Now in it’s 39th edition, Sierre-Zinal is special. With 31 kilometres (19 miles) and 2,200 metres (7,200’) of ascent, the race is pretty much as good as it gets when it comes to mountain running; hence, why this Swiss classic has pretty much entertained anyone who is anyone in the world of mountain running since 1974.
Just looking at the role call of winners takes the mountain-running aficionado off into history and with names like Jonathan Wyatt (who still holds the incredible 2003 course record of 2:29:12), Jeff Norman, Anna Pichrtova, Ricardo Mejia, Veronique Marot, Kilian Jornet, Angela Mudge and Marco de Gasperi on that role call, you know this is a race of significance.
As the 3,000 plus runners and ‘tourists’ line up this Sunday (August 12th), that sense of history will no doubt be palpable. Participants will tackle the early mountain tracks above the majesty of Val d’Anniviers and above them no fewer than five 4,000 metre (13,000’) mountain tops. Happily for the masses, they wont need to visit the likes of Ober Gabelhorn and the world-famous Matterhorn, but the views and atmospheric nature of these Alpine passes are part of what makes this race so iconic.
After his herculean battle with Cesar Costa and Kilian Jornet in 2011, Italy’s Marco de Gasperi returns to endeavour to add his name to that stellar list for a third time and etching his name forever in Sierre-Zinal folklore, no doubt.
His win of last year was one of the best in recent memory, as he went close to sub-2:30 yet again and, of course, that great record of Wyatt’s. Without Kilian this year, will he have the competition to push him to that goal, though more to the point with a top-class international line-up promised will de Gasperi be in that hot seat come lunchtime on Sunday? If he is to do so he will need to be at his very best, especially as he returns from a bout of illness.
Portugual’s Costa returns after runner-up slots in both 2010 and 2011 and will look to dethrone de Gasperi after leading on the early ascents of last year’s race. His knowledge of the course should also stand him in good stead to challenge de Gasperi.
Steeped in mountain running history, the UK provides some stern opposition once again this year. Having supplied the winner of either the men’s or ladies’ category on no fewer than 10 occasions, five top Brits arrive in great form.
First-up, Tom Owens. Fresh from his superb second place at Giir di Mont a couple of weeks ago, and his third place at the Skyrunner World Series opener at Zegama, Tom should revel on this course. 2012 sees a veritable Scottish armada arriving for the race, as Tom is backed-up by 2012 British Fell Champ Joe Symonds, young GB international Robbie Simpson and 2012 Snowdon International winner Murray Strain. Add in GB fell running legend Rob Jebb, Martin Cox and recent World Championships qualifier Nick Swinburn, and the UK could certainly be challenging strong for medals.
Winner of that Giir di Mont race Tofol Castanyer also makes the trip. His form has been improving this summer and the Spaniard will go into the race brimming with confidence after that excellent win in Italy, so we can certainly add Tofol into the shake-up for this one.
Current SWS leader Luis Hernando will look to cement his position at the top of the rankings after a third place finish in that Giir di Mont race. The Zegama second placer certain has the pedigree to take this one.
US interest comes in the form of Joe Gray and Glenn Randall.
Randall returns this year after an excellent eighth place finish in 2011. The winner of the 2010 Pikes Peak Ascent comes into this year’s event off the back of a strong fourth place at the Mount Washington Race, one spot of head of Marco de Gasperi and good enough to make the US Mountain Running Team for those forthcoming World Championships in Italy.
Scott Sports runner Gray is well used to racing in Europe, though last year was unable to take part due to injury. This year, he was second at the US Mountain Running Champs at Mount Washington in June and went on to win the NACAC (North American Central American Caribbean) Mountain Running Championships, in addition he also took the 2012 US 50k title and lists Sierre-Zinal as his number one objective for 2012.
Other international challenges will come from Michael Rabat (France), Czech Robert Krupicka, Aussie Mick Donges and Dimitris Theodorakakos – whose entry is very interesting. The Greek athlete is still in transit from the road to the trails and mountains, by his own admission, however following a very impressive win at the Kilian’s Classik 25km race and with sub 2:20 marathon speed, the Athenan will be one to watch.
On the women’s side, 2011 Sierre-Zinal winner Oihana Kortazar will start as the favourite. With Giir di Mont revelation Kasie Enman not making the trip, the Spaniard will look to be in control and assert herself at the top of the Skyrunner series standings, the title that she won in 2011.
Her win at Zegama in May – in torrid conditions – along with her third place run in the heat of Giir di Mont last month, should ensure that Kortazar is able to cope with any weather conditions that the athletes meet this weekend.
However, between her and that victory lie both second and third-placers from 2011, Aline Camboulives and Celine Lafaye of France. Having both run Kortazar to within 4 minutes last year they will be once again strong obstacles between Oihana and that second win.
One of the new Skyrunners to burst onto the scene this year, Silvia Serafini, will also be present. Her amazing second place at Giir di Mont underlined her massive potential in what is really her first serious year in mountain running, and having got the better of Kortazar at the round two race the Italian will look to continue her rise.
Also looking to upset Kortazar’s plan will be countrywomen Nuria Picas, British athletes Lauren Jeska and Tessa Hill (recent Snowdon International winner) and Russia’s Zhanna Vokueva, who was fifth in 2011. The challenge from the US comes from Stevie Kremer, who will also be part of that World Championship US Mountain Running Team and comes to Europe off the back of a strong run at the recent XTERRA Beaver Creek.