Matterhorn Ultraks: Running with royalty!

Running-wise, 2014 has so far been an amazing year! The highlights of my races this year were always going to be the two races abroad, the Mt Fuji race in July and the Matterhorn Ultraks in August. These two races were by far the biggest races I've ever taken part in, and each time I'd be racing against some of the best runners from around the world. Both also had the advantage of taking place on or around iconic mountains which I'd always wanted to visit, so whatever happened they were going to be awesome experiences.

I wrote about the Fuji race here, it was a fantastic race and I was very pleased with my 22nd place. I trained well for the few weeks between the races, so on Friday it was time to head out to Switzerland for the Matterhorn Ultraks...

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The Ultraks is a proper skyrunning race, with 3600m of ascent on the 46km course I would be taking on. I was there with the help of Scott, and would be racing as part of "Team Scott" in my lovely new Trail Rocket shoes. Big thanks to Scott, as well as Accelerate, for your continued support! Being very close to the end of my PhD I didn't have time to spend any longer Zermatt than necessary, so I arrived the night before the race. I set up my tent, registered for the race and collected my race number, and headed off to find a potato rosti. Mission accomplished I wandered back to my tent with that same night-before-race worrying heaviness in my legs as the day before Fuji. It was great to be back in my little tent in the mountains and I almost felt like I was back on the Big Alps Run, but I had forgotten how cold it is as soon as the sun sets... there was a cold night ahead of me!

Back in the coffin...
I had debated running without a pack as I suspected the top guys would do, but I decided it would be sensible to carry a bit of gear since we were going to 3,200m and I wasn't certain of the forecast. So I packed a jacket and a couple of gels into the little TNF pack I won at the Fellsman (now complete with GB badge!), set my alarm and went to sleep.

At 6 o'clock the next morning it was bloody freezing! My plan not to bother with a drop bag at the finish was quickly replaced with one to wear the down jacket till the last possible moment. I was conscious that overeating at breakfast on race morning has been my downfall in the past, so just had a couple of chocolate biscuits then headed to the start line. Suddenly I was in a slightly alien environment, the streets were packed with people who looked like proper athletes, of all nationalities, some with support crews and team management type people looking after them. There was a PA system and a big screen showing footage of last years race. I felt like a lost little boy, but it was very exciting and I was raring to go (OK, mainly because it was freezing).

Nervous at the start

At 7:30 we were off! Out through the streets of Zermatt, cheered by people lining both sides of the route all the way till the tarmac gave way to a trail which started to wind uphill... And it was a big uphill: There would be a little descent half way up but we were basically going to climb directly from the village at 1600m to the highest point of the race, the top of the Gornergrat at 3130m. I had written the major climbs on my hand: "0-1600, 23-700, 30-500", meaning that after this one we still had a 700m ascent at 23km and a 500m one at 30km, so I took it relatively easy to start with.

By the time I reached the top of the Gornergrat I now know I was in 32nd place, having taken 2:02. I felt pretty good and the support at the top was incredible! There is a cable car up to the summit so a lot of people had made the trip up to cheer the race on. Having your name on the race number is great at times like this! The views all the way round the race were awesome, I nearly tripped over a few times by getting distracted staring at the Matterhorn and the glacier. I grabbed a drink and a few pieces of energy bar and set off on the long descent to the Riffenalp, then the halfway point at Furi at 1880m.

What a view! Kasie Enman arrives at Gornergrat, think I was just behind
The descent was amazing, it felt how I'd imagined proper skyrunning would. I'd moved ahead of a little group so was on my own as I passed through Riffenalp. My legs were feeling a bit battered by now but I declined the man at the mountain restaurant's offer of a schnapps and took a gel instead. Next came the climb up to Schwarzsee at 2800m, at the top there would only be 900m climb left in the remaining 20km or so of the race, so I pushed on a bit and worked hard up the climb. I really enjoyed this bit of the race, I remember thinking that my legs hurt but that I was out doing what I love in the most amazing setting, and I should make the most of it! I caught a few more people to take me up to 24th at the summit, where I grabbed a gel (and regretted paying 3 francs for mine the day before!) and set off down another rocky descent. I wanted to make sure I kept the gap I'd got to the guys behind me, but nearly pushed a bit too hard... The cameraman near the top has some excellent footage of me very nearly coming a cropper!

