RUN THE MATTERHORN
Paul Halford heads to Switzerland for an ultrarunning event like no other
Race in the shadow of an Alpine icon at the Matterhorn Ultraks
Most people recognise the Mattherhorn, perhaps without knowing it. The Swiss icon is one of the most photographed peaks in the world – and The Matterhorn Ultraks event takes place in its formidable shadow. Often known as the ‘Mountain of Mountains’, the Matterhorn confounded climbers until 1865 when its 4478m summit was finally reached. This magnificent, pyramidal peak provides the backdrop to the six Ultraks races, but fortunately for the 2000-plus participants none of them involve an ascent of the mountain itself. The longest of the event’s races covers 49km and rises to 3135m on the nearby peak of Gornergrat, and when invited to attend by Scott Sports I was relived to hear there was a shorter 16k option for mere mortals like me.
Adjusting to the Alps
It turned out the 16k option actually covered 19.5km, with 1100m of ascent and 1100m descent, so the ’10-miler’ I thought I’d signed up for ended up being of ultra proportions. With such spectacular scenery on offer, it was a race I planned to enjoy rather than run flat-out. The problem was that with so many ascents involved, even walking felt flat-out. I awoke early in Zermatt, the resort that lies on the north-eastern slopes of the Matterhorn to watch the starters in the 49k set off. Amazingly, more than 600 hardy souls braved the wet Alpine weather. The hordes kept passing, with elite runners at the front and competitors brandishing walking poles further back. I empathised with them for a moment, before returning to the hotel to eat breakfast and relax before my race started at 10am.
I was back at the start line in time for a bizarre pre-race ritual. With moments to go, everyone in the A starting pen and my own B pen suddenly crouched down. My SwissGerman being not much better than my GCSE German, I had no idea what was going on but not wanting to be the odd one out, I followed suit. There then followed what I can only describe as something akin to the New Zealand All Blacks’ haka, with the race announcer leading the communal chant as the runners raised their arms in the air.
Walk or run?
Sufficiently warmed up, we left the tourist resort of Zermatt and
headed up into the surrounding peaks. After a cramped, slow start, I was picking people off on the ascent, trying to resist the temptation to walk.
Eventually it became more efficient to walk with my hands on my knees than run. Not having studied the course profile in advance, I began to realise how tough it was going to be as each photograph opportunity offered a welcome excuse for a breather. I was surprised the first 5km took as long as half an hour, but this would prove to be possibly the quickest 5km of the race.
The climb seemed to go on forever and was made tougher by the rain having stopped and the temperature rising to around 18 deg C, but I knew the descents would come eventually. However, when they did, I wasn’t much quicker than on the ups as I struggled and hesitated with the uneven terrain. I tend to dig my heels in on descents where the terrain isn’t perfectly runnable, but in reality the downhills were probably a three out of 10 on a scale where one is asphalt and 10 is the most technical. Experienced Lakeland fell runners would lap it up.
Great crowd support
Two things gave me encouragement. One was the constant crowd cheers of “hop, hop, hop, hop” (the SwissGerman equivalent of “great job!”), the French “allez!” or Spanish “vamos!”. The other was passing some of the slower 32k and 49k runners who occasionally drifted across our course.
None of the route is marshalled apart from at checkpoints, but it’s all well signposted. I went wrong once purely due to exhaustion, but found my way again when I realised the watching locals had stopped shouting “hop, hop, hop” and were helpfully shouting in German that I was “going the wrong way”.
Eventually, Zermatt came into view, but just when I thought the race was coming to an end we were directed back to the mountainside and off on another ascent.
When we eventually reached the finish, I was pleased to just about beat my 2017 marathon time – for less than half the distance!
The first of the 49k runners was already in – the amazing descender Marco de Gasperi – in a time that was inside the race record of Kilian Jornet, on a course that was 1km further. Of the 537 finishers, 121 finished outside 10 hours. I’ve run a couple of events around 50k and even one over 37 miles, which took me around 4hr 30 min, but compared with those sorts of events the Mattherhorn Ultraks 49k is a different sport entirely in my view. There’s ultrarunning, and then there are races like this.
However, with more than 2000 people taking part across all six events – there are also relay and short uphill-only options – these races are clearly booming in popularity.