There is something comforting about returning to someplace familiar. For the third year in a row on the first Friday in July I took the train to the most picture perfect alpine city there is — Zermatt. With it’s international fame as a resort for the rich and famous, Zermatt is best known for the giant that stands before it, namely the Matterhorn.
Looking back on the week it was hard to believe that just a week ago the mountains were being to topped by fresh snow and that I’d just pretty much run a winter marathon. Coming up Niklaustal and collecting my start number in St. Niklaus, I knew that race day would be perfect. The sun was shining and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Rounding the bend into Zermatt as the Matterhorn came into view, it stood there free of all cloud obstruction in all its glory.
The atmosphere in Zermatt at marathon time is full of energy. People from around the world travel to the Matterhorn city for one of the most beautiful runs in the Alps. Covering a distance of 42.195 km the run goes from St. Niklaus to Zermatt and then up up up where it ends at Riffelberg. On it’s 10th anniversary the marathon committee organized an ultra version that ended at the Gornergrat sitting 3100 meters above sea level. This made it the highest finishing line in Europe, and with just under 3.5 km from Riffelberg, the distance seems to be a joke, but with an extra 550 meters of elevation imposes quite a challenge to even the best runners. With the ultra selling out in 2011 and a demand for a more challenging run the ultra was again made an option in 2013.
Perfect Running Conditions
Race day started off exactly like last year. The air was cool and the sky was blue. At the shot of the gun we headed off at 8:50 am towards Zermatt. The gradual incline to Zermatt is challenging for runners used to only flat running, but it is the easiest part of the run. A mix of roads and some compacted trails that are well worn and broad are followed by a brief stint of stoney trail where a little bit of technical trail running is to a great advantage.
Passing through Zermatt the fans cheer you on and you feel like a star. I passed the 21km mark after 1 hour and 45 minutes. I was going a good pace and felt great. The long distance training was paying off. The real climb starts at kilometer 25 where runners start their way up to Sunnegga. The sun was bright and the Matterhorn was cloud free, which in the past two years had not been the case. I felt great.
Feeling Good – Beer en Route
Coming around to the refreshment station I really felt in the game though thirsty. A man tried to hand me a cola for sugar. In his other hand I spotted a beer and asked if I could have that instead. Not being able to say no to a runner, he kindly poured me a cup and gave it to me making sure to get a picture. from Sunnegga to Riffelalp is fairly flat and great trail running with some bouldery bits and a nice stretch in the forest with plenty of roots to watch out for.
And Up We Go
Once you pass through the resort at Riffelalp you’re going up some 360 meters in just 2 kilometers. It’s a steep ascent, but the views are amazing and there is a great feeling of achievement. Once you get up to Riffelberg, those doing the regular marathon need to complete a small loop before crossing the finish line going slightly down, so running through is made easier. Ultra-runners need to continue on up.
The Last Little Bit to Gornergrat
Passing the second last refreshment station, marathon workers check all ultra-runners to make sure they are still fit to continue. I was still feeling in the game, but was looking forward to being finished. My goal was 6 hours or less and I knew I was close to that limit. Continuing we passed over two smaller snow fields that didn’t pose much of a problem. It was only after Rotenboden that things got a little messy as the melting snow caused the path to become more of a stream. With a two meter high wall of snow beside me I was happy for the coolness it radiated and I took chunks of it to place on my head. With only a sun visor on I knew now that my head was burnt. The last little bit of the path up to the Gornergrat is steep and it really comes down to knowing that each step you take, no matter how fast or slow is one in the right direction. The Guggenmusik blaring from the Gornergrat gives runners that little extra energy they need to make it to the highest finishing line in Europe at 3100 meters.
My end time was 5:44.30 and I was well happy. It was a great training run for the EigerUltraTrail two weeks later.
Good news for runners thinking about doing the Zermatt Marathon next year. Along with the Ultra version, there will also be a half marathon next year.