2013 Sierre-Zinal Preview

This Sunday, the 40th edition of Sierre-Zinal will be run in the Valais Alps of Switzerland. While the race might not garner as much media attention as others, many of the world’s best mountain runners of the past and present will gather to celebrate one of the oldest and most continually competitive mountain races out there.

The race is 19 miles (31 kilometers) long and offers up 7,200′ (2,200 meters) of climb. Basically, the race begins in the village of Sierre at about 1,600′ (500 meters) altitude before climbing to a high point near 8,000′ (2,425 meters) altitude at mile 15 with just a couple downhill blips along the way. After that, the course dive bombs to the 5,500′ (1,680-meter) finish in the resort town of Zinal. Two hours, 30 minutes for the men and three hours for the women are the magic speed marks that have, historically, been supremely difficult to surpass. The course records are held by Jonathan Wyatt at 2:29:12 from 2003 and Anna Pichrtova in 2:54:26 from 2008.

For background, Sierre-Zinal is the race that drew America’s top mountain runners, gentlemen like Pablo Vigil and Dave Casillas, overseas for the first time in the late 1970s and early 1980s so that they could compete among the world’s best. And, for a speed comparison between then and now, when Pablo Vigil won the race in 1979, he set a course record that would stand for 10 years and that’s 26 seconds faster than Kilian Jornet’s fastest time on the course.

While Vigil doesn’t race Sierre-Zinal competitively anymore, he has for years been playing a support role for the American contingent at the race. And for the 40th anniversary this year, he’s also a guest of honor alongside a dozen or so other top race finishers over the years. Beyond the fast folks of the past who’ll be cheering from the sidelines (A few of these folks will actually run Sierre-Zinal for fun this weekend. So, in their case, they’ll cheer from further back in the pack.), there’s a slew of women and men who’ll be gunning for the win – and fast times. The race has a five deep prize purse for both men and women as well as primes for running certain times or for setting a new course record. A course-record win this weekend, for instance, would net 3,000 Swiss Francs (about US$3,200)!

Women’s Preview

Possibilities for the Win

Frenchwoman Aline Camboulives is the returning women’s Sierre-Zinal champion. Last year, she ran 3:02:58 and, in 2011, she was the second woman. In late June, she won the 23k Mont-Blanc Cross and, in July, she won the Zermatt Marathon. She’s also the 2012 French mountain running champion and the 2011 and 2012 French marathon champion. She’s got familiarity and fitness clearly on her side, making her a weekend favorite.

Stevie Kremer - 2013 Zegama Marathon - finish smile

Stevie Kremer

The US’s Stevie Kremer started racing in Europe last summer when she moved there to work and live in Italy for a year. Her breakout Euro race was a second place at the 2012 Sierre-Zinal, less than two minutes behind Camboulives. Since then, she’s raced in multiple European mountain ranges and racked up numerous stellar performances including a win at the 2012 Jungfrau Marathon, a second place at the 2013 Zegama Marathon, and a win at the 2013 Mont Blanc Marathon. Just a couple weeks ago and back on her home turf, she placed second at the US Mountain Running National Championships. I’m thinking this woman is hungry for a Sierre-Zinal victory.

Swisswoman Maude Mathys finished third last year, a respective five and three minutes behind Camboulives and Kremer. She might be better known to some folks as one of the highest-ranking females on the Euro skimo circuit. In 2012, her skimo team finished fifth in the Euro team race and she finished fourth in the vertical race. She’s been sprinkling in some trail and ultrarunning here and there, too, including a win at the 2012 Mont Blanc Marathon.

Megan Lizotte

Megan Lizotte

American Megan Lund-Lizotte was the 2010 Sierre-Zinal champion with a finishing time of 3:09:28. Since then, the mountain-running specialist has given birth to a daughter. After her return to competitive running this year, she’s won a couple races on her home Colorado turf, the Aspen Food and Wine 5k and the Aspen Backcountry Marathon. Most recently, Lund-Lizotte finished sixth at the US Mountain Running National Championships. I’ll bet Lund-Lizotte is hungry for a strong, international-level race result.

Stephanie Howe’s running seems to be like a light bulb, either on with stellar performances or off with injury. Just two weeks ago, she won the Speedgoat 50k. Before that, she had a three-ish-month hiatus from running due to injury. And before that, she finished second at the hugely competitive 2012 The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-Mile Championship. And before that, she was injured. And before that, well, let’s just stop there. Stephanie’s got the right kind of experience for a great showing at her first international race, but the questions of how she’s recovered from Speedgoat – especially given that it was her longest run in a while – and how she acclimates to the long-distance travel still loom.

