“It’s going to be hell” and “people are going to cry at the top” were two bold statements that stuck with me from the Matterhorn Ultraks Extreme race designer. The Matterhorn Ultraks Extreme was a new race on the 2019 SkyRunning calendar and one that was eagerly anticipated by all athletes competing in it. Martin Anthamatten, a local legend in Zermatt, was given the task to create the most extreme and technical race in the world. Martin did just that, he left the town of Zermatt into the mountains he knows so well and created the inaugural Matterhorn Ultraks Extreme.
In the lead up to the race, people gave me all kinds of advice, laughed that I would attempt something so technical and extreme, put me in their prayers or simply wished me well and hoped that I made it out the other side alive.
Well, here I am. I survived the world’s most technical and extreme running race, so here is everything you need to know along with my personal race review.
Thanks to Jackson Groves for letting me use all his pictures from the race. He was perched up on the ridge after the glacier and behind the Mettelhorn climb. You can read more about his experience of the race and see his race-day gallery here!
HOW MANY PEOPLE RUN THE MATTERHORN ULTRAKS EXTREME?
The Matterhorn Ultraks EXTREME is limited to 250 race spots. Due to its extreme nature, it is important that the entries are capped for the safety of competitors.
The Matterhorn Ultraks Extreme is also a SuperSky Race as part of the SkyRunning world series.
Among the field were many of the top 10 men and women SkyRunning athletes along with Andy Stiendl who currently holds the record from Zermatt to the top of the Matterhorn and back. The inaugural race was also fortunate enough to have mountaineer and race designer Martin Anthamatten in the leading line up too.
HOW DO I GAIN ENTRY TO MATTERHORN ULTRAKS EXTREME?
To gain entry, each runner had to show credentials to make sure they can be independent in high altitude, in mountain terrain and adverse conditions. The Matterhorn Ultraks Extreme is a demanding course that requires mountain and altitude experience. At registration, questions will be asked about the experience of the person in similar skyrunning /trail-running races, in the mountain and with Via Ferrata.
WHEN DOES MATTERHORN ULTRAKS EXTREME TAKE PLACE?
The Matterhorn Ultraks running festival is typically held on the third or fourth weekend of August each year.
WHAT ARE THE OTHER ULTRAKS RACES?
Active – 19km with 1150m of climbing elevation.
Mountain – 32km with 2000m of climbing elevation.
Sky – 49km with 3600m of climbing elevation.
Extreme – 24km with 2900m of climbing elevation.
What is the elevation gain at Extreme Ultraks?
Across the 24km kilometres, runners complete several climbs. To start the race there is a 1600m ascent which passes through Hobalm, the first race checkpoint. Elevation gain covers more than 2880m of elevation of climbing and the same descending. It is imperative that runners are able to manage themselves at high altitudes in changeable mountain conditions and on unstable terrain. Rock climbing and scrambling is an important skill in this race on the technical sections.
HOW LONG DOES THE MATTERHORN ULTRAKS EXTREME TAKE TO COMPLETE?
Elite field : 3 hours 30 – 5 hours.
Amateur: 5 hours 30 – 7 hours.
Me: 6 hours 14 minutes
Race cut off: 10 hours. However, there are two checkpoints athletes must meet to avoid cutoff.
Cutoff #1: 90minutes after the start, approximately 4.5km and 1060m of elevation.
Cutoff #2: Rothornhütte no more than 4 hours.
IS IT POSSIBLE TO HAVE CREW/SUPPORT?
There is no pacing or crew support allowed.
WHAT TO WEAR AND CARRY + COMPULSORY ITEMS
- Crampons/mountain spikes
- Waterproof Jacket
- Safety/emergency blanket.
- Tape to fix twisted ankles.
- Mobile phone.
Read below for my full gear list.
LOOKING FOR ANOTHER CHALLENGING RACE?
If you’re looking for a challenging ‘warm-up’ race, I recommend doing another SkyRunning event in the lead-up. I did the SkyRunning event in Vall De Boi, Spain earlier this year which gave me a terrific insight into the extreme downhill sections that are involved in SkyRunning.
