One of the first articles I ever wrote for Newly Swissed was entitled The Most Beautiful Swiss Marathon is a Virgin. But three years later, the title of most beautiful marathon is being bestowed onto a new run. Jungfrau Marathon, you are still beautiful, but the Matterhorn Ultraks is now the fairest in all the land!
The second time around
I had the pleasure of running in the very first Matterhorn Ultraks ultra marathon in Zermatt in 2013. The weather leading up to the event had been great, and we expected a beautiful race. The day started off wonderfully.
Knowing some of the locations from the Zermatt Marathon, I thought that the Ultraks race would be similar. Boy, was I wrong!
Right after passing the CERVO Resort on Riedweg, we made a sharp turn into the woods and up a steep incline. From there, nothing was the same. At around 3 PM, a thunderstorm rolled in and I was well over 2600 m. It was cold, but I was sweating... Fear sweat! I finished the race in 9 hours and 20 minutes and was very pleased. It was just a shame that it had rained for the last 15 km or so.
Running with royalty
This year, I decided to take on the race again. Despite the memory of the rain, I remembered it being a majestic course, attracting runners like the Spaniard Kilian Jornet and Norwegian Emily Forsberg who are celebrities (or royalty) in the world of trail and mountain running.
Though the summer on the north side of the Alps has been quite disappointing, with the most rain since records have been kept, the south has been spared some of it. A week before the race, out of pride, I decided to run the Mountainman 80 km from Engelberg to Pilatus.
The weather did not cooperate, and the muddy conditions and elevation meant my thighs were sore even on Friday as I boarded the train for Zermatt. Thankfully, my hotel room at the CERVO had a huge bathtub to relax my muscles.
Anticipating the run
It is 6 AM on Saturday, August 23, 2014. My alarm goes off, but I have been up since 3 AM. I always sleep poorly before a race. I have a constant fear that I will be late to the start! After a protein rich breakfast in the hotel, I go to the start line where there are noticeably more people than last year.
The weather is looking good with a clear view of the Matterhorn. Happy days for us and the thousands of tourists making their way to Zermatt, just to capture a glimpse of this mythic mountain made famous by the Toblerone chocolate bar!
The first 15 kilometers
At 7:30 AM, the gun fires and we are off. My thighs are tight, but the energy of the crowd has me running at a good pace. It is a 46 km race, which does not seem like that much. But when the elevation difference is calculated in, it is the equivalent of nearly 100 km.
We run through Zermatt to the applause of hundreds of people, many in awe of what we are doing. Others are wondering what the name of this illness is and what the cure might be to freely take on such a challenge.
I start to pass people, knowing that when it gets into the woods, we are on a single trail and there is little ability to pass anyone. Just a few hundred meters before Chalet Bergheim, we cut to the right and go up. The climb is steep for a bit, but the soft forest floor is a pleasure to run on. As quickly as we started going up, we turn right again and are on a flat portion that allows everyone to stretch their legs and get some speed.
At the end of a straight away at 2000 m, there is a sheer cliff and the clearest most full-on view of the Matterhorn. I need to take a picture. We have another 250 m to go before our first station. I have some broth, carrot cake and an orange slice before continuing from Sunnegga back down through Eggen and then up to the Gornergrat at 3130 m.
The climbs are tough, the trails are narrow, but the scenes are outstanding. There is never a moment where you are left not taking in the beauty of the surroundings while concentrating on your next step.
What goes up, most come down...
At Gornergrat, you see a world of ice below you. It used to be called eternal. But now, each time I see these gentle giants, a pain strikes my heart as I am left wondering what will remain of them when my children will be old enough to run around these mountains.
I take in the view, have something to drink, fill my pack with warm water and start the descent to Riffelalp. The last time I was on this stretch was for the Zermatt Ultra - going up. Going down is much nicer, but it requires so much more concentration. We run past groups of Japanese tourists who pull to the side and clap and yell: "Gan ba re!" (Go, go, go!)
The way down to Riffelalp is steep, going along the cliff face. But the views are (again) spectacular. At Riffelalp, the runners of the K16, K30 and K46 races briefly join together. I have a bite to eat but do not bother filling my pack or grabbing anything to go. I somewhat regret this, as I had a further refreshment stop in mind before the next ascent.