Other Women to Watch

Lizzy Hawker - 2012 Run Rabbit Run 100 win

Lizzy Hawker

Great Britain’s Lizzy Hawker needs little introduction, does she? In the last year, she won the 2012 UTMB, won the 2012 Run Rabbit Run 100, and was 10th at 2012 TNF EC 50. Since then, she’s been largely off the international-competition radar while traveling, racing, and setting FKTs in Nepal. While in Nepal, she got a stress fracture in her foot, so she let it heal while attending a yoga teacher training course in Japan. She just finished fifth at the 78k Swiss Alpine Marathon after very little training, and she intends to race UTMB later this month. I suspect she’s treating Sierre-Zinal like a training run, but that’ll still probably land her in the top-10 women.

Angela Mudge was the 2001 Sierre-Zinal champion. Back then, she was the first woman to go under the three-hour mark. This Great Britain-ite annihilated that mark, finishing in 2:56:41. That time is still the fourth fastest ever.

Céline Lefaye, of France, has finished seventh, third, and sixth respectively at the 2010, 2011, and 2012 Sierre-Zinal races.

Switzerland’s Laurence Yerli-Cattin has finished second in 2009 and fifth in 2010.

Zhanna Vokueva, out of Russia, was fifth last year.

Men’s Preview

Possibilities for the Win

New Zealand’s Jonathan Wyatt is the Sierre-Zinal course record holder. Wyatt has thrice finished the race, third in 2:38:59 in 2001, a win on a shortened-due-to-bad-weather version of the course in 2002, and a course-record win of 2:29:12 in 2003. He’s also a six-time World Mountain Running Champion, with his most recent win in 2009. He also represented his home country in the Athens Olympics, running a 2:17:45 for 21st place in the marathon. But Wyatt turned 40 last December and we haven’t really heard about him on a world stage since 2010, so the question is whether he can hang with with younger, newer-to-the-scene boys this weekend. He just won the Ötscher-Ultra-Marathon, a two-day stage race in Austria, about two months ago as well as the 23k Mont-Blanc Cross at the end of June so he’s clearly prepping hard.

Cesar Costa has to be a man hungry for the win. He’s finished second at Sierre-Zinal three times, in 2010, 2011, and 2012. And, in 2011, he ran the fifth fastest time ever on the course, two minutes and eight seconds off the course record. He’s Portuguese but he lives in Switzerland, making the Sierre-Zinal course his effective home terrain. Can he pull through for a win this year?

Kilian Jornet - 2013 Transvulcania Ultramarathon

Kilian Jornet

Does Kilian Jornet really need an introduction anymore, either? The Catalan has twice won Sierre-Zinal, in 2009 and 2010. He’s proven himself willing and able on every terrain, at every distance, on any given day. But, he also finished third in 2011 behind Marco De Gasperi (who isn’t racing this year) and Cesar Costa (who is). And, his fastest time on the course is more than five minutes slower then the course record. Jornet’s a clear favorite but history has proven he’s beatable here.

The US’s Sage Canaday is a Sierre-Zinal newbie, but that doesn’t preclude him from landing smack among the plausible favorites for Sunday’s race. He’s the 2:16 road marathoner and the American record holder at the storied Mount Washington Road Race who has ventured deep into the ultrarunning world in the last 18 months. He just won the Speedgoat 50k two weekends before Sierre-Zinal after having to fend off a charging Tony Krupicka in the last miles. If he has been able to simultaneously recover from that push and adapt to the rigors of overseas travel, he’ll be a clear threat.

Max King

Max King

Max King is another man from the land of the red, white, and blue who could do damage at Sierre-Zinal. The question is, will he? He’s run the race once before, in 2011, and he’s previously told iRunFar that the race crushed him. He finished in 20th place and 25 minutes back from the winner that year. Max has been racing pretty frequently of late; he finished fourth but 21 minutes back at the Speedgoat 50k two weekends ago. And the week before that, he ran to a solid third place at the US Mountain Running National Championships. I suspect he’s real eager to do Sierre-Zinal right.

