When our friend Rickey Gates, a professional runner on the international circuit told us that Sierre-Zinal, a 31km trail running race in Switzerland, was among his most favorite and most beautiful races in the whole world – we listened.
When he said that they encourage Americans to come over and participate in this internationally recognized trail race that is part of the World Sky Running series, and that we should go run it- we decided to see what this race was all about.
And he was right. Sierre-Zinal, located in Switzerland’s Valais Alps, was one of the most incredible running experiences we have ever had in the mountains. It was such a special opportunity to run amongst the world’s elite running community on a spectacular course called the “La Course des Cinq 4000” – the “Race of the Five 4,000 meter peaks”.
But it was even more than that. It was the celebratory feel that encompassed our entire time there. It was the wood carved runners that stand up all year in town with the words Sierre-Zinal underneath them, it was the legendary tales told over meals, it was the past winner’s footsteps forever impressed into the sidewalks, it was a feeling of deep love and commitment to the mountains that this small Swiss town of Zinal is all about. In addition to being considered one of the most beautiful races, some say that Sierre-Zinal is one of the most competitive as well. It’s a real crossroads of runners from all different disciplines and backgrounds. This year the historic race celebrated 41 years and a record 4,500 participants.
The race its self was one of the hardest that we have done and it was only a 31km, which is relatively short compared to the races we participate in the states. The town-to-town course from Sierre to Zinal was the perfect way to experience the area. The 31km varies in terrain from extremely steep uphills, flat runnable terrain, technical terrain, screaming fast dirt roads, and a ridiculously steep downhill finish.
I’ve never seen a course so steep that even the elites wouldn’t (or couldn’t?) run the initial 7km climb. Everyone shared in the brutal uphill speed hiking. Once up high, the views were so epic that you had no choice but to stop in the midst of the scenery and stare in awe of the beauty surrounding you. On a clear day, you have views of the Weisshorn, the Zinalrothorn, and even the Matterhorn. All this, with hundreds of elite and professional athletes from around the world on the course makes for one exhilarating race.
There were intriguing historic landmarks on the course like the small village of Chandolin where onlookers were shouting “Bravo!” and “Allez-Allez “and mountain fiddlers were scattered everywhere across the hillside. And my favorite, the very “Grand Budapest Hotel’ looking Hotel Weisshorn perched on top of what seemed to be the high point of the course, but it wasn’t and the race kept climbing.
Ted and I were lucky enough to be included in special pre and post-race festivities and meals for a group of about 200 of elite runners, many of whom were decked out in their national track suits or sponsored team gear. Countries represented included Team Colombia, Team Romania, professional runners from Mexico, Norway, England, among others.
Over dinner one night we talked with members of Scotland’s national running team, including a couple that had won the Trans Alps 2013 as a co-ed team. At the pre-race lunch on top of Zinal’s ski mountain we met Mexico’s reputed King of the Mountain and former winner of the race Ricardo Mejia and Colorado Running Hall of Fame’s Pablo Vigil who is still the only man to have won four straight Sierre-Zinal mountain races, starting in 1979, and still holds the record for the 2nd fastest American time. After the race we spent time with fellow Coloradan and Sierre-Zinal’s 2014 female winner Stevie Kremer, and her now fiancé Marshall Thompson, laughing about co-ed ski-mo race experiences back here at home over countless bottles of red wine.
The entire race experience was a sweet immersion into a vast field of people who just love to run, are very good at what they do, and have dedicated their lives to the sport. The course was tough and unforgiving but somehow the overall warm atmosphere of the race, including the accordion players on the side of the trail, melts your heart and lets you experience a little of running’s soul. Rickey was right, Sierre-Zinal is a must-do.
[I originally wrote this post for the Stio blog and wanted to share it here as well- Christy]