Eli Hemming and Bailey Kowalczyk Lead Americans at Sierre-Zinal

Written by Alexander Beaven for the World Mountain Running Association (WMRA). American Trail Running Association (ATRA) executive director Nancy Hobbs is the WMRA general secretary. Photo above: @jsaragossa.

[Editor’s Note: 2022 USATF Mountain Running Championship sliver medalist Eli Hemming (Kremmling, CO) was the top American male Sierre-Zinal finisher in 19th place against a hyper-competitive field dominated by African runners. 2021 USATF Mountain Running Championship bronze medalist Bailey Kowalczyk (Nederland, CO) was the top American in the women’s race in 6th place. She was followed by 2022 USATF Mountain Running Champion Tabor Hemming (Kremmling, CO) who finished 10th.]

On a day of nail-biting racing in the Swiss Alps it was Mark Kangogo and Esther Chesang, both of Kenya and both in their first participation at the race, who claimed victory at Sierre-Zinal, the 6th Gold Label race of the Valsir Mountain Running World Cup.

Despite strong performances, Kilian Jornet and Maude Mathys were unable to extend their winning streaks, finishing 5th and 2nd respectively.

With 6,100 participants making the 31km, 2,100m+ journey through the mountains of Valais, those in the Tourist category had been on the trails for over 6 hours by the time the elite runners took off at 11am. Straight into the race’s infamous opening climb under clear blue skies, it promised to be a hot, hot race. The bone-dry, dusty trails offered little traction on the route’s fast, technical descents, and many runners were to come in to the finish covered in varying quantities of dust and blood.

Andy Wacker. Photo: @jsaragossa.

Women’s Race

Esther Chesang was on the front from start to finish, though this was anything but a boring race. Going out hard, she led by over 2 minutes at Ponchette, after less than an hour of racing. Chasing behind were Maude Mathys, the Swiss winner of the last 3 editions and Philiaries Kisang, the Kenyan winner of last weekend’s Thyon-Dixence. They themselves were almost 4 minutes clear of the next group. This separation of the front 3 would remain all the way to the finish in Zinal.

Through the middle third of the race the elastic between Chesang and Mathys stretched and contracted. With Kisang falling away behind, the leading pair took turns gaining time on the undulating trails up to Hotel Weisshorn, with both athletes at points running under Mathys’ course record splits from 2019.

However, as the race entered its closing chapter after Hotel Weisshorn, it was Mathys and her superior descending skills that had the upper hand. Chesang, a 69 minute half marathon runner who reportedly only trained for her debut mountain race for 2 months, was by no means slow, but the Swiss champion’s technical prowess saw her floating over the technical terrain, bringing her closer and closer to the lead. In the tense final kilometres, there were times where she would have been able to look up and see Chesang, had she not been concentrating on the trail.

Ultimately, Mathys ran out of road. Esther Chesang crossed the line first, taking the win in her first ever outing in the mountains, in the end just 30 seconds ahead of the 3 time champion Mathys.

It was a lonely run in for Philiaries Kisang in 3rd. She came in over 5 minutes later but still 3 minutes ahead of Teresiah Omosa, also of Kenya, in 4th. Ireland’s Sarah McCormack ran an 8 minute PB to finish 5th, having passed American Bailey Kowalczyk on the final descent.

Having been the dominant force of the Valsir World Cup so far, today was finally a bad day for Joyce Njeru, who did not finish.

Other American women in the top 50 included Kimber Mattox in 19th, Dani Moreno 20th, Emkay Sullivan 28th, Ashley Brasovan 33rd and Rachel Tomajczyk 44th.

Dani Moreno. Photo: @jsaragossa.

Men’s Race

In the men’s Sierre-Zinal race it was another Kenyan debutant who pushed the pace early on. Unlike Chesang, Mark Kangogo, 2nd at Thyon-Dixence last weekend, had company. Among those who kept up with the early pace were Kangogo’s compatriots Patrick Kipngeno and Philemon Kiriago, the TEam Run2gether pair who have been the standouts on the Valsir World Cup so far this year, and the great Catalan Kilian Jornet, 9 time champion of Sierre-Zinal.

Gradually that group broke as first Kangogo and Kipngeno pulled away from the rest, then as the gradients eased after Chandolin, Kangogo pulled away from Kipngeno. Running ahead of course record pace, his lead grew all the way to Hotel Weisshorn and although he slowed dramatically in the final kilometres and dropped behind the record, he was never in danger of being caught. Falling to the ground as he crossed the line, Kangogo’s winning time, 2:27:31, is the 3rd fastest in the race’s history; only Kilian Jornet and Petro Mamu, 1st and 2nd in 2019, have run faster.

But if there was a processional air to Kangogo’s finish, behind there was frantic racing the very final meters.

Remarkable runs for 2nd place are becoming a tradition at Sierre-Zinal. After Robbie Simpson’s incredible move through the field in 2021, this year it was the turn of Andreu Blanes. The Spanish orienteer was nowhere early on, over 4 minutes down on the leaders at Ponchette. Biding his time, he picked up a few places through the middle section of the race, then from Hotel Weisshorn to the finish he flew. No-one else was even close to his splits.

Where Mathys ran out of road, Blanes had just enough, passing Kipngeno on the final descent and giving himself just enough of a buffer to celebrate, falling to his knees as he crossed the line in 2nd, 14 seconds ahead of Kipngeno in 3rd.

Eli Hemming. Photo: @jsaragossa.

But if the race for 2nd was exciting, the race for 4th was heart-stopper. Kilian Jornet and the Eritrean Petro Mamu, sparring partners at this race before, were also gaining hard. Metres apart, they passed a fading Kiriago, who took a horrible fall, in the closing minutes.

On the road into the finish the 9 time champion thought his 4th place was secure, but as Jornet was high fiving the fans Mamu was right behind, his footsteps hidden by the noise of the crowd, winding up to a ferocious finishing kick. By the time Jornet realized what was happening it was too late. Leaning for the line like he was racing on the track, Mamu snatched 4th place by a tenth of a second.

Philemon Kiriago did a commendable job of limiting his losses after his fall and crossed the line, covered in dust, just 28 seconds later to take 6th.

Other American men in the top 50 included Sam Hendry in 22nd and Jeshurun Small 46th.

Full Sierre-Zinal results can be found here.

Sierre-Zinal photos by Marco Gulberti. Find a full album here.

Bailey Kowalczyk. Photo: @jsaragossa.

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