Race date: Sunday 28th January 2018
Race Report by David Forrest
The 29th Marrakech Marathon took place on Sunday January 28th. My first race as a Strider, and one I won’t forget in a hurry — for more reasons than one.
The impetus for this race came from my mate Jim. One of best and oldest friends, Jim is currently on a mission to run all the Major Marathons, and he wants to do a 26.2 miler on every continent. Marrakesh offered a relatively hassle free – or so he thought – way of ticking an elusive box: a Marathon on African soil.
Jim invited me along for the ride, and I willingly accepted. Two weeks after signing up for Marrakech I was very pleasantly surprised to find a letter from the London Marathon. After putting myself forward for the ballot every year for the last 8, I was finally in! A quick look at the calendar revealed just 12 weeks between Marrakech and the VLM. I was going to need some help, and on that very day I joined the Striders. Starting with a very welcoming and chatty 10 miler from Heeley.
I can’t emphasise enough how beneficial the Striders sessions have been. Mondays at Heeley and Tuesdays at Millhouses have made me a faster and smarter runner, but more importantly I’ve had some great conversations and met some lovely people.
By December, my training was going well and I was particularly feeling the benefit of the speed sessions. I was quietly confident that my previous PB of 3:23:27 – set in Manchester last April – was going to fall. But then, Christmas…
I always knew that my training would be peaking slap bang in the middle of the Festive season. Two weeks of lovely, rich food, late nights, and lots and lots of ale. My lack of nutritional discipline, the sheer disruption of the holidays, and a particularly icy end to 2017 meant my momentum ground to a halt. I was still getting the miles in, but they weren’t of the required quality — put simply, I felt sluggish. My last long run of 21 miles was l on average some 30 seconds a minute mile slower than the one I’d clocked a month before. Granted, it was in the middle of Storm Eleanor but that run gave me none of the confidence boosting memories that are so crucial for banishing the nerves as the big day looms.
And so, I went into this race more anxious than ever before; a feeling that wasn’t helped by the unknown entity of the race taking place in a totally unfamiliar country.
We arrived in Marrakech on the Friday. It’s an utterly thrilling city. The bustling narrow streets, busy roads, and mopeds (so many mopeds) were initially disorientating, but by the Saturday I was getting my bearings and we started to explore. A little too much. By the end of our first full day, and on the eve of the Marathon, we’d inadvertently clocked up 10 miles of walking — whoops. The expo was a good twenty minute walk from our Riad, and we wanted to rehearse the walk to the start-finish area. After that, we were keen to visit some of the city’s historical sites, and by tea time we were unsurprisingly feeling pretty depleted — ‘at least we’ll sleep well tonight’, we agreed.
A few practical observations: this is a very affordable race. The cost of our lovely Riad (including brekkie, and with a room each), airport transfers, and Ryanair flights was around around 200 quid each. The race itself cost 75 Euro. It’s an easy city to navigate, and there are lots of very affordable restaurants selling healthy, carb-filled fare, and not just cous-cous and tagine; despite our taste for North African cuisine we were both able to get our standard Marathon-eve pasta.
After an early night we got up at half five for get breakfast. The manager at our Riad went above and beyond and got up when we did, preparing a hearty, energy-packed meal including some sublime apricot filled pastries. We were joined at the table by Rich and Will, two members of the Derwent Runners from Derby.
The race was due to start at 8, so we left at 7:15. We had read that the facilities at start area were somewhat sparse and our fears were confirmed when we got there to find a handful of portaloos and some very long queues. We had planned for this eventuality and without going into too much detail an empty bottle and a pair of foil capes – the ones they give you after races – came in very handy. While this solution was satisfactory for us, the toilet situation was poor and apart form anything else hardly inclusive.
It’s also worth pointing out that at this point it was freezing cold — the sun was yet to rise fully so we’d donned some old clothes to keep warm in the start area. The race started at 8:02 but it was impossible to work out which of the three ‘lines’ signalled the official start — disconcertingly, there were none of the normal ‘chip timer’ beeps.
