Riding the tram home on Thursday evening I picked up a copy of the free paper Blick am Abend. On page three a I read “Der Sommer war schön” (The summer was nice). I think to myself, “was nice” it’s only August there is still a good month of summer left and, summer only really started in July this year. I read the article, which then went on to say that starting at the weekend we’ll get rain everywhere in the country and that temperatures will drop. Not exactly the weather prognosis that I was hoping for, as I was scheduled to run the Matterhorn Ultraks in Zermatt, my first Skyrunning race.
Collecting my numbder
When I got to Zermatt on Friday the weather was looking fine, it had rained earlier, but cleared and I was excited to be running a race with some of the world’s top trail runners including Kilian Jornet, who just a few days earlier ran from Cervina to the top of the Matterhorn and down in a record breaking time of 2 hours and 52 minutes. Collecting my start number in the beautiful Grand Hotel Zermatterhof, I even crossed paths with Salomon Team’s Philipp Reiter.
After collecting my number I headed to the beautiful Chalet Bergheim situated above the town with a wonderful view of the Matterhorn. A dinner of Risotto with fennel, mushrooms and apricots was brilliant for getting energy. The next morning, race day, I left the chalet shortly after 6 and jogged down into town, about 1.5KM. The bakery next to the start was open early and I was able to buy a sandwich for breakfast. The weather, unlike the Thursday forecast, was nice. Fresh temperature and a fairly clear sky.
And we’re off up to Sunnegga
At 7am the starting gun was fired and we were off. Up through the town following part of the Zermatt Marathon route for no more than 1.5KM and then everything changed. Up we went through the woods, quite steep and narrow, but with only about 350 racers this was not a problem. After a 10 minute climb we made a sharp right and the soft forest path allowed us to flat out run. The path leads to a cliff that has perhaps one of the best views of the Matterhorn that there is. From there a sharp left and we were going up again to Sunnegga. At Sunnegga we were able to get refreshments and have the pleasant realization that we were merely 6KM into the race.
From Sunnegga we headed down through a picturesque alpine village and then over a small foot bridge after which we started our way up again to the highest point in the race, Gornergrat at 3100 meters. At this point looking the sky started to cloud over with the sun rising over the mountains in the east there was a special atmosphere. The climb was steep and at times rather difficult. The final bit of climb up the the ridge that brings you to Gornergrat was almost a scramble with a damp granite sand, the result of years of weather working its way on the mountain. I reached Gornergrat in 2 hours and 50 minutes. There we were able to get some warm water and start our descent to Rieffelalp.
This is some serious downhill running
The descent to Rieffelalp was highlighted by wonderful high alpine trails. From Rieffelberg to Rieffelalp the trail was quite steep and almost like a staircase. There are many trail runners that are brilliant at doing down these trails and poles are a huge help. I ran without poles and watching my footing lost time here. After the refreshment stop at Rieffelalp, the trail continues quite flat with a little bit of elevation gain back towards Germetsch. The trail here is stunning and varied from large boulder steps to soft gravel and an old road that leads to the hydro dam on Fruggbach. Crossing the suspension bridge, which is not for the faint of heart, the next ascent starts to Schwarzsee.
Up we go again. Next stop Schwarzsee.
All day the weather had been promising with the clouds dispersing and more sun appearing, however, the opposite was starting to happen and the sky around the Klein Matterhorn was turning black. Climbing I was able to pass several runners and get up to the top by around 2pm. I was thirsty and needed to fill my pack with water and get some food. I like whole foods, so I had oranges, dried figs and apricots, bouillon and bread, but no energy gels. The wind was very strong and I got cold so I put on my long-sleeved shirt and kept going. A shorter descent with a comfortable slope Zmuttbach from where the 46K and 30K runners split up again. The next ascent up to Höhbalmenstafel was challenging, but seemed easier than the climb up to Schwarzsee. At this point the sky fully darkened and it was as if we were running in an ominously photoshoped alpine scenery. And then thunder rolled through the valley and it started to rain. I quickly put on my rain jacket and continued with a Spaniard along the trail on occasion dodging sheep. The way down to Trift started to get tricky with the trail turning into a stream of water.
At Trift we were able to drink some warm tea and eat something before starting up the Triftwäng towards Chüeberg the last major ascent of the race. The rain continued to fall and the trails turned into mini torrents. Right at the top there were volunteers checking people. It was nice to see them huddled under a boulder with their dog ensuring the safety of racers. The trail down was a blend of streams, mud, wet grass, and gravel. Some runners were flying down the mountain making it look easy. Again here I was moving slower, but surefooted down the path. Once the path flattened out I was able to run full speed and pass a few runners who had passed me on the way down. The rain had also let up after I made it through the band of fog situated halfway between the top of the mountains and the valley floor. Getting into Zermatt again, it was a bit odd to run down a set of stairs and onto the main street of the village having to negotiate around strolling tourists.
And the winners are…
Arriving at the finish, it was no big surprise to find out that Kilian Jornet had won the race with a brilliant time of 4:43.05 and Emily Forsberg won the women’s with a spectacular time of 5:41.16.
Overall Assessment of the Race
Today many race organizers are trying to set up the most challenging races in the mountains with thought for how quickly conditions can change to be an afterthought, and while these are often wonderful races when all goes well, the possibility of them ending poorly is always there. The organizers of the Matterhorn Ultraks did a brilliant job of selecting a challenging course, marking it well, and also having a distance that lowers the chance of tired runners getting caught in a storm on the mountain. They also provided detailed and concise information on the website including briefing videos in multiple languages. The refreshment stops were also well located and served a variety of foods and drink that runners require on this type of run. The thing that disappointed me was the finish line, because it was missing atmosphere and people. I also did not like having to run on a street with people walking around and think. The finisher’s area could have also been a bit nicer. And lastly, I wish that there would have been finisher medals. However, my complaints are small and I would definitely recommend this race to anyone looking for a mountain race in 2014. Regarding my small issues, I would greatly like to work with the organizers to improve the finish.