Thursday, 21 October 2010

Zermatt Marathon 2007

I'm still not running much, and don't have a lot to write about my training at the moment. So instead here is a report I wrote a few years ago about running the Zermatt Marathon on 7 July 2007:

The Zermatt Marathon

In 2005 we visited Zermatt for the day as part of a family holiday to Switzerland. While we were there, I picked up an entry form for the Zermatt Marathon, which was being run about a month after we were there. It looked like quite a challenge, and something that I thought I would like to have a go at some day.

In late 2006 I decided I wasn't getting any younger so entered the 2007 Zermatt Marathon. The route is the standard marathon distance of 26 miles, except that the finish is a vertical mile higher than the start, at an altitude of over 8,000ft. This means that most of the 26 miles are uphill. For the next few months I did what training I could to prepare for the event - basically this meant planning running routes that took in as many hills as possible, rather than avoiding them.

I persuaded my friend Jeff to have a go at the Zermatt Marathon with me, though he is a very good runner so I didn't expect to see much of him after the start of the race. In June 2007, we took part in the Lowe Alpine Mountain Marathon, a two-day mountain navagation race held in the Scottish Highlands every year - each team has to be self-sufficient for the weekend so this meant we carried a tent, sleeping bags, food and a stove for the whole event. The event was really tough, but definitely helped to build up our stamina, and get some "hill strength" in our legs. Unfortunately it also wrecked my feet, which wasn't great four weeks before the Zermatt Marathon.

The Zermatt Marathon was held on a Saturday, so we flew to Geneva the day before, drove to Tasch, then caught the train to Zermatt. Competitors in the marathon can use their race number to get free travel on the train up the valley to Zermatt, and the Gornergrat mountain railway, on the Friday and Saturday of the race weekend. We arrived in Zermatt in the afternoon, so took the mountain railway past the Riffelberg Hotel (where the race would finish the next day) and up to Gornergrat. At just under 10,000ft, we got our first taste of the effect of altitude as we both were out of breath walking from the railway station up to the Gornergrat view point.

The next morning, we had an early breakfast in our hotel in Zermatt (we stayed at Le Petit Hotel, which I would recommend to anyone looking for somewhere to stay in Zermatt), then caught the train down the valley to St Niklaus, where the marathon would start. Having seen how far up in the mountains the finish was the day before, I was nervous since we seemed to be starting a very long way down the valley. I had originally set myself a target time of five hours, but was now thinking that I would be delighted just to finish the race.

At 8.50am, the runners set-off. The first thirteen miles took us back up the valley to Zermatt, passing through a number of small villages on the way. This part of the route ran very gently uphill though there were a few steep inclines along the way - in total we climbed about 2,000 feet over the thirteen miles. My plan was to run very easily for the first part, an aim to get to Zermatt in a little over 2 hours. Then I would have about three hours for the second, harder, half of the route to be within my five hour target. I reached the Zermatt Bahnhof in 2 hours and 5 minutes feeling quite fresh - I had been making the most of the regular refreshment stations and was taking on plenty of fluid as it was already a hot day.

The next two miles weaved through Zermatt before the big climbs started - next was 4 miles uphill, climbing nearly 2,500 feet, up forest tracks to Sunnega. Most of the competitors I was with walked up the hill, but I found a steady slow jog pace that felt okay so managed to make up a lot of places on the climb. By the top the heat, distance, climb and altitude was starting to take its toll. From Sunnega to Riffelalp the route runs along the tree line as it contours across a wide valley. The views from this section of the route were spectacular, and helped to take my mind off the pain in my legs. The route was mainly flat on this section so it was a chance to relax and try to cover some miles at a decent pace - by the time I reached Riffelalp I was confident of achieving my five hour target time, though I wasn't certain as I knew what came next.

We passed Riffelalp after 24 miles. It was now only 2 miles to the finish at the Riffelberg Hotel, the only problem was that the Riffelberg is over 1,000 feet higher than Riffelalp. I was forced to walk for this final climb, although I just managed to break into a slow jog for a photo in front of the Matterhorn. The last ascent was very painful on legs that had little left in them - I think the extra stamina I had gained from the LAMM a month earlier really helped here. The last quarter of a mile were gently downhill, and it was good to be able to run the last section in such a spectacular setting. I crossed the line just under 5 hours after leaving St Niklaus.

It's difficult to describe the feeling of elation on completing this marathon. It was a brilliant experience - spectators along the way were very friendly and encouraging, the refreshment stations were excellent, and the entire route was through stunningly beautiful scenery. After I finished, I took a pint of the free beer that was being offered (though I went for the non-alcoholic option), sat down on the grass near the finish and drank in the view. My legs didn't hurt, they just felt absolutely empty - I think a marathon uphill on mainly soft surfaces does not hurt the legs as much as a more traditional marathon, but there is no doubt it took more out of me.

I met up with Jeff - he had finished 17th overall in about 3 and a half hours - an incredible achievement! He had enjoyed the race as much as I had and we were both as high as kites. It was such a beautiful afternoon that we took the train up to Gornergrat again to take in the views, and had a celebratory beer at the Gornergrat Hotel, with a great view of the entire route.

I would recommend the Zermatt Marathon to any runner who is looking for a bit of a different challenge to a normal marathon. The event is very well run (as you would expect from the Swiss), and is a great experience.

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