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Let’s assume you’ve never raced Kilian Jornet. Let’s assume you’ve never found yourself edging him out of the lead pack while charging a steep incline. We’ll presume you’ve never caught sight of his bright shoes revolving and blinking in your periphery like the warning lights of the pending pain cave. You’ve probably never given it one last throttle, tipping your sternum forward for just a shave of a lead while your fists swing furiously back and forth in a group of frontrunners kicking up a storm of dust, straining to not let him escape, like spiders tending prey in their web—only then to witness him take in a calm breath and unmoor from the group, his affect gentle, his classic white shirt and short red shorts getting farther and farther away in a matter of moments.
If, in fact, none of this has happened to you, you may want to look up the race footage from the recent Sierre-Zinal mountain race in Switzerland from last August to get an idea.
After the initial ascent of about 5,200 feet in seven miles, the lead pack of the 31K consisted of champion ski mountaineer and runner Davide Magnini of Italy, World Mountain Running Champion Joseph Gray of the U.S., European Mountain Running Championships silver medalist Robert Simpson of Great Britain, World Long Distance Mountain Running Champion Francesco Puppi of Italy, NACAC Mountain Running Champion Juan Carlos Carera Casas of Mexico, Mountain Running World Championships 10th-place finisher Robert Surum Panin of Kenya and the Catalan Jornet, likely the best mountain runner in the world.
Via a camera affixed on a cyclist tailing Jornet, the aforementioned scene (sans you, sadly) was live broadcast on the internet to tuned-in trail-running enthusiasts.
At the summit, Jornet took advantage of a stretch of ridgeline singletrack as crunchy and inviting as meringue and let ’er rip.
Prior to August’s Sierre-Zinal, trail-running fans were unable to tune into a competition to witness the real action, aside from quick videos shared on social media. But as sports fans, we crave the answers to our questions: Is Ruth Croft making a move right now? And, What does Joseph Gray look like when he’s turning it on?
Instead of watching Jornet detach from the group with our own eyes, trail runners have been, heretofore, huddled around someone’s phone, watching a static list of blue names, hitting refresh every 30 seconds, trying to imagine what it must be like to actually see someone kick.
From the cyclist’s point of view on the course, spectators witnessed the slight 30-year-old transition from 13-minute miles during the ascent, to eight-minute miles to five-minute miles. The footage showed, against a deep sky and glowing white peaks, just how quickly the ground whizzes at that pace; it showed Jornet’s clean, buttery stride; it showed what it’s like to be one of the best trail runners in the world winning one of the most respected mountain races—Sierre-Zinal.
Steep and Deep
1974 was the year two of the most iconic races in our sport were born—the U.S.’s historic Western States 100-miler and Switzerland’s Sierre-Zinal, but the two continents were miles apart in terms of the popularity of mountain sports.
While Western States was attended by one runner, challenging a course that was previously only raced by horse, 1,000 people showed up to run Sierre-Zinal. Western States didn’t see “growth” until three years later when, in 1977, 14 people toed the line in Squaw Valley, California.
“Sierre-Zinal was the first international race that any of us really knew,” said 37-year-old Megan Kimmel, Skyrunner phenom, six-time champion of the La Sportiva Mountain Cup and 2017 Marathon du Mont Blanc winner.
“Americans know a lot more about the international scene now, but Sierre-Zinal has always been this iconic, European mountain race—the one you try to get to.”
Jean-Claude Pont, the founder of the Sierre-Zinal, created it, he said, by accident. Pont wasn’t even a runner. “At the birth of the idea of Sierre-Zinal,” said Pont in a runthealps.com post, “I was a mountain guide. If I had been a runner, I would have been like everyone else—that is to say, following the rules, my eyes fixed only on what existed at that time.”
What existed at that time were track races, road races and cross-country races. Not mountain-running races.
As a mountain guide, Pont was accustomed to long, arduous days. Sometimes “6, 8, 10, 12, 16 hours at 4,000-meters (13,123 feet) altitude,” he said. The idea to create a race from the town of Sierre, at 1,749 feet to Zinal, at 5,495 feet, passing through one of the highest inhabited villages in Europe, Chandolin (6,352 feet), came to Pont as a kind-of unwanted vision: “It wasn’t a rationally constructed idea,” he said on runthealps.com. “But a product of some kind of deeper intuition. It was an idea so unexpected that I tried to resist it, thinking, It’s not possible: 31 kilometers, 2,200 meters of climbing, 800 of descent, sometimes at an elevation of around 2,500 meters, and on technical paths. My overriding thought was, Nobody will come!”
