This past Sunday was the 42nd running of Sierre-Zinal. The race is both legendary and, often, a true epic.
Here’s why. For more than four decades, there have been famously tough competitors present—many of the world’s strongest mountain runners put Sierre-Zinal first in their summer plans. Second, the course includes a sharp, steep climb, an alpine traverse, and finally a vertigo-inducing descent. The combination often results in dramatic moments and nail-biting outcomes. Much has been written here and elsewhere, suggesting that Sierre-Zinal ranks as one of the world’s finest trail races.
Running the race this year, I realized a more subtle quality of Sierre-Zinal that makes the course so exceptional. The physical and mental challenges stand in opposition, creating a juxtaposition that calls on racers to rise to the occasion in a fashion few other races offer.
Here’s how it happens.
Physically, Sierre-Zinal asks the most out of participants right up front. A steep, 1,800-meter climb right off the start line demands maximum output, for an hour or more. Once runners break out of the forest at Ponchette, the course moderates. From there, it’s rolling alp pastures until Barneuza, where Sierre-Zinal pivots, and points its nose downward like a jet coming in for an approach. Runners gather downhill momentum along a trail that might as well have been designed solely for pure trail running speed.
Then, just three kilometers from the finish, the course turns right and dive-bombs to the village of Zinal. It’s here where the downhill skills of European trail runners are so plainly evident. Technically adept mountain runners gracefully free-fall, their feet dancing in choreographed succession over steeply-angled terrain. Kilian Jornet was up to 90 seconds behind Columbia’s William Rodriguez when he reached this point, this year. He won by four seconds.
In these last 10 kilometers, Sierre-Zinal requires a level of constant, hyper-vigilance that I’ve yet to experience in any other trail race. Just as fatigue sets in, the course ratchets up the mental demands. Footfalls come faster and faster. Miss a landing, and you might not see the finish. The mentally agile, able to process landings in rapid-fire succession, pass less-focused competitors as if they were standing still.
It’s a truism that any trail race offers both physical and mental challenges. Running from Sierre to Zinal, however, starkly highlights one’s strengths and weaknesses in each domain. It’s just one more reason why Sierre-Zinal is one of the best trail races in the world.