Running to the top of Europe — Zermatt Marathon 2012

From the Heavens to the Abyss

There are many breathtaking train rides in Switzerland, but one that always amazes me is the ride from Visp to Zermatt. Zermatt isn’t famous for its yearly meeting of world business and finance leaders like Davos, nor does it boast a world famous snow polo tournament like St. Moritz, but if you’ve ever eaten a Toblerone you’re familiar with its claim to fame — the Matterhorn. From Visp the train travels mostly with cogs up the Mattertal which on the left seems to plummet into an abyss and on the right the mountains shoot up to the heavens. Every time I take this train I’m amazed.

I’m in Zermatt again for the 11th Zermatt Marathon. This marathon starts near the beginning of the Mattertal in St. Niklaus and runs upwards to Zermatt and finally ends after 1944 meters of climb at Riffelberg.

Marathon Morning

The morning of any marathon always brings about it an air of excitement and the Zermatt Marathon is no exception. However, the scenery here adds that special something. Between the small villages we run through on our way from St. Niklaus there are always people scattered cheering on the runners. They’ve made a special effort to be there. The train up to Zermatt is full of people clapping and shouting encouragement at us. The weather is cool, but the sun is up and there’s a hope that we’ll see the Matterhorn in all its glory when we finally turn the bend.

The fans are amazing. Being in Zermatt alone, no one has come to see me personally, yet I know the people here are cheering for me as much as they are for everyone else. I think to myself, “This is great. I’m doing something I love and complete strangers are congratulating me for it. This is one of the reasons I love running.

Race Shirts — A Runner’s Calling Card

As I continue running alongside people I don’t know we all have something in common and that is an enjoyment of going out on a run. T-shirts from different races signal that we’ve surely crossed paths before and can often lead to friendly conversations. As the sun makes its way higher into the sky the valley lights up. Being surrounded by towering mountains helps put life in perspective. The scenery and the personal challenge are another reason why I love running.

The real challenge starts at kilometer 26 as I start my ascent to Riffelberg. The incline is steep, but wherever possible I try to run a little. Kilometer 31 is a welcomed break, though I’ve only been climbing for only 5 kilometers, the air is thin and my pace has slowed down. A cup of bouillon, two cups of water and one of isotonic and I’m ready to tackle the slight descent and then a flatter segment that brings us around to Riffelalp.

Height Profile of the Zermatt Marathon

Downhill Footwear of Choice: Ons

Most runners hate the idea of going downhill, it’s hard on the joints they say. Others use it to recharge as they just fall into it and make up for lost time on the ascents. I used to hate it, but since I started running with Ons I can really get into it. The forward roll means the shock on the knees is reduced. This also means that I let myself go more, so I run faster and better downhill than with other shoes.

Christian running at Sunnegga

Down and around a little lake past some giant stones that look like they were placed there my titans and then some technical running on slippery soap stone trail, that is thank heavens dry, the way leads to a forested segment. Here the nimbly footed are at an advantage as quick feet are needed to transverse the twisted and knotted roots. This is a beautiful section of trail that brings me and many runners into a harmony with the ground I think. Like a surfer, who can feel and hear the water as an unseen wave forms, each step anticipates the next and you sense where your next move will go without looking.

The Last 2 Kilometers

Out of the forest I pass Riffelalp cheered on by hotel guests who tell me it’s only three kilometers to go. Then another quick uphill brings me to a flat bit before heading up the gallery. Before the last great ascent, which when you look at it, seems to be the hardest part you see the 40 KM marker. There are just under 500 meters of elevation to go before I cross the finish line and I start to trek it up the ramp. A few supporters have positioned themselves on the path here with refreshments for strangers and to offer words of encouragement: “1.5 KM to go” I’m told at some point.

Making it to the Alp and seeing a giant arch I quicken my pace and go up the 20 meters or so only to see that there are indeed 500 meters to go. There is a Japanese proverb that says that when you’re 95% done you’re half way there. With marathon running the last 500 meters seem to be as challenging as the last 41695, but time goes quickly and the cheering of supporters gives you the energy needed for one last push to the finish.

3 Mountain Marathons, 1 Ultra, and 2 City marathons along with 500+ kilometers of training. My last competitive run with this pair.

Crossing the Finish Line

I cross the finish line, get my medal, drink a cup of water and head for the shower. The view from up here is amazing. The Matterhorn has decided that it would however not grace us with a full view of its summit, but the clouds around it give you the feeling like you’ve run halfway to heaven. The crowd is great, complete strangers congratulating each other on a well run race. The awards ceremony calls out Paul Maticha Michieka as the winner with a time of 2:59.54,9. His smile is big and everyone can tell that the 27 year old is happy with the results. There’s no sign of pain on his face, he was wearing Ons and ran on clouds up to them.

For all the runners the t-shirts will act as a conversation starter at future runs — “Oh, you ran Zermatt, too? Beautiful wasn’t it?…” That camaraderie amongst strangers is the third reason I love running.

Zermatt Marathon 2013

In 2013 the Zermatt Marathon will again feature an ultra-marathon option, which goes up to the Gornergrat at 3089 meters above sea level. If you’re interested in running one of the most beautiful marathon’s in Switzerland, and experiencing Zermatt yourself, sign up for the marathon on Datasport. Next year’s marathon is on July 6.


Christian Langenegger

View posts by Christian Langenegger
Writer || Runner || Business Consultant || Marketer || Connector || Teacher || Entrepreneur || Optimist || Wine Aficionado || Cook || Photographer || TEDster


  1. Pamela SchmidlinOctober 1, 2012

    I was looking to run the Swiss Alpine Davos marathon, I live in NY/ Long Island….do you have any training plans that you can suggest?!?!?

    Congrats on your accomplishments!

    1. Mark MelnykowyczOctober 1, 2012

      Hi Pamela,

      Sure, we are happy to help. First a few questions…what sort of running do you do at the moment. Do y ou run on trails, marathons in cities, how much do you comfortably run at one time, would this be your first marathon, do you have experience in the mountains with large changes in altitude?


  2. HMay 3, 2015

    The shoes don’t seem very gripy? Any comment on that?


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