Sierre-Zinal: a schooling in greatness

On the radar

If you’re into trail running, you’ll have heard about Sierre-Zinal. This year marked the 46th edition of the race, and perhaps both the combination of prestige, inclusion in the Golden Trail Series, as well as having the opportunity to battle it out with so many other elite athletes, drew in the most star-studded line-up of trail runners so far this year.

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Photo credit: https://www.sierre-zinal.com

Alongside Kilian Jornet stood a ‘who’s who’ of the running world, including previous champs and a strong African contingent (rare in most trail races)… all the makings for a lightning fast race.

A million miles off the pace

Going for a warm up jog alongside Kilian and a dozen or so other groupies before the race start was fun; lungs burning, mouth parched and crying out for water and electrolytes on the hot, punishing ascent out of the Rhône valley slightly less so. What it lacked in enjoyment, it more than made up for in awe and inspiration, providing a new-found appreciation for the quality of the top trail runners. I had turned up unprepared for trail races previously and managed to perform well, even placing and taking home some swag, but it immediately became apparent that this was not to be the case here.

Spectators passed on the news that Kilian had won in record pace while I was still busy plodding my way up to the Hotel Weisshorn, with still over 11km to go. Maude had already claimed the women’s record 5 minutes before I bundled my way into the aid station, keen to shovel down electrolytes of any form available. Perhaps residing in Scotland has conditioned me to enjoy running in colder, wetter conditions than what we had on Sunday (it was already >20 degrees when we set off from Sierre), but I still find it staggering that such weather was conducive to the ludicrously fast times that were in the making.

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Photo credit: Photos Sports

Just how fast were they? – The winning times in numbers

Kilian Jornet completed the 31km in 2:25:35, meaning his average pace was 4:42 per km. Maude Mathys won in 2:49:20, making her average 5:28 per km. Now those might not sound like hugely impressive times, but when you throw in 2200m of elevation gain, and frustratingly rocky, tree root-ridden terrain at times, you begin to see just how outrageously fast those times really are. Here they are in a little more detail, with Kilian and Maude’s splits for some of the key aid stations:

Ponchette (7.5km, +1300m): Kilian – 47:10 (6:17/km), Maude – 57:07 (7:37/km)

Hotel Weisshorn (20km, +2000m): Kilian – 1:42:35 (5:08/km), Maude – 2:00:43 (6:02/km)

Final 11km from Weisshorn to Zinal: Kilian – 42:59 (3:54/km), Maude – 48:37 (4:25/km)

A professional sport

Having experienced first-hand just how speedy these times are, it got me thinking about just what it is that Kilian, Maude and the other people at the top of the ultra running game do to be able to run so fast. Trail and ultra running can sometimes feel a touch amateur, where half-decent club runners can turn up and walk away with a victory (I’ve definitely felt this when I’ve placed in races), but there’s now no question at all in my mind that the top players in trail running are professional through and through, with serious training to match.

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Photo credit: https://www.sierre-zinal.com

How to run as fast as Kilian

Much has been written about Kilian’s training, in particular because he’s self-coached and only spends half of the year running (the other half he spends ski-mountaineering). He also does very little strength training, instead focusing on climbing and mountaineering, and other sport-specific training. With that in mind, it’s hard to fathom how someone so at the top of their game can string together such high quality training, and achieve such remarkable results. What most people don’t realise, however, is that Kilian has a strong background in exercise science, having studied Sciences and Techniques of Sports and Physical Exercises at the University of Font-Romeu in the French Pyrenees. So it’s not as if he’s just going out for long runs in the mountains; far from it, here is a bit more detail on the ingredients behind his successes:

  • “20 and 35 hours a week volume or high volume training and go on a couple of outings a day of between 2 and 7 hours, depending on the day” (source: https://www.kilianjornet.cat/en/training)
  • 10-20km of vertical elevation gain per week (source: official race programme)
  • Annual training volume of 1,000 – 1,300 hours (that’s an average of 2:44 – 3:34 per day) [source: https://www.outsideonline.com/2392890/kilian-jornet-uphill-athlete-book-review
  • “Perform some training experiments in more extreme conditions, with a good base, after 5 – 6 years of good training and before the objective. Try without food, without hydration, high intensity in altitude, acclimatization, climbing skills… always controlled and in safety zones.” (source: https://www.kilianjornet.cat/en/media/train)
  • 30-minute 10ks, fairly comfortably (source: Emelie Forsberg in her race commentary)

Long way off, but inspired

Perhaps the most important part of Kilian’s training is is the enjoyment that he clearly derives from it. He talks about the importance of finding fun and enjoyment in every training session, that it should never feel like an “obligation”. I think this is something that we can all take away and feed into our own running, and movement or any kind in the mountains. After all, training is not just a means to the end of good race results, it is a worthy end in itself. Sierre-Zinal was an eye-opening, at times frustratingly painful experience for me, but one which has provided impetus to approach training with more rigour, focus on specific races and, last but not least, always seek fun and enjoyment from moving in the mountains.