May 10, 2016
As I stood in the heat with thousands of runners waiting to get going ahead of me, many of them wearing the official Geneva Running Festival Tshirt with it’s provocative slogan “Fast is Beautiful” I couldn’t help but laugh, the next 13.1 miles was likely to be anything but fast for me…but perhaps the fast course and the beautiful scenery would make it at least bearable.
Apparently 50% of runners beat their PB on this course…my PB is 2.27 for a half but that was about 7 years ago before becoming a mum when my evenings were my own, and I didn’t have to fit 101 quite tedious things like picking up lego and mountains of laundry into my schedule.
Anyway, what was I doing footloose and child free in Geneva in the first place?
I had been invited a few months ago by the organisers of The Harmony Geneva Running Festival for Unicef to come along for the weekend, to take part in the race and check out the city of Geneva to review its potential as a destination for runners…all sorts of runners in fact. Later this week I will write a follow up post about the whole experience especially how it felt to be the only non speedy runner in the group of internationally known runners and journalists…but for now let me focus on the daunting 13.1 mile task ahead of me.
With tired legs from a 6.5k race the evening before (which was awesome and rather speedy by the way), I stood towards the back of the pack in the starting area at 8am wondering how much hotter it would get…I was already a little sun flushed and dehydrated from yesterday and today it felt even warmer. Apparently in 2015 it had rained throughout and at this point I wasn’t sure which I would have preferred.
The starting area was relaxed with people milling around, the little flags on people’s race numbers showed me where runners were from and it seemed like every single nation was represented which was quite fitting considering the link with Unicef.
It wasn’t long before I got talking to a fellow Brit, Nigel Cook…AKA The Running Man…on a mission to run 50 Half Marathons before the age of 50 including one in every country in Western Europe. Now there’s a challenge. It was great having someone to talk beer and running pace with but then before long the music had started and a compare was geeing up the crowd.
As I headed towards the start gantry I spotted a couple of the guys I was on the trip with including the awesome Susie Chan who would be running the full marathon which started an hour later than the 7.30 on the dot start of the half…well they are swiss after all so I expected precision.
As I moved under the inflatable arch to the cheers of the crowd I started my (non swiss) watch and got my feet moving….but something felt strange.
My legs were like concrete…they just didn’t want to move. Now normally at the start of a race I move with everyone else, normally at a pace that is probably a little too quick before settling into my more gentle pace at about 3 or 4K…but today it just wasn’t happening.
And I hadn’t even reached the 1K point before I realised I was dead last…like seriously.
The sweeper van was literally 10 meters behind me for about twenty minutes the purr of its engine seriously doing my nut in…I’m surprised he didn’t stall the vehicle I was making it travel so slow.
This was going to be a long and painful bleeding race.
I knew I had to finish it though, it’s what I was here for after all. Imagine if this post was like “Yeah Geneva was nice, sadly couldn’t manage the race though…want me back next year guys???”
So what was it like?
The first part of the half marathon route was what I had run the night before in slightly cooler conditions, but it felt so much lonelier with no people watching to do and then before long we were heading through what seemed like a medical school with lots of young doctors in white coats…maybe they had come out to give me life support.
At this point I wasn’t listening to any music and I didn’t want to because we were heading into the most beautiful countryside and I wanted to take it all in. The view was breathtaking, fields full of bright yellow rapeseed with a stunning backdrop of snow covered mountain peaks and singing birds…how could I feel miserable running here in the slightest.
I didn’t want to be be last though…and not just for vanity reasons…I know I would get bored running all alone…plus I didn’t want to be lapped by the elite marathon runners…now that would have been a little disheartening considering they were setting off a whole hour later and had twice as far to run.
At this point Elodie the lovely PR lady from the Geneva Marathon sped past me on a moped (Ok so the moped was only going like 5 miles an hour but it felt much faster) taking photos of me as she went. Whatever must she have thought about this fat slow english lady in her bright green “Running has no size” t-shirt.
As I turned a corner a few moments later though I noticed 3 walkers about 500 meters or so away and I thought if only I could catch them I wouldn’t have to run this race alone. So somehow I upped my pace. Looking at my watch I was now running 6 miles an hour…which isn’t too bad for me considering I normally finish 5 milers just under an hour and I did I overtook them.
Then I spotted another lady walking.
Then two others
I was up to 13 runners before I stopped counting, and some of them were actually still running and suddenly I felt OK again. At 5K I looked at my watch and saw I had taken 42 minutes…not the fastest I have ever run a parkrun but not the slowest either, by 6.5 I had run an almost identical pace to the race I had run the previous evening but on fresh legs.
I think perhaps it was the surroundings, I was just constantly thinking about how lucky I was to be here, (just look at those mountains) and how lucky I was to even be able to be attempting this distance considering my training has been so sporadic of late.
