The time finally arrived. We had been training hard for months now. Our preparation was as good as it could be.
Our training started back in winter. A bout of rivalry between couples started when Lexi posed we all train for a run. Not just any run, but the Matterhorn Ultraks. Lexi had just come off the Tarawera Ultra and with Tam were already most of the way through their Prague Marathon training, James had unfortunately injured himself for the London Marathon and the rest of us were, at that stage, seemingly happy without too much physical exertion. The running club was formed.
Over time, we gradually got fitter. Mitch started running 20km to work and Tam started her own boot camp in Hammersmith. Things were going as well as they could. After some more research we noticed that we needed more hills. Training for an ultra trail running event with up to 3km of vertical climb in London was always going to prove a challenge. So the runs moved to the only place we knew of in London that had an incline – Richmond Park. Here, we found King Henry’s Mound and more commonly; Broomfield Hill, as perfect places to practice steep and sharp hill repeats.
For extra added training a weekend away to the Brecon Beacons in Wales added more vertical distance to the legs. Now it was time to see if all that training paid off.
We were flying into Geneva. Our last experience left a bit of a sour taste, particularly without getting to actually experience any of the Swiss city, culture or scenery. This time we were much better prepared for the hidden costs of the alpine state. Famous for it’s luxury pocket knives, chocolate, fondue and clocks, we came expecting that “nothing in Switzerland is free”. This time we fared a little better, getting on the road with little incident.
Our road trip out to our accommodation in Täsch, a small town further down the valley from Zermatt took us through steadily climbing valleys. A stop off for lunch in Sion for a lunch of bread, ham and cheese (that had melted to a fondue like consistency) – hardly the stuff of athletes, but it hit the spot. We saw a few odd sights in between the high peaks; a driver in a convertible with a grandfather clock for a passenger being one. Täsch itself was centred around the train station right next to our apartments. We began the charade of hiding one of the guests as it turned out Tam had only booked accommodation for 5 – a good way to save money.
Heading to registration in Zermatt we encountered a packed rail station. Splitting into three different lines to hedge our bets Tam got to the ticket machine first, with about 4 minutes to spare. Now most people managed to take a minute and a half to collect and pay for the train fare. Tam managed to take the whole 4 minutes, to the despair of the hapless people queued behind her. Luckily for us though, we sprinted on, held the doors and got on at the last possible moment.
Once in Zermatt, it became a contest to who could see the Matterhorn first before picking up the race packs. The locals were in the midst of celebrating 150 years since the first ascent of the Matterhorn, led by the English Edward Whymper. Despite being the first to scale the mountain – much to the anger of the competing Italian party, his expedition didn’t go too well. Of his party, four fell to their deaths on the descent after one slipped, taking the others with him before the rope broke and they plummeted some 4,000 feet. Whymper and two Swiss guides survived, saved from the break in the rope, but were at the centre of much controversy. Since, the mountain has claimed over 500 lives.
Our climb, however, wasn’t straight to the top. For those doing the 16km it was 800m of climbing to Sunnegga, a valley to Riffelalp, then a descent back to Zermatt. The 30km athletes instead carried on from Riffelalp with another 700m climb to Schwarzsee at an altitude of 2,583m, before descending back down.
Most of the nerves seemed to centre around the prices of food in Zermatt. A dinner would have cost around 40-50 Swiss Franks ($65-$80 NZD) for your average meal. Descending back to Täsch we found it more reasonable, at about half that.
The morning of the race went smoothly without much event. A few nervous toilet stops and a brief argument about the cost of train tickets saw us back in Zermatt. Clearly we missed the memo about turning up in full lycra, wearing calf protectors, visors and walking sticks. These events always bring out a bit of different fashion.
The 30km competitors were up first. After about 1km of undulating course, the track quickly narrowed into a steep single file path, with limited opportunity for passing. Mitch managed to get into a good convoy early on, giving Tam and Lexi the slip. We found out that the walking poles weren’t just for show. As the grade of the mountain rose, these were used to great effect, working the arms to drive up steep hills and stabbing helpless competitors behind you in the face or foot.
As James, Tom and Becky the 16km runners got ready for their start, the 30km runners had hit the first peak, descending at pace down the valley, past small Swiss cottages and cattle with bells around their necks. Some of the competitors must have been raised in the mountains, descending faster than gravity allowed and as sure-footed as billy goats. The field was largely from Western Europe; Swiss, Germans, French and Italians. We were the only Kiwi competitors and hearing supporters use your name (printed on the race numbers) in a foreign accent was always encouraging.
The second peak had Swiss horns, or alpenhorns – long wooden instruments that bellowed our arrival to the drinks station. It was all downhill now for the 16km runners. For the rest of us, we had to turn across a swing bridge and straight into the steepest section. This was only a few degrees less than the wall we hit. This was where you walked hunched with hands on your knees, shoving as much sugar and water down as possible.
After several “peaks”, or at least, what we thought was the top of the climb, we eventually made it too the cold cool airs of the Schwarzsee checkpoint. Here, we were at the base of the Matterhorn. After looking skyward, Mitch looked down the hill to see Tam and Lexi a few hundred metres behind and gaining. The downhill leg became 10km of fast paced cat and mouse, well at least in Mitch’s mind. The legs can only act as shock absorbers well for so long and eventually began to ache along with the stubbed feet.
Descending back down into the sun baked valley the midday temperature rose quickly and with Zermatt coming into view it seemed as though it was nearly over. But no, we had to run a lap of the town before finishing – this was almost the straw that broke the camels back. Mitch having run with one eye over his shoulder the last 10km, started walking up the last hill “to enjoy the last of the race”. The slightest glimpse of the girls bearing down on him at the bottom of the hill was enough to encourage him into full flight and round the finishing corner at a sprint.
All finished with good times in the end, with all 16km runners coming in under 2 and a half hours and the 30k runners in under 5 hours. We had earned our beer and apfelwein ciders.
A quick dunk in the hotel pool, a relaxing view out over the valley back at our accommodation and a painful cramp fulled sleep rounded out the evening. The hotel manager had caught on to Tam sneaking another person into our apartment when we turned up with 6 at breakfast. Luckily, he only charged us an extra 50 CHF for the breakfasts, plus the extra car park, plus the tourist tax…”Nothing is free in Switzerland”.
Driving Becky and James back to Geneva and taking some time ourselves to explore, a bit jaded, the surrounds of the city famous for its clockwork. Time was something we had plenty of and for a change, we had no energy to use it.