Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The 2016 Harmony Geneva Marathon in Review

by Brett Larner
click any photo to enlarge
videos by Athletics Weekly

In the eleven years since its inception the Harmony Geneva Marathon for UNICEF has quickly grown to become one of Switzerland’s premier road races, bringing 16,000 runners together in eight different divisions, the fastest marathon on Swiss soil in 2015 and this year earning recognition from the IAAF with a bronze label for its twelfth running, the country’s first IAAF label race. With a solid elite field thanks to the bronze label and changes to the course cutting out some of the hillier sections race director Benjamin Chandelier was optimistic of seeing Geneva’s first sub-2:10 and sub-2:30 clockings, but although warm and sunny conditions kept that from happening Julius Chepkwony of Kenya ran just 11 seconds off the event record to win the men’s race in 2:11:11, surpassing the 2:12:04 winning time by Japan’s Yuki Kawauchi two weeks ago in Zurich. Jane Kiptoo of Kenya won for the second year in a row, farther off the course record in 2:35:04 but likewise beating the winning time in Zurich to put Geneva ahead again as the probable fastest Swiss course of 2016.

12th Harmony Geneva Marathon for Unicef
Geneva, Switzerland, 5/8/16
click here for complete results

1. Julius Chepkwony (Kenya) - 2:11:11
2. Emmanuel Sikuku (Kenya) - 2:12:44
3. Ronny Kiboos (Kenya) - 2:14:53
4. Petro Mamu (Eritrea) - 2:15:16 - PB
5. Tariku Kinfu (Ethiopia) - 2:15:52 - debut

1. Jane Kiptoo (Kenya) - 2:35:04
2. Helen Jepkurgat (Kenya) - 2:35:16 - debut
3. Roze Dereje (Ethiopia) - 2:36:55
4. Ednah Kimaiyo (Kenya) - 2:37:30
5. Tesfanesh Denbi (Ethiopia) - 2:38:03

The course itself is the event’s main draw, and not just for fast times. This is a truly beautiful route.  32 km winding and rolling through the Swiss-French borderland countryside, sometimes right on the border, through lush green and yellow fields and a dozen tiny villages under the watchful eye of Mont Blanc, the tallest of the Alps.  A long descent to the final 10 km along the shores of Lake Geneva in full view of the United Nations and Jet d'Eau before a spectacular finish in the center of the city on the Pont du Mont-Blanc bridge over the Rhone River.

With over forty 90-degrees turns and a variety of surfaces from perfect asphalt streets to hard concrete farm roads and even a few kilometers of dirt and gravel lanes it’s not a course that runners who like a steady rhythm to their marathon will find easy, not until the last 10 km at least, but if like me you prefer courses that force you to change things up it will be right up your alley.  The constant variation and the sheer beauty of the surroundings keep it fresh and almost completely eliminate the mental impact of the distance covered.  The course map deserves a close study before the race, but the first 32 km will seem like the shortest of any marathon you've run.  A word of advice: hold back a little on the gradual downhill between 20 and 32 km or you will be paying for it on the steeper downhill and long flat to come.

Chandelier told JRN that his young event production team focuses on detail and services offered to the runner to make the Harmony Geneva Marathon more than just another pretty course. Logistics are very smooth. The race expo and Saturday afternoon kids’ races are in the city center Jardin Anglais adjacent to the finish line and Lake Geneva, walking distance from all the major hotels. The start in the village of Chene-Bourg, shared by the marathon, half marathon, 10 km, 6.5 km La Genevoise women’s race and the first leg of the six-runner marathon relay, is easily accessible by free public transit, a 15-minute tram ride from downtown, with exceptionally well-organized baggage transport back to the finish. Massage and physio services, more than fifteen designated pace groups across the 10 km, half and full, very well-stocked refreshment tables, cool race t-shirts and finishers’ medals and more add to the event’s value.  Good relationships with the city and local sponsors mean lots of support for out-of-town marathoners who want to get the most out of their trip to Geneva.

And other small details. Just after hitting the lakeside near 32 km the course enters a long underpass tunnel, dark and illuminated by intermittent electric lighting. It could be a soul-crushingly depressing few minutes after the pristine countryside hours just before, but Geneva’s solution? A DJ booth in the middle of the tunnel pumping beats that transform it into the world's longest club, just about the most energizing section of the entire course and right when you need it.

Not all was perfect.  About 6 km into the marathon course the first relay exchange zone and refreshment station were positioned immediately after a right-hand corner bottlenecked runners from a two-lane road onto a narrow rough-surface path. Marathon runners had to jump to the left to avoid the relay exchange zone, then had to either fight their way back to the right or skip the first refreshment station on an unseasonably warm day.  Bib numbers were made of poor quality material; the pins tore out of two corners of my bib within the first 14 km and had to be re-pinned on the fly.

But, Chandelier told JRN, “We are a young race and we are always looking for ways to improve. We listen closely to feedback from participants, from volunteers, from the community and our sponsors and rely on it to help us become the best event we can, step-by-step.  We're proud that 97% of our participants say they would recommend our event to others.” JRN would be included in that number.  Despite a few minor flaws, the Harmony Geneva Marathon delivers on the best experience the city can provide, a fast and scenic course and exceptional organization. Just another step or two and it will stand as one of Europe’s best destination marathons if it’s not there already.

photos and text © 2016 Brett Larner, all rights reserved
videos © 2016 Athletics Weekly, all rights reserved

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