Monday, 21 August 2017

Sierre Zinal Race - Pete Hall reports as he tackles the classic Swiss Alpine race

Race – Sierre Zinal, La course des Cinq 4000, Switzerland -
Length – 31km, 2200m climbing, 1100 decent
So it all started with a book for Christmas from my good wife Jill, as these things often do.  ‘Beyond Running’ by Ian Corless - a book you must check out if you haven’t already done so – and start planning the next few years holidays – ‘One a year from the book’ as someone recently said to me.
Honestly, the Sierre Zinal was chosen as not only did it look great but is one of the shortest in the book, so I was being sensible…ish
The 44th edition of the race took place on Sunday 13th August so the Hall family headed off for a weekend in the land of the Toblerone, Alpline Horns and cow bells.  We stayed in the finish village of Zinal for a few days along with several dozens of other runners from all around the world – Mexico, Eritrea, USA, …. You name it, they were all there, including a lot from all around the UK, even as far afield as Lochaber and Sheffield !
The undoubted favourite for this years race was Kilian Jornet of Spain in the mens, going for a record 5th win, and Lucy Wambui from Kenya in the ladies, looking to repeat last years victory.  Also running was last years mens winner Petro Mamu from Eritrea and Rob Simpson from the UK, plus Michelle Maier (Germany) in the ladys race.
1277 runners started in Sierre at an altitude of around 650m at the foot of the valley, the course being a climb for 24km to an altitude of 2425m followed by the descent into Zinal, with a finish altitude of 1650m.  The days weather turned out to be good for running, with sun and mid twenties temperatures, this coming after a couple of days snow and rain.

So the race, well, what a cracker ! Never having run a half marathon uphill followed by an 7km sprint, I was really looking forward to it. Add to this some stunning scenery, some great company, great feeding stations, what was there not to enjoy? The initial 1km was a blast up the main Sierre ZInal road, rather like starting a race by running half-way up Newlands Pass, before a hard left up somewhat of a ‘rude’ hill onto the trail proper. The first 5km saw us climb over 1000m (that’s three miles and 3000 feet), so in my head, similar to the Ben Nevis race, with the gradient then easing out until the 24 Km point. So far, so good – I was enjoying the running, the chat with other runners either in English, broken French or broken Dutch. We were entertained by bands in the woods – surreal – by spectators and by the scenery as we came out of the tree line. Feed stations were well stocked and organised as we all took advantage of them.  
Initial Part of the Trail
My pace and enjoyment remained pretty good until roughly the 10km/6500ft altitude mark, at which point I was beginning to wonder if I had eaten something I shouldn’t have. However, cracking on at a slightly reduced pace due to the lack of oxygen (17% less oxygen at 6000ft), the ground and the stunning views of the 5 4000m peaks, including the Matterhorn, were soaked up.
…and the wheels came off my wagon at the 16km mark  (2,180m/7,150ft)
Out of the trees, the views opened up
It was like running into a wall – a complete bonk, and everything that was in my stomach was no longer in my stomach – you get the drift here. The altitude had got to me, no doubt about that.

Told you there were alpen horns !
Pushing on again and trying to drink and eat, things improved for the next couple of miles, but the effects of dehydration, lack of food and altitude started to tell.
The remainder of the climb was a tough one with me falling away from somewhere near middle of the field to the last third of the field. Feed stations were well used and upon reaching the final ‘major’ part of the climb to the Hotel Weisshorn, I was a happy man. Now 7km of rough, rocky, grassy descent.
On any normal day this would have been perfect for someone used to running in The Lakes or Scotland, and would have been covered in 20-30-40 mins, but the legs were ‘a little heavy’ hence it was a gentle run or a ‘barely controlled fall’ down to the finish in Zinal.
By the time I got the to finish, my wife Jill was a little worried as she was monitoring my progress using Strava Becon (note to self – don’t use that again  ) and saw my early good progress drop off. I was never so happy to see the finish line in a race though – I clocked 5:04:29 against a prediction of 4:15 or so, hence was a little disappointed, with a position 936 (94th Over 50).
Up front, Kilian Jouret took the race win in 2:33:05, with Robbie Simpson 14 seconds behind him.
Kilian Jornet approaching the finish
Lucy Wambui took the ladies title in 2:58:39.
Lucy Wambui in the final 400m
They are, without doubt, the worlds best mountain/trail runners at the moment, and it was a real privilege to be in the same race as them – just a shame I couldn’t have given Kilian a bit more of a race for his money 
….. and me, some way behind, wishing I was like Kilian Jouret but really just wanting a cold beer
Pete in his Cumbria Fell Runner vest which he is also a member of.
And after several rehydrating beers and a crack with the other runners in town, all was good with the world again…
So Jill….next year….where we going ???

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