The second edition of the 170km Ultra Tour Monte Rosa took place on 6th to 8th September. Organised by five times UTMB winner, and record holder for the Everest Base Camp to Kathmandu mail run, Lizzy Hawker, the route mainly follows the trekking route around the Monte Rosa massif going around twenty nine 4000m+ peaks.
Lizzy Hawker trained on the route for her UTMB races, and says “this is the race I would really like to run”, and so decided to organise it herself. Described as; “a serious challenge – brutal, beautiful and brilliant”, there is a time limit of 60 hours for completion.
The race start and finish is in the pretty alpine village of Grächen, in Valais, Switzerland. I had travelled out a few days before the race to try and acclimatise, and rest up for the 12,000m+ of ascent/descent that was to come. The trails are mainly above 2,000m with several high points above 3,000m.
The race started at 4am to ensure all runners were across the glaciated Theodul Pass before nightfall. The first 37km to Zermatt followed the Europaweg path, crossing the world’s longest pedestrian suspension bridge at 494 m in length. I had laminated a 40 hour schedule, and was half an hour up when I met Nicola in the warm sunshine at Zermatt. The climb out of Zermatt was indeed brutal, but the views of the Matterhorn spectacular. I met Nicola again at the Gandegghütte (2,929m) – she’d taken the quicker option of the cable cars. The route continued to climb, crossing the Theodul Glacier until I reached the high pass (3,300m) as the weather closed in. With hail, sleet and freezing rain, I was thankful for the extra layers from the obligatory safety kit, and made a quick descent into Italy.
There were fourteen checkpoints en route all (wo)/manned by fantastic volunteers, and had a never ending variety of refreshments on offer. As the weather deteriorated, and the trail became slippery the continental runners decided to sit out the worst of it at the refuges and I gained a few places. With nightfall, the weather improved and the cloudless skies revealed the stars above the shadows of the imposing mountains.
After 100km (19 hours) I reached checkpoint 9 at the Italian village of Alagna (1,193m), and took my first 15 minute break. Leaving the checkpoint, the next section had 1,936m of climbing, followed by a 1,652m descent. I had felt quite good up to this point, but the following six hours almost destroyed me. By the time I reached the checkpoint at Macugnaga (125km), my feet were suffering from trenchfoot, and my energy levels depleted. The volunteers here were great, forcing me to eat a big bowl of soup, and helping me dress the soles of my feet. With the morning sun came renewed energy, and the 1,518m climb to the impressive Monte Moro Pass back into Switzerland passed quickly. I had intended not to stop here but the checkpoint food was so good, I gorged myself for 5 minutes, later I would be thankful for the calories. The climb to the golden Virgin Mary statue, and 2km descent was the most technical part of the route, equipped with ropes and steps cut into the rocks. Once in the valley the running improved, and I was soon at the village of Sass Fee (149km) where Nicola had travelled to meet me. I was feeling near to breaking point here, but Nicola ensured I was fed and rehydrated and walked with me to the edge of the village, with just one more 1,000m climb and 20km to go I was confident I could get to the finish. However I hadn’t reckoned on what was to come: 15km of a never ending roller coaster of narrow paths, with alarmingly steep drops. I was relieved to finally reach the top of the Hannigalp gondola station, the final checkpoint, and then 3km of easy running downhill to finish at Grächen after 38.5 hours, and 10th runner back.
Lizzy Hawker greeted every finisher, and presented us with silk scarves from Nepal, together with our finisher’s medal and unique Swiss Army knife. After a couple of beers I crashed out to a fitful night’s sleep before waking to see the remainder of the finishers. In the evening the village hosted a post-race meal and prize presentation.
This really is a brutal, beautiful and brilliant race. Lizzy Hawker’s organisation and attention to detail to make this race possible is incredible, and the 150+ volunteers who make it possible brilliant.
In addition to the 170km ultra, there is a 4 day stage race around the same route, plus a 100km option from Gressoney back to Grächen. With only 400 runners the event is low key, the trails empty and the scenery magnificent.
Race info: https://www.ultratourmonterosa.com/170km-ultra-tour-info/
Grächen info: https://www.graechen.ch/en/About-us