The Matterhorn Ultraks race weekend features four trail running races around the Swiss Alps, starting and finishing in Zermatt, and a vertical trail race that starts in Zermatt and finishes at one of the gondola stations at the top of the Sunnega mountain overlooking the town. Because there are four distances all broadly in the ‘skyrunning’ category, there is a broad appeal – you can choose from a c.19k, c.32k or c.49k distance, each with a decent amount of climbing, descending and fairly technical sections, as well as the ‘Extreme’ 24k skyrunning race. We were in Zermatt to race the Matterhorn Ultraks Mountain Race (30k).
Running Matterhorn Ultraks
I previously ran this race in 2016 – you can read my race report here: Matterhorn Ultraks 30k: an Alpine trail race around Zermatt.
I found it hard the first time around, but what I love about races of this distance is that even if you have a tough day, you can still find time to enjoy it, and not get home after dark!
Last time around it took me 5h50. This time, I was hoping for an improvement, maybe closer to 5h30, as I have three more years of trail running under my belt, although I knew going into the race that I hadn’t done much alpine running in training, so would be at a disadvantage when at higher elevations than sea level (like in Marin County, California where we currently live), and when the going gets steep – which it does, frequently, in the Swiss Alps.
Race day – the usual big race nerves
One of the great things about the bigger mountain running races in Europe is the energy that the bigger crowd of runners and spectators brings, especially at the start and finish, as well as in the mountain villages and checkpoints along the way. Ultraks was, as always, no exception, and there was a definite buzz in the air as we gathered at the start line, knowing that the first thing we would be doing was heading out of town on a steady climb, before hitting the first large and steep ascent of the day. I tend to get nervous when in a large crowd, but the nerves soon faded once we crossed the line and I could focus on one thing – running.
The first part of the route out of town is on a winding road for the first few km, which is great because it helps thin out the crowds and I never felt stuck or had to queue for more than a few seconds when we reached the steeper ascent, which can be a problem on other mountain races. I’m not especially fast on the steep climbs (in fact, I’m pretty damn slow), so if you are a fast steep hiker then you may still want to get ahead of the crowd on the first few km on the road.
Feeling great at halfway
Up to halfway through the race, I was feeling awesome! I was definitely surrounded by more runners than last time. This is partly because there were more runners! The race sold out this year, with a total of 708 starters. It is also because when the course converges with the longer 49k ‘Sky’ distance race, there were significantly more people running that race around me at the time we joined up. This made me feel good, I wasn’t straggling at the back. It was also impressive to see so many strong runners around me – these people had all just descended from Gornergrat, a c,3,200m high mountain they would have run/hiked up earlier in the day, and still had further to run than me for the remainder of their race.
Shortly after the convergence, there’s a steep descent, which is the most technical of the day. You have to scramble down large rock slabs and tree roots, which are all slippery and either need to be jumped or carefully navigated using well-placed trail running poles. I bounded down this, slipped on my butt once, and put effort into not holding anyone else back who was negotiating it behind me.
Furi to Schwarzee – the highest point
At 18km I arrived at the checkpoint at the bottom of the descent – Furi. I had forgotten that Furi only stocked water, and no food, and had skipped on food at the previous checkpoint with the intention of grabbing some fruit at Furi to power me up the large c.800m ascent to Schwarzee, which sits at 2,583m above sea level. Sadly, no fruit for me, so I ate the food I had in my hydration pack and started to climb. After 100m of climbing it was apparent that this was going to be a long haul. In hindsight, the 12k/500m hike I had done the previous day probably wasn’t the best preparation, and my legs and body struggled with every step up this climb. Plus, I generally feel the effects of altitude at 2,000m+, so this added an extra challenge as I worked hard to avoid getting too out of breath. I took frequent breaks to catch my breath, and actually sat down on a few occasions! Hey, the views aren’t bad, so I wasn’t too worried, plus I made a friend who gave me some food halfway up – thanks buddy!
The Schwarzee climb took me 20 minutes more than last time and left me dreaming of hiking poles, which would have helped tremendously. Last time I raced, I didn’t bring my trail running poles and concluded it was probably the right decision. My view now is that I should have taken them, but resisted the temptation to have them out, except for this climb, when they would have made a big difference. At most other times, I was fine without them and could have stowed them in my race vest. Hindsight is a beautiful thing 🙂
The looong descent
The good news is that once you’ve made it up to the top, you have to get yourself back down, and this is done via a 12k hustle all the way back down the valley to Zermatt. The course here is a mixture of ski runs, technical single track and buff runnable trails so all-round trail running shoes will perform the best. Well, runnable if you can still run uphill, as the buff trails at the end of the section seemed to go on forever, up and down, up and down, rolling along the edge of the valley, before you catch sight of the finish line as you look down into the town from above. I spent the entire descent needing the bathroom, but was now way behind my goal time, and didn’t spare time to stop at Schwarzee for a break, just topped up my water, grabbed some fruit and headed downhill! It was by then the middle of the afternoon, the sun was out, and this section was very hot!
The route into the finish was slightly different to last time, partly due to the finish line having moved from the center of Zermatt, to the sports center. This allowed the organizers much more room to accommodate the event, but means that you stay out of the town for longer, on the single track, rather than entering town along the river and finishing right in the middle of the main street. What I loved about the finish is that it didn’t leave you hanging (no running around the houses, so to speak). Straight in to town, around the back of the plaza, and bam, you’re at the finish line!
Once the wheels started to come off on the Schwarzee climb, I knew I would struggle to beat last year’s time, and the descent took longer than I had hoped – I had run too hard in the first half, the climbs took it out of me, and all that was left to do was to keep on pushing and enjoying, and to not worry about the time it was taking. Plus, the longer you’re out on the course, the more trail time you’re getting for your money 🙂
Here is the official Matterhorn Ultraks event website if you would like to secure a place for one of the next years races.
READ MORE on European mountain running
- To read Alastair’s race report from the ‘Sky’ distance race (when it was called the ’46k’), follow this link: Matterhorn Ultraks 46K: Skyrunning in the Swiss Alps
- For a post and video on what we packed for this race last time: What to pack for a Mountain Marathon: Matterhorn Ultraks
- If this race doesn’t sound extreme enough for you, check out this badass technical Skyrunning race, the Ultraks Extreme, which takes place the same weekend: Matterhorn Ultraks «EXTREME»
- For some inspiration for other mountain running races in Europe, visit our Europe race page.