The final section of the race took us up and over the last climb and down to the checkpoint at Trift, then a final short sharp climb before the last descent into Zermatt. As I climbed the switchbacks at about 31km a runner came down towards me, he said I was 32 minutes back from the leader, and that I had about 15 minutes of climb left, then 10 down to Trift, 10 up, then "is all downhill to finish... Go go go!". I was amazed to be only half an hour or so back from the front and dug in as I climbed to the top, passing another two runners just as we crested the summit. The next section was one of the most spectacular places I've run... The narrow singletrack wound round the edge of the mountain, slightly downhill and continuing as far as I could see. It was stunning, I felt good and could see another three runners in the distance...

Eventual winner Ait Malek Zaid on the amazing singletrack section just before Trift
(Ian Corless)
The singletrack required concentration, it was narrow and a looooooong way down if you fell off the trail - in a few places there were overhanging rocks too which made things even more interesting! I survived and made it to Trift in 5 hours and 4 minutes, now in 21st place. Before the race I'd hoped for a time of under 6 hours, but now wondered if 5:30 might be possible. Some mental maths told me that I'd need to run the last 9km in about 25 minutes, which was probably not going to happen, but if it was all downhill and I really pushed I thought I might do it...

Unfortunately it wasn't all downhill, the 100m climb from Trift scuppered my chances of 5:30 but I did push hard passed another runner as we crested the last climb. I could now see Zermatt and I knew there were no more climbs. As I ran down this section I saw someone running up towards me... A person I thought I recognised, carrying a camera and running fast like it was no effort at all... Can you guess who it was?

The photographer (photo: Emelie Forsberg)

Despite the effort of the race I still managed to be starstruck and garbled something like "It's you... you're the man!", to which Kilian kindly told me I was the man, and to "Allez allez!". After encouragement like that I tried to allez as much as I could and got myself moving well, on long sections I could see someone in front of me so tried to catch him. By the time I got close to him we were only a couple of kilometres from the finish, he looked back, saw me and accelerated... it was going to be close! We were now on the switchbacks down into Zermatt and both running like it was a 10km fell race, cutting the corners and jumping over rocks around the corners - so much fun, but I couldn't get any closer to him!

In front of him I could also see someone else... and it was a girl! This spurred me on even more and we both seemed to both be catching her, until it all unfortunately went wrong for him - he suddenly stopped on one corner and was clearly struggling with cramp. I asked if he was OK to which he groaned a bit, but I decided there was nothing I could do so set off after the lady in front. On a long slightly wider section I got close enough to see that it was actually Emelie Forsberg - it was turning out to be quite a celebrity spotting day! She pointed to one side and I ran past, then made sure I pushed hard for a few hundred metres to get a decent gap.

As ever, the final tarmac section felt many times longer than it was in reality, but there were now spectators cheering on both sides of the road and soon I was directed by marshals through a funnel and onto the finishing straight. A quick glance behind and I seemed to be on my own, a little kid put his hand out for a high 5 and I even put in a little sprint to pass a couple of 30km runners in the final few metres.

Done! I crossed the line and sat down in a little heap for a few minutes, then dragged myself back to my feet for a cheesy finishline photo...

Ultraks was an incredible race and a brilliant experience in a spectacular setting. I ended up with a time of 5 hours 40 mins, 18th place in the overall male race, though I was beaten by 4 ladies. This race (and possibly Fuji) was my first taste of racing against the best in the world, and despite being happy with my position it does show that I'm a fair bit behind the really top guys - the winner Ait Malek Zaid ran around 4:45 this year, so I'm really an hour behind where I eventually want to be.

Finally, I'd like to say a massive thank you to Scott for your support in the race, the Trail Rockets are awesome shoes, the grip was perfect and I wore them pretty much out of the box with no blisters or other problems. Thanks also as always to Stu Hale and Accelerate for your continued support!

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PS. It has been said that I don't mention the dog enough on this blog, so to finish I should mention that I was collected from the train station by my lovely wife and our BEAUTIFUL dog. Merci a tout.


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