Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Switzerland - Sierre-Zinal (3 out of 4)

Zinal is a great place to be.

I couldn't decide whether I was looking forward to or dreading running the 39th Sierre-Zinal race. The challenge of 31km, starting with a 1500m climb in the first 10km, then 20km of undulating mountain trails reaching altitudes of 2425m, and finishing with a steep descent was going to be a tough one (course profile here for exact figures).

But a spectacular one too. There is something special about point-to-point races - sort of summarised by the madness of getting the 7am bus 40 minutes down the mountain only to run back up. But it's not any old run back home - it's called the course of the five 4000s so the views aren't too bad.

I was scared. I couldn't think of a time when I had raced over 2 hours (excluding races involving large navigational errors). This would take 3 1/2 hours at best. And the climb - 1500m to start with. Had I ever done such a long climb let alone so steeply?

So since the World Orienteering Champs a month ago, I switched my focus from 15 minute sprint racing to getting ready for Sierre-Zinal. I've tried to get in at least 2x3 hour runs each week with some climb. I was confident I would complete the course but I wanted to have fun too, and maybe even get involved in a race.

Roughly the route we ran
To be honest all of those hopes either disappeared or were in doubt at some point. I was prepared for tough, I like tough, but this was new tough. I knew I had to take the start steady. I did, and hundreds of runners stormed past me. We hit the narrow windy track and the gradient ramped up. I found the pace too slow so nipped in and out of people and caught up quite a bit. I felt good, it felt easy enough - great!

This continued for about an hour or more in similar fashion. I took a gel near the top ready to push on when we hit flatter stuff. It didn't take too long before i had my first problem - a stitch. I don't often get stitches and this was painful. I just shuffled along waiting for it to go. It took its time. Swarms ran back past me and I saw my competitive race drifting away. Oh well, it can only get better.

It wasn't long after that we got out of the tree line and into the open. I was wearing a visor to shield myself from the sunlight but I suddenly felt a bit funny. I went a hot and cold and tingly. Not good. The question of dropping out appeared in my mind. Was it even safe to continue? With my body fast giving up on me, I decided that if I wasn't going to be physically strong today then I would be mentally. It now was a question of completion.

Course des cinq 4000s
The next kilometres were just about forward progress. Every step meant I was closer to the end. My 'race' was well and truly over. People came past me and I didn't even try to stay with them. Just me against the mountain! The climb to Hotel Weisshorn was not steep or long but at over 2000m altitude, it felt brutal.

I could see Zinal. I was going to make it - all downhill from here (I wish). The undulating rocky path was painful on my battered feet, the small ups and downs seemed to ruin my quads. At least the views were good! The last few km were easier as gravity was on my side. However single track paths with some tricky rocky sections brought their own challenges when trying to pass the more safety conscious runners and tourists.

Just a bit of the atmosphere that met us in Zinal
And finally -Zinal! It was time to smile as I ran the last 500m through the streets. The man I had run the last few km with suddenly pulled up clutching his leg. I ran past and hit him on the back "Come on - 300 to go!" It seemed to be that kind of spirit by this point. We ran and crossed the line together before collapsing in a heap.

I did it. 3 hr 45 mins 00 seconds.

As an 'elite' athlete, it's a bit funny to race and just be happy to finish. I think it shows a number of things - firstly how good the real elite of skyrunning are. The top women were running around 3 hrs and the men about 2 hr 30. Secondly, it shows how underprepared I was - both in terms of training beforehand and how I 'raced' on the day. I need a lot more miles in the legs over the whole season, not just the last month and I needed to be even more conservative at the start.

But somehow these things are strangely fun and addictive. I'll be back for more both at Sierre-Zinal and at other similar races. My race report may not make you want to sign up for next year's race so do read Murray's write-up.  This really is an iconic race, with fantastic organisation and atmosphere and an absolute "must-do". As always, I have to thank Arc'teryx for yet another new, crazy, brilliant, fun and painful experience.

(race photos unavailable at time of writing - thankfully)

The panorama from just west of Zinal. Views to Mt Blanc.
See the interactive panorama here

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