 Other Men to Watch

While Robert Krupicka, of the Czech Republic, is not related to the Tony Krupicka of ultrarunning lore, he’s on this weekend’s hit list, for sure. Krupicka has run Sierre-Zinal a number of times, with his top finishes as second place in 2005 and 2008 and his fastest time as 2:34:29. His most recent finish is 10th place in 2011. The guy’s, thus, a legend in his own right.

The US’s Glen Randall is perhaps the most unknown-by-even-his-countrymates force to be reckoned with this weekend. Randall’s got several superb finishes to his name, including a win (and a sick sub-2:10 finishing time) at the 2010 Pikes Peak Ascent. He’s run Sierre-Zinal before, an eighth place in 2011 (two spots ahead of Robert Krupicka).

Rickey Gates - 2013 Tarawera Ultra

Rickey Gates

For all that he loves the Euro mountain-running scene, it seems that the US’s Rickey Gates should have been born in France or Catalonia or somewhere similar. Gates is another Sierre-Zinal frequenter and his best finish is a fourth place in 2:38:52 in 2009. He’s got an impressive resume as a two-time winner of the Mount Washington Road Race, the FKT holder for the combined ascent and descent of Yosemite National Park’s Half Dome, and he owns the course record at the Canadian Death Race.

I’m going to put New Zealand’s Vajin Armstrong as a sleeper for sneaking onto the podium this weekend. Back on his home island, he’s won the Kepler Challenge twice and he’s finished on the podium of the Tarawera Ultra three times, including a third place this year but a good ways back from first and second place Sage Canaday and Timothy Olson. This summer, he’s been on a tear of the Euro trail-running scene; he finished second at Germany’s Zugspitz Ultra Trail, seventh at the Zermatt Marathon, and, most recently, second at the 78k Swiss Alpine Marathon.

If history is a good predictor of the future, Spaniard Cristòfol Castanyer should end up in the top 10 this weekend. He’s got two high ranking Sierre-Zinal finishes to his name, seventh place in both 2011 and 2012. You might better know him as Tòfol, and, in 2012, he won both the Giir di Mont and the CCC, one of the UTMB sister races. This year, he’s taken second at Giir di Mont.

Some Extra Names of Note

Ricardo Mejía – This Mexican has won Sierre-Zinal five times, and he owns, among other times of note, the fourth fastest time for the race, a remarkable 2:30:59, which he ran in 2001. His most recent win was in 2005. He’s 50 now, however.

Jean-Christophe Dupont – A Frenchman who won Sierre-Zinal in 2007 in 2:41:44.

Tarcis Ançay – The Swiss winner of the 2006 Sierre-Zinal. He’s run the race several times, including a second place behind Kilian Jornet in 2009.

 Call for Comments

  • We need your help to fill in details. What do you know about these runners’ recent race results and training? Who is primed? Who is not?
  • And, who do you think we missed for a potential spot in the women’s and men’s top 10? If you’ve got beta on another runner not listed here, be sure to let us know why you think they’ll shine.
Meghan Hicks

is iRunFar.com's Managing Editor and the author of 'Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running.' The converted road runner finished her first trail ultramarathon in 2006 and loves using running to visit the world's wildest places.

There are 65 comments

    1. Meghan Hicks


      Thanks for the catch. I noted the same to MxS below; I was definitely thinking he was from the Czech Republic but my fingers typed something else. I appreciate your eagle eyes!

  1. MxS

    Robert Krupicka is Czech! As were the ancestors of his namesake TK. And as was the great Emil Zatopek. Just saying, ever proudly so : )

  2. thomas

    Is Kilian really running Sierra Z. ? I don`t think so !?

    He is going for another summit Matterhorn record is calling !?

    take care Thomas

        1. thomas

          thanks for the info, I am looking forward, my forecast, Kilian will rock the mountain, I think he gone win, his shape in the moment is insane, unbeatable.

          Great race for sure, I guess Salomon double victory

          take care thomas

  3. BeatCity

    I can't wait to see what Wyatt has in the tank. In mountain running, he's the ultimate legend. As seen by his still held record, this is the ideal course and length for him. It's too bad this race doesn't get more attention, as I think the field is way more stacked than the Speedgoat and is going to be an incredible one to watch.

  4. Ryan

    I'm excited to see this race pan out. I am of course rooting for the American's (especially Sage, Max and Stephanie), but history in European mountain races doesn't favor U.S. running.

  5. Ultrawolf

    The Swiss David Schneider is definitely a man to watch. Multiple Swiss Champion he was able to beat the likes of Jonathan Wyatt or Marco de Gasperi several times.

