Zermatt Half Marathon: Race Report

WOW yesterday’s race was insane. If you want the short version: course was generally rough, but a ton of fun (mostly). I grossly underestimated the elevation gain. The last 3 km probably took me about 45 min – 1 hour, and they were the toughest 3 km I’ve ever walked, but once I reached the finish line, euphoria set in.

Super excited to crest the hill

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The marathon started at 8:30, but the half didn’t start until 10:45. I used the morning to do a short shake out run and tie some red, white, and blue ribbons in my hair. This year the Zermatt Marathon hosted the 2015 World Long Distance Mountain Running Championships. I knew two Dukies (Megan and David Roche) were on team USA (disclaimer: I don’t actually know them. I just know of them and seriously stalk their twitter feeds #noshame) so around 1h30m after the start of the marathon, I found a spot along the race course in Zermatt to cheer them on. I also had a ton of fun cheering on all the other World Mountain and Elite marathon runners.

At 10:30, I headed to my corral. As I was walking into my block, I saw a man with an American flag pinned to his t-shirt above his race bib number. I said “Happy 4th of July,” and he just smiled at me, not saying anything. I thought it was a bit strange, but attributed it to pre-race jitters. I tried to be friendly by asking him where he was from. His answer surprised me. “I’m from Germany,” he responded. Germany? “Why are you wearing an American flag?” He told me, “I grew up in Eastern Berlin. I owe my freedom today to the Americans and I have never forgotten that.” Wow. It presented Independence Day in a whole new light. When I made it to the top at 2585 m, I had a very different perspective, both of the Matterhorn and of Independence Day.

Zermatt Marathon course profile. (From http://www.zermattmarathon.ch)

Ok, now for the race report. The half started in the city of Zermatt at km marker 20.5. I felt good over the first 4K, which were on relatively flat roads with a couple of hills here and there. The first large climb was from Zermatt to Sunnegga, with an elevation gain of ~650 m (that’s 2132 feet for all of my American readers). This was a gradual climb (Char and I actually hiked this part of the trail back in September when we were hiking up to Rothorn), spread out over 7 km. I did a mix of power hiking and running. With all the switchbacks, it was hard to tell when I’d actually reach Sunegga, and at one point, I was a little worried that I wouldn’t make the cut-off times and that I’d end up with a DNF, my worst nightmare…But a little bit after I had this thought, I climbed out of the woods and reached Sunnegga (km 31.7), well before the cut off time.

The next several kilometers (km 32-36, starting from Sunnegga) were exhilarating and a ton of fun. This was the part of the trail that I had previewed the day before (though I had taken the funicular instead of running up). It was a beautiful mountain trail and we had to run in single file as we hugged the side of the mountain. We also had phenomenal views of the Matterhorn. We passed Lake Leisee and Lake Grüensee. Around km 37-38, the trail widened a bit and turned into more technical terrain with rocks and tree roots and stuff. This part was a blast. Trail running at its finest.

Then I hit km 39 at Riffelalp. I was feeling pretty good from the flat portion of the trail, but the moment I hit a bit more of an incline, my legs said “Nah dog.” The last part of the race featured a 363 m (1190 feet, equivalent to the height of the Empire State Building) climb over 3.1 km. Now I’d like to think I’m gritty, but I’m not that gritty…yet) so I slowed to a walk that turned into an even slower walk. Normally when I hike up hills and mountains, I can keep a steady pace without really breaking until I reach my ‘goal.’ Not this time. I felt like I was going to die and/or not actually make it to the finish line. To convince myself to keep going, I walked 10 breath counts and paused for 2. Repeat. 10 breaths walking, 2 breaths resting. As I did this, so many other participants powered through and walked straight by me. Internal Kristie said, “Don’t worry about others. This is your own race and you need to do what you can do. 10 breaths. 2 breaths.” I finally reached what looked to be the end of the race. There was a big balloon arch and people were cheering around it. I thought, “Wow, I’m going to reach the end not only walking but at a stupidly slow walking pace.” SIKE. That wasn’t the finish line yet. There was still another 0.3 km to go, including one last, final climb. After the little hill, it turned into a beloved downhill path (what a godsend) that allowed us tired walkers to run through the finish line. Once I passed the line, I found myself in the final tent where there were bananas and water and PowerBar juice. All I could think about was getting through to sit, but once I passed through the tent, I saw the Matterhorn and I felt a sudden rush of exhilaration and I jumped for joy. Woohoo, I made it!! Some people don’t understand why runners, well, run. This is one of the reasons. Feeling so alive after feeling almost dead. Feeling the high of completing a really tough race. Knowing that, YES, I CAN do IT, whatever IT may be.

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Earlier in the day, when I was cheering on the marathon runners, I saw a girl wearing a team USA jersey. She also had a UNC track and field backpack. She was cheering on her boyfriend, a member of team USA who also happened to take the Silver Medal in the Men’s category for the Full Marathon! Well, at the top, as I was sitting down to eat lunch, she invited me over to the team USA table. It was pretty cool.

I didn’t look up my race time until this morning, which was 3:20.49, aka super slow. (For reference, the winner of the Women’s Half Marathon finished in 2:10.48. Also, the winner of the Women’s FULL marathon finished in 3:21.38.) If you asked me yesterday, i would have told you that I didn’t care about my time. I’m just happy I made it. But if you asked me today, I’d say, I’m not proud of my time and I want to and can do better. My main take aways from this race: (1) more strength training and hill workouts so my legs aren’t tired on the never-ending uphills and (2) run your own race.

As I took the cog wheel train down to Zermatt, I couldn’t help but think, “holy guacamole! I ran up the side of a mountain!” That was a pretty cool thought. Side note: I would love to volunteer at some races. I really enjoyed how the crowd cheered on us runners by name. They’d see our names on our bibs and say “hop hop Kristie.” The support was morale boosting and I’d love to be able to do that for other runners.

Congratulations if you’ve made it this far! Now I have some hiking reports from Zermatt. On Friday, I did a little hike called 5-seenweg that takes the hiker to 5 mountain lakes. On Saturday, after the half marathon, I wanted to see some more of Zermatt before I had to leave. Plus, included with our race registration was free transportation on the cog wheel trains, normal trains, and funiculars to the various stops along the course. So I went on another little hike (only downhill) from Sunnegga to Findelbach.


I started this delightful hike in Blauherd and hiked to the first lake, Stellisee.

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Next up was Grindjisee. (I previewed some of the trails in this area.)


From there I went to Grünsee

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Somehow I missed Moosjiesee, but since I wanted to catch the last funicular down at 17:20, I didn’t go back to look for it.

The final lake was Leisee. There was also a park next the lake. World’s best park-with-a-view.


Sunnegga to Findelbach

On Saturday, I did a little hike from Sunnegga to Findelbach with some more spectacular mountain views.

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