Race Review Double Header: Marrakech and Barcelona Half Marathons

Early-season races are a great motivational tool to keep your training focused during those long winter months. Late January and early February saw Marrakech and Barcelona host two large international half marathons two weeks apart and John@RunBarca was on the start line for both of them. Here’s his review of each event.

Semi Marathon International de Marrakech – Sunday 28th January 2018

The Marrakech Marathon and Half Marathon have long been fixtures on the international running circuit. Established in 1987, the Marrakech Marathon can fairly be described as North Africa’s most prestigious road race and routinely attracts elite competitors from the continent’s north and east as well as further afield. This year, the 29th edition of the event (there was no race in 1998, 2000 or 2001) saw around 8,000 entrants take part, the vast majority of whom opted for the 13.1 mile / 21 km distance.

  • Surface type: road / tarmac
  • Course type: flat, fast
  • Approx. temperature: 5-10°C
  • Cost: €50 (€70 for the full marathon) with substantial discounts for Moroccan nationals and residents
  • Amenities: regular water stations along the route (with fruit and wet sponges too)
Marrakech course
Race route for the Marrakech Half Marathon 2018

This was the third time I’d entered this race having run the half marathons in 2013 and 2015. Arriving in Marrakech the Thursday before the race, I had plenty of time to reacquaint myself with what is undoubtedly a fantastic city before the race. Thick fog had meant that my flight to Morocco had been delayed by about 90 minutes as our plane had to circle Marrakech Airport waiting for the fog to lift.

While the fog cleared long enough for the plane to land, it still hung around to make the usually bright and sunny city a little cold and overcast on Thursday and Friday. Although January is winter time in Marrakech and the nights and early mornings are pretty chilly, the sun is still fierce from about midday onwards with temperatures reaching up past  20°C at their peak and sunblock recommended. But today was cold… Not to be perturbed, I went for a short, relaxed run, tucked into some tasty – and carb-heavy – Morrocan cuisine (read couscous, bread and tajine) and took in the sights around Marrakech’s bustling Jamaa el Fna square and the spectacular Koutoubia mosque.

Jamaa el Fna
Jamaa el Fna in the drizzle

Jamaa el Fna represents the heart of Marrakech’s old medina district and offers visual and culinary treats for foreigners and locals alike. Acrobats and snake charmers wow the spectators, while hawkers whistle and call out from their juice stands inviting passersby to try their freshly squeezed (and super-sweet) orange juice. Night time sees the square transformed into a giant open-air eatery as portable stalls, kitchens, tables benches suddenly appear and the hawkers shift into overdrive, trying desperately to get customers into their – and not their rivals’ – stalls. The food is generally fresh, healthy, tasty and good value (even if the surroundings can be a bit rough and ready) and above all perfect for carb-loading. So far, so good.

Juice Stands
Probably the best orange juice you’ll taste in your life

I’d booked in to stay in a friendly riad in the middle of the narrow souks (covered market-style streets lined with shops and stalls selling everything from spices, argon oil and leather goods to decorative lamps, furniture and other pieces of objet d’art) and after a pleasant evening of wandering around and generally kicking back, I turn in for a good night’s sleep.

The next day, my friend and fellow runner flies in from London. We decide to pick up our race bibs from the race village out in the new town about a mile or so away from Jmaa el Fna. While the pick-up was pretty hassle-free, the outdoor expo centre was lacking much – if anything –  to occupy the average runner. In the event, a large collection of speakers was absolutely blasting out some non-descript Europop at an ear-splitting volume so sticking around was not really an option anyway. We beat a swift retreat with our race pack of chip-timed bib (more on that later!), info packs and nifty race t-shirts.

All-in-all, the race is pretty good value. The entry fee is €50 for foreign residents with heavy discounts for Moroccan nationals (around €10) and foreigners resident in Morocco (€35). Meanwhile, the full marathon entry fee is €70 with similar discounts for nationals and residents.  Food, accommodation and flights (Vueling and Ryanair both fly into Marrakech) are also relatively cheap making Marrakech a good option for those looking for an early-season race in a warm(ish) climate but not wanting to break the bank.

Race day rolls around. An early night and a pasta dinner the night before left us feeling well prepared for the 8:30 a.m. start. The start line was located just outside the old city walls past the 5 Star Mamounia Hotel. And while we – and undoubtedly many of the other runners waiting for the starting pistol – were well-prepared, unfortunately the race organisers appeared to have been less so.