And, yet, he couldn’t fight it.
Some of Pont’s drive was to showcase the beautiful region in which he was raised.
The valley he grew up in is within the canton Valais in Switzerland, known in Europe for its towering peaks, the Rhone River and high-end mountain resorts. Steep walls are covered in fir forests of emerald green, black metamorphic rock and dozens of hundred-foot waterfalls. These walls converge, as many in the Alps do, at a glacier—a masthead for the landscape below. From the Zinalrothorn Glacier, an alpine river, milky with limestone, tumbles downward, until it merges with the Rhone.
Pont’s concept took purchase. Unlike in America, where onlookers question efforts such as these and proclaim participants as certified wackadoos, in Switzerland, the race piqued the locals’ curiosity. “It’s one of the oldest races in mountain-running history,” said Jornet. “And because of the terrain, it has always been the meeting point for the elite athletes.”
No doubt, part of the popularity had something to do with local’s natural inclination toward competition.
Anniviers valley, canton Valais and the Alps in general, breed competition.
“Oh, yes,” says Martin Hannart, president of the Anniviers Valley Trail Hotspot Association and a chiseled, cheerful mountain guide, who speaks with a thick Swiss-French accent. “Competition is in our blood. I don’t know why. Maybe how steep everything is, but we love good competition.”
His eyes lit up. “Just watch when releasing two cows into a field—they’ll go head to head right away. That’s how we are.” It’s no surprise then, that 1,000 participants showed up to the inaugural event.
Of the first guard were Gaston Roelants and Edy Hauser. Roelants, an elite steeplechaser and cross-country runner from Belgium, just two years prior, had set one-hour and 20K world records. He was ranked the world’s best steeplechaser five times and was an Olympic medalist in the marathon distance.
Hauser was a cross-country skier from Switzerland who had earned a bronze medal in the 1972 winter Olympics for the 4 x 10K relay.
These two began the race with other cross-country runners, fell runners from the UK, track runners, road marathoners and regular old Johns and Janes.
Forty-four years later, the race remains largely the same, run on the same pristine trails and passing through the same small villages. It continues to draw, every year, the best of the best trail, mountain and marathon runners.
New in 2018 is a larger purse (the top 10 from each field walked away with $1,000 each) and live-feed broadcasting of the competition. Gregory Vollet, Global Running and Community Marketing Manager for Salomon, and brainchild of the broadcasting feed, says the coverage was “to entertain the community with real outdoor spectacle.” Additionally, he says, it’s “to attract the best trail runners in the world, to increase the visibility of all the athletes regardless of their sponsors and to reach a new level of communication in our sport.”
Vollet speaks about trail running with vehemence and zeal. He wants it to become a mainstream sport, the way road cycling is in Europe. “Of course,” he says, “this exposure serves as a way to inspire beginners. They may start with a run in a forest near home and progress all the way to planning a weekend of running in an exotic destination.”
In August 2018, around 4,000 people, some local, but many from different corners of the world, arrived in Anniviers valley to experience the lore and to catch a glimpse of their heroes in person. The small town of Zinal (population around 2,000) was brought to life.
“This is a race where everyone hangs out the days before the race,” says 38-year-old professional mountain runner and 2017 third-place finisher at Sierre-Zinal, Max King. “We all eat together and share stories from the past year. It’s a lot of fun because they do such a nice job creating the elite-athlete environment for this race. It really feels like a Sierre-Zinal family and everyone is included.”
The Hills are Alive
Zinal has Swiss charm that borders on absurd: groups of alpine cows, adorned with intricately decorated cowbells, transform the hillsides into peeling, echoing chambers; ornately detailed huts line remote trails; clean springs plummet from thousands of feet above; a red gondola climbs to the ridgeline and drops tourists off where they can dine, hike to an alpine lake or run miles upon miles of trails over serpentine talus or flowy singletrack.
Against this backdrop, the main street of Zinal was infiltrated with colorful kit, bright smiling faces and sculpted quadriceps the day before the race.
Gray sat on the steps of a hotel with Jacob Adkin, a Scottish track and 10K elite runner, and Jornet, having just come from lunch on top of a nearby ridge only accessible by the red gondola or via a 3,000-foot ascent. Adkin, 23, held the group captive with his Scottish lilt and animated gestures, recounting a gentleman in the UK who custom soles racing flats.
Athletes were wandering, eating and lounging as though waiting in the wings of a stage.
