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Sierre-Zinal, 2020 Edition: A Unique Trail Race Experience

Sierre-Zinal, 2020 Edition: A Unique Trail Race Experience

Oct 2, 2020

Sierre-Zinal is one of the world’s great trail races. Starting in Switzerland’s famous Rhône valley, the course climbs steeply out of the valley for 1800 meters, then rolls along a striking ridge, with views of five glacier-covered 4,000-meter peaks, before ending in the quiet end-of-the-line village of Zinal, not far from the Italian border.

Now part of Salomon’s Golden Trail Series, the race annually draws 5,000 participants, including many of the world’s elites. With a steep climb, a gentle mid-section, and a plummeting, technical descent, Sierre-Zinal really does have it all, testing trail runners on all sorts of terrain.

This year, however, Covid-19 precluded the annual gathering of so many trail runners and many thousands more spectators. Instead, race organizers offered a unique experience, allowing registered runners to sign up to run during a month-long window, and take part with no lack of social distance.

Run the Alps guest Greg Birk, along with our friend Milo Zanecchia, took part. Milo, a talented photographer and videographer, documented the experience. Run the Alps spoke with Greg about the unique 2020 edition of Sierre-Zinal. Here’s his story.

Run the Alps: So, Greg, what was it like when you arrived?

Greg: The starting area was dark and quiet when Milo and I met at 6:10 am, about an hour before sunrise. We had to mask up to enter the area to pick up our race numbers. There were no lines– we walked right up to the tables. The volunteers checked to see that I had a mobile phone with a required SOS app on it and the Sierre-Zinal race organization phone number to call, in case I dropped out of the run.

Pre-dawn in the starting tent, a runner prepares to head out onto the course. (Photo: Milo Zanecchia.)

Overall, it was very quiet and chill. Most shocking to me — when I asked the volunteers where the portable toilets were located — they said there were none. When was the last time you were at the start area of a world-famous race and there were no Porta-potties? You know Covid has had an impact when there are no Porta-potties at a race!

Run the Alps: Did you just start whenever you wanted?

Greg: Yes. We just geared up, said our good-byes to our partners and walked through the tent, past the check-in tables. There was no music playing, no one announcing names of people as they started off. Since I don’t speak French, I just walked by and nodded to the volunteers. I kept going, figuring they would stop me if I was headed the wrong way. Once I exited the tent, I heard the beep of the chip reader, and it was clear I was on the course. The pavement had large painted arrows, then signs directing you to the trail.

Arrows point the way to rockier, wilder footing, just meters from the start of the Sierre-ZInal course. (Photo: Milo Zanecchia.)

We started around 7:00 am, which was fine, because starting any earlier would have meant we would have had to bring headlamps. We were glad to have some daylight to navigate over and around the tree roots and rocks.

Run the Alps: How did the start feel?

Greg: I was apprehensive. I had never run Sierre-Zinal before, nor had I ever been on the trails the race uses. However, I was familiar with Sierre from a summer spent in nearby Albinen, across the valley.

Looking at the steep face of the race start on the south side of the valley is intimidating. You wonder, “How can there be a trail there that you can run up?” I felt a bit like Alice in Wonderland, when I was heading out of the start tent.

Run the Alps: When you were on the course, did you feel like you were racing, or did it somehow feel different?

Greg: No, it didn’t feel like a race. I didn’t have a sense that anyone was racing. I did not notice any groups of runners competing with each other, trying to hang on or drop each other. Strangely, I also do not remember any runners paired up running together as friends or as one of those new group of friends that invariably forms spontaneously during a race.

Greg on the move along the classic high-elevation Sierre-Zinal single track, which features big views and easy cruising. (Photo: Milo Zanecchia.)

Run the Alps: It sounds very different from a traditional Sierre-Zinal race year—and it sounds like fun!

Greg: This year, for me, Sierre-Zinal was an awesome long trail run with a friend at conversational pace—on a special course that was new to us. It was special to have the opportunity to run the course under these conditions, to really soak in the full beauty and challenge of it all.

Our conversation often turned to the history of the race, how crazy-fast the pros run on the course, how different it would be to be on the course with thousands of other runners and the endless line of runners on the trail. Instead, we got to see a beautiful, open trail ahead of us.

Heading uphill for well over 1,000 meters, runners eventually break out of the forest and are greeted by high pastures. (Photo: Milo Zanecchia.)

Run the Alps: Was it marked like a race? Where there aid stations?

Greg: There were no special wands or flagging tape marking the course. There were the usual painted yellow Z’s along the route, and small permanent signs.

There was one official aid station at Chandolin and two others staffed by very friendly locals, who offered up some snacks and drinks.

Aid station and volunteers, 2020 style. (Photo: Milo Zanecchia.)

Run the Alps: What was it like coming into Zinal?

Greg: Like the start, it was very chill. Milo and I ran in together. We ran past a few people along the street as we entered Zinal. They whooped it up a bit for us. It was great to see the famous 500, 400, 300, 200 and 100 meter marks painted on the road. The finish was the same as the start for Milo and me– just the two of us.

We had a little “fan” club of four at the finish, which I think accounted for 50% of the total spectators there. So, there was no problem getting a prime spot at the finish line or picking us out of a steady stream of runners. Like the start, we just ran under the finish structure and heard the beep as our chip time was recorded. The race organization had a table set up with some cups of water and some fruit. They also transported a bag for us to the race finish.

Greg and Milo tackle the final few hundred meters, a speedy descent along a paved road. Normally, crowds line the way, but for 2020, all was quiet. (Photo: Milo Zanecchia.)

Run the Alps: Congrats on racing Sierre-Zinal! Do you want to come back and do it when the race has returned to a more traditional set up?

Greg: Running the course with Milo ended up being a perfect day on the trail. The thought of doing it with a crowded start, course, and the busy Zinal scene after the finish doesn’t seem appealing to me now.

At the same time, I would also like to do Sierre-Zinal without an asterisk. I would love to do the 50th running of the race in a few years. I have done the 25th and 50th anniversaries of Colorado’s Pikes Peak Ascent, and the and 60th anniversary of the Pikes Peak Marathon. I have done the 100th edition of the Boston Marathon and the 25th Jungfrau Marathon, too. So, as you can see, I have an obsession with taking part in historic running events!

Run the Alps: It sounds like the race organization did a great job?

Greg: They did. Major kudos to them for setting up and staffing the course for a month. I wonder how the 30 days of runners coming into Zinal impacted the local economy, versus the weekend when the town is overrun in a traditional year.

Finish line in the rearview mirror, some aspects of a great trail race will never change. (Photo: Milo Zanecchia.)

Run the Alps would like to thank Sierre-Zinal Race Director Vincent Theytaz and Race Secretary Jessica Oertel for their help.

For More Information:

Why Sierre-Zinal just might be the Best Trail Race in the World

Sierre-Zinal: How to Do It

The Heart Before The Watch: Sierre-Zinal

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.