Pre-Race Marrakech
Race Ready in my Riad

What were the issues? Let’s run through them. First up, the facilities at the start were a little lacking. I don’t recall seeing any toilets at the start. Now, while this wasn’t really a problem for many male runners who were quite happy to answer the call of nature amongst the bushes and palm trees in a large piece of scrub-land next to the start, women runners or those who needed something stronger than a quick pee were not so lucky. I didn’t have any stuff to leave at the start, but I don’t remember seeing a bag drop (apologies to the organisers if there was one and I missed it!).

Second, the start line could (and probably should) have been much better organised. There were no starting pens organised by expected finish time which is pretty unusual for a race of this size. Now, I have run other races without start pens where the organisers have, informally, tried to corral the faster runners in front of the slower ones – for example by calling runners towards the start line over a tannoy according to their predicted times or through use of signage. None of that here. The result was a pretty (over)crowded and chaotic start line and the first mile or so of the race spent trying to dodge and run around much, much slower runners who had found themselves at the front of the field. Dangerous? Potentially. Annoying? Most definitely!

Third, what with the crush of people at the start and a number of familiar inflatable arches crossing the road up ahead of us – any of which could have been the actual start – it was difficult to work out when exactly we had crossed the start line. There was no clear marking and the type of timing strip on the ground that usually marks the official start was sadly absent. Nor was there the chip timer ‘beep’ you sometimes get when crossing a timing marker. Such was the confusion, I ended up starting my watch about 20 seconds after I’d crossed what I later learned to be the start line. In the event, this was the least of the race’s timekeeping worries…

On the course itself, after the initial melee caused by the chaotic start, the race was actually pretty pleasant. Although the temperature at the 8:30 a.m. start was a rather chilly 3°C, the temperature soon picked up to around 9°C or 10°C as the sun rose higher in the sky. For me, this is perfect running temperature. Outside the narrow, winding souks of the medina, the ‘other’ more modern part of Marrakech through which the race plotted its course is essentially a city of wide, French-designed boulevards. This meant there was loads of space to run without danger of stepping on any toes or a risk of tripping up.

The course is also nice and flat and so, with good running conditions and near perfect temperature, plenty of runners look to this race as a potential personal best. Part of the route took runners under the shadows of the ancient city walls while a glance up at the horizon offered breathtaking views of the snow-capped Atlas Mountains. All in all, plenty to look at along the way. And the crowds, while not exactly thronging, were encouraging and I particularly liked a row of local school children cheering on what I think was one of their teachers as he ran. Offering their hands to runners as they cruised past, I couldn’t resist going in for a set of hand slaps to give me a little energy boost.

Marrakech City Walls
The race takes runners in the shadow of Marrakech’s ancient city walls

In terms of facilities out on route, regular water stations kept runners hydrated and handed out wet sponges and oranges too. However, even here, the organisers could have done a little better. Oranges were handed out whole rather than chopped up. Ever tried peeling an orange while running? It doesn’t take much forethought to realise this could be a little difficult. I didn’t even bother trying. Similarly, water bottles were handed out with bottle tops intact. Again, not a massive problem for the average runner; however, disabled runners such as my Marrakech running buddy found it really tricky to crack the bottle tops while on the move. Once again, a little bit of forethought here could have helped a lot. Finally, while I have never felt the need to urinate during a race, I have heard complaints from other runners about a lack of toilet stalls along the route.

However, all of these issues pale in comparison next to two major problems that beset the race event. The first BIG problem was marshalling for the marathon distance. Now, out of the 8,000 runners the event attracts each year, the vast majority enter the half marathon leaving the marathon field fairly sparse. This year, the marathon started half an hour before the half marathon at 8:00 a.m and there were points along the course where the marathoners and half marathoners were running along the same stretch of road. I heard of some major marshalling issues from a number of people in the marathon field who, through lack of marshals or signalling, took a wrong turn and ended up on the half marathon course. A couple of marathoners ended up clocking 30 miles (48km) plus as a result. I’ve also heard stories of marathoners having to dodge traffic later on in the race as certain junctions were not fully closed. For an event of this size, these kind of marshalling issues are simply unacceptable. Thankfully, neither of these problems impacted upon the half marathon but even still… not good.

