The sun is shining, the trails are dusty, and it’s that time of year again in the Val d’Anniviers: Sierre Zinal race day!
For those who haven’t heard of the race, Sierre Zinal is arguably one of the longest running (no pun intended) and highly anticipated trail running races in the European Alps. This year, the race is in its 49th edition and now attracts 6,000 participants from all over the world, including some of the very best; Kilian Jornet amongst them.
The race, as the name suggests, starts on the outskirts of the Valaisan town of Sierre in the heart of the Rhone valley. 31 km in length, the course climbs over 2200m in elevation before traversing the Val d’Anniviers and descending 1100m to reach its final destination of Zinal, the ski resort which lies at the back of the valley.
There are two main categories to the race: the “Tourist” (or hikers) category, starting at 5am, allowing plenty of time to get to Zinal, and at the coolest time of day; and the “Elite” (or runners) category, starting later in the morning to guarantee a hot run.
The route passes through some spectacular scenery, from the dense forests of Sierre, with its seemingly infinite number of switchbacks, up to the flowered meadows and first main feed station of Ponchette, where you will catch a glimpse of the magnificent vistas that lie ahead. Also listen out for the traditional brass band that normally play on the way up!
After Ponchette, the bulk of the steep climbing is behind you, but don’t celebrate just yet; there’s still another 1100m of height gain and 25km of racing ahead! The trail continues for another 5km up to the next feed station and first mountain village of Chandolin at nearly 2000m (worth a proper visit if you have the time before/after the race). For spectators, Chandolin is a great place to watch the race, being the first road the runners pass by and easily accessible by public transport or car. The village is also perfectly situated to allow enough time to get to the finish line before the first runners arrive.
The next feed stations on the course are Tignousa (2184m) at the top of the St Luc funicular and the Hotel Weisshorn (2337m), a victorian mountain hotel dating back to 1882. The route along to Tignousa is relatively gentle and descends a short section before ramping up again up to the hotel.
From the hotel, the “balcony trail” starts. A short section of uphill up to the high point (2466m) followed by one of the most scenic traverses in the alps. The trail may narrow to single track but the views broaden to include the towering 4000m peaks which dominate the Val d’Anniviers skyline: Weisshorn, Bishorn, Zinalrothorn, Obergabelhorn and Dent Blanche. It is at this point, runners can start to savour the views, get one’s breath back and cover some distance now that most of the ascent is behind them.
The next 6km traverse passes through the alpages of Nava (2424m) and Barneuza (2210m) including a feed stop at the latter. The trail starts as a rolling (normally dusty) single track but soon progresses into a slightly more technical rocky terrain around Barneuza.
The final section and 5km of the route starts as a gentle descent from the alpage before plummeting down to Zinal alongside the Torrent du Lirec. This is often seen as the crux of the race, not the 2200m of climbing, surprisingly. If the legs have survived the previous 26km, the steep descent can be a much needed adrenalin-fuelled push to the finish. Or it can halt you in your tracks as your quads get pummelled on the way down. Either way, it’s not too far to the finish line from here.