MATTERHORN ULTRAKS EXTREME: RACE REVIEW
PREPARATION LEADING INTO MATTERHORN ULTRAKS EXTREME
I took a different and very enjoyable approach to my training in the lead up to this race. With a race that is barely runnable, it didn’t make sense to continue training on flat roads and trails. The Matterhorn Ultraks is a demanding course that requires you to consider many different elements as opposed to just getting from A to B in the fastest way possible. After my last Skyrunning race in Spain, improving my downhill sections was a big priority of mine. At the Buff Epic Trail 42km in Spain, I had no experience in extremely steep downhill sections which caused me many issues across the race. Over the last 6 weeks leading into the race, I’ve spent less time running and more time hiking. Across the weeks I’ve averaged 4-5 hikes a week, spending anywhere from four to ten hours at a time out on the trails. Being out on the mountain trails has helped me a lot with my downhill running, technical footwork, uphill strength, and getting used to the altitude. As the start of the Matterhorn Ultraks Extreme was 1600m in 6km, all the time hiking up mountains came in very useful.
If you want to see my training, you can view all my activities on strava.
Before the race, I felt an array of emotions and had varying thoughts about the race. Those who knew about the race continually told me how dangerous it would be and that the technical sections were going to be like nothing I’ve ever dealt with before. I was excited about the challenge but also nervous if I would make the cut-off times. Furthermore, I didn’t know how I would handle the altitude above 3200m whilst fatigued yet trying to push my body to its limits.
With all my time spent hiking in Switzerland and a better understanding of what SkyRunning entails, I had a little more confidence about my own ability heading into this race.
After doing hikes like Hardergrat near Interlaken on very exposed ridgelines and a difficult via Ferrata in Engelberg, I wasn’t as nervous about the potential of exposed or ‘risky’ sections in the race. As I’ve learned in the mountains, risk and danger are two different things. The risk you can minimize through continual exposure to an activity, research, respect, and knowledge of the environment. If something is dangerous, that is usually something out of your personal control like a natural disaster e.g. landslide, rockfall.
Via Ferrata in Engelberg, Switzerland a week before the race.
Hardergrat trail, an exposed trail in Switzerland.
The Matterhorn was on show in all its glory. We were blessed with a terrific clear day in Zermatt and very pleasant racing temperatures. A slight change up to my peanut-butter and toast breakfast, I had a banana dipped in my beloved European biscotti mix along with a granola-nut bar.
I left my accommodation, gloves on with my vest packed and ready for the race. Arriving at the start line an hour before the race, I went through my usual 2km warmup, drills, and strides before handing my backpack into the bag-drop and heading to the start line.
Three… two… one… the ribbon dropped and off we darted. The adrenaline got the better of me and I went out at a blistering pace with the top 20 runners. I nestled myself into the lead pack but only for a very short time. Within a few minutes, the incline began and we all settled into an unsettling discomfort. In true skyrunning fashion, the first ascent was grueling. Starting in Zermatt at 1605m above sea-level, we began climbing approximately 1600m above us. More importantly, my first goal was to be at Hobalm within 90min to avoid cutoff.
The first 1000m of vertical gain was along narrow trails, with only space for one person. To overtake (or dropback) was only possible on bends or by pulling up on the mountainside. Between 500m to 1000m of vertical, I really struggled. After going out hard, I was paying the price and felt a little ill. My backpack felt heavy and I was still deciding whether using the poles was a good idea. Step by step, I made my way up to the first checkpoint in 63 minutes, well under the cutoff time. For reference, the lead pack went through in 44 minutes.
HOBALM 90 MINUTE CUTTOFF
Making cut-off was a relief and a convenient time to take a gel before continuing to climb another 600m. It was at this stage of the race that I would barely see a trail again in the next 16 kilometres. The views of the Matterhorn at this stage of the race were tremendous, however, I had ‘bigger’ things to worry about like avoiding loose rocks to the head. That might sound outrageous, yet one of my friends Holly had to withdraw from the race after a rock to the head stopped her from progressing any further. As rocks fell and the athletes climb, occasional yells from above warned those below to avoid watermelon size rocks tumbling down. Running wasn’t even a thought at this stage and the idea of hiking was starting to seem foreign. I scrambled up the mountainside using my hands and hiking poles. Scrambling soon became rock-climbing as we passed 3000m for the first time.
