Marathon Spotlight: Zermatt Marathon
Switzerland, the picturesque land of Heidi and cowbells, has brought this amazing event to runners every year since 2002. The Zermatt Marathon usually takes place early in July during the European summer. When it comes to alpine marathons it is less technical than for instance Marathon du Mont Blanc, but equally scenic.
Zermatt Marathon weekend comprises four events, including a marathon of certified distance, a half-marathon, a marathon distance two-person relay and an ultra-marathon of 45.5 km. Just before you yelp “yes baby, bring on that ultra!”, let me give you the lowdown of this little gem of a race.
Ever heard of the Matterhorn? No? Have you ever had a piece of that yummy, devilishly delicious Toblerone chocolate? All I can say is you haven’t lived if you haven’t tried the dark chocolate variety with honey and nougat. But I digress. On the packaging of this delectable treat of Swiss origin you will note the iconic landmark that inspired the shape of the chocolate: The Matterhorn. At 4478 m, this peak is only the fifth highest in the Swiss Alps, but definitely the most recognizable and coveted. The latter probably because mountaineers describe the climb as very technical and extremely demanding. This pyramid-shaped peak which towers above the quaint little alpine town of Zermatt is nearly steeple-like, both in shape and allure, remarks one mountaineering websites quite succinctly.
Nowadays the town of Zermatt is a very popular mountaineering and ski resort. Before the first and very tragic accent of the Matterhorn summit in 1865, Zermatt was predominantly an agricultural community. According to Wikipedia, matten (in German), or alpine meadows, is where the names Zermatt and Matterhorn originates from.
A marathon in the Swiss Alps with breathtaking views on the Matterhorn as well as 28 other 4000+ m peaks? The Zermatt Marathon is all that and much more!
Tip: The Zermatt Marathon is a perfect runcation destination. Zermatt as well as the surrounding, easily accessible Italian and French alps are any trail runner or hiker’s dream with trails too many to count. Gondolas, ski-lifts and trains can take you high up into the mountains where overnight huts that serve hot meals add to the possibility of multi-day adventures. Summer skiing is also a big attraction.
The marathon course is comprised of two clear sections. Possibly by coincidence, the town of Zermatt marks halfway and also the transition point between the two sections. The ultra-marathoners complete the marathon and an additional 3.5 km distance from Riffelberg to Gornergrat. The total allowed time for the marathon is 7 hours and 8 hours for the ultra.
St. Niklaus to Zermatt (21.1 km, 608 m ascent)
Starting in the deepest valley in the town of St. Nicklaus at 1116 m, this race comprises a seemingly never-ending uphill. Except for the half-marathoners, all other runners start in St. Niklaus at 8:30 am. By this time the valley can be a scorcher, and high humidity levels worsens the effect. Luckily there are 10 well-placed, well-stocked aid stations along the marathon route (13 on the ultra), with wet sponges to help runners cool down.
Tip: Take special precaution to deal with heat-related stress and fatigue. This race sees many a DNF (Did Not Finish) due to severe dehydration, cramping and nausea, even from the early stages of the race. It would be wise to carry salt tablets and to keep electrolyte levels up.
The first 21 km between St. Niklaus and the town of Zermatt is a gradual climb of 608 m. This section largely follows paved roads and passes quaint little towns like Randa and Täsch. Locals line the streets, cheering runners on by names, which are thoughtfully printed on runners’ bibs. Just as runners start entertaining thoughts of dropping out, the asphalt and driving sun is pleasantly exchanged for a delightfully shaded section of interesting trail at the 18 km mark. The town of Zermatt welcomes runners and marks half-way, as well as the starting point for the half-marathoners. This is where the fun begins.
Zermatt to Riffelberg (21.1 km, 1336 m ascent)
After a few kilometers around the beautiful town of Zermatt, the real climbing starts. From roads to hiking trails the route gets more interesting but not really technical. From dense, shady forest the vegetation diminishes as the alpine tree line is approached. The scenery changes more frequently and dramatically with the increase in altitude. After an intense climb to Sunegga, hamstrings get some relief over a 5 km downhill section up to Riffelalp. As runners arrive at the hotel at Riffelalp they are duly welcomed by a traditionally dressed brass band, a very special sight! Spend some time taking it all in until the crowd will urge you onward, they know the challenge that awaits to reach the finish!
The remaining three kilometers from Riffelalp to Riffelberg is the real killer. This section of the route reduces even the strongest of runners to a walk, and not necessarily a powerful one. The gradient varies between 10 and 15 degrees on this section, as runners climb the remaining 363 m. By this time runners have very little left in terms of reserves. There is nowhere to hide from the unrelenting, scorching sun, and no remaining aid stations. The only distraction is the intermittent passing of the Gornergrat train with tourists and supporters, cheering concernedly as they pass small groups of dreary looking athletes.
Looking up, runners will be inspired by an inflatable arch, which looks like the finish line. This, however, is not to be celebrated as another 700 m loop on the summit of Riffelberg needs to be completed to reach the actual finish. However burnt and broken you are by then, this may very well be the most beautiful, breathtaking finish line ever. This final section of the marathon course is marked with hundreds of tiny Swiss flags. The Matterhorn, dominating the immediate skyline, towers supremely over a multitude of snow-clad alpine peaks. Lively music cheers runners on to complete the final 200 m, a slight downhill, to receive a well-earned, stunning finishers medal.
Tip: The course doesn’t really require trail running shoes as it isn’t really technical. A pair of well-worn road running shoes with a little more cushioning will add more comfort on the paved sections and will do just fine on the mostly-even gravel and trails.
Riffelberg to Gornergrat (3.3 km, 500 m ascent)
For the braver souls that didn’t get to satisfy their torture requirement within the first 42.2 km, there is the option of the ultra. With another climb of 500 m over a mere 3 km distance, the highest point and ultimate finish line awaits at Gornergrat. For the average runner this additional 3 km section can take up to two hours to complete, in so clearly differentiating between the marathon and ultra.
Online race entries are CHF 120 for the marathon (the Swiss Franc is almost one to one for USD), with 800 places available in each of the marathon, ultra-marathon and half-marathon. The swag is quite generous and includes a stunning finishers medal, a technical shirt and a commemorative backpack. Free use of trains on race day is also included in the entry, as well as discounts for supporters.
Zermatt is accessed via rail from Visp, a centrally located station frequented by trains from Geneva’s international airport as well as Italy and France. Only electric vehicles are allowed in Zermatt, and getting around by electric taxi can cost a pretty penny (up to CHF 20 for a three minute ride). Luckily most restaurants and shops are within walking distance of the centrally located train station.
Tip: Try to arrange for accommodation near the center of town. There are several nice self-catering flats with a gorgeous views on the Matterhorn and within walking distance from most places. Key is to book early.
Tip: Restaurants in Zermatt are aplenty but not cheap. If you opt for self-catering, there are several fairly priced grocery stores. The most affordable is the Migros, a little (large) hidden gem a few metres off the main street.
Zermatt Marathon at a glance
- Setting: Very scenic Swiss alpine region around the town of Zermatt.
- Distance: Half-marathon, certified marathon distance (42.195 km) or ultra-marathon (45.595 km).
- Difficulty: Not technical. The altitude gain is the real challenge.
- Course terrain: paved roads, gravel roads, single track hiking trails.
- Total altitude gain: 1944 m (marathon), 2458 m (ultra-marathon). Total altitude loss: 444m (marathon and ultra)
- Aid stations roughly every 5 km.