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Sierre-Zinal, the race of the five 4000 metre peaks

05/09/2017

At a little over 19 miles in length, containing nearly 1 and a half miles of vertical ascent and culminating in a bone rattling 1000 metres of high speed descent, Sierre-Zinal is about as 'Royally' a challenge as the 30 miler, tarzan assualt course or exiting a game of spoof without showing emotion.

The race is the jewel in the crown of the European mountain running calendar, attracting a stellar field of international athletes from all 4 corners of the globe. Toeing the line alongside these elites and sharing in the limelight pre and post race would be a team of Royal Marines, courtesy of one of our 'new kid on the block', Mne Gregg Shrosbree and his old friend, Jean-Yves Rey. The rest of the team comprised: 'the experience', Cpl Adam Stokes, me; 'the debutant', Cpl Stu Brimacombe; and 'the triathlete', Mne Jake Pearson. So, as the majority of the Corps were enjoying a well earned Summer leave, thefour of us were saddling up and preparing for an epic drive from the South West, through France to Switzerland's Valais region. Travelling in style too in a pusser's combi van- the perfect vehicle for negotiating the narrow, winding mountain passes we'd be driving on once we reached our destination! It was dark when the team finally arrived and checked into the apartment in Zinal, and so on waking the next morning we were treated to the full splendour of our surroundings, nestled at the top of the valley enclosed on three sides by snow capped peaks.

Our first full day in Switzerland allowed us the morning to explore the village of Zinal, purchase a few essentials- scran, wets and a postcard home, and to shake the legs out with a quick jog along the local trails. What was quickly apparent was that even at the modest height of 1700 metres above sea level the air was noticeably thinner and we were working that much harder to get the oxygen in. Topping out at over 2400 metres, if we didn't know it already, we certainly realised then- Sierre-Zinal was going to call on all four elements of the Commando Spirit!

That afternoon we descended the valley to the town of Sierre to collect our race packs and meet our 'man on the inside' Jean-Yves. A carnival atmosphere greeted us on arrival in the town square where a stage had been set and a local band were belting out the tunes. Residents and tourists alike had flocked to the site to enjoy the spectacle and cheer on the youngsters as they raced around a specially laid out obstacle course. The afternoon culminated in the presentation on stage of the key antagonists of the race to come- the elites vying for the win, the local legends and past champions and of course, Royal. I had spent much of said afternoon dredging up ancient memories of school French lessons, and with a little assist from Google Translate, preparing and rehearsing my lines in the native lingo. I was going to thank the locals for being so welcoming and friendly, compliment the beautiful area in which they lived, thank the race directors for inviting us to compete and organising our stay and finish on saying how much we were all looking forward to the race in the morning and the after party in the afternoon! Feeling well prepared I confidently strode to the front of the stage with my team mates, smiled and waved at the crowd, all looking up attentively in anticipation of what we had to say...There's a saying that most of us are familiar with- 'no plan survives first contact', and so it was that the moment the MC on stage asked me in English what the significance the role of sport played in being a Royal Marine i dropped my fill like a faulty Bowman radio! It's all still a bit of a blur but i'm sure i rattled off something about readiness to deploy, physical and mental robustness, and there was definitely a line about the race being a vehicle for something or other. The MC looked confused as he desperately tried to make sense of, and translate my nonsense for the crowd of locals. I looked over to where the lads were stood beside me and i knew from the equally bewildered looks on their faces that what i had just uttered didn't make any sense in English either! Fortunately for me, and indeed everyone else, our compere moved swiftly down the line to allow Gregg and then Stu an opportunity to address the crowd and, having seen the perfect demo of how not to do it, they stayed on message. From the approving nods coming from the crowd I knew that they now understood what the Royal Marines are all about and that tomorrow we'd mean business!

To cap off an already fantastic first full day in Switzerland the team were taken by the race committee to enjoy a slap up dinner at top local restaurant, Brasseire L'Atelier Gourmand. The head chef is himself a veteran of several Sierre-Zinal races and has completed the gruelling route in under 3 hours no less. We enjoyed 3 courses of fine cuisine and local wine as we grilled mountain running legend and course record holder, Jonathan Wyatt, for his top tips ahead of the race. Suitably loaded with carbs and helpful hints there was little to do other than bid or farewells and head up the mountain to get our heads down. Thankfully being in the elite race meant that we could have a bit more of a lie in than the 'tourist' category runners who would be setting of in the darkness at 5AM!