  6. Paul in Ireland

    Too short for Lizzie Hawker and as you say it is a training run for her. Angela Mudge is a fell running legend over in the UK and as tough as they come – I wish her well this weekend. Sage v Killian should be interesting!

  7. David T

    While I still feel like Kilian will take the win, I can also see Sage winning. The race is short for Kilian and the distance will favor Sage's speed.

    However, we saw with Kilian's last race against Marco, he has speed too and the technical nature of the course and how steep it is play into Kilian's hands.

    I can also Sage giving Kilian and serious race and perhaps winning at UROC. Because it is a 50k (short by Kilian's standards) and it is not steep nor technical by Euro Sky Running standards, Sage should do very well.

  8. gontxal

    At this moment,Kilian is invencible in Europe,He is the best in VK, 20, 30,42 80 or 100 Kms.Marco di gasperi and Luis Hernando are bored trying to beat him and It is imposible.

    Sadly sage or Max has nothing to do in this kind of Europe´s races

    1. CDG

      Just to play devil's advocate, Kilian has won a whole bunch of races recently, true, but by very thin margins. Being the putative favorite doesn't ensure victory.

      1. Mike

        Its easy to say nobody can beat Kilian but he still has to run the race. Its always easy to bet on the favorite but what makes sports so great is that nobody knows the outcome. I think Sage has a real shot. Ill root for all of them! Kilian has been so impressive its hard not to want him to win.

  9. Charlie

    Just look at how much time Tony made up on Sage at Speedgoat in the last 10 miles (the steepest sections) Sage won't win this.

    Wyatt, Costa and Killian top 3

    1. Charlie

      I love Sage and think he is a fantastic talent. I just wonder if he has the descending/ascending skills to win this. Maybe he will.

        1. Le Manchot

          The 5km climb (1250 m/4100 feet) out of Sierre is ultra-steep and will be difficult for anyone who is not regularly doing such in their training (see Dakota's post on this when he did Sierre-Zinal in 2011(?)). It will be brutal but, should Sage can stay with the leaders to Chandolin (12km) they will have their hands full as the 17 km section from Chandolin to the elevator shaft drop into Zinal is very runnable and fast (and as Dakota also says- very painful). The final drop (375 m/1250 feet) is about 2 km from the finish and will test Sage's technical ability but he sure seems to be improving on these types of trails. Killian, of course, knows the course very well and is about the strongest out there in the super steep Alps terrain, even at short distances. I would give the edge to Killian but Sage is still a bit of an unknown element as he is developing so quickly. Should be a great race!

  10. David T

    I feel like Kilian will win but he has not won by big margins lately and Sage is awesome on the up hills and has serious leg speed so I certainly would not be surprised if he beats Kilian.

  11. Paul

    Agreed. Saul beat Kilian by 20s in the Mont Blanc Vertical K earlier this summer. He also recently won the 19km Montreux Les Rochers-de-naye race, beating both Wyatt and De Gasperi. On the other hand, he had a poor showing at the more recent Dolomites VK, finishing 14th, so it's anyone's guess as to what kind of shape he's in. I'm sure he's been training very hard for S-Z. 31km is somewhat outside his comfort zone, but I still think he has a very good shot at a top 5 or even a podium finish.

        1. Dean G

          Kilian has decided at the relatively last minute to pop over and run this as a "fun run"

          That doesn't mean he won't necessarily try to win, but of all the top runners he is the only one I've seen actually make it a goal to have a "good time" and stay with friends, etc. at certain races. And he has zero to prove. He really is the fastest guy going up and coming down. He just is.

          I'm not sure anyone knows what he could do on the days he's really on… Because he is more likely to wait for others – maybe that's race craft but I think the guy really means what he says…

          Then again, he is human and he has his off days and loses too. He practically passed out at WS and lost 40 minutes or so in like 10 miles.

          I just wouldn't put this race in the "battle of the titans" category – the guy is really hyper focused on that Matterhorn record – and that is an insane record.

