Hobnobbing with alpine elite on the eve of Sierre-Zinal

I'm in the village of Zinal in the heart of the Valais Alps, Switzerland. It's quintessential Swiss style and scenery here - traditional wooden chalets adorned by red geranium window boxes, the tinkling of cow bells from the mountainsides, cool crisp alpine air, and mountain peaks towering above. And it's these mountains that are the reason 1280 runners are here this weekend, for the 39th running of the Sierre-Zinal.

I'm so happy to be here - I was selected by the newly formed Skyrunning Association of South Africa (SASA) and sponsored by the International Skyrunning Federation (ISF) and Velocity Sports Lab to participate in this famous race. And the double privilege is that, although hard to believe, I'm the first South African to ever do this race!

I had known Sierre-Zinal was an important race on the European trail running circuit, but only now, being here, have I realised the enormity of this event, and just how much prestige it carries. This is where the alpine elite really strut their stuff. Says US master speedster Pablo Vigil, four times winner of the race in the early '80s, the winners of this race are rated the best - it's the true test of trail running.

Sierre-Zinal is one of the main races of the ISF's Skyrunning World Series, and is reputedly to trail running what the New York Marathon is to road running. And it's tough, really tough. In true Skyrunning style, it boasts a 2200m elevation gain. According to Pablo, this race takes no prisoners - there's nowhere to hide, and it reduces every runner to absolute humility.

The race starts at 9am tomorrow in the town of Sierre at 585m, and we'll climb constantly for 24km to 2425m, dropping 800m over the last 7km down to Zinal at 1680m.

Thankfully I'm here to participate, rather than to race. Trying to push the pace at altitudes like that when training at sea level is likely to pop a lung!
Spaniard Marco de Gasperi will be defending his title

The field this year is exceptional. Apart from trail god Kilian Jornet (who's preparing for Pikes Peak next week in the US), everyone who's anyone in alpine running is here.

Hot contenders in the men's category include Marco de Gasperi (Italy), who'll be defending his title (his time last year was 2:30:18, just 1m06s off the course record, set by New Zealander Jonathan Wyatt in 2003); Cesar Costa (Portugal), who placed 2nd last year; Luis Alberto Hernando (Spain) who is the Skyrunning World Series champ 2011, winner of the recent Sky Games 2012, and is currently leading the ranking of this year's World Series); and Tofol Castanyer (Spain), who was winner of the 32km Giir di Mont in Italy two weeks ago. Tom Owens (UK), who came 2nd in Giir di Mont, is also tipped for a top 10 spot, although with his preference for longer distance and more descent, this race might not play to his strengths.

Sierre-Zinal 2011 winner Oihana Cortazar with Pablo Vigil
The women's field is equally intimidating and has a very strong Spanish contingent: Oihana Cortazar (Spain) won the Sierre-Zinal ladies title in 2011 (3:11:25) and says she's feeling even stronger this year; Blanca Serrano (Spain) came 2nd in the Pyranees Skyrunning Marathon in June, and is currently in 2nd place in the Skyrunning World Cup rankings; Sylvia Serafini (Italy) is from a track and road-running background and although fairly new to trail running, has been storming the Skyrunning calendar with a 2nd place at the Mont Blanc Marathon (beating the previous record), 2nd spot at Kilian's Classik in Font Romeu, and 2nd place at Giir di Mont (perhaps tomorrow will be her day for a 1st?).

Other strong contenders in the ladies are sky mountaineer world champ Mireia Miro (Spain), who placed 3rd in the Dolomites Skyrace in Italy three weeks ago; current Sky Games champ Nuria Picas (Spain); and Stevie Kremer (US), who's new to the European trail curcuit but hails from Colorado, so is altitude prepped and well used to high mountains.
Pablo Vigil with Colorado speedster Stevie Kremer
But it'll be interesting to see whether the women's field is strong enough to break the record of 2:54:26 (set by Anna Pichrtova of the Czech Republic in 2008), as no one has come close.

It'll be a fantastic race! Watch this space for a post-race report once I've got my breath back tomorrow!

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