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The UTMR - Bold, Beautiful, Brutal

It’s 8 am in Cervinia in Northern Italy, the sky is clear, the peak of the Matterhorn is brushed with gold. ….cinque, quarto, tres, due, uno… we are running down hill for 100 m before the climbing starts. The first climb of the 3 day Ultra Tour of Monte Rosa UTMR is 1,000 m to the Col de Cimes at 2,981 m. Many of us are carrying poles and within minutes I feel the burn of my triceps as I use them to propel me up the steep ski slope flanked by 4,000 m peaks. It is strangely silent at first, but slowly the runners start to talk to each other …the race is small and intimate… 20 nations are represented, including runners from Nepal, who will dominate the podium. Prayer flags are a recurring motif and represent the strong links that Lizzy Hawker has with Nepal. Lizzy does not like the limelight and instead has been out most of the night marking the route; but who better to organise an Alpine trail race than someone who has won the Ultra Tour de Mont Blanc 5 times.

Lizzy truly loves the mountains and has trained on the quiet trails around Monte Rosa for many years. The race is her opportunity to invite runners who love mountain trails to share in this experience. The statistics tell you that it is not a race for the faint hearted: 115 km in 3 days with 8,500 m of positive elevation. For the experienced ultra runners the race can be done as a continuous circuit. But for myself and the other 145 starters on Thursday morning it is a 3 stage race, with two comfortable nights in Italian Alpine Hotels on the way. In the evenings there is plenty of time to get to know other runners and swop stories of other running adventures round the world.

The first climb ends and spread before us is an amazing vista of mountains seemingly without end. The trail descends slowly to the valley to a welcome feed station. Then after a few kilometres of valley running we start our second ascent of the day, another 800 m climb over the Rothorn Pass …before the day ends in the pretty Italian village of Gressony la Trinite.

Five years before I had stayed here on a skiing holiday and my suspicions about the steepness of the next day’s climb were well founded. We started at 6 am, looking back after half an hour I could see our snail trail of head torch lights winding up the precipitous hillside. We crested the Col d’Olen at 2,881 m. Again the views were magnificent, made even more spectacular by another golden dawn and cloudless skies.

The second day was the first of two 45 km days both with 3,500 m of climbing on each day. In North Yorkshire where I live and run, the longest continual climb I can find near my home is about 250 m. Our second climb of the day was 6 times this height, followed by a magnificent run down an ancient stone track way towards Macanagua for our second night. The little village was beautiful in the bright warm afternoon sunshine. We ate pizza and cooled ourselves in the fountain; there was live music and more delicious food….showers were delayed while we lounged in the sun. In the evening we all ate together in a marquee and watched the sun sink behind the mountains. Later we sat in the village square sipping hot chocolate, waiting for the first of the ultra runners to arrive.

The third day was always going to be the hardest. It started with a 1,500 m climb to the Monte Moro pass at 2,800 m. This was followed by a brilliant runable descent of 12 km. Finally, we arrived at the feed station at Saas Fee but by then it was very hot and the we knew the final 20 km would be extremely hard. Instead of one consistent climb, the trail wound up and down and up again; 1,000 m below the cars in the valley floor looked like toys. A runner with vertigo struggled making her way slowly and carefully along the exposed path.

A loose boulder field had to be negotiated and there were tunnels under raging waterfalls and short sharp climbs with wire ropes to cling to. The trail was amazingly beautiful and challenging, but my legs were almost finished, again and again another corner another switchback kilometre, on and on into the hot afternoon sun. Finally, the trail crested a col and it was a mad fast steep 3 km downhill to the finish in the Swiss village of Grachen.

I was totally exhausted, unbelievably elated and very emotional as I hugged my fellow finishers. I sat and drank tea and watched in disbelief as the ultra runners arrived. How had they done that route all in one go? I asked one man who had to be in his 60’s, what it was like? He answered that it was a long journey, very hard at times but absolutely wonderful at others…..I guess that sums the race up.

My advice is to do it soon. It will become a classic and it could easily be as hard to get into as the UTMB in a few years time.

The Stats
Start Cervinia
Finish Grachen
Starters 2016 = 145, Finishers 120
Fastest time 13.55
Slowest 31.12
% women participants 40%

Dave Jelley 7-09-16