After arriving in Zermatt the weekend before, I’d spent the last week doing my final preparations before taking part in the Ultraks Matterhorn skyrace, a 49km long trail race with approximately 3600m of climb!
Arriving at 6:30am for a 7am start at the Zermatt outdoor sports complex in the centre of town, we were quickly separated into waves which would leave 5 minutes apart, each consisting of around 50 people. On the floor were markings to space people in lines of 4, 1.5m apart (the rule in Switzerland). We all had to wear our masks at the start line, before either disposing of them in bins after the start line, or taking them with you for the remainder of the race. The organisation was impressive.
To start us off, there were three men in funny traditional outfits with massive horns followed by exciting music, which, despite being 6:55, managed to get you pumped to get started. I was in the B wave and when our group set off, they left in a big hurry! It was difficult to not get drawn into racing off with the crowd for what would be a pretty tough start, pretty much 15km and 2000m of climbing! I eventually found a small group of similar paced runners and began the climb at a more reasonable pace through pine forests, zigzagging our way up the first climb. After about an hour and fifteen in, I hit the first checkpoint. I had no need to stop to refill water or get food as I’d been a bit over prepared… I’d set off from the lowest point of the race carrying about 2.5l of water and enough food for the whole day, which, whilst being almost completely self-sufficient, was a bit idiotic, and it made the first climb really tough going! The next checkpoint would be at the Gornergrat Station, a 19th century impressive feat of engineering, being situated over 3000m and lying above a glacier. It felt like a long slog up, but it was great passing through and above the cloud cover to reveal the expansive glaciers. Not your every day run, that’s for sure!
After reaching the summit and having a quick top up of coca cola, mentally I’d told myself that half the climb was pretty much done and that the remaining 35km would be a bit flatter… while this was a temporary positive boost, it was a bit mistaken, as I was soon to learn.
The descent off the top was a lot of fun, especially heading back through the cloud cover running from 1 orange flag to another just in sight, passing small lakes and plenty of bemused walkers. After a few hours of hiking uphill, it felt great to finally start running with gravity on my side. I was feeling so good that I decided to pass right by the checkpoint, where the funny looking horn players were again, before quite suddenly we started to climb again. My legs however, felt like they’d turned to jelly at this point and I was kicking myself for not taking a few minutes to refresh at the last checkpoint.
I’d been on this route earlier in the week but run down it in reverse. I just kept thinking how much better it was going down than up! After what seemed like an age, I eventually reached the top, having definitely lost a lot of places on the climb. I was now about 30km in at the Schwarzsee Lake and chair lift. At least I was over half way!
Not wanting to repeat the mistakes at the last aid station, I decided to take a tactical 5 minute sit down which was very welcome! At the turn of being four hours in, I picked myself up, and started the long descent back down, my legs now feeling pretty recovered from the break. This section was a lot of fun, a fast and runnable zigzagging descent where I started to take back some of the places I’d lost. We began to descend back into the tree line and were soon faced with a huge and rather wobbly suspension bridge crossing a deep ravine. It was very cool!
I knew at this point that there was only one big climb left and that I’d done this one in reverse several times while out training during the previous week. It was my favourite section, as it was on the quieter side of Zermatt, with no ski infrastructure and just nice trails, tons of wild flowers, butterflies, waterfalls and the occasional sheep. The best part was after the climb up (still a good 600m of climb!), there were several miles of pretty flat, but high and runnable trail. Before this point you’d largely been either climbing or descending, both of which are pretty tough going! The final section passed near one of the mountain refuge hotels that I’d stayed at where the final check point was.
It was great to see Paul, one of Steve Rhodes’ mates, who’d done the Extreme Race the day before, cheering me on (thanks for the photo!).
My legs felt great at this point, possibly the best I’d felt the whole race, as I knew that I’d be able to finish alright! This final section was probably the most technically challenging part: the path became pretty narrow and the drop down the mountain was huge! Not one for those who suffer vertigo that’s for sure! It was stunning though, the clouds had long gone and the views were breathtaking. In what seemed like no time at all, the small dots that were the buildings of Zermatt became bigger and I was sprinting through the town to the finish line. It felt great!
Such a fantastic event, it felt totally safe and well organized and it was a proper tough but rewarding route. I’ll definitely be back some day!