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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
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