That evening, Ida Nilsson, a 37-year-old international mountain runner from Sweden and women’s champion of the 2016, 2017 and 2018 Transvulcania 74K and the 2016 and 2017 North Face Endurance Challenge 50-Miler, was seen in a rare moment in a hotel restaurant, having just finished a shake-out run. Nilsson can be hard to track down and I wanted her undivided attention to ask about a recent injury.
Her blond hair was pulled back tightly, and she wore a shirt that read, “By Running.” She spoke with the subtlest of lisps through her Swedish accent.
In 2009, Nilsson injured her hip and was faced with either quitting running or surgery. The operation would have been experimental, something she wasn’t willing to entertain, so she stopped running.
“I thought maybe I won’t run but will live a normal life with hiking and other activities,” she said. “That’s how I lived for four years and it was really a long time. Everything was in pain.”
She continued, upbeat despite the difficult topic, holding her banged-up knees in her hands. “I think it was actually better to take up other interests. But then, I was amazed. I thought I had a good life, but when I could run again, it was like, how did I ever think I was happy before?”
Of the next day’s race, she said, “I’m really excited. I’ve never done this one before and I haven’t really had time to see the whole course. It will be fast and fun and really hard tomorrow.”
Over the past few years, this region has enhanced its already extensive trail system and connected sprawling trails, making for miles and miles of continuous running. The “Trail Hotspot,” as it’s been named, consists of five unique trails, ranging from 6.7K to 23.7K, all of which interconnect.
Dedicated “Hotspot” maps describe the trails, demarcate restaurants, a gondola, funicular and other landmarks. At the confluence of several trails, high on a ridge with a café and view of the famous Hôtel Weisshorn, is a shoe-testing center, where hikers and runners can go to try out Salomon shoes for the day.
Running these trails is a sophisticated experience—rumor has it people actualy sweep them, with brooms. Tall posts with several signs point out mountains, show directions to nearby towns, elevations and trail names. New this year are permanent Sierre-Zinal signs. Runners can experience the course any time of the year by following the black arrows.
Croissants and Climbs
The town’s only patisserie opened early on race day and set out a large booth on main street with fresh-made croissants, loaves of bread and pretzels that hung from antlers. The athlete breakfast, held in a cafeteria with long tables of bleary-eyed racers, featured spreads of cured meats, cubed cheeses, more croissants, yogurt and a push-button espresso machine. No drip coffee here.
To accommodate the growing traffic of the race, waves start at 5 a.m. and go until 10 a.m. The non-elite waves leave early and the elite waves start at 10 a.m., allowing a “normal” runner the chance to have someone like Jornet or Nilsson brush by on the course.
The initial climb is a gut wrencher, unrelenting for seven miles.
“We run up a really big, steep mountain,” said King, moments before the gun went off. He was sporting a newly trimmed mullet, the result of a lost bet.
“Then we run across a beautiful ridgeline and then back down to the little town of Zinal … Hopefully fast, but if not, it’ll still be a beautiful trip.”
Runners echoed King’s desires and were uniformly nervous about the intensity of the first 12.5 kilometers, followed by the rolling ridgeline that rewards flatlander speed rather than the agility and grit that some mountain ultrarunners may lean on.
“I’m a little nervous,” said Corrine Malcolm, a 28-year-old professional ultrarunner and 2016 USATF Trail 50-Mile Champion, behind racing shades and a generous smile. “I haven’t run this short in a long time.” To run Sierre-Zinal well, you can’t just be a seasoned trail runner; you need the technical skills of a mountain runner and the speed of a marathoner.
Matt Flaherty, 33, prolific ultrarunner and coach, talked of the fields through a nasally yet cheerful voice. “I’m not going to run very fast today. I’ve been sick all week and I’m still kind of hacking stuff up.” Of the men’s heat, he said, “It’s very deep, like 12 guys went sub 2:40 last year; probably just as many this year. Ladies, same thing. We’re probably going to have a couple of ladies go under three hours. Course records are under threat.”
“Trois, Deux, Un.”
Athletes milled anxiously, running up and down a nearby road, doing leg swings and jumping in place. The starting line music was dramatic and seemed to reach crescendo every 90 seconds. Jornet was nowhere to be seen. He’s become notoriously slippery at races due to the media storming him, understandably. As the warning call was announced, he came gliding down the tongue of the line. King popped through the crowd to the front, alongside Grey, Jornet, Puppi and the other men who would make up the frontrunners. Each one shook out his legs, creating a starting-line Hokey Pokey.
At 10 a.m., the countdown began: “Cinq, quatre, trois, deux, un.” The course begins on the road for a half mile, before the initial ascent. “Everyone is trying to jockey for position,” said King, “before taking [a] hard left onto the trail at about a half mile in. This is the part that always feels great to me since my background is in road racing. Then it takes that turn and goes straight uphill.”
