(08-Jul) -- Earlier this year organizers of Sierre-Zinal, one of mountain running's most storied races, realized that they could not meet the Swiss government's stiff anti-COVID requirements for live sporting events and that they were facing cancellation. The mid-August race, founded in 1974 and held in the Canton of Valais, is famous for its rugged course and spectacular sunrise views of the Alps. Back in April, they had first tried postponing the race to September, but the later date did not end up providing the regulatory relief they had hoped for. The event was in a tough spot.
PHOTO: Runners competing in the 2019 Sierre-Zinal mountain race in Switzerland (photo by Patrick Zufferey courtesy of Sierre-Zinal)
"Social distancing requirements entail a substantial increase in costs, volunteer manpower and work-time, in addition to the cancellation of all events surrounding the race," organizers said in a media statement on June 25. "With limited options at Zinal and along the course, we feel it is impossible to hold Sierre-Zinal in its traditional form, while also ensuring the safety of runners, volunteers and spectators and meeting our quality standards."
After extensive debate, organizers came up with a brilliant, yet simple, plan. Starting on Monday, August 17, registered runners can run the 31-kilometer course independently on any day for a period of 33 days ending on Friday, September 18. Dubbed the "Free-Form" version of the race, registered runners will be met by Sierre-Zinal staff at both the start and finish, have access to one official aid station, get an official finish time, and receive both a finisher certificate and a medal. They will also have "the opportunity to be part of the Sierre-Zinal legend," organizers said.
"Sierre-Zinal is not just an event," organizers said through a statement. "It is an accomplishment, the climax of months of effort, the glorification of a lifestyle, a moment of cultural history, nothing less!"
The rugged, mostly trail course has a total of 2200m (7218 feet) of ascent and 1100m (3609 feet) of descent for a net gain of 1100m (3609 feet). The world's best male mountain runner, Kilian Jornet of Spain, has won the event seven times between 2009 and 2019, including the last three editions. Illustrating the difficulty of the course, his event record mark of 2:25:36 from last year averaged only 4:42 per kilometer (7:34 per mile). Most competitors walk at least some of the course, and the median finish time last year was 4:15:33 for men and 4:31:12 for women.
Under the Free-Form system, runners are expected to take responsibility for their own safety. Athletes may start the race only between the hours of 5:00 and 8:00 a.m., and are encouraged to check the weather on the race website at 8:00 p.m. the night before to make sure that no storms are predicted (although Sierre averages 300 days of sunshine per year and summer weather is usually good). They are also responsible for getting themselves off of the course should they be unable to finish.
Organizers demand that each runner carry a fully-charged mobile phone equipped with the echoSOS app which will allow them to be located quickly by emergency workers, if necessary. If unable to finish, competitors must text "WITHDRAWAL" to a special number. The finish line in Zinal closes each day at 5:00 p.m., and if any runners are not accounted for the race security manager will call those runners on their cell phones. If there is no answer, a rescue party will be dispatched to search for them on the course (the cost of the search party will be charged to the runner).
Once they arrive at the finish in the village of Zinal, runners can take a public bus back to Sierre. With an official race bib, the bus fare is reduced by 50%.
Reaction to the Free-Form plan has mostly been positive, especially given that cancellation was the other alternative. "Congratulations and thank you for the realization of this concept!!" wrote one runner, Claudine Emery, on the event's Facebook page. "What a job! I will be leaving with great joy.!" Another, Natacha Albrecht, wrote: "Congratulations to the organization. It's not easy to make a decision. We support you at 100%. The alternative version is great given the circumstances."
Runners are not permitted to rollover their entries to 2021. However, entries are transferable through a formal process on the event's website. Some entries were sold with special cancellation insurance, and runners with that type of entry can receive a refund of their CHF 85 (USD 91) entry fee.
Overall, organizers are optimistic about the pandemic version of their event. This will be the 47th edition of the race.
"We are deeply grateful for the loyalty you have shown us when you signed up for the Race of the Five 4000m Peaks, despite the uncertainty surrounding the global health situation. You've trained in the hope and anticipation of a race you already feel to be a part of - which is why we won’t let you down."