Marrakech from above
Marrakech makes for great winter sun

The second BIG problem, however, affected both races. I mentioned before that it was not immediately clear which of the inflatable arches represented the start line. While the finish line was clearly marked, it ended up not mattering a great deal. A few days after the race, the link to the results went up on the website. Checking for my official time, I found I was not listed at all. Checking for my friend’s result, his listed time was about 10 minutes out from what he had clocked on his watch. Furthermore, he was listed under a completely different race number. I eventually found my own race number in the women’s half marathon results list next to a different runner’s name but with a time that, again, bore no relation to the time I had clocked. It was clear that something had gone very, very wrong.

The event’s Facebook page quickly became littered with complaints about the results. Eventually, the organisers put out a post and a link to what they claimed to be corrected results. Upon following the link, however, it was clear that the only times listed were the race gun times (which are accurate only for the elite runners queued up at the very front of the field at the starting pistol); runners’ actual, chip-calculated times were missing. Racetimer, the website hosting the results page, displayed the following message at the top of the page, distancing themselves from the debacle:

“Racetimer did not time Marrakech Marathon this year. As a courtesy to the organizer we are displaying the results here for your convenience. Please contact marathonmarrakech@gmail.com if you have any questions about the results.”

Again, messing up an event of this size is simply not acceptable and participants were clearly unhappy. One comment on the Facebook page seemed to sum up the ire:

May I ask the organisers of the event a direct question? Did the timing chip system actually work on the day? I could not really see or work out where the start or finish of the race was nor could I see any electronic recording using our dossier electronic chips. (Except at the 10km mark). Now i see the results are available on the website but with everyone’s names missing, plus there are no accurate chip times. I can only believe that everything fell apart on the day and that nothing worked…

In all, this could have been a nice race with a good course but the organisation was utterly horrendous. To not even record our times or names properly is exceptionally poor. Many of us travelled from countries far and wide. Myself included (Belgium). I expected far better. A pity. I hope you take on board some of these critiques to improve what could be a good race in the future.

A few concluding remarks. This was the third time I had done this race so it’s fair to say that I was / am a fan. I like the flat course, the usual good running conditions and nice temperature, the fact that you walk to the start line easily. I like the wide streets, the good race atmosphere and the views along the route. I like the city and the people of Marrakech too. I like the fact that the race plainly attracts a good mix of local and international runners. The finishing medals handed out have always been nicely designed (this year was no exception) and the race t-shirts pretty good too. Also, this is the first year that there has been any issue with the timing chips. That said, it’s a pretty important thing to go wrong and so far the organisers have not issued any apology or explanation. In addition, while the start line has always been a bit of a melee in the past, it was particularly bad this year and the marshalling problems need addressing.

Marrakech Medal
Not a bad little medal

I, for one, hope that the organisers take the criticism on board, follow the example of other similar sized races and introduce proper starting pens and get more marshals out along the course for next year. And of course ensure that the timing cock-up is not repeated. Would I enter the race again? On balance, yes – although another race like this year and I’m afraid the answer would have to be no.

eDreams Mitja Marató (Half Marathon) de Barcelona – Sunday 11th February 2018

Two weeks after Marrakech and it was time for another half marathon, this time on home turf – the Mitja Marató de Barcelona. While I have always enjoyed travelling to another city, another country or even another continent for a race (combining my inherent wanderlust with my love for running), I must admit that it was really nice to be able to forget about the stress and hassle that sometimes comes with entering a race away from home. Without having to think about booking a hotel near the start line, navigating unfamiliar streets and transport networks, and without having any flights or trains to catch, I was looking forward to giving this race my all. I was in shape, well-rested and feeling positive. And, hell, I could even walk to the start line! Perfect.

Barcelona Runner
Running towards the Parc de la Ciutadella

Held every year since 1991, over 17,000 people registered to run last year’s Barcelona half marathon, according to the race organisers. So, we’re talking about a seriously popular race here. And with good reason; a flat, fast course with plenty of long straights mean that many runners sign up to target a personal best. In fact, Florence Kiplagat’s winning times here in 2014 (1:05:12) and 2015 (1:05:09) were both women’s world records at the time – although the current world record holder, Joyciline Jepkosgei, clocked her world record of 1:04:52 in Prague in April 2017.

Indeed, when compared side-by-side, the Mitja Marató de Barcelona’s profile is pretty similar to that of the Marrakech half marathon. Let’s take a look at the stats:

  • Surface type: road / tarmac
  • Course type: flat, fast
  • Approx. temperature: 3-9°C
  • Cost: €25 to €32.50 (depending on date of registration)
  • Amenities: regular refreshment stations along the route offering water and powerade energy drinks
Barcelona Course
eDreams Mitja Marato de Barcelona course map

Coming so quickly after the Marrakech half marathon, it is difficult for me to view the Mitja without comparing it to my Moroccan trip.

