Sierre-Zinal 2012 - a South African perspective

The 39th running of the iconic Sierre-Zinal yesterday was a fantastic experience, and it was an exciting privilege to be a part of it. And, crazy as it sounds, to be the first South African ever to do the race!

As I'd been warned, the route was a real leg and lung tester – from an altitude gain more than a technical perspective (Sierre-Zinal is said to be the least technical on the Skyrunning calendar). I had heard this race affectionately referred to as a “slog fest” and now, having experienced it first hand, I’d agree but rather opt for “scenic Swiss sweat fest” – the first half of the course is hard work but the alpine views, particularly at the highest point (2 425m), make the slog worth every bead of sweat.

Also known as La Course des Cinq 4000 (The Course of the Five 4 000), the route offers dramatic views of five of the highest peaks in the Valais Alps: Weisshorn (4 506m), Zinalrothorn (4 221m), Ober Gabelhorn (4 073m), Cervin (4 478m) and Dent Blanche (4 357m).

The race started in Sierre (600m) at 9am. The elites (about 80 of us) were batched at the front for a clear start, but from the second the race began, the surge from the other 1 800 runners was incredible – here in Europe it seems there’s no polite waiting your turn to get moving like we do in SA; here the runners make sure they ALL start immediately by pushing and shoving!

After about 800m on tar, we hopped on a wide trail that gradually narrowed to single track. And so began our long slog up, up and up a seemingly never ending path that wound its way higher and higher through the forest.

I’d taken the decision not to race this event but rather enjoy it and take everything in – the course, the views, the ambience, the whole rich experience. So I found myself in mid-field, and was happy to be there.

I hadn’t been slogging up that mountainside for long before I noticed something distinctly different from what we’re used to back in SA. The slog was happening in complete silence. Not a French, Spanish, Italian, Russian, English word was being uttered. Sure, there was much huffing and puffing, grunting, snotting and spogging (actually, a frightening amount of the latter), but not a single word. Not a chirp, not an tease, not even an expletive. Maybe it’s a cultural difference between South Africans and Europeans, or maybe SA trail and road runners just enjoy hurling abuse at anything along the route that makes their legs burn, but the eerie silence yesterday had me most confused. I found myself thinking I’d be able to slog that mountain faster if I expressed a bunch of expletives, but knew that if I did so I’d surely alarm the silent army around me. So I sweated through the pain without a word.

One of the other striking differences I noticed between this event and our trail races in SA was the generous amount of route-marking (the Sierre-Zinal has for decades been a popular hiking trail, after all), and the refreshment stations every 3-5km. The runners in this race are pampered, just as if in a road race – wet sponges, water, iced tea, Isotonic, bananas, quartered oranges, chocolate, even sugar cubes! This meant I ran the race carrying absolutely nothing – no pack and no waistbelt. Great but not something I must let myself get used to.

The crowd support along the way was superb, with spectators, hikers and picnickers cheering, ringing cow bells and urging us on with “bravo” and “allez allez” (go! go!).

On the topic of go!, it’s a scary fact that when sea level athletes run at altitudes above 1 800m, their legs no longer understand their brain. The legs start speaking a different language. Or worse, they speak no language at all. They comprehend only one thing: S-L-O-W  D-O-W-N. And by 2 400m, no amount of chiding or cajoling by the brain can convince them to speed up pace. Any higher and the rebelliousness becomes exponential. All this is a sad and most inconvenient fact when one is trying to run a race at altitude…

The final 7km of Sierre Zinal are sheer pleasure for downhill trail runners – with the path dropping 800m to the finish, the single track winds its way, at times gently, other times sharply, through alpine forest, down grassy banks, past hiking huts, across streams, eventually through a short tunnel and into Zinal for a fast, sharp downhill 700m stretch of tar to the finish.

With its magnificent scenery, excellent organisation and exquisite trail running, it’s easy to see why Sierre-Zinal is such a highly regarded event on the European trail calendar.

Associated with elite trail names like Jonathan Wyatt (who set the 2:24 course record in 2003), Kilian Jornet, Angela Mudge, Anna Pichrtova and many others, Sierre-Zinal is rated as one THE middle distance trail races to win. And since being included as a Skyrunning event a few years ago, the prestige of the race escalated even higher.
1st De Gasperi (right) and 2nd Cesar (left)

1st Camboulive (centre), 2nd Kremer (right), 3rd Mathys (left)

This year’s champs raced to trail running glory in superb style, with Marco de Gasperi crossing the line a full 6 mins clear of Costa Cesar. The women’s winner was Aline Camboulive, just 90 secs ahead of Stevie Kremer in a close clash of the speedsters.

1st        Marco de Gasperi (Italy)                      2:31:36
2nd       Costa Cesar (Switzerland)                 2:37:39
3rd        David Jose Cardona (Colombia)        2:38:06

1st        Aline Camboulive (France)                 3:02:58
2nd       Stevie Kremer (USA)                          3:04:33
3rd        Maude Mathys (Switzerland)              3:08:01

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