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 the Managing Editor of iRunFar 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.