When the email arrived with dates for the UTMR training camp I was delighted – the same week as the Zermatt Ultramarathon so I’d be able to stay out in Switzerland for the week and do the race and the recce. Perfect (yes, this is how my ‘holiday’ planning goes).
The UTMR has been on my mind a while now – since I spotted it earlier this year. It’s organised by Lizzy Hawker on her Swiss training ground around the Monte Rosa – the second highest mountain in the Alps – going into both Switzerland and Italy. This year it’s ‘edition zero’ and the route will be 105km over three stages – in a horseshoe not quite circumventing the mountain. Next year it’s hoped to be one continuous 160km loop around the mountain with an all-in-one option and a 4-day stage race alongside. The profile is just as you’d expect for a route loved by the 5-time winner of the UTMB; challenging, with a lot of climb.
We met in Grächen , 4 days after the Zermatt Ultramarathon for me – so I’d been doing some hiking in between and felt pretty recovered. I’d had a good run in Zermatt, finishing 11th woman and pleased with 5:41 for 45km of mountain up to 3080m at Gornergratt (including some climbs in between!). This was a chance to get some more mountain miles in my legs; not something you get much of in central London. The group was seven strong – Martin and Mandy, a couple from Macclesfield who claimed to be walkers – but can certainly run, Marcus a good Swiss runner, David a fellow Brit, Mira Rai the Nepalese superstar (just after she won the Mont Blanc 80km and before her recent second place in the Tromso skyrace), and our guide Lizzy. We met and had dinner – all getting on well and excited about the 4 days of running ahead.
With all of our gear for the next 4 days on our backs (or in my case for the preceding 5 days as well…it was a two t-shirt week!) we set off from Grächen on the Wednesday Morning for the first stage, which isn’t going to form part of this year’s race, over to Zermatt. This stage was pretty rocky and set the scene for more to come; I had to quickly re-gain my mountain legs whilst clambering over some rocks on a pretty narrow ledge. A couple of hours in and I’d forgotten we were perched at the edge of a 2,000m+ drop to the valley floor. With the Matterhorn in sight most of the day and a visit to what is simply the most impressive ‘hut’ I’ve seen – Europahutte, with very good cake – it was a hard but rewarding day out. Some debate about how far it was – officially 36km but Garmins were saying anything up to 42km and we had a decent diversion thanks to a unpassable bridge. It was pretty late when we got to Hotel Bahnhof in Zermatt and after dinner we all got a good night’s sleep.
For the second stage we joined the route that makes up the race – passing above the race start at Cervinia and continuing to Staffal. Out of Zermatt we had a decent climb up to the Swiss border – and a fair amount of passable snow to cross into Italy. Lizzy had been there only a couple of weeks before in more snow so we were relieved it would be much less again by the time of the race. The actual route of the race (the first stage this year) is to travel up from Cervinia over Colle Superiore then Resy and Passo di Rothorn –with a fairly steep descent into Stafal.
We stayed in a super little hotel – Nordernd – which has a good restaurant underneath (having found the only other restaurant in town didn’t have a chef we ended up back at the hotel to try it).
After an excellent breakfast we started up to Col d’Olen then stopped briefly in Alagna to pick up some supplies (lunch) and then we went up to a summer vacation spot where we saw more people than I ever imagined (turns out there’s a bus to the refuge). After leaving the hoards of Italian holidaymakers behind we started on the long climb to Colle del Turlo at 2738m – on a well made path that had been established in medieval times and military personnel had re-surfaced in the 1920s. The day’s run finished, as the second stage of the race does, in the lovely town of Macugnaga. I ran for much of the day with Mandy and Martin – with Mira and Markus ahead of us – Lizzy had told us to keep going until we got to the lake… from the top we could just about see the lake and it seemed to get no closer for a very long descent. The terrain for this section has ‘ankle-breaking’ potential in that there’s rocks and grass mixed up so you have to watch every step. On arriving at the valley floor there’s then a long stretch by the river to the lake – which we eventually reached. Mandy and I celebrated with gelato at the small cafe by the lake before setting off on the last couple of km to the hotel.
Our last day (and third stage of the race) continued, as had been the case all trip, to be hot and sunny. If the race conditions are the same it’ll be great for me – I love running in the heat – but if thunderstorms set in it could be a very tough course; some of the descents were steep and rocky. My Salomon speed cross trail shoes coped well so I’ll be running in those. The last day from Macugnaga to the finish in Grächen went over Monte Moro Pass, down to a large reservoir and then up and over to Saas Fee. It’s a long, tough final stage. Whilst some of the path around the reservoir is very run-able the climb up to Mont Moro is hands-on-knees and there’s some steps and hand-holds to help get you over the top.
I had a wonderful week – especially those four days running, hiking and laughing with the group. It was an absolute privilege to spend time with the Lizzy and the amazing Mira Rai – trying to keep up with her down the descent into Zermatt on the first day nearly did me in! As Lizzy put it – it’s a beautiful and brutal route; I’m really glad I know how tough it’s going to be but I’m looking forward to seeing those mountains again!