The most beautiful stretch of the race
We are again on a flat part of trail running along the Dristelen before descending into Plattelen and then down towards the Fruggbach.
This is my absolute favorite part of the course and the reason why the Matterhorn Ultraks is Switzerland's most beautiful race.
Here, through boulders, juniper, heather and mountain rose bushes spotted with evergreens, you drop down a technically difficult trail to the river along which you run until you get to the suspension bridge that takes you across the gorge. This is the only part of the trail you are not allowed to run, as the sway in the bridge would unnerve some racers.
At Furi, there is a water station that I run past, not noticing it correctly, and I start to climb up towards Schwarzsee. This is a 700 m climb, and it seems to go on and on... At the 25 km marker (which feels like a lie since I could swear that I have easily run 10-15 km since the 20 km flag), my senses become keen.
There should be a bucket of beer ahead if memory serves me right. No such luck.
Soon after, I see a familiar face. I yell up to him, an acquaintance from Zurich, and we start marching up the mountain together. What makes this ascent so mean is that the cable car has a small station under the top, and when going up you are left to believe that that is your destination when in reality you still have another 250 m to go.
The longest part of the trail
At Schwarzsee, the music is pumping and I fill up on water and electrolytes as well as some food. I also take off my sweat soaked clothing and put on something dry. To say it feels good would be an understatement. It feels great, and my body starts to warm again.
Up on top, it is below ten degrees. Clouds have now started to build around the Matterhorn, and I start to worry that we will get caught in a storm again. In the mountains, one can never be too sure of the weather.
My running friend Ryan is more concerned that we might not make the race cutoff at Stafel. I am not worried, though. In fact, I am a little ignorant as to how much slower I am running in comparison to last year. The way to Stafel is marked by a gradual descent (at least for this race), through Alpine pastures and along a small service road.
At Stafel, the K30 and K46 people are again separated. We start the climb up to Distelgufer, a seemly mere 600 m, but it goes on and on and on. At the top, we are greeted by herds of Zermatt’s famous sheep, and we have around 3 km of nearly flat single trail running. The views from up here into the distance with the Dufourspitze and other famous 4000ers in the distance is beyond description.
The clouds around the Matterhorn are also starting to loosen up, and it seems that we have avoided the rain.
The final stretch
A steep bit down to Trift requires lots of concentration, especially since at this point many runners are getting a little tired. At Trift, the final refreshment station, we feast: Cake, bouillon, cheese, isotonic drinks. There is still a 300 m climb before the path drops, with countless switchbacks back into Zermatt.
On the way up the the final peak, I pass a young runner who is at the end of his mental capabilities. I tell him he is just about there, but he is convinced it is still too far. Encouraging him to move on, he moves back into a light run. At the apex of the hill, there is no time for dilly-dallying. We start to run down the narrow paths between the snow guards that protect the villagers below from avalanches in the winter.
Left - right - left - right - left – right. The switchbacks have you shifting your weight nonstop. Before you know it, you are running through the woods again and there is the "2 km to go" flag, and some seemingly 5 km later the "1 km to go" flag.
The final 500 m bring you in behind the village as people cheer you on from the side of the street, and even from their balconies. On the main road running through Zermatt, the way is blocked off and you have a 40 m jaunt to the finish.
Everyone finishing the race that I see at this point is running and jumping. Exuberance and elation of finishing the race gives runners new energy. They have mastered the Ultraks, Switzerland’s most beautiful race.
Final thoughts & Room to Read
If you are into trail and mountain running and are seeking a race that really takes you off the road on to single tracks and into the pristine nature of Switzerland, then mark your calendar for the Ultraks 2015 (it will be towards the end of August).
Lastly, if you ask me why I run these races, I do it for the scenery, for the personal challenge, and since last year to help raise awareness for Room to Read.
If you would like to donate to this worthy cause with the mandate of educating children for a better future, you can do so at Ammado. If I collect CHF 10’000 this year, I will run the Jungfrau Marathon up and down...
And get this: At CHF 50'000, I am going to run around Lake Brienz, too (that's a total of 120 km)!