Within minutes the sun was out and it was a pleasant temperature. The field thinned – apparently 2000 registered for the full Marathon so numbers were small – and I found myself in a rhythm around the 7:40 m/m mark. My strategy, if i can call it that, was to try to establish a steady pace that would bring me a PB, but I was fully expecting that the Christmas blue cheese and IPAs would kick in at mile 20 and that I’d fall off the mark and come in somewhere around 3:25.
And then the race changed. A small, older, but very athletic man started running alongside me around mile 4. I can normally tell when someone is pacing off me during a race and to be honest, it’s annoying: I like to be in my own zone and to control my own race. I don’t want to be thinking about someone else. But this was different. The man started to taking to me. ‘What time are you aiming for?’ ‘My PB is 3:23 so I’d love to get close to that’ ‘oh, you’ll get there’. We got chatting and the miles flew by. 66 years old, Swedish, a PB set some 20 years ago Paris: 2:36. Wow. You could tell, too. He moved beautifully. Feather light on his feet with short, quick steps. We talked about running, about parkrun, about his favourite races, about why we run. He knew the course, which was handy, but he also helped me to appreciate the magnificent landscape and to forget my Garmin for bit: the stunning Atlas Mountains unfolded on the horizon, and we ran past a field of camels: ‘they’re smiling at you, Dave!’, he said.
As the midway point passed he told me to speed up, and from miles 13 to 17 I found new purpose. ‘Are you in pain, Dave?’ ‘Yes, a little.’ ‘It’s ok. Just remember, you’re not alone.’ The miles flew by. I clocked a 7:02 m/m at 17 and I felt totally in the zone. ‘We’re going home now; it’s easy from here’, he said.
The course was quiet. Seemingly endless rural roads and then unexpected suburbs which brought our local kids keen for hi fives. At one point we ran alongside a bloke with a Palestinian flag proudly flying on his back: ‘Palestine! Palestine! Palestine!’ came the passionate cries of the supporters on the road side.
I was glad of my gels as the miles wore on. I’m not a slave to in race nutrition, but it was needed here. In terms of complimentary fare, the organisers have a fruit and water only policy. In theory, I’m all for that. I fondly remember my first Marathon in Barcelona being fuelled by orange segments and banana slices. Here, though, clementines, so ubiquitous and refreshing in Morocco, were handed to us unpeeled, alongside dates – not only a very dense fruit, meaning they were difficult to chew and digest, but they contained rather large stones making consumption something of a challenge; a challenge too far when you’re trying to direct your efforts to the small matter of a Marathon.
As the race reached its final phase, I could feel my Swedish friend pulling away from me as I began to fade, albeit gently, clocking 7:45 and then 7:48 at miles 20 and 21 respectively. And then, weirdly, he slowed and I went past him. ‘Go, Dave, good luck!’ I fully expected that I’d see him again at the end; that I could find him and thank him. He’d guided me to this point, and put the PB on a plate.
The last four miles were tough, of course, but the wall was lower than it had been in previous races and my level only dropped a little, never dipping below 8:30 m/m over the last four miles. Bear in mind that in Brighton a few years ago I went from steady 8 m/m to 6 final miles over a soul destroying 60 minutes.
My watch clocked 3:19:39: a PB by around 4 minutes. I was euphoric, and was fully expecting to be welcomed by Jim. He’d flown off at the start and was aiming, conservatively, for 3:06. At his best, Jim is a sub 3 man and with this course (fairly flat, lots of long and straight roads) and in this weather (temperatures around the 15 degrees mark) a PB was not impossible. But he was nowhere to be seen. He wasn’t in our agreed meeting spot, and he wasn’t in the finish area. I waited for a while, welcoming our new friends from Derwent Runners and chatting with some other runners from UK clubs, before deciding to go back to the Riad — Jim had probably missed me and gone there straight from the race, I thought.
