climb and push it on the flats and downhills later on. I was entirely focused on my own pace and didn’t mind that quite a few runners passed me during the climb. After 7km, I reached the first timing point and second aid station. Finally, there was a flat section of roughly 2km on which I pushed it and overtook many other runners. The route was above 2’000m altitude now, and even though I didn’t really feel it on the flats and short downhills, I did feel it even more on the uphills which rapidly forced me to speed hike.
The beautiful single trails, the magnificent views and the thousands of “Allez, allez” from plenty of spectators and even other runners helped me to keep going. One climb after the other until I reached the highest point (2’450m) after about 23km. From here it was all downhill to the finish. I was so much looking forward to this part: 7km of flowy and very run-able single trails, followed by two very steep ones and a 500m downhill dash to the finish line. To my disappointment, my legs were already too shattered to really enjoy it and the finish was just not coming closer.
At the last aid station, with 6km to go, I decided to take a short rest. When I sat down on a chair, somebody shouted my name. It was Jonathan, who was cramping and could only shuffle the downhill. I quickly sipped on a coke and we continued together. Not too long after, I left Jono, as I wanted to finish rather sooner than later. My legs, especially the quads, hurt awfully much in the very steep section. The last 500m were on the road and downhill. I pushed it again. Somehow, I was still able to run a 2:54min/km pace. I guess, the thought of not having to run one step further after crossing the finish line was very appealing and why not give the spectators a little show.
After 3:25:21h (136th category/176th overall) the suffering came to an end. I was happy to finish. And taking my preparation into consideration, the outcome was predictable. But nevertheless, this result itches me a little bit, as I know I could do much better with the right build-up. But as Kilian said: “…it’s too steep and technical for road runners…” and that’s exactly what I am at the moment. The muscle soreness in my quads clearly shows this as well. I’m not conditioned to run those ups and especially downs right now.
Nonetheless, I’m very grateful to have been able to experience such an incredible event and run with the best of the best. I was even able to chat to inspiring athletes like Marc Lauenstein, Judith Wyder, Sage Canaday, Matt Daniels, Andy Wacker or Lucy Bartholomew to mention just a few. But what stands out the most is an unforgettable weekend with old and new friends! A massive THANK YOU to Moritz, Felix, Jono, Flo, Jakub, Pascal, Andrew, Sam & Daniel!
I teasered in the beginning, that this year’s edition wrote a new chapter in the 46-year old history of the race. In the men’s race it was a close battle between Kilian Jornet (2:25:35h) and Petro Mamu (2:36:31h) with only 56s separating them in the end and both well below the 16-year old course record (2:29:12h) from Jonathan Wyatt. In the women’s race Judith Wyder (2:54:20h) was faster than the previous course record, but Maude Mathys (2:49:20h) finished even 5min ahead of Judith and, hence, took home the victory as well as the new course record.
Sierre-Zinal and Golden Trail Series, thank you for having me and putting such a special event together. I’ll be back for sure!