Kilian Jornet wins the North Face Ultra Trail (© AFP / Getty Images)
The mini tour of the WMRA World Cup 2018 goes on, and after the emotions of the 'ice giant' Grossglockner in Austria and the brand new Vertical K in Malonno, Italy, it is already time for the third round with the Sierre-Zinal race in the Valais village of Zinal, Switzerland, on Sunday (12).
The great classic of the Valais has already hosted WMRA events when in 2004 it was the theater of the first edition of the Long Distance Mountain Running World Championship, won at the time by Mexico's Ricardo Mejia and Angeline Joly of Switzerland.
The focus of the mountain running world returns to Zinal 14 years later for a stage of the renewed World Cup as the series' third race of five.
In the two stages held so far were the figures of the Austrian Andrea Mayer, great dominator at both the Grossglockner and PizTriVertikal, and that of the Italian Francesco Puppi, third at Heiligenblut and then winner at Malonno. But other athletes have run both tests and could return to the race for the final victory thanks to Sierre Zinal, while many others could enter the world series just starting on Sunday.
Spain’s five-time winner Kilian Jornet stands out as the obvious favourite. A star in the mountain running world, Jornet suffered a fracture of the femur back in March, sustained during a fall in the Pierra Menta mountain ski race. He returned in July with a victory at the Marathon du Mont-Blanc and will aim to replicate that finishing position in Zinal.
Britain’s Robbie Simpson has raced sparingly in recent months but always approaches this race as one of his big targets each year. Having finished third in 2015 and second in 2016 and 2017, the Commonwealth marathon bronze medallist will hope to go one better this year.
USA’s Joe Gray and Norway’s Stian Angermund should also be in contention, as will Britain’s Jacob Adkin, Switzerland’s Stephan Wenk and France’s Thibault Baronian.
Kenya’s Lucy Wambui Murigi, twice a winner in Zinal, will start as the favourite in the women’s race. The world mountain running champion recently triumphed in Thyon-Dixence, showing she had fully recovered from the injury she picked up earlier this year.
Italy’s Silvia Rampazzo, the world long distance mountain running champion, should be Wambui’s biggest threat. Sweden’s Ida Nilsson, star of the sky running scene, should also figure in the hunt for medals, along with Spain’s Eli Gordon, New Zealand’s Ruth Croft and USA’s Megan Kimmel.
Michelle Maier won here in 2016 but the German’s form this year has been somewhat erratic.
A big theme of interest in view of the 45th edition of Sierre-Zinal is also the meeting between two off-road worlds. In fact, the 2018 edition will also host a stage of the Salomon Golden Trail Series, and then some veterans from Zegama and the Marathon du Mont Blanc will be face-to-face with the protagonists of Grossdglockner and PizTri for a memorable challenge.
The course-track of Sierre-Zinal is the same as ever, which has built the mystique and myth: 31km with 2200m ascent and 1100m descent, a demanding first part with the rise from Sierre to Chandolin and then a long and spectacular ride on the heights of val d’Anniviers, under the eyes of the 'five 4000s' that crown them: Weisshorn (4506m), Zinalrothorn (4221m), Obergabelhorn (4073m), Matterhorn (4478m) and Dent Blanche (4357m). After the passage to the Weisshorn hotel, one of the symbols of the race, the beating descent to Zinal that welcomes the athletes in a blaze of public, always exceptionally numerous and enthusiastic.
The race record belongs to Jonathan Wyatt, the current president of the WMRA and six-time world champion in classic mountain running. In 2003 the New Zealander stopped the chronometer on an incredible time of 2:29:12. Wyatt is also the only athlete who has finished the course in under 2:30 while only in three, Wyatt, Marco De Gasperi (twice), and Ricardo Mejia have managed to stay under 2:31.
The women's record dates back to 2008 and belongs to the legend of Rep: Czech Anna Pichrtova (today Strakova), with a time of 2:54:26. There is a small elite club of just six women who have managed to break the three-hour barrier: Pichrtova-Strakova (four times), Joly, Michelle Maier of Germany, Kenya's Lucy Wambui Murigi, Angela Mudge of Scotland and Italy's Elisa Desco.
The greatest multi-winners of Sierre Zinal are Mejia and Kilian Jornet Burgada with five victories on the men's side and Pichrtova-Strakova on the women's, with four victories.
After the Swiss race the world circuit will take a break for WMRA World Championships which takes place in Canillo, Andorra, on 15 on September. The World Cup then resumes with two final races: the Hochfelln Berglauf in Bergen, Germany, and the Smarna Gora Race in the Slovenian capital Ljubljana.
Alex Scolari (organisers) for the IAAF