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Four decades of Sierre-Zinal: Race Founder Jean-Claude Pont Looks Back

Four decades of Sierre-Zinal: Race Founder Jean-Claude Pont Looks Back

Aug 9, 2018

Run the Alps is pleased to offer this short piece from past Sierre-Zinal Race Director Jean-Claude Pont. Pont, retired from careers as a university professor, researcher, and Swiss mountain guide, remains a sort of Renaissance man – deeply intellectual, charismatic and thoughtful, though often holding views counter to the prevailing sentiments of the day.

I have been asked to write about the changes to the running of Sierre-Zinal over the forty years I directed the race.

But first, I want to state that Sierre-Zinal is not a trail race, but rather a race in the mountains. I really care about this difference. In a true trail race, there is the idea of survival, of the autonomy of the runner – autonomy in food, navigation, and sometimes even when to sleep. The idea of the trail contains a sort of transcendence, while a mountain race is, rather, something secular, if I can use these words a bit out of context. I believe attention to detail is important, and in this case, the vocabulary matters. It is partly because we have attached such importance to these details that Sierre-Zinal has enjoyed such huge success.

Sierre-Zinal founder and longtime Race Director Jean-Claude Pont, at home in Zinal with his wife, Christine.

To return to the specific question put to me: “In forty years of Sierre-Zinal have you observed changes in the spirit or the atmosphere?” I must answer, “No.” At first glance, there is nothing to say because – Thank God! – Sierre-Zinal has in many respects not really changed.

Admittedly, the number of participants has increased, and while our organization is entirely voluntary – no one receives even a cent – it has undoubtedly improved. I am fortunate to have found a successor in Vincent Theytaz, who endorses this philosophy and brings strong new ideas, without changing the fundamental foundation of Sierre-Zinal.

What we proposed was new and original. At the birth of the idea of Sierre-Zinal, I was a mountain guide. Practically speaking, I had never run. And as I think about it now, I am convinced that if I had been a runner, I would never have invented such a race! If I had been a runner, I would have been like everyone else – that is to say, following the rules, my eyes fixed only on what existed at that time. In other words, I would have remained on the well-trodden trails. I might have conceived of a race just like the other races or, more likely, nothing new at all, since the existing races already seemed enough. When one is immersed in a certain scene, one sees only a two-dimensional world with a narrow horizon.

Part of the pleasure of Sierre-Zinal is getting an opportunity to visit with some of the world’s best trail runners. Course record-holder Jonathan Wyatt (7th, in 2:36.56 this year) pals around with Billy Burns (10th as recently as 2015, in 2:38.22), and four-time course winner Pablo Vigil. (Doug Mayer photo.)

However, when we step outside of the scene, we can embrace all the space around and then the metaphorical walls of the prison tumble. This is probably what happened in my subconscious in those autumn days of 1973.

Note, by the way, that I did not say “when I looked for a new race idea,” but “when the idea was presented to me.” The difference is that it wasn’t a rationally constructed idea, but a product of some kind of deeper intuition. It was an idea so unexpected that I tried to resist it, thinking, “It’s not possible – 31 kilometers, 2,200 meters of climbing, 800 of descent, sometimes at an elevation of around 2500 meters, and on technical paths.” My overriding thought was, “Nobody will come!” Indeed it was, at least in Europe, the first race of its kind. In that first year, however, we had a thousand participants, including world-class athletes.

Run the Alps staff members Doug Mayer, Troy Haines, Abby Strauss-Malcolm and Zach Dahlmer, not far from the Sierre-Zinal finish in 2014. (Photo courtesy of Cédric Pignat.)

It was a sort of fight between the idea of Sierre-Zinal and me. In the end, the idea won. And with this defeat, I began to announce to friends, to the press, to the world. The idea of a race from Sierre to Zinal spreading by word of mouth. On all sides came disbelief and scepticism.

But, also, there was a lot of interest. What furthered the appeal was the creation of a “tourist” category. I wanted to convince people who had never donned a bib before in their life, to register. So I offered the idea of a beautiful hike, mixed with runners of world renown, a large celebratory meal on arrival. There would be no classification, but instead a certificate with their finishing time. This concept has had huge success, and each year the number of tourists constitutes about 60% of the total number of participants. I know hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people who didn’t do much in the way of sports, but started running after discovering sporting interests in the “tourist” category of Sierre-Zinal. This category gives our event a very particular hue, and a festive atmosphere that cannot be found elsewhere. The tourist category represents one of my mottos for the race, “The heart before the clock.”

US mountain runners Stevie Kremer and Joe Gray share conversation and smiles after the 2015 running of Sierre-Zinal. (Photo: Doug Mayer.)

Several times a year over the decades, a journalist would ask me, “What are you going to change for this next edition of Sierre-Zinal?” I always answered with what I think is a magnificent saying, “When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change!”

For More Information:

Sierre-Zinal Race Page

Sierre-Zinal: How to Do It

Why Sierre-Zinal the Best Trail Race in the World

The Heart Before the Watch (Trail Runner Magazine article.)

Doug Mayer
Doug Mayer is the founder of Run the Alps and lives in Chamonix, France with his labradoodle, Izzy. He is the author of The Race that Changed Running: The Inside Story of UTMB and writes for Outside Online and Ultrasignup News. His upcoming book is a graphic novel about Italy’s 330km long Tor des Géants trail race.