3 minutes is nowt!

Thanks to Scott, last weekend I was back in Zermatt for the Matterhorn Ultraks race. I ran this race last year and described it as an "incredible race and a brilliant experience in a spectacular setting". I also ran one of the best races I ever have, moving through the field from around 50th to finish 18th. So, this year I was chuffed to be going back, but a little bit worried whether I could do better in 2015.

Training over the last few months has gone quite well, but I wondered if I was a bit lacking in hill training. Last year I had the advantage of the Mount Fuji race about 4 weeks before the Matterhorn, this year I had Snowdon... Still, on Friday morning I was on my way to the Alps! After a 4am start, automobiles, planes and trains with incredible views, by the evening my little tent was set up next to Lee Walker's and it was time for some food. We met Chris and Paula Shelton and headed out for Pizza. Lee was also running the 46k, and Chris the 30k.

Relaxation and hydration on Swiss trains

Race day...
The 46k race started at 7:30am on Saturday morning, so I was up at 6ish. I then decided to break all the rules I have told other people about this sort of race...

1. Have a decent breakfast.
I had a 9 bar (but had eaten enough over the last few days to fuel a small country).

2. Don't try anything on race day you wouldn't normally.
I decided not to run with a pack, and only with three gels, two of which I'd never used before.

3, Carry enough water.
I was going to run with a 250ml soft flask.

On the startline
Arriving at the startline I felt nervous and excited again, and before long we were all corralled into the start area and the NASA countdown began. Lee and I wished each other a good race and I wandered forwards a bit. Knowing that from Zermatt at 1605m we'd basically climb directly to Gornergrat at 3150m I didn't want to be too close to the front - particularly for those of us who don't train in proper mountains it could be a disaster to start too fast!

The Race...
Before we've left Zermatt I realise that I might've started a bit too far back so make an effort to pass a few people. Just like last year the sun is shining and the support of the spectators is amazing! Running down the side of the road meant that I even saw Martin from Scott for a quick high five, but then I saw a Pennine fell runners vest in front of me. Time to get racing!

The climb to Sunegga was hot and my little squishy bottle of water was running out quickly. I was running in a group just behind Mr. Pennine. I wasn't sure whether I was running well or not, but I knew my split to Sunegga last year was about 45 minutes. This year I was at the top in 45:49. I drank some Coke and refilled my bottle, then dropped off down the little descent before the big climb to the Gornergrat. A little way into the descent Mr Pennine stopped to cool his feet in a puddle and I nipped past him. Now all I had to do was stay ahead of him for 5 hours or so!

Climbing to Sunegga last year
After Sunegga we climbed further up, and now out of the tree cover. It was hot, if this had been a race in the UK there wouldn't have been a t-shirt in sight, so being a Brit abroad I took my shirt off and pressed on up the rocky climb. The views throughout this race are stunning, but none more so that towards the top of the Gornergrat. In the final 100m or so the climb first levels out and joins a big track, then turns up a steep scrambly climb to the summit ridge. The view takes your breath away... if you have any left!

Monte Rosa and Kleine Matterhorn from Gornergrat
I had worked hard to get to the summit inside my time from last year, and again ended up with exactly the same time: 2:02! There's a train to the top so there were plenty of tourists cheering us on at the Gornergrat. I had now definitely run out of water again, so it was good to see Martin with a bottle. He asked how I was doing and ran alongside for a minute while I had a drink - I felt like a proper runner! The route now took me through the buildings at the Gornergrat and down a little to the actual checkpoint. I filled the little bottle again and picked up a cup of cold coke - which turned out to be hot Boullion! EEUUURRRGGGHHH! Exactly what I didn't want. I narrowly managed not to spit it out onto the checkpoint lady then set off down the long descent.

With the Gornergrat done that's about half the total 3600m, though only about 14km or so. For those of us who don't train on big mountains every day the race probably starts here! It's mostly downhill to Riffelalp then Furi at about half way. I was running pretty well, my Riffelalp split this year was 2:30, a minute up on last year, and I had made up another couple of places to 20th in my category. I still came crashing down the tricky descent into Furi more like a Mountain Gorilla than a Mountain Goat but there was fortunately no camera to capture the moment this year!

At Furi there's still half the race left to run, and still two major climbs, but it feels like the end is getting close and I decided it was time to try and make up a few more places. On the way to Schwarzersee I passed another English chap who had been running with Mr Pennine earlier (I think he was the guy from Ambleside whose daughter won the kids' race outright - well done!). The next section is the longest without any checkpoints - about 12km from Schwarzesee at 2600 down a bit to 2200, then up to 2700, then the only flattish bit in the race, and finally a descent to Trift. From Trift it's either 6 or 8 km to the finish, depending if you believe the race title or the route map!

Trift Hutte - an amazing location!
I knew that it was getting quite touch-and-go to beat my time from last year now. I remembered that my split from Trift to the finish was 36 minutes, so I hoped to be at the Trift Hutte by about 5 hours. The section to Trift is one of my favourite of the race, it's a fantastic section of singletrack which winds its way over and around the edge of the Gabelhorn, with an amazing view down the valley. I was pushing now and made up another seven places on the climb and flat section, though I did lose one to a lady from the Catalan running team who was absolutely flying. The Trift hut was visible on the other side of the valley from quite a way away, with some tricky singletrack and a lot of pedestrians between me and it. All the walkers were dressed in red so I guess they were together, but like a a team of Marmottes they were very organised - a lookout at the back of each group would hear me swearing and spraying rocks everywhere as I approached and blow his whistle, then they would all jump off the track to the side and clap and cheer as I passed. It was brilliant!

The final descent - switchbacks anyone?
I reached Trift at 5:10. Not ideal. Just like last year I now had the bit between my teeth and pushed hard up the final 100m climb then down the descent to the finish. Last year I was racing down here but this year I saw no-one. I stuck to the spirit of the race and ran all the switchbacks rather than jumping across (probably quicker anyway), but still managed a little crash on a particularly rocky one. The descent seemed never-ending and it took a long time before I finally saw the 2km to go sign and turned for home. I had five minutes if I was going to beat 5:45... I don't think I've ever run a 2:30 kilometre but it was worth a try! At 1km to go I had one minute, and I finally ran out of time on the run into Zermatt, just above the campsite.

Du-du du-du dudu-dudu... Boooong!
After running most of the race on my own the final run up the main street was a bit of a shock - there were race marshals shouting at tourists to get out of the way, people cheering, and the loud race PA system announcing as I ran across the line! I finished in 5:49, felt a bit ill and had a little lie down next to the photographer.

After the race...
I was 13th in my category (which is now M30!), and 20th overall. The winner was Martin Antamatten in 4:45, exactly the same time as last year's winner. I did beat Mr Pennine, but didn't make first GB runner as Tom Owens turned up and ran a great race to finish 5th in 5:02.

I am a bit disappointed not to have beaten my time, but as Kim Collison said, "3 minutes is nowt". He's right, 3 minutes over 5:49 is about 0.85%, and after my little Achilles niggle maybe it's not a bad result. My heart rate was almost identical to last year, with a slightly lower average and apparently not quite as much excitement as I approached the finish line:

Heart rate (2014 right: average 159, 2015 left: average 156)
Chris ran a great race in the 30k to finish 10th in only his second race back from serious injury, and Lee also had a great run, finishing the 46kin 7:54.

Finally, massive thanks to Scott (especially Martin!) and Accelerate for your support and help, and to the Ultraks organisers for putting on another awesome race. This time next year I will hopefully be living in the mountains, so perhaps we'll see whether that makes a difference...

I made a video.


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