  12. Mike

    Sage's current strategy (if you can call it a strategy) of blasting uphills to the point of nearly blowing up didn't work at Transvulcania and it barely worked at Speedgoat with a post-Nolan's legs Anton. Hell, it barely worked at Tarawera. I like the guy, don't get me wrong, but he is kind of a one trick pony and "the new fast guy of the moment." (Plus he talks about his girlfriend too much)

    1. Greg H.

      It bothers me when the winner of a race (Sage) gets criticized for barely winning. Have you ever watched track and field? The point is to win the race, not to win by a huge margin. I'm a fan of Sage because he's humble and trains more scientificly than most ultra runners (which others see as talent, it's really just smart training and hard work). Also cut him some slack about his girlfriend, he's just young and in love! Good luck to Sage and everyone else!

  13. Charlie

    Marco De Gasperi said after winning last years race:

    "I wasn’t sure without all of the long training if I could manage all of the race, in a good way. But at the end of the last uphill I understood that the Colombian (Cardona) was not very good on the descent and I know that descending is key if you want to win this race".

    1. Dave T.

      Kilian commented on Ian's post and is picking just about everyone else other than himself as podium contenders. Looks like he is going to be there to run and enjoy the 40th anniversary celebration, but will not be there to race.

      Too bad.

  14. Dean G

    Men: Mark Laughensteinl 2:32:15, Juan Carlos 2nd 2:32:33. Jono Wyatt in 3rd 2:33:47 holding off fast-finishing Kilian (2:33:55)

    Ladies: 1 Elisa Desco (2h58min33s) 2 Stevie Kremer (3h03min12s) 3 Maude Mathys (3h04min13s).

    Great job Stevie!

        1. Sage Canaday

          this is false…i was smoked on the flats (most runnable road and trail sections of the whole race) It was a 10-mile death march into the finish and the last 2 mile downhill is not much of a factor in this race unless you are in the mix for the win and it comes down to 1-2min or less. Blog post/race recap to follow. You can ask Max King as well but something terrible happens to your muscles when you have to climb up 20-30% grades for 1hr and then try to run 5:20 miles on a flat road/less techy trail. My legs hurt worse than during Speedgoat…this is was much harder for me. Ultra-trail running in the US is not the same as shorter distance Euro mountain racing…I was not prepared. Great race by Ricky Gates and Stevie Kremer (as well as many other Europeans and Columbians that finished well and ran some amazing times for the brutal-beautiful course).

          1. montecervino

            I agree. Running in the Alps here in Europe seems to be way different than in the Rocky Mountains for instance.

            However, training in the Alps is $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$.

  15. Le Manchot

    Hey Sage,

    Great race… I thought that if you were with the leaders at Chandolin that you would be in the mix for the podium. Looks like you were right there with Lauenstein and Killian at Chandolin, so that super steep climb out of Sierre must really take it out of you at the pace you guys are going at! It would appear that Rickey saved a bit more and was able to stay and Stevie had the fastest female split to Chandolin, stayed top 4 to Weisshorn, and then burned it to the finish for second- awesome! Nice effort by all the US participants, and I hope you go back and give the race another try as with a bit of 'steep' prep your footspeed would be dangerous from Chandolin to the finish. It is hard to find such continuous steeps in the US to train on- Stevie has an advantage now that she is living in region and can train regularly on that terrain. BTW, based on the data from my Garmin, the first six kms of the trail part of the course (taking out the road warm-up) has an average continuous grade of about 22% (12• slope). Those religious monuments along the way for the first few kms can take on new meaning when you are pushing through such grades for so long!

    Good luck with the rest of your races this season.

  16. Sam Winebaum

    Thanks for race description Sage. Sierre Zinal is one tough test. I am sure all your recent superb races including Speedgoat played a part. Many Euros focus on this "Boston Marathon" of mountain races. When I ran 3 flat in the 1980's including a several minute stop for a medivac helicopter on the course I was both in top road running and mountain form. Most of my mountain races before were uphill only and super hard and fast. I always found the last climb to the Weisshorn Hotel and a bit beyond followed by those rocky flats an absolute killer. Sierre Zinal is a course to learn, a very special challenge and I am sure you can master it in the future. The race was covered live for 3 plus hours, TDF style on Swiss TV with 2 helicopters and interviews with past champions including Pablo Vigil and PA Gobet, an old friend whose Mt Blanc record Kilian just broke. French only but very cool link to the coverage is here (right side of the page), at least for now. http://www.rts.ch/sport/#sport

  17. Jake

    That is awesome, like a tour de france coverage for running perfect distance for it too. It hurt just looking at the front runners going that fast after the climb. I always thought it was more technical but not much boulders and roots to hide behind in that race you have to go deep.

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