The sun was shining on race morning as we made or way down the valley to Sierre, there was time for a nervous visit (or two) to the portaloos and a quick warm up before we lined up ready to go, shoulder to shoulder with a whole host of international vests and professionals. To our front loomed the spine of mountains that we were just about to race up, casting the start line into shade, at the blast of a horn the masses surged forward eager to get into the best position before the route broke onto the narrow mountain trails where overtaking was difficult. Jonathan had advised us at dinner the day before to think of the race as 3 seperate ones: the initial 4 miles that contained the bulk of the ascent; the long rollercoaster like middle; and then the descent down into Zinal. Aim to start easy I had been told, and then knock it down a gear into an even easier pace than that- top tips, duly forgotten. I overheard snippets of a conversation in English just ahead of me up the road and eager to have some company on my first foray into the hills i upped my tempo to catch them and was soon gabbing away like a chatty schoolgirl! The chat (mostly mine) became less and less as the trail rose steeper and steeper intothe thickly forested slope. By mile 2 my mouth had become a one way street for getting oxygen into my screaming lungs, other orifices had to take up the slack for breathing out. Running gave way to speed marching, speed marching then to a hands on knees leg pumping walk as competitors who had paced their effort a bit more conservatively began to stream by. A few metres seemed to be miles and just when I thought it would never be over I broke out of the tree line into daylight and the first aid station at Ponchette. I had reached the second race, the more runnable long rolling section, as my breathing settled and my legs sprang back into life I began to regained the places i had lost on the climb. For the next 13 miles i was entraced as the mountain range rose to majestic peaks to my left. To my right the slope fell steeply to the valley floor a mile below before rising to a ridge that mirrored the one we were running, it was simply stunning and a memory i will cherish for a lifetime. The tourists who had left Sierre all those hours ahead of us had often stopped along the route and set themselves as unofficial aid stations, offering out a share of their food or a drink of water from their camelbaks and always urging you on with a cry of 'allez, allez, allez' or 'hup, hup, hup'. It's this kind of camaraderie that we pride ourselves on as bootnecks and just goes to reinforce the view that shared hardship brings us closer together.

As I reached the ceiling of the race, the aid station at Nava at 2425 metres above sea level, I caught sight of one of the British guys I had began the day with. He had long ago dropped me as i fell apart on the initial climb but now i set about the task of reeling him back in and over the next couple of miles i managed to close the gap. I was just about to utter a cheery hello when disaster struck and cramp shot up the inside of both my thighs. Reduced to a kind of straight legged shuffle all i could do was pray that the next aid station was close enough to get some electrolytes back in my body before the wheels really came off as my countryman disappeared back off into the distance.

To my intense relief i wasn't too far from the final aid station in Barneusa and i began grabbing and downing everything in arms reach. Water, great i'll have a bit of that, Isostar, lovely- chug! I was only half aware that of the volunteer manning the refreshments trying to tell me something as i reached for one final cup of water to throw over my head on my way out of the station. The word 'boullion' registered a fraction of a second before i hit myself full in the face with a cup of hot stock. Back in the fight and smelling slightly like a sweaty roast dinner I set off in hot pursuit of the Brit again as the village of Zinal came into view in the distance, several hundred metres in the valley below.

As the race entered it's break neck conclusion i made the catch yet had no time for small talk as we hurtled downhill. I felt like a Norway novice enduring my first day on skis as i looked around for anything that might break my fall rather than my bones if i lost control- a supple looking young tree, a soft looking old human...as the spectators lining the banks of the path grew thicker i knew that the finish line must be getting closer. i splashed through a stream, showering the onlookers with water and skidded around a corner to find tarmac under my feet once again. Someone had helpfully written 500 on the road and i hoped that they'd got their measurements correct as I hit the afterburners for a grandstand finish. The crowd seemed to appreciate the effort and roared me on to the finish, all i could do was raise my hands above my head and applaud them as i crossed the line in 3 hours and 1 minute. Sierre-Zinal had, in every sense, been an absolutely breath taking experience, as beautiful as it was brutal. Next of us home was Gregg, the man responsible for starting us all off down the road to Switzerland all those months ago, the man who i had been cursing in my head on more than one occasion as i toiled up that first slope. Don't worry mate, all is now forgiven! It was rounds complete as Stu then crossed the line, having had an enlightening experience. Learning firstly: the true horror of hitting the wall; and then, as some concerned young boy offered him a piece of his chocolate bar to perk the ailing marine up a little, just how easy it really is to 'take candy from a baby' as Stu ignored the one square being proffered and inside snatched the entire bar and slammed it down as the hapless lad looked on in terrified shock.

Our day concluded in true Swiss style as Jean-Yves invited us all over to his chalet in the village to enjoy a traditional raclette with his family as we sampled more of the local beer and wine and swapped stories of our experiences on the mountainside.

Monday gave us one last opportunity for a spot of R&R before we loaded up the bus on Tuesday morning, bade Zinal a fond farewell (hopefully just until this time next year) and began the long drive home.