Wednesday, August 17, 2011
Sierre-Zinal was a unique and highly enjoyable experience. The extended weekend that is. The race itself was a big old sufferfest, but fun and eye opening nonetheless.
In the days leading up to the race we had been staying in Zinal at the top of the valley (Val d'Anniviers) and so on the morning of the race we were bussed down for the 9am start near Sierre in the Rhone Valley. It was noticeably warmer in Sierre. The bus got us there well over an hour early, so the North American contingent set up camp in the shade and hung around. After a light jog with half an hour to go, it was time to strip down and file over to the start. I assumed a position six or seven rows back, safe in the knowledge that I belonged no closer to the start line on this particular day.
I knew that I had an immediate and almost guaranteed hour of suffering ahead, so I was unusually nervous as the seconds ticked down. Pablo shot the gun and we were off. Shoulders, elbows, a tight turn or two, a couple of trips and finally I found some space to open my stride. A huge lead pack was ahead, with a solitary Glenn Randall in his now customary early-race position: way off the front.
On the opening half mile section of road climbing, I was pacing with the lead two or three women and by the turn onto the trail I would guess that I was running in a position in the mid-20s. And then boom, we were on the steeps and gaining vertical quickly. A mile in and there were still a ton of guys around me. Dakota and Scott were a few meters ahead in a crowd of guys and looking back there were tens of guys waiting to pounce. This was pretty intense, and it hurt.
I don't think I've ever experienced the kind of jostling that I did during Sierre-Zinal. Normally in US trail races, position is established early and there tends to be very little back and forth. At Sierre-Zinal, if you take your foot off the gas for an instant in those early miles hordes of runners go streaming by.
About a half hour into the run, I was gaining familiarity with my partners in pain. There was the guy in the black unitarde who insisted on running absolutely everything. He would get passed by us hikers on the ridiculously steep stuff, and then would pass back ever so slowly on the just plain steep stuff before being buried on the mellower stuff. There was the burly dude in the Spanish colors who was as powerful a hiker as I think I've ever seen, but again a terrible shallower hill runner. There was the old-man Colombian who chugged along in his one and only short-step gear for the whole climb - steady - but looked like he might have been quite a runner back in the day.
I went by Scott about halfway up the climb and locked my sites on Dakota's white and orange singlet. We were moving at pretty much exactly the same (slow) pace. I would try everything to speed up the rate at which I was covering ground. I tried periods where I would run everything regardless of grade, but the minimal increase in speed was not worth the massive uptick in effort; I copied guys around me by dropping into the ugly looking Euro hike: hands on knees, pushing off with each stroke, but didn't like the way that constricted my air flow; so mostly I just focused on big strides, strong push-offs and an angled (rather than bent) forward lean. I felt like a complete novice. And I was.
If I had to guess, I would say that I gave up 10 spots by the top of the climb. I almost immediately dropped the pack I was with as we transitioned into a period of smoother ridge running on a mix of buff trail and hardpack road. At the Chandolin aid station, I stopped for some much needed fluids, popped a gel and got back on track with the pack of three that I was now working with. Jean-Yves was apparently a local favorite as just about every spectator seemed to know his name, offer him a drink or crack a joke. Andrew Peace, a fellow Brit, was also in tow.
I would find out later at the evening after party that Andrew has held the course record (2:46) for the famous Three Peaks race in Britain since 1983. I told him in a drunken haze that I'd be there next year to take it down. Andy responded with a cold stare and a blunt northern: "no f***in' chance," followed by a wry grin.
Some twists, some turns, into and out of a few gullies and then there on the ridge was the famed Hotel Weisshorn. It looked far away and a good 800 feet above me. I knew it would be roughly 50 minutes from Weisshorn to the finish, so I did a quick watch check. If I could get there in 10 minutes, then I might have a shot at 2:50, but there was no way I was getting up there in 10 minutes. Twenty minutes seemed far more likely, and I now realized that the 3-hour mark would be my goal for the rest of the run. Regardless of place, a sub-3 hour run paid out 80 CHF ($110), which I figured would cover my train ride to Chamonix. That seemed worth fighting for. And then I felt my calf muscles begin to cramp and I was forced to ease off the gas.
I arrived at Weisshorn a thirsty and hurting unit. I stopped briefly to take on fluids and a gel, all the while cursing myself for forgetting to bring electrolyte caps. One more little uphill push and we were essentially on the downhill express to Zinal. A quick watch check: 2:08 low. Scott had informed me the day before that Anna Pichtrova's fastest ever time from Weisshorn to the finish was 50 minutes. That was the year she set the women's course record (2:55) and when she was in 2:31 marathon form. I had a little over 51 minutes to close it out. It was going to be touch and go.
The track from Weisshorn gets pretty rocky in places, so the flow gets chopped up. In addition, there are a ton of 'tourist' runners, who had started four hours earlier, to get around on this section. By and large they would get out of the way in time, but there were a couple of occasions where I was brought to a complete standstill.
Twenty minutes out, I took a dive and almost rolled off down the valley. I got up and promptly ran into a tree. Expletives.
I had seen the last three kilometers of the course a few days earlier and knew they would be majorly hurtful. The course drops 1,500 feet in 1.8 miles, and the first kilometer of that drop is not particularly steep. Just as I hit the turn for the last 3km, I felt major quivers of crampiness down in my calf muscles. I ignored them and blazed Euro style, cutting switchbacks like they didn't exist. I went down on my butt a couple of times, but that didn't really slow me down as my butt was essentially on the ground as I was running anyway. I surfed across the field where I'd inspected the line two days earlier and then began the mega-steep shoot to the finish.
Full-on calf cramps. Aghh. The game was up. There was no way three hours was happening now. I was forced to stop and stretch, hobble, stretch, jog. I crossed the finish line in 3:01 in pretty bad shape and then guzzled. Chatting with Kilian at the fluid station afterwards, I quickly learned that Marco had almost taken down Jonathan Wyatt's course record, but not quite, and that Kilian had had a tough race on 'heavy legs.' I found Dakota, and learned that he'd put seven minutes on me from the top of the climb, overtaking Max King along the way. I was suitably impressed.
The post-race festivities were a blast, and quite honestly the whole experience was a lesson in hospitality, generosity and incredible race management. I have to give a sincere thank you here to Pablo Vigil, who acted as the liaison between the US runners and race management in the months leading up to the race, to Alexadra Jodidio - the amazing and multi-talented athlete coordinator in Zinal - and to Jean-Luc Pont who has been directing Sierre-Zinal since its inception in the early 70s. You guys put on an amazing show.
Right now, I am sitting here in Chamonix three days after the race nursing a bit of a dodgy knee. While it's frustrating to be missing running days in this gorgeous location, I think probably it's a blessing in disguise as Sierre-Zinal is a race that really puts some hurt on you, so recovery time is wise. I'm feeling like I'll be good to go by tomorrow, and so look forward to getting out and covering some of the massive Alpine relief that rises for miles around in every direction.
Kilian has invited us to go run up Mont Blanc with him on Saturday, but as tempting as that sounds, it just seems like a terrible idea. It's 12,000 feet up and, more importantly, 12,000' back down. Dakota is hotter on the idea than I am, but then he's also 16 years younger. Might just go part way and be the wise old man who turns early. But you never know, it's all so tempting right now.