Weeks before the race, I asked “What it meant for a race to be technical? ” Among the possible criteria, my friend responded that “A technical race is when you have no other option but to use your hands.” The Matterhorn Ultraks EXTREME was technical, extremely technical. The rock-climbing was not difficult or scary for me, but it was slow and time-consuming. Soon after the rock-climbing section, appeared the summit of the first climb.
THE FIRST DOWNHILL
If you were out hiking on a regular day, there is no way you would consider going down the ‘route’ we were about to descend. Race officials stood at the start of the descent allowing three people to go at a time. Pointing to a rope, they told us to grab on and head down. Adrenaline kicked in and off I went. Gripping the rope tightly with gloved hands, the descent began. The footing below me was loose, it was comprised of a mix of gravel, plus small and broken rocks, which is known as ‘scree’. With newfound confidence for downhill running, I charged the steep decline, at times sliding into the competitor in front of me. Debris filled my shoes by the bottom and my hands bled underneath my gloves from falling backward, but I finished the first major descent without too many issues and with a huge smile on my face. I was starting to feel better after making a few overtakes and knowing that the 6 weeks downhill hiking in Switzerland had paid itself dividends. The loose ‘scree’ allows you to go down fast if you understand that your foot will move and slide a little once you plant it. When you get use to that feeling, you can start to move swiftly down a hill of nearly 45% decline.
FLAT BUT TECHNICAL TERRAIN
Moving on from the downhill section, we went into what seemed like a valley between glaciers. Carpeting the valley was soccer-ball sized rocks shaped of all different angles. There was no line to follow, rather it was ‘make your own’. I had to make a quick stop to empty my shoes from small rocks, which cost me several positions which I gained on the downhill prior. Having gators to prevent this from happening would have been a great pre-race decision, but how was I to know? That will be the knowledge I’ll keep in the bank for next year.
I’d practiced my downhill running leading into this race, but I hadn’t practiced running across rocks of all different sizes. Amongst other things, trying to move across the rocks would prove to be my biggest struggle. After this ‘flat section’ came the next uphill section to Rothornhutte where the first aid station was.
Across the race, there were two prominent aid-stations. The first and biggest aid-station was at Rothornhütte, which supplied a great range of refueling options. The second aid-station came at the 19-20km mark, however, at this stage, I was flying along the downhill section and opted to miss it.
Before reaching Rothornhutte, approximately 2 hours 15 minutes I stopped by a clean glacier stream to fill up both my 500ml flasks. I was completely out of water and about to start the second big incline of the day. This was both a great decision and very refreshing. Despite slowing me down, it’s moments like this in the SkyRunning race that I love so much. It’s not just a race but an adventure across the lands. I made it to Rothornhütte after 3 hours and 14 minutes, one hour and 16 minutes before the cutoff time. I filled up both my 500ml flasks here, ate some oranges and an energy bar before moving off into the next technical section.
At this stage of the race, I was really struggling after another long uphill section and I also think that the altitude was starting to wear me down too. Many athletes at my stage of the race took time to catch their breath before moving on further. Aid-stations can be very tempting to hang around, but I know that they are an easy way to lose time and positions.
MOVING TOWARDS THE GLACIER
After the aid-station was my lowest point of the race. The rocks turned into boulders and even they weren’t stable. One big boulder slipped when I stepped on it, almost jamming my ankle. This path of the race is not a place where people hike, ever. Race organisers left flags amongst the boulders and rocks indicating the direction we should travel in. Throughout the boulders were small glacier streams and patches of leftover snow. Some of these snow patches were 30-40m. They were not big enough to justify putting crampons on so me and the other athletes went down them the best we could. One of them I gained momentum quickly losing control of my balance and ended up burning my hands trying to come to a stop. The Matterhorn Ultraks Extreme was filled with every terrain possible. Getting out of this section took all my effort and lead me to the glacier crossing.
I couldn’t believe before the race that I would need crampons/mountain spikes, however, when I saw the glacier in front of me everything made suddenly made sense.
I sat down (caught a breath or two) and did my best to put on my new pair of crampons. Only new to the mountain and glacier life, I really had no idea how to use them. It was an interesting attempt but ultimately unsuccessful as I crossed the first glacier segment. Coming off the glacier felt like I was on a ‘slippery-dip’ at the local playground, a 10m ice drop off into a rocky patch allowed me to regroup and reattach my crampons.
