Last month I went to Morocco where I spent a few days exploring the beautiful city of Marrakech (there will be many more posts and pictures in the upcoming weeks). The raison d’etre of the trip was not just to get a brief reprieve from the cold, – though that certainly was a major perk – but to participate in the Marrakech Half Marathon*, the first race of the year for me and another destination conquered on my quest to run the world.
Over 5,000 runners, lured by the mild January climate, and a course that is scenic and fast descended on Marrakech to participate in the city’s marathon and half marathon. The race began in the shadow of the Koutoubia minaret, seemingly giving its blessing to the runners would past palm tree-lined streets, olive groves and the ancient walls of the medina.
The course was absolutely gorgeous. One of the first landmarks we passed was Les Jardins de la Menara (Menara Gardens), which features several hectares of palm trees and olive groves surrounding a pavilion and basin. Legend has it that the Menara pavilion, which was erected in the late nineteenth century by Sultan Sidi Mohammed ben Abdallah and has views of the High Atlas mountain range, was basically his love shack. Bab Aylen, a city gate dating from the 12th century, is where the Almohads were defeated as they tried to seize Marrakech in 1129.
We also passed through the more modern, European part of the city known as Ville Nouvelle and Hivernage. Both are trendy neighborhoods where you find high-end restaurants and expensive real estate and a stark contrast to the old medina.
The course was lined with enthusiastic spectators, most notably children, who would often run along side us and reach out to give us high fives. There were hydration stops about every 5 kilometers, and in addition to water bottles, there were unpeeled oranges, which was not so good. I don’t know about the other runners, but I certainly am not coordinated enough to peel an orange while running and holding a bottle of water. I’m happy to report that I did get to enjoy some of those wonderful oranges in the end, as we were given a little bag with oranges, dates and sultanas when we crossed the finish line.
I would say the amenities – or lack there of – definitely fall under “the bad”. Considering this was the 24th edition of the race, I was a little surprised that there was no bag drop and no porta-johns along the course, only a few, very hard to find porta-johns at the start. These are basic things that I would expected to have at any race, especially one that’s been around for so long. The race expo was also pretty bad. There were a handful of open tents in a space the size of a parking lot, and while a couple of vendors were actually conducting race related business – selling sportswear, advertising upcoming races in other cities or handing out race packets – the majority were apparently on a field trip from the souks of Jemaa El Fna, selling spices, leather lamp shades, tea sets, you know, things you really need when running a marathon. As the saying goes, “if Mohammed won’t come to the mountain…” I guess you can’t blame a guy for trying to earn a living.
It may have looked like it was just a bit overcast to the untrained eye, but there was no fooling someone who grew up in Los Angeles with regular smog alerts that warned people to stay inside. The smog in Marrakech is caused by a combination of sand and two-stroke petrol fumes prevalent in the air and was in doubt exacerbated by the fact that “all of Morocco is in Marrakech” (according to a bus driver) for the Eid el-Mawlid al-Nabawi (Profit Muhammed’s birthday) celebrations going on that weekend.
I’d also classify the behavior of many of the runners as pretty ugly, as they pushed and shoved their way through the bottleneck and confusion as we crossed the finish in an effort to collect their medals.
The race shirt was kinda ugly, too.
Yes, the t-shirt was ugly, there was no bag drop and the lack of bathrooms sucked.
But if that’s as bad as it gets, it ain’t too bad. In the end, the fantastic weather (once the smog dissipated), picturesque location, crowds of spectators cheering and another destination – another continent even – conquered on my quest to run the world made the Marrekech half marathon worth the training, travel and any other minor traumas I may have had to deal with along the way.
*Disclosure: Running Inspired and Menara Travel provided me complimentary race entry and accommodations. I was not asked to express any particular point of view, and as always, all thoughts and opinions are all my own.