Running In The Matterhorn’s Shadow

Many fine Swiss watches get their accuracy from quartz crystals. The minerals keep the precision instruments on time by providing a steady frequency and constant energy source. Michel Hodara, organizer of the Matterhorn Ultraks, a collection of races starting and finishing in the Swiss resort town of Zermatt, is akin to a Swiss watchmaker, tinkering with his product, refining it to improve what it delivers.

And deliver it does.

Running the Ultraks, the Matterhorn served as my crystal, keeping me in constant, steady cadence. When I grew tired from the long, steep climbs, I glanced at the majestic peak I had read about as a child, heard about in climbing stories and seen in movies. Just like quartz in a Swiss watch, The Matterhorn provided a constant energy source that kept me ticking to a timely finish in Zermatt.

Now in its sixth year, the Ultraks offers four different adult race distances and a children’s race. More than 2,000 runners participate. The distances include the VZS, a short, steep ascent of 655 meters in 1.2 kilometers, and the “16K,” “30K” and “46K,” all in quotations because, since the first year, they have been lengthened to improve the runners’ experience.

Hodura points out that one thing is dependable with Ultraks; “the Matterhorn is always there.” And what a cheerleader the iconic mountain makes: as the race courses climb up and descend down its shoulders, the Matterhorn just beams in its beauty, bestowing encouraging energy to weary-legged runners. The cowbells, mélange of languages heard out on the meticulously-marked course and well-organized event don’t hurt either.

Zermatt is nestled near the Italian border in the west of Switzerland, at the end of the 30 km-long valley. It is one of the cleanest, serene and healthiest places in the world, thanks in part to the fact that it is a car-less resort with miniature electric taxi shuttles and plenty of bicycles. It is teeming with “health” hotels featuring spas and Swiss-style architecture and restaurants. Zermatt is an easy train destination from major cities like Zurich, Basel, Bern or Geneva, and the final ascent to Zermatt, connecting from Brig and Visp, up a 90-minute ride on a narrow-gauge railway, is breathtaking.

The Matterhorn Ultraks offers competitors courses of various distances and difficulty levels so everyone can find what fits their skills and preparation level. It is easy to mix and match so that the whole family can race or enjoy a ride up the mountain to cheer from key locations.

The Ultraks 46 is actually 50km with more than 10,000’ of vertical ascent and descent, topping out at over 10,000’ in elevation at the Gornergrat, with exceptional views of glaciers and the Matterhorn. The 30 is still grueling but more accommodating to non-ultrarunners. And the 16, despite featuring two challenging climbs and descents, is much more approachable.

Ultraks is part of the Skyrunning Series. “Skyrunning” is a collection of some 200 qualifying races in 54 countries, including a number US events. Italian mountaineer Marino Giacometti and British skier turned skyrunner Lauri Van Houten founded the governing body, Federation for Sport at Altitude in the mid ‘90s. Skyrunning is now managed by the International Skyrunning Federation, which took over from the FSA in 2008. ISF directs, regulates, promotes and develops Skyrunning and similar multisport activities around the world. The following U.S. events are part of the Skyrunning series that includes a variety of spectacular races around the world, including the Rut in Big Sky, Montana on September 1.

Click here more information on the Sky Worldseries and here for the Matterhorn Ultraks.