There are ultramarathons with instant worldwide recognition—just about every runner has heard of the Western States 100 in California, or Comrades in South Africa. More than ten thousand runners scramble to get to Chamonix every year for a spot at the legendary Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB, in runner shorthand).
In comparison, the Sierre-Zinal mountain race in Switzerland—which is legendary in Europe but flies under the radar for most U.S. runners—seems quaint, with only 3,500 participants. Of those, only a few are actually “racing.” The rest are part of what the race labels the “Tourist” category, an uncompetitive wave made up of everything from families running together to athletes in it for the experience, not the podium. Though there are competitive and elite waves in the race, Sierre-Zinal remains loyal to the enthusiast core that inspired the event 46 years ago.
“As we say,” explains race director Vincent Theytaz, “it’s always the heart before the clock.”
Sierre-Zinal founder Jean-Claude Pont established the race in 1974 as a way to “rediscover the virtues of physical effort and regain bodily fitness by taking on a unique running challenge.” Pont simply wanted to celebrate joys of running—what better way than to do it on some of the most beautiful trails in the world?
“The attraction of going to the mountain is to forget your troubles and have fun,” says Theytaz.
Make no mistake—Sierre-Zinal is no stroll in the park. Over the race’s 19 miles, athletes traverse a course that starts in the Rhone Valley, then quickly ascends above the treeline to pass five of the most famous peaks of the Swiss Alps—Weisshorn, Obergablehorn, Dent Blanche, Zinalrothhorn, and the Matterhorn—before descending to the finish line in the mountain Village of Zinal. In all, athletes notch 7,200 feet of elevation gain and 3,600 feet of loss.
Those numbers confuse a lot of runners, since no one really knows how the race should be categorized. “She rides too much for a marathon runner, and she is too flat for an ultrarunner,” says Theytaz. “Sierre-Zinal is a race for nobody.” Yet somehow, in staking out its own unique corner of the running world, Sierre-Zinal has become a race for everybody.
“A lot of runners consider the course to be one of the best in the world, because it brings together nearly every sort of mountain trail race challenge: vert, flats, a technical downhill,” says Doug Meyer, of Randolph, New Hampshire, who has run Sierre-Zinal ten times in total. Though he has entered in the competitive “Runner” category in the past, Meyer prefers the Tourist category for its earlier start time.
“Running in the tourist division,” Meyer says. “When you first crest the climb, the sun has just risen and you start to see the four thousand meter peaks that give the course its nickname, La Course des Cinq 4000 (The Race of the Five 4,000s – meters, that is).” It’s one of many breathtaking moments that await runners on the course—figuratively and literally.
In addition to attracting tourists and amateur runners, the race is becoming a must-do for the best skyrunners and ultrarunners in the world, including Rickey Gates, Megan Kimmel, Joseph Gray, Max King, Ruth Croft and Killian Jornet, who has won the race six times. Though they come for the competition, they often return to Sierre-Zinal for the one-of-a-kind celebration of running and runners—just as Pont wanted it to be.
The 2019 running of Sierre-Zinal will take place on Sunday, August 11. For more information, visit the Sierre-Zinal website.