Sierre-Zinal Race Recap: “Getting Lit Up”

August 13, 2013 | By | 30 Replies More

Getting Lit Up


The burn came in many ways. From one degree, it manifested itself as a searing pain across my quads. Then there was the liquid fire of lactic acid that seemed to be infiltrating my diaphragm and suffocating me.  I was 2 miles into a 19-mile mountain race known as Sierre-Zinal and I already knew I was in trouble.  As we climbed up a 30% grade slope in a forest full of roots Killian Jornet, Juan Carlos Cardona, Cesar Costa, and Jonathan Wyatt (to name a few) opened up a gap on me and the rest of the chase pack. I thought back to my race at Mt. Washington this summer and how I was 5 minutes slower than the previous year. I reasoned that running a bunch of 50k to 100k trail ultras in the US have finally tired my legs out. My climbing legs, my confidence and strength in racing, were failing miserably.


The first half mile on the road felt great..I got ahead of Jonathan Wyatt..for a couple seconds

The first half mile on the road felt great..I got ahead of Jonathan Wyatt..for a couple seconds

Up near the top crest of the main climb after 40+ minutes of such suffering, fellow Ricky Gates came up and passed me as well as the eventual race winner Marc Lauenstein I saw Killian 23 seconds ahead and still reasoned that there was hope to salvage my race as the course suddenly flattened out onto a very runnable road! I quickly passed Ricky back and split a 5:40 mile (after a series of 12-15min miles going up the hill). Confidence was high and I was in a great striking position. After downing a gel and some water at the aid station I was in the hunt!


This lasted about 2 miles. Suddenly a tightness seized at my hamstrings. Uh oh! I remembered back to my race at Jungfrau when debilitating hamstring cramps caused me to stop during the race. Small rocks on the not-so-technical trail suddenly became hard to step over as my stride became compromised. A stiffness also built in my hip flexors as I thrashed my way along the beautiful ridge-line trail leading to Zinal in the distance. Shit! I still had a good 10 miles to go and I already knew it I was in “death shuffle survival mode.” Ricky and half a dozen other runners who I just saw as a blur quickly passed me back and were gone.  The pain was intense, but I continued the good fight.  I thought back to how Max King had told me he “bonked” in this race last time so I had prepared to pound 5 gels and drink sports drink/coke at all the aid stations. However, all the calories in the world weren’t going to do me any good as this was sheer muscle failure!


view from the course

view from the course

Four miles later I started thinking about how the women’s race was playing out and whether or not I’d get to see Stevie Kremer and eventual winner Elisa Desco flying along the ridge trail as I knew they (and all the other world-class female mountain runners in the race) were probably gaining on me. [Btw Stevie is a great new runner on the mountain-running scene and she has already made a splash in the past year or so by winning Jungfrau and the Mont Blanc Marathon this year]. Eventually I made it to the final 2-mile descent into Zinal, which involved some slight technical trail. My main focus was not to fall and hurt myself although the competitive juices were still flowing as I swore to myself as I lost a couple more places.


The support of the crowd at the finish line area was a amazing but I was too tired to give out any high fives this time. I did, however, grab some of the chocolate that was sitting out at the finish line area as I stumbled around dumbfounded and depressed. After having a string of strong ultra-trail race performances for the early part of this year (two 100km wins, two 50 mile wins, a 3rd at Transvulcania and a 3rd at Mt. Washington, and a 50km win) I figured I was due to have a tough day and get “lit up” soon enough. The thing is a lot of times you learn the most from your biggest disappointments. Here are some things I learned from this experience:


Lessons Learned:


1.  Prior course knowledge is essential for not only executing proper race-day tactics/strategy, but also for specificity in training and knowing what demands will be placed on the body. I should have figured this out after Transvulcania this year.


2.  Racing ultras in the US does not carry over the same fitness required for shorter distance (or perhaps any distance) mountain races in Europe. The mountains here are steeper and less forgiving compared to running up the more reasonable slopes of US trails. I think this goes along with still not having enough vertical in my weekly training as it’s takes a certain type of musculature to be able to pull of powerhiking 30% grades and then running (and switching back and forth) for hours on end. Furthermore, I should have had more intense training to generate more muscle tension in my legs…a couple Vertical K’s would’ve been much more specific prep!



3. It takes me longer than 2 weeks to recover from an ultra…even “just” a 50km like Speedgoat. I remember in my days at Hansons I had a good seven-week block averaging 130 miles a week and I hammered a 20-mile long run (with a final 3 miles in 14:50) about 3 weeks before the Boston marathon in 2010. I thought I was in the best shape of my life but I ended up tanking and had “dead legs” early on in the race. In retrospect I’ve learned that my body is fragile and I can easily overtrain (and overrace) myself before I get injured or mentally “burnt-out.” My climbing legs couldn’t fire at 100% during this race and taking a full 7 days totally off after Speedgoat probably made my Vo2max drop a good 2-3% anyway. Unlike certain other ultra-mountain runners I can’t recover very fast.



downtown Zinal...near the finish line!

downtown Zinal…near the finish line!


view from above Zinal

view from above Zinal


Overall the 40th edition race of Sierre-Zinal was a once-in-a-lifetime experience (although I hope to be able to come back and redeem myself one day) that I was very fortunate to take part in. The mountain views up from the region are truly breathtaking and everyone I met was very supportive and passionate about the race . I also loved tasting the local Raclette cheese!


Fresh local Raclette cheese. They melt a layer and then scrape it onto your plate!

Fresh local Raclette cheese. They melt a layer and then scrape it onto your plate!



Top Women


with Champion Elisa Desco and David from SCOTT.

with Champion Elisa Desco and David from SCOTT.


