Race Report - 2018 Matterhorn Ultraks 50K Sky Race

8/25/2018 08:00:00 PM

Glacier view from Gornergrat.
I had registered for this race or the past 3 years, never actually making it to the start line in Zermatt, Switzerland. The Matterhorn Ultraks had been on my bucket list of must do mountain races for a very long time and this year, it just lined up perfectly, well, kind of. It fell on the weekend before my second UTMB, but since my training ramp up hadn't been what it used to be in the past when prepping for 100 mile races in the mountains, I figured I could kill 2 birds with one stone. Check a race of my bucket list AND use it as the final tuneup/long run before UTMB. I know I know, its probably too close to the actual goal race, but I found that I don't do well with long tapers. I prefer "crash tapers", one week of basically no running or maybe a single shakeout run prior to the goal race, so this would fit in with that approach.
Waterfall on the course.
I had recruited my brother Andy to join me as crew for UTMB, so I figured why not have him join me the weekend prior to hang out in Zermatt before during and after the race before we'd make the drive over to Chamonix, France for UTMB the following Monday. We both arrived in Zurich on Thursday evening and after a couple of near major screwups including a missed train and a screwed up rental car reservation, we eventually got into a rental car on made the 3 hour drive from Zurich to Zermatt. 
Clouds moving in quickly over the glaciers.
However, the travel adventure wasn't quite over yet, as we realized that what I initially suspected to be a toll road was actually a car train, i.e. the only way to get to our final destination without backtracking for a couple of hours. It ended up being quite the experience, albeit another somewhat expensive lesson learned to go along with the missed train and uber expensive car rental adjustment.  
Clouds accompanied us for much of the race, especially at the higher altitudes.
Thankfully, we finally made it to Täsch, the final stop before boarding the train to Zermatt, which is the only mode of transportation available to visitors. Zermatt is a nearly automobile free zone. While some locals are allowed motorized vehicles, taxis, shuttles, etc. are all electric and visitors may only travel to Zermatt by train. It is an ingenious idea and the only drawback is the inability to hear taxis and shuttles as they buzz past you on the narrow pathways of Zermatt:-)
I had booked a small one room apartment via Booking.com at a very reasonable rate just a few minutes walk from the center of Zermatt and the race start. Similar to Chamonix during UTMB week, Zermatt was abuzz with runners and their friends and families for the various races during the weekend. One important thing to note his the high cost of living in Switzerland, so I was glad to see that our small one room apartment with a balcony and an amazing view of the Matterhorn also had a small kitchenette, allowing us to prepare a few meals rather than eat out. The trip had already gotten more expensive than originally planned due to the traveling fiascos, so any additional savings were welcome on my part.
One can never have too many pictures of glaciers.
We checked into our room and went straight to the center of town, where the start and finish area for all races was located along with a massive tent and a small race expo. There were quite a few events taking place around the race itself, but I was trying to keep it simple and just pick up my race bib, get some groceries for dinner and call it a night. A 7AM race start just 10 minutes from our hotel meant a full night's sleep. 
The weather forecast was iffy at best, predicting rain for much of the afternoon. That would likely mean pure visibility all day and probably no views of the actual Matterhorn peak at all. Bummer, but I reminded myself that just running in this area would be rewarding enough. Ultimately, the weather didn't quite move in as originally predicted, so I did manage to get juuuust a few decent pictures of this amazing race course. 
One of the many ridge lines runners would cross.
 As has been the case in a few of the more spectacular European races I have been able to run, I was able to connect with Bryan McClure, who is currently living and working near Frankfurt, Germany and who lived in Huntsville, Alabama near our local "mountain" prior to moving there. Kind of ironic, me, the German living in the US and he, the American, living in Germany. Anyway, we make a point of trying to connect at races whenever our schedules allow and this was one of those events. 
 We had discussed our race plans and as had been the case at Zugspitz-Ultratrail last year, I wanted to run with him for at least the first half of the race and see what happens. Unfortunately, Bryan ended up with some issues very early in the race, so I ended up running pretty much solo for most of the race except the final 10K. I am happy to say that Bryan was able to finish the race overcoming some issues along the way.
Majestic Matterhorn peak.
My plan had been simple. Run this amazing course at a reasonably easy pace early on, keep the heart rate low, take lots of pictures if possible and pick up the pace later on if I felt good. After all, there was no point in pushing the pace in a race with 12,000ft of vert over 50km, when I still had a 100 miler with 33,000ft of vert ahead of me for the following weekend. I kept a steady pace and felt good pretty much all day. Thankfully, altitude was not an issue for me either.
One of the race checkpoints below.
The miles kept ticking away quickly as I took in the scenery. Unbeknownst to me, I was slowly passing people throughout the day. The race tracking app would provide great detail of how the race went for me on paper and it was really neat to see that after the race. I had zero ambition other than finishing the race feeling good, so that was my only focus. I kept checking in with myself. How are my legs? Quads, calves? How are my feet? Any hotspots? Everything went near perfectly and I didn't even feel like I was in a race until the final 10K, when I would start to feel the effort of the day jsut a bit.
Massive waterfall along the race course.
 Without going into too much detail about the race course and the profile, I identified 6 climbs on the course. 2 extremely long climbs and 4 slightly less severe climbs. All of them put together make for a very challenging 50K race. Some of the highlights of the race include Gornergrat, a hanging bridge, a massive waterfall and, of course, spectacular views of majestic Matterhorn. Yes, the peak revealed itself just long enough (just a few minutes, in fact) to allow me a few pictures. However, the most impressive feature along the course were the glaciers visible to our left as we crossed the Gornergrat. I could not stop taking pictures, it was so spectacular.
Beautiful blue lake just below Gornergrat.
 As expected, the course kept delivering, both in challenging terrain with barely a flat section to be found and with the views, one better than the last one. While I worked my ay through the course, I came across yet another friend from the trails, Oliver Schmidt, a fellow German from Hamburg near my hometown of Flensburg, whom I'd met a couple of years earlier as we both suffered through the final stages of a similarly challenging 50K in the South of Switzerland, the Scenic Trail 50K, taking both of us much longer than expected, mostly due to unexpectedly hot temps. Anyway, it was great to see another friend on the course. Unfortunately, we only saw each other briefly in passing as he was helping a friend finish her very first 50K. Thankfully, they both succeeded as well.
During the final 10K, I fell in with another German, born in Hamburg, but living in Amsterdam for most of his life, Leonard Faeustle. We ended up running about the same pace and decided to just run it in together, chatting the entire way as we made the final long descent to the finish line. We crossed the finish line together and I was glad to see that my brother Andy had managed to track me during the race to be there to see me finish. Looking at the splits and the overall results later on, it looked like I had actually stuck to a good plan, starting fairly slow and picking up the pace ever so slightly.
 I had recovered enough on the following day to make a recovery hike up to Matterhorn basecamp, the Hörnli Hut, where climbers spend the night before making their climb up to the peak. This race was everything I had hoped it would be and I cannot recommend it highly enough. 

  

Cool suspension bridge high above the valley below.

What are you looking at?

  
  
View from the center of the suspension bridge.

View showing the steepness of the terrain.

Observatory atop Gornergrat overlooking Matterhorn.
    
Smiling above the clouds.

Obligatory selfie of Bryan and I before the race start.

Leonard and I finishing the race, smiling from ear to ear.

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