Sophia Laukli wins the 50th Sierre-Zinal (© Marco Gulberti)
Sophia Laukli and Philemon Kiriago claimed the crowns as the 50th edition of Sierre-Zinal – the latest long mountain race in this year’s Valsir Mountain Running World Cup – ushered in a new generation of winners on Saturday (12).
If there’s one thing you can guarantee at Sierre-Zinal it’s that it will provide a plot that unfolds as the race progresses. With its long, mostly runnable uphill section all the way up to 2400m, and a final, fast downhill third that has often decided the race, it’s a race of many parts and the eventual winners rarely lead from the start. And because of its iconic reputation it attracts established runners on the world stage and newer names, so it often throws up surprises in the top 10.
Such was the depth of this year’s field that it really was anybody’s race over the 31km course that has 2200m of ascent.
For the women it was Kenya's Philaries Kisang who struck out into the lead from the start. We knew she would be strong on the ascent, having finished second in the uphill race at the World Championships this year. Monica Florea sat in behind her, with Joyce Muthoni a little further back and Nienke Brinkman, the 2021 runner-up here, a couple of minutes behind, perhaps a bit further back than we’d have expected her.
But while Kisang looked strong, Florea looked stronger and managed to pass her and create a buffer of 53 seconds by Ponchette. USA's Sophia Laukli, who recently won the Mont Blanc Marathon, was just behind Kisang in third at this point, with Muthoni just under a minute behind her. After a gap of another minute came Emma Pooley, ex-professional cyclist, Brinkman, then Rachel Drake, Allie McLaughlin, Camilla Magliano and Alice Gaggi.
At this point the women’s race looked wide open. Kisang remained in touch with Florea, who was still leading, Laukli remained in contact with her and Muthoni was just behind them. Then there was a gap of around three minutes to Pooley in fifth. But the main question was whether Florea and Kisang had gone too hard in the early miles.
Then the women’s race really started to shake out. Laukli moved into second, Muthoni passed Kisang, then Laukli took the lead from Florea just as they came into Tignousa. But they were all close together, with Pooley five minutes further back and Brinkman leading the chasing pack. McLaughlin had moved up into seventh by this point.
Laukli maintained her lead through the next couple of timing points, managing to stretch it out to almost two minutes by Barneuza. Florea was fading and Kisang managed to regain third place, continuing to chase hard, even though the gap looked too big to close by now. But the race for the minor places was really hotting up, with Miao Yao moving up the field, along with Gaggi.
Laukli, aged just 23, kept pushing hard and took the women’s win in 2:53:17, the third fastest women’s time ever. Muthoni took second and Kisang ran an incredibly brave race to hang on to third, Yao came through for fourth, with Gaggi finishing an impressive fifth. Brinkman was sixth, Florea seventh in the end, McLaughlin eighth and Pooley ninth. Lucy Murigi, a three-time winner, finished 10th.
The start of the men’s race saw some runners clearly strike out for the front. There was a small group which included Kenya's Philemon Ombogo Kiriago and Patrick Kipngeno, but it seemed that others in the next group, including Eli Hemming, Thibaut Baronian, Remi Bonnet and Elhousine Elazzaoui, were content to let them go for now.
Philemon Kiriago on his way to victory at the 50th Sierre-Zinal (© Marco Gulberti)
With Kipngeno in the lead the expectation was that the main ascent of the course would be very fast, and the opportunity would come for other runners, where Kipngeno isn’t quite as strong. So it was something of a surprise that he got to the first timing point two minutes behind the course record pace. At Ponchette he had 34 seconds on Kiriago in second and 1:18 on Bonnet in third. Another surprise at this point was that Vataliy Shafar, a marathon runner who we haven’t seen in mountain races, was in fourth. Julius Njeri was in fifth, with Xavier Chevrier, Roberto Delorenzi, Baronian and Elazzauoi all close behind.
Kipngeno maintained his lead through Chandolin and there was little movement among the leaders at this point, and he even stretched his lead out a little coming into Tignousa. But here we saw Kevin Kibet begin to make his presence known. He was two minutes behind Kiriago in third, with Shafar, Njeri, Chevrier and Bonnet chasing.
Arriving at Weisshorn, Kipngeno still had the lead, but Kiriago was starting to close and Njeri was starting to fade. Sylvain Cachard had started to move up a little by this point and now lay in eighth. We knew that Kipngeno needed to begin the downhill with a decent lead to be able to hold off the stronger descenders. Had he done enough?
When Kiriago made his move it was decisive. He overtook Kipngeno with around 8km to go and he looked very strong. Kibet was still holding on to third and Cachard had by this point made his way up to fourth. Robbie Simpson had also moved up through the field to eighth by now.
Kiriago held on to win the men’s race in 2:27:27, celebrating his 21st birthday in style with the second fastest men’s time ever. Kipngeno maintained second place and there was an exciting sprint finish for third, with Cachard passing Kibet on the descent, but then Kibet overtaking him as they hit the flat. Delorenzi was fifth and Simpson moved up to take sixth, continuing his incredible run of results here. Baronian was seventh, Chevrier eighth, Shafar hung on to ninth and Maestri came through for 10th.
Kirsty Reade (WMRA) for World Athletics
1 Sophia Laukli (USA) 2:53:17
2 Joyce Muthoni (KEN) 2:57:19
3 Philaries Kisang (KEN) 3:01:06
4 Miao Yao (CHI) 3:04:05
5 Alice Gaggi (ITA) 3:05:38
1 Philemon Ombogo Kiriago (KEN) 2:27:27
2 Patrick Kipngeno (KEN) 2:28:50
3 Kevin Kibet (KEN) 2:34:16
4 Sylvain Cachard (FRA) 2:34:22
5 Roberto Delorenzi (SUI) 2:35:17