Most of the route so far had taken us through farm land with the occasional supporter, small groups of families with kids excited to give you a high five (no jelly babies though…maybe we only do that here in the UK)
I passed a water station. And then a guy with a 50 parkrun t-shirt that was limping down a small lane. He said he was Ok but had a problem with a ligament and was awaiting the support vehicle to take him back, what a shame. He seemed OK about it though.
I knew I was like in the last 1% of the race or whatever, but I never really felt bad about it though, because I was doing well by my standards. It seemed like a much smaller crowd than I am used to running half marathons in, about 5500..or maybe it was just that they were all faster. The fastest pacer for example was 2 hours 10…I normally see a 2.30 pacer at least at other races.
At 10K I was still feeling strongish. I came across the timing mat at 1.24 again not my fastest ever 10K but pretty speedy considering the heat by this point. There was a lovely section through which I assumed was a naval base…a big line of kids high fiving and lots of calls of “Bravo, Bravo” and “Allez Allez” which soon turned to “Doing well” and “Keep Going” when I said “Thank You Thank you” in my cockney accent.
It seemed we were heading towards the lake and back into the city centre now, and ahead I could spot the mouth to a tunnel with the biggest crowd I had seen so far…I got an almighty cheer as I passed and revelled in the attention helping me to up my pace again. The underpass was my favourite part of the course, it was dark and cool and I was the only runner in sight by this point, plus there was a DJ playing thumping Reggaeton beats which drove me forward.
I actually felt like I was flying.
This speed seemed to stay with me on a very lovely down hill section which seemed to go on for miles. The roads were empty apart from a line of cones diving up the lanes, and there were hardly any spectators at this point…for a moment I thought “This is what Paula Radcliffe must feel like when she’s leading the pack”
By 14K I had started to feel some chaffing, and needed a loo stop. My legs felt like jelly…and the portaloo was like an oven…at one point I considered coming out with my trousers still round my ankles just so I could breathe…I spared the locals that sight.
I found the next few miles really tough…the view was lovely as I was alongside the lake now. But it was close to 11am now and the sun felt scorching. At the water stations I was hydrating and drenching my buff in water before placing it back on my head.
The road seemed to go on for miles and there was quite a bit of walking happening now. A few cyclists and folk on the sides of the street shouted at me to keep going, but I was in pain with the chaffing and also starting to feel it in my quads and glutes now.
I couldn’t work out how I was doing for time either, the sun had clearly got to my head. As we got close to the finishing area I underestimated how far there was still left to go..one lady shouted “3 kilometers” and she must have seen the disappointment on my face so decided to run with me for a while…a long while in fact, all the way along a very posh street with Prada, Mont Blanc and various other brands I can never afford to buy from. What a kind lady…she wasn’t even in running gear and seriously ran with me for 5 or 6 minutes.
The last mile or so I found particularly tough. I knew I was close to 3 hours but just didn’t have anything left in the tank. There were a number of casualties being treated by paramedics on the side of the road and the stewards were telling me to take it easy. I had managed to be over taken by a few folks on the last stretch, but tried to keep close to a swiss couple who had either been in front of behind me at various points.
And then before you knew it I turned a corner and there was the finishing straight. The crowds here were awesome, and I tried my hardest to pick up some pace. I was loving the cheering and headed for the finishing gantry…frustratingly being pipped at the post by a young chap who had happily been power walking behind me in the last few kilometers.
What a race? What a course? What an experience.
I finished in 3.02.30 probably the longest it has ever taken me to finish a half marathon…but that was simply because of the slow start and the middle section where I walked too much. The course was definitely a speedy one and on fresh legs with a bit more training I know I could get close to my PB.
After I finished the race I collected my bag and was led to the VIP tent where the rest of the half marathon runners from our group had been patiently waiting for me. A spread had been laid on…cheese, wine and chocolate anyone? I couldn’t get enough fluids (of the non alcoholic variety) into me….but other than that I felt great.
Ten minutes or so later the elite men came through…see I almost got lapped…but not quite. The winner of the marathon was Kenyan Julius Chepkwony finishing in 2.11.11 which works out at just 8 minutes and 41 seconds after me despite that 1 hour advantage…speed most definitely is beautiful at the Geneva Marathon
Look out later this week for a more detailed review of the whole weekend’s experience, including how I got on with paddle boarding on Lake Geneva…and me larking about on the top of a mountain treading in goat poo with Suzie Chan…who finished her marathon in 3.33.01 looking like she had just been for a short jog…I guess running 26.2 miles in 20 degree heat is nothing when you have run across the sahara a few times and are about to embark on an epic race though the jungles of Peru no less.