Section 2 of the glacier was intimidating. For our safety, race organisers secured a rope that lowered us to the bottom of the glacier. It was at this point I was happy about my 64 Swiss Frank crampon investment the day before. Without crampons, there would be no way I would have been able to keep my feet across the huge shelf of ice. All the while, I was doing my best to hold my hiking poles, the rope and take in the unbelievable surroundings. The whole time I was thinking to myself, “I can’t believe I am crossing a glacier in the middle of a race!”
During my time in Switzerland, I wrote a list of hikes I wanted to do before leaving. On this list was to summit the Mettelhorn, it wasn’t till after the race that I realised that I managed to do this in the second half of the Matterhorn Ultraks Extreme. Following on from the glacier was another climb which is what took us to the summit of the Mettelhorn. Again, this was extremely steep, with technical switchbacks (following the Swiss blue and white trail signs) taking us up to the top. Panoramic views greeted all the athletes at the top, from the top you could see the glacier we went down, the almighty Matterhorn, other 4000m peaks, crazy ridges and the downhill section that we were about to embark on.
It was a huge relief knowing that I had completed all the climbing for the day. At the top, I composed myself, packed my hiking poles into my vest and began the downhill to Zermatt.
DOWNHILL INTO ZERMATT
It was time to let the legs go and grab some momentum towards Zermatt. Leaving Mettelhorn summit was still very technical downhill running (for me anyway). The terrain had changed to rocks that were shaped like broken bathroom wall tiles. They were slippery like the ‘scree’ in the first downhill but packed a lot more punch if you fell on them. I followed runners in front of me, trying to copy there path and observe where they slipped and where they didn’t. Falling here was inevitable, fortunately, I made it out of this section with only a small cut to my quadricep and a bruised palm.
After the ‘broken tile’ stage/start of the downhill section, it mellowed out as the altitude dropped and the stones turned into grass. It was on the grassy fields that I started to pick up the speed and make some overtakes as I ran towards Zermatt. It was a great feeling being able to move faster and more freely after 5 relentless hours on the technical terrain. With 5 kilometres to go, the grass turned into single track trails which switched back and forth all the way down into the town of Zermatt. I was very happy with how I finished the race, after losing so much time in the middle section.
Zooming down into the finish line race shoot, I was greeted by thousands of people who had filled the streets of Zermatt to cheer on all those taking part in the weekend of racing.
In conclusion, the Matterhorn Ultraks Extreme was an unforgettable event that has set a new benchmark for technical and extreme racing. With ridge running, glacier crossings, fixed ropes, scree fields, and extreme inclines and declines, the Matterhorn Ultraks Extreme has it all. I’ll be back to tackle it again and drop some time across all the different sections. If you want to challenge yourself, forget running a marathon, do the Matterhorn Ultraks Extreme.
A huge thank you to Ultraks, Skyrunning and major sponsor Scott Running for hosting such an incredible event and race.
If you have any more questions about the race, drop me a comment or message me on Instagram
Below is some extra information that may come in helpful should you choose to come to Zermatt or participate in a Skyrunning/Ultraks event.
- Salomon Advance Skin 12 Set – Trail Running Vest
- Leki Micro Vario Carbon Trekking Pole
- Salewa Mountain Spike Crampon
- Dahlie Sportswear Jacket Raw Athlete
- HydraPak Speedcup
- Emergency Thermal Blanket
- Lululemon T-shirt, gloves and hat.
- Injinji Midweight Mini-Crew Socks
HOW TO GET TO ZERMATT
Getting to Zermatt we caught the train into the main Zermatt station. Zermatt is a small town with a no-cars regulation, so keep this in mind if you have your own vehicle and plan to drive. If you do drive, you have to park your car in the town/suburb nearby called Täsch.
If you’re staying in Zermatt/Switzerland for a while, I highly recommend buying a yearly ‘half-pass’ card. After the initial outlay, this entitles you to 50% of trains in Switzerland which very quickly pays for itself.
WHERE TO STAY
I stayed in Hotel Plateau Rosa, which is about a 1km walk from the town center. It is a lovely little hotel with very friendly staff, a great breakfast for athletes, and awesome views of the Matterhorn.
Walking back to Hotel Plateau Rosa.