Mountain Happiness: Zermatt Marathon 2016

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This awesome race took place last Saturday close to Zermatt, one of Switzerland’s most visited places right at the foot of the most beautiful mountain in the world (so they say) the Matterhorn. I was looking forward to running this event for weeks. I love running on trails along great landscapes and the Zermatt Marathon promised to show some of the greatest views in the Alps. The 15th edition of this mountain race attracted over 2,500 runners from across the globe, elite athletes as well as hobby runners like me.

A little ultra

The elevation profile of the Zermatt Marathon

The elevation profile of the Zermatt Marathon

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Runners had the choice to team up with a friend for the team race, do the Half Marathon, Marathon or add a little extra to cover a distance of 45.595 km (28.3 mi) which makes it technically an Ultra Marathon. I couldn’t resist and signed up for this “little ultra” with a finish at the Gornergrat at a bit more than 10,000 feet (3,100 m) above sea level. The start took place in a small village called St Niklaus in the middle of a valley flanked by mountains as high as 14,500 feet (4,500 m).

St. Niklaus, the village where the start was

St. Niklaus, the village where the start was

It was around 8am when I arrived at the start enjoying the morning sun and a fresh breeze. I still had time to have a warm tea which was served at the side of the road to all the hundreds of runners. Half an hour earlier I was a bit nervous because our new vacation home, a 20-year-old Volkswagen bus, had some issues and we couldn’t start the engine and had to go by public bus from our camping site to the village. After the start of the elite Marathon runners I took my position in the group of runners with a 3.5h flat marathon time. In joyful anticipation I was looking at the beautiful mountains around me and could hardly await the starting signal. After the starting gun the pace took off slowly squeezing hundreds of runners through the narrow alleys out of the village into the first short gradients. Right after the start an older guy asked his friend, why they put themselves in such a crazy event. His friend answered right away: That’s because our old brains are damaged 🙂 That made me smile for the first of many times in the course of the next couple of hours.

Running on “flat” streets and trails

The first 25km (15.5mi) were mostly on streets and some forest trails up the valley leading to Zermatt. It wasn’t really hot but the summer sun burned quite good even in the morning hours and the first uphill sections were making me sweat pretty good. At one of the first aid station I pressed a sponge full with cold water on my neck and head which was refreshing but also washed the vaseline off my skin that I had applied on to my nipples to protect them from friction. That was kind of stupid because 1.5h into the race my left nipple started burning and bleeding forcing me to hold my shirt with the left hand away from my skin for the next hour. I hoped that I can stop the bleeding by avoiding more friction, a tactic that worked. After around 2.5 hours I arrived in Zermatt a little bit disappointed that the Matterhorn, the most famous mountain of Switzerland if not Europe, was covered with clouds. I didn’t care that much as the other mountains, woods and grassy fields were already spectacular enough.

Up, up, up it goes

With a bit more than half marathon distance and some 600m (1,700 feet) of elevation gain already in the legs the first longer uphill started that brought us on some forest trails up to a nice view-point at almost 2,300m (7,500 feet) above sea level. It was mostly cloudy and raining a bit, making heat not an issue anymore. I was able to run some of the uphill but thought power hiking most of this section is better to safe some energy for later. The atmosphere among runners was great, some were joking around or sprinting towards the next aid station as we were able to see it through the trees.

Eat and drink after 600 meters of altitude gain

Eating and drinking after 600 meters of altitude gain

As I arrived at the aid station I filled my energy level with power bars, coke and a sports drink. Also I met there my girlfriend and my best friend that accompanied me on this run which gave me an even bigger motivation boost. I chatted some minutes with them and was already bragging a bit as I felt great with these first 32km (20 mi) and was pretty confident about finishing this race.

Running high

After this short break I felt ready for the single trail downhill sections ahead of me. It started with a technical part which I love and so I was going pretty fast and passing several other runners. After another uphill section we were running down and across a small stream that was coming out of a glacier. After the next aid station at about the 36km mark there was a section of around 3km through some woods on single trails with roots and rocks everywhere with a slight drop in altitude. This section was where the magic happened. I suddenly didn’t feel any exertion, I wasn’t running on the trail anymore, I was flying! It’s kind of hard to describe what I felt in that very moment but it was a very strong sense of being united with the trail as well as the other runners and the entire nature around me. I was in total flow, no pain but total euphoria like I haven’t experienced ever before. As I said the trails were quite technical and narrow but still I managed to pass some other runners. These moments were so overwhelming that I almost started crying, I mean I experienced the Runner’s High a lot of times but this was an entire new level of emotions. It was just magical!

The wall in front of me

Uphill from the train

View from the train to the runners. I’m the second from the right in the white shirt

The final section was a steep ascend of 900m (3000 ft) in just 6.5 km (4 mi). From the aid station the first part of the uphill was in sight and most runners couldn’t believe what is still ahead of them. But almost everyone including me took it with humor, had another drink and started their way towards the sky. The first half of it was tough but doable and there was always the possibility to take a break, breath and enjoy the mountain range in front of us. Every once in a while a train passed by (yes we have some trains up to 3,100 m in Switzerland) full of tourists and relatives of the runners that were cheering to the suffering athletes. The hardest part began right after the marathon finish on the last 2.5km of the ultra course. The trails were getting more technical and the air thinner and thinner and a strong, cold wind made the conditions even nastier. The last stretch was really tough but the finish line too close to give up so every runner tapped its last energy reserve to finish this adventure.

Exhausted but happy at the finish line

Exhausted but happy at the finish line

After entertaining, beautiful and very rewarding 6 hours and 7 minutes I crossed the finish line as happy as a man can be. I sure was exhausted but after hearing my name on the speakers and reflecting on what I have achieved I didn’t really feel anything else but happiness and pride. My friends were giving me high-fives and walked me over to the balcony, although cloudy weather, an exquisite view of the glaciers and some of the highest mountains of Switzerland unveiled. You have the same view when you go up the by train but it sure feels different when you ran up there. It is more intense and you happen to have a deeper feeling of connection to this place after moving on your own feet in this kind of terrain for hours.

Awesome view at the finish line of this great run

Awesome view at the finish line of this great run

To finish this report I need to say some words about the event and the organization. This has been the best Marathon I have ever taken part in regarding organization and runners care! Everything just worked from subscribing to the finish line and beyond. There were plenty of aid station with drinks, gels, bars, bananas and medical support if you needed it. And when do you ever have the chance to take a warm shower in the middle of the mountains. So I can definitely recommend this event and hope you ever have the chance to run this beautiful Marathon.

Happy running

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