Sierre Zinal is a classic 31km Swiss mountain race, taking competitors from the town of Sierre at 585m altitude to the ski resort of Zinal at 1,680m via a high point at Nava, 2,425m.
Every August it attracts a world class field of athletes, keen to tackle the challenging climbs and brutal descents. Couple that with the strong field and the fact that it is known as the race of the five 4000m mountains - La Course des Cinq 4000 – which you see on the route: Matterhorn (4478m), Weisshorn (4506m), Zinalrothorn (4221m), Obergabelhorn (4073m) and Dent Blanche (4357m) - makes it into a bucket list race for every trail runner!
This was part of my race plan for 2017 as I had been keen to do it for some time, and this time it fitted nicely in my schedule ahead of Glen Coe Skyline later that year.
The course profile for the race had a massive bearing on my preparation. It involves nearly a 1,500m sustained climb, before some undulating trails that slowly ascend a further 500m, and then a steep descent to the finish.
In order to prepare for the race I did a lot of work on the treadmill simulating the climb. This was mind numbing, but without a single climb in the UK as long as this, and the fact that any reasonable climbs were a 3hr drive away, I had to make do with the treadmill and the view of the gym!
I also practiced on the trails to simulate the steep descent and try and ensure I could make time up on what is often my strongest element in races, the downhills.
Unfortunately there was limited opportunity to train at altitude, and as the middle of the race is on runnable trails, but at over 2,000m, which has an impact on my ability to run, I incorporated some high tempo workouts to ensure I was comfortable (as you can be) running with a high HR.
Race day dawned with beautiful clear skies and amazing scenery from the valley floor in Sierre. I could not wait to get up the mountain and see the scenery from higher up. Given that the race is 31km long, it was a bit shorter than I had been racing, and I knew from looking at the start the previous day, that the route narrowed very quickly, so it was unsurprising when it was a bit of a sprint at the start with people jostling for position.
I quickly got into my rhythm and began the long steep climb, focusing on not going too deep, and regulating my breathing. Many competitors were running with no packs, but I had opted to take food and water with me, and despite carrying some extra weight, I found I was gaining positions through each aid station as people were stopping to get water and snacks.
The crowds were great, and there was even entertainment in the woods, with musicians and bands playing at certain points.
After climbing for around 1,500m in the first 10km the gradient lessened and became more undulating with large sections of runnable trails. These were not technical and I found plenty of space for overtaking other runners. There were the odd short sections of steep descending, but overall it slowly climbed up with amazing views over the valley.
I was beginning to feel the altitude as we got up above 2,200m and moved on to more technical single track. I was finding my HR was high for the pace I was running, but I kept pushing as knew the descent would not be far.
After topping out at just over 2,400m the trail slowly descended over the next 6km, losing around 400m altitude, with a mix of technical single track and wider flatter trails. I was in my element on the more technical sections and was having a great time, trying not to look at the views too much for fear of tripping.
With around 3km to the finish the trail started descending a lot more steeply, with some competitors choosing to walk down the steepest sections. After 28km of hard running the legs were feeling the steep descent, and it was a fine balance between speed, and saving the quads.
However, after a few painful kilometres I emerged from the wood into the village of Zinal, with cheering crowds on both sides of the road, and it was a final 500m of road running to cross the finish line.
This has to be one of the most spectacular finishes in mountain running, with large crowds, and soaring, snow capped mountains around the village.
If you are doing the race here are my 5 key points to build in to your training plan:
If you are doing the race here are my 5 key points to build into your training plan:
Practice your uphills. The first part of the race is all uphill, and there is no chance to warm into it. You start ascending straight away. As most people do not have access to hills this length to practice on, I would use a combination of hill repeats and long treadmill sessions set on a steep gradient to try and replicate the race conditions.
Practice your steep descending skills, on tired legs. If you can find training routes with a steep downhill to finish this would be perfect.
Do speed work. There are large sections of runnable trails, but they are at altitude, and if training at lower levels you will notice this. Therefore, introduce speed work that will get your heart rate up, so that you are used to running with a higher HR. This will partially help combat the impact of the altitude.
Make sure you save energy for the final part of the race, don’t use it all up on the climb. Once you get over the highest point, there is a lot of running to be done, so make sure you have fuelled well and there will be opportunities to gain positions as other competitors begin to tire.
Mix up the trails you train on. The race has sections in woods with tree roots and mud, wider easy to run trails grass underfoot, and also rocky sections. Therefore, in training, practice on a variety of trails to ensure you are happy on a mix.
The video I made is available here:
If you would like more advice or training plans on the race please get in touch.