But there was still no sign of him. I was starting to worry and all sorts of scenarios flooded my imagination.
And then I heard a sigh at the door. Phew! It was Jim. ‘What the ___ happened to you?’ I cant really do this next bit justice, so I’ll let him speak for himself:
“The course was flat and the weather cool, so I felt good as I clocked up 10k in around 43mins, and 20k in about 86mins. Then it all went wrong…
Marrakech hosts the marathon and half marathon (which starts 30 mins later) together and the courses split then meet up again at different points. You have to be careful at certain points to choose the right paths but all are marked (or so I thought).
Somewhere between 20-25km I took a wrong turn. I thought something was amiss as I was suddenly amongst a lot of runners (the half had much more participants). I signalled to a steward, pointing at my blue race number (the half numbers were yellow). ‘Maraton?’ and pointing ahead. ‘Oui, oui!’ as I was waved on. I asked at least twice! Then I got to the finish line…
Well just before the finish as I knew something was wrong. ‘Maraton!’ I shouted as they ushered me towards the line. ‘Same, same’ they said as they tried to give me the marathon medal, in what would have been a world record time!
I turned back and ran. A long way. I’m not sure how far but I think about 5k. I stopped and asked stewards on French where the marathon course was. No one knew. After real panic set in I found where the split was, right at the underpass rather than left. No signs, no stewards. I had just had the misfortune to have no marathoners in sight going right as I’d hit that point previously.
I was angry, but determined. I reached 25k. Those 5k between 20-25 had taken 1 hour 9 mins. I re-evaluated and aimed for a sub 4 hour time and got it. I was proud that I had turned back and not given up. I have never run so long and so far. I have my medal and a marathon in Africa to my name. Goodness knows what my official result will be as they’re not out yet.
But part of me is angry too. I know I took a wrong turn but I shouldn’t have been able to make that mistake, especially as I tried to fix it. On one hand this race will be memorable to me as it’s the one I had to dig deepest and go above and beyond what I expected. But I’ll also never know what I could have achieved time-wise in good conditions. It’s gutting really.”
So he ran an accidental ultra. Roughly 32 miles in 3:57. Utterly ridiculous. Worryingly, he wasn’t the only one who reported problems. We’ve since heard about similar wrong turns; about sweep buses picking runners up, and then dropping them off back into the race; and about near misses with cars and mopeds. Indeed, I was led to believe the roads would be closed but what I actually found was a very precarious traffic management system — I was genuinely scared as a single policeman blew his whistle meekly at floods of beeping vehicles while I, 22 miles deep, attempted to negotiate a roundabout.
And then there’s the timekeeping.
Alarm balls stared ringing when the race website crashed on the Sunday. The day after we logged in to see that some results had been published, but a look on the Facebook page suggested that there were problems. I downloaded a results PDF: http://tusinscripciones.es/index.php/marathon-marrakech which gave me a ‘real time’ (chip time) of 3:19:52 (some 13 seconds slower than my watch time) and an ‘official time’ (gun time) of 3:20:11, apparently I placed 176th. However, the Marathon organisers have since put out a link to this website: http://www.racetimer.se/fr/race/show/3982?layout=racetimer which lists only the gun time. Shambolic.
So, all told, it was a pretty mixed experience. An amazing city, at times a beautiful course, but woeful organisation. It’s very difficult to see where the race fee went.
And what of my Swedish friend? I can’t seem to find him amongst the very patchy results data. Embarrassingly, I didn’t quite catch his name, and the only Swedish runner that is around my area on that shoddy document doesn’t match my wise old guide’s profile… If you are out there, mate, thanks for everything – I hope our paths cross again.
Right, better start training for London!
The race was won by Wycliffe Kipkorir Biwot in 2:11:04, first lady was Tinbet Gidey Weldegebriel in 2:26:48.