Along the course, fans, who had hiked or taken the funicular to get a prime location, lined the trail with noise makers and alpine horns and shouted as runners came by: “Allez! Allez! Allez! Tres bien! Tres bien!”
“The first uphill is very tough,” wrote Nilsson later. “I tried to stay controlled, but I think I got a little too tired for running fast on the flat.”
Within a few miles, the men’s leaders had separated and Lucy Murigi, a two-time Sierre-Zinal winner and 2017 World Mountain Running Champion from Kenya, had taken the lead for the women, branching out on her own, never to get caught.
“Michelle Maier and I were together for a few meters at the beginning,” she said at the finish line, “then from there, I pushed out alone until the end.”
Megan MacKenzie, the 2015 South African Long-Distance Trail Champion and African X Champion in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017, felt good enough to start the race, despite some stomach issues leftover from the previous week.
“I climbed well,” she wrote later, “and was running strong with many of the top ladies. When I hit the ‘flat,’ my tummy started to cramp and twist. I couldn’t take any nutrition from then on.”
At this point, the race videographers (cyclists and runners) captured the action. Tuning in, I watched Murigi run away from the women’s pack. I saw Gray, Simpson and Carera Casas trying to outkick each other. And before I got to the aid station, I watched Jornet pass through it and escape untethered, onto the quiet ridgeline.
A New Spectator Sport
Trail running hasn’t changed much over the years. Since Gordon Ainsleigh attempted the first 100-mile footrace in the U.S. and Roelants and Hauser toed the line at the first Sierre-Zinal, the purses have gotten heavier and the shoes have gotten lighter. Yet, it’s still up to one woman or one man to cover a certain distance in the least amount of time.
To see our simple sport broadcast with the finesse of an Olympic event was somewhat strange. It was as though I was watching a new kind of race—one that’s accessible and doesn’t take place in the hard-to-reach mountains. At the same time, it was thrilling to think that trail running could have a future as a spectator sport, as it never has before, eventually drawing more and more people.
31 Kilometers Later
The spirit at the finish line was … not one of triumph and broken records. Gray teetered away, pale in the face, having fought for 10th place with Adkin and ultimately finishing 11th; MacKenzie cruised in, visibly disappointed with her 25th-place finish and King sat atop a nearby hill, looking dejected. Sixteenth place didn’t cut it for him.
“I’m disappointed for sure,” he said. “I don’t know what happened.”
Later, Gray recounted in an email, “No part of the race felt great, which was apparent from the slow splits on the climb. [It] was a race I’d rather forget to be honest.”
Even Jornet knew the day wasn’t a record breaker. “I saw, on the first uphill, the time wasn’t very good,” he said. “I thought it might be possible for some of the really fast guys [flat-trained racers]. [I would] need to do like one year of professional training specific to that. For me, it’s really hard to combine long distance and [flat speedwork], but I’m very happy with the time.” Despite Jornet’s recent year of injuries and recovery, he finished Sierre-Zinal in the fastest time of his eight finishes, in 2:31:39, about two minutes off the record.
Two racers stood out from the shadows, however. Murigi, the women’s champion, who came in at 2:57:54, and Kimmel, who finished 6th in 3:09:55, upheld the spirit of the event. Murigi’s grin was ear to ear and she bubbled with pride and excitement. “I’m very happy,” she said. “It’s my favorite race. It’s very challenging.” Murigi plans to be back in 2019 for her fifth time.
“Next year, I want to break the course record,” she said.
Kimmel maintained her laid-back Colorado demeanor, despite being in the middle of a blitz of four races in nine weeks (Broken Arrow Skyrace 52K, Sierre-Zinal 31K, Pikes Peak Marathon, UTMB TDS 119K). “This is just a tough race,” she said. “A lot of us who are out here are used to more technical courses. This is flat and fast and there’s no break.”
Two weeks later, Kimmel went on to break the record at the Pikes Peak Marathon, in 4:15:04.
The racers thinned, many of whom caught buses that night for the next morning’s flight. Michelle Maier, the women’s second place finisher (3:01:30) from Russia, passed by MacKenzie and Stevie Kremer, 2014 Sierre-Zinal Champion, on her way back from a cool-down run. Mackenzie and Kremer drank tall Swedish beer on hand-carved benches and watched the afternoon darken into dusk.
—Megan Janssen is the Associate Editor of Trail Runner magazine.
This article first appeared in the December 2018 issue of Trail Runner. To receive great content straight to your door, click here.