Here’s some video footage that I put together showing off some of the trails and mountains I experienced on my 8-day trip to Switzerland:


Finally, I’d like to thank the race organization, David Borrmann, Pablo Vigil, SCOTT Running, my sponsors, and everyone who reads this blog and has continued to support and encourage me.  Even with tough races and disappointments, the view has been worth the climb!

See you on the trails,









Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Category: blog

About the Author ()

2-time Olympic Trials Qualifier, Mountain runner, Author of "Running For The Hansons," trail runner, videos for Vo2max Productioins, LLC.

Comments (30)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Dave says:

    Great race report Sage and well done for sticking it out on a really tough day. I also appreciate you addressing your recovery issues and how your body responds after ultras. It seems like there is an unhealthy trend developing in the ultra world of runners stacking so many races into their year (even lots of week to week, back to back events).

    I’ve switched from road to trail and have found 2 quality marathons in a year was always a lot to handle. Trails are a bit more forgiving for races but not by much. I just hope we don’t see a rise in endocrine failures and other chronic fatigue issues that we seem to be hearing more about.

    Congrats on a great season so far!

  2. ben says:

    Excellent report ` as usual.

  3. SageCanaday says:

    Thanks for the support! I agree, there are so many great events it’s hard to say “no” sometimes (especially when you coach yourself like I do). I also agree (and fear) the endorine bit…that’s part of the reason why I haven’t jumped up to 100-milers…yet. The rest of this year will slow down for me with only UROC and TNF50 remaining. Best of luck with your training and racing as well and thanks for the comment!

  4. Mike says:

    Great race and report Sage! Amazing what you did on an off day. And as a marathoner turning to the ultra trails I am getting a harsh dose of the importance of power hiking as well. Although not even close to the trails your hitting! Keep up the great work and good luck at UROC

  5. beriba says:

    You can’t win them all I suppose! The positive to take from it is that even though you had a bad day you still managed to gut out a finish and you’ve learned lessons about your recovery. Better a result you’re not happy with than an injury or illness which stops you running all together. Don’t join the list of burnt out ultra runners! Anyhow its a rite of passage for American runners to have a bad race in europe. You’re in exalted company! I am super impressed with what you’ve done so far and look forward to your next race. Onwards and upwards!

  6. Sz_Peter says:

    thanks for your thoughts Sage! great and honest report!
    congrats on your season and have a great UROC!

  7. xterra pete says:

    good recap, nice reading, wish you already good luck next year…

  8. luis says:

    Sage, excellent report, very valuable to me. thanks

  9. SageCanaday says:

    hey thanks that’s great to hear! hills build strength but there are so many demands in these longer races. good luck!

  10. SageCanaday says:

    hey thanks for the support – it’s much appreciated! It’s been a rollercoaster of highs and lows this year…much like one big ultra race!

  11. SageCanaday says:

    thanks! you too!

  12. SageCanaday says:

    great to hear! thanks for reading!

  13. David T says:

    Great report! How long will it take you to get your vo2max back to where it was?

  14. SageCanaday says:

    thanks! Honestly I don’t know…I’ve never had my Vo2max tested but would guess it is in the 70s. I don’t think my Vo2max has really been that high this whole year as with my ultra training I hardly do any Vo2max interval work (usually mile to 1km repeats) or all-out uphill efforts (closest to that was MT. WA). All I know is after about 4-5 days of no training (and not cross training too) I usually start to feel like my fitness is declining. Racing 5ks, 10ks, halfs and fulls thats a very fine (and significant) amount with Vo2max, but tapering for ultras I’d usually view that as okay…problem is this this race you must lanuch up hill at 95% effort from the gun and my breathing got totally out-of-contrl (much like Mt. WA this year). Running 9min miles on a more “tame” trail up to 11,000 feet was a less painful, more manageable, and more like what I’ve trained for. In short though, I think a good 6-week block of dedicated training will get my fitness back up at a pretty high level. Best of luck with your training and racing as well!

  15. Robinson says:

    Hi, Sage! I’ve watched one video in your YouTube VO2MaxProductions and became your fan! You’re an awesome runner! And very “friendly” too. Thank you so much for sharing your experience, training, failures with us! Very nice! I intend to become an ultra-runner next year and I’m sure your tips will be very useful !! Excellent report! Good vibes to you from Brazil!

  16. SageCanaday says:

    Hey! thank you so much for your kind words and support! Glad you like my Vo2max Productions youtube channel. Best of luck with your training and new ultra-running adventure! Cheers, Sage

  17. Gabriele says:

    Hi Sage, very interesting report and useful tips on training and recovery (and thank you for advertising the race and Switzerland on Youtube). I do a lot of training uphill (and downhill) because I both love mountains but also because I easily get injured (as most of this year) on flat courses. I started to follow you on Strava when looking for other uphill runners and saw your Mt Washington KOM. Powerhiking is surely an option for extremely steep trails (50-60%), on ultras or on limited steep sections of an altogether not too hilly race. Otherwise I’m convinced that specific uphill running training will get you the extra time gain. Good luck and looking for to see your next achievements on Strava but also more lesson learned (my recent one was: do not exaggerate with carbohydrates for a 45 minutes race. You just gain weight (water) that you must carry.)

  18. SageCanaday says:

    Hey thank you! THat’s great to hear. I’m still learning a lot about trail/mountain racing and training as there are some things I need to change so I can run better. My race at the UROC 100km was pretty bad so I’m looking to see where I may have made some mistakes!

    Thank you for the support and best of luck with your running!

  19. Ben says:

    Thx for the vid and pics from Sierre-Zinal. I used to live there 15 y. ago….and it’s definitly breathtaking….a little bit nostalgic also :-p…Thank you for your tips on running, sharing your training and learning….really pleasant to follow you….great reports!

  20. SageCanaday says:

    Hey that’s awesome! That would be an amazing place to live!

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.