Paul Hal­ford heads to Switzer­land for an ul­tra­run­ning event like no other

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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.

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