Kenyans Mark Kangogo and Esther Chesang grabbed dramatic victories on their debuts at the iconic Sierre-Zinal race in the Swiss Alps, the sixth Gold Label race of the Valsir Mountain Running World Cup.
Despite strong performances, defending champions Kilian Jornet and Maude Mathys were unable to extend their winning streaks, finishing fifth and second respectively.
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 in the 31km, 2,100m+ journey through the mountains of Valais.
All-the-way win for Chesang
Esther Chesang was on the front from start to finish, though that hardly told the story of the race. Going out hard, she led by over two minutes at Ponchette, after less than an hour of racing. Chasing behind were Maude Mathys, the Swiss winner of the last three editions and Philiaries Kisang, the Kenyan winner of last weekend’s Thyon-Dixence. They themselves were almost four minutes clear of the next group and this separation of the front three 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 had only trained for her debut mountain race for two 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. Chesang crossed the line first, taking the win, just 30 seconds ahead.
It was a lonely run in for Philiaries Kisang in third, over five minutes adrift.
Having been the dominant force of the Valsir World Cup so far, this wasn’t Joyce Njeru’s, who did not finish.
Drama all the way as Kangogo triumphs
In the men’s race it was another Kenyan debutant who pushed the pace early on. Unlike Chesang, Mark Kangogo, second 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 Run2gether pair who have been the standouts on the Valsir World Cup so far this year, and the great Catalan Kilian Jornet, nine-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 of 2:27:31 was the third fastest in the race’s history; only Jornet and Petro Mamu, first and secomnd in 2019, have run faster.
But if there was a processional air to Kangogo’s finish, behind there was frantic racing the very final metres.
Remarkable runs for second 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 four 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 as he crossed the line in second, 14 seconds ahead of Kipngeno.
But if the race for second was exciting, the race for fourth was a heart-stopper. Jornet and Mamu 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 nine-time champion thought his fourth 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 realised what was happening it was too late. Leaning for the line like he was racing on the track, Mamu snatched fouth place by a tenth of a second!