So what were the differences? Well, for starters, the race was a fair bit cheaper than Marrakech (speaking as a foreigner not benefiting from the cheap prices for Moroccans). My registration cost around €27 including admin fees compared to €50 for Marrakech. While €50 is not extortionate – and there are definitely more expensive races around – given some of the marshalling and chip-timing issues I described above and general organisational problems, it does make you wonder where some of the money went.

The expo too – held on the top floor of the Arenas shopping complex near to Plaça Espanya – had much more to keep registrants interested than its Moroccan counterpart. There were stands from the race sponsors such as running shoe-maker Saucony, plenty of information about the race was on offer, and there were a healthy number of participants milling around chatting and taking photographs of nearby Montjuic and the Font Magica from Arenas’ roof terrace. The race pack pick up was swift; the pack itself containing the familiar chip-timed bib number and race t-shirt (a really nice, lightweight, black, breathable Saucony top) together with informational flyers.

Barcelona Race T-Shirt
High-quality lightweight shirt from Saucony

The race’s start line was in between two of Barcelona’s central landmarks: the Arc de Triomf and Parc de la Ciutadella. There were the usual bag drops and portaloos which were absent from the start line in Marrakech – although I must confess that because the start line was a short walk / jog from my apartment, I had no need for either. More importantly, the Mitja’s start was organised into segregated starting pens with marshals making sure people were in the correct pens according to colour-coded race bibs which corresponded to predicted finish times. This made a world of difference as there was plenty of room to do last minute warm-ups and keep moving inside the pens themselves – in stark contrast to the overcrowded and chaotic start in Marrakech.

While the first mile or so was still pretty busy – and there were undoubtedly people who had put themselves too far towards the front of the field by predicting fancifully quick finish times – it was much less stressful than the race two weeks previously. Outside of the close, claustrophobic Gothic quarter, Barcelona is a city of wide, tree-lined avenues and – as in Marrakech – the Mitja’s route stuck to roomy main roads closed-off especially for the race. Despite the 8:45 a.m. start, the crowds were good from the off and there was plenty of enthusiam from well-wishers cheering from behind the temporary railings lining the route. For this race, I had chosen to fly the flag of my native UK – by wearing a Union Jack racing vest – and was pleased to spot from time to time a few fellow Brits in the crowd waving Union Jacks of their own as they shouted out encouragement.

Barcelona Race Prep
Flying the flag in Barcelona

The course itself, after kicking off just south of Arc de Triomf, skirted around the edge of Parc de la Ciutadella and wound its way south westwards along the wide Passeig d’Isabel II past the Columbus Monument before taking a right turn up the slightly inclining Avinguda del Paral·lel (apparently so-named because it is the only street in Barcelona that runs parallel to the Equator – who knew!?). I say there was an incline but believe me when I say this was no Montjuic or Tibidabo: the course climbed about 30 metres over the course of a couple of kilometres so nothing drastic. Indeed, the course overall was pretty flat with minimal bits of up and down along the route.

Barcelona Half Course Profile
Flat as a pancake: the Barcelona Mitja Marato’s course profile

As the field started to thin out when the course swung northeast along Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes, the crowds, conversely, started to thicken. And by the time the course once again swept down past Triomf around the 7km (4.5 mile) mark, the crowds were thicker and more enthusiastic still, waiving flags, homemade banners and signs. The level of support was another big difference between the Mitja and the race in Marrakech; Barcelona is something of a running city and it showed in the sheer numbers of supporters cheering on the competitors, taking photographs and generally just admiring the spectacle.

From here on the course headed out east towards Sant Marti and Poblenou before making a turn back southwest parallel to the beach. I had earmarked this race for a sub-90 minute half marathon and was feeling comfortable, clocking steady and even splits. There were plenty of regular water stations offering both bottles of water and cups of Powerade energy drink and I was carrying with me a couple of energy gels too. They say never do anything new on the day of the race. I should have heeded this advice as the new cola-flavoured gel I was carrying was truly disgusting but it seemed to do the job! Feeling strong and fit, I tried to focus on maintaining good running form – running tall and keeping up a high cadence (i.e. step-count per minute) – into the latter part of the race.

Disaster almost struck, however, when I realised that I had miscalculated my splits with just over a mile to go (note to self: check and double-check what your per mile / km pace needs to be to hit your goal time). I had to throw in a 6:36 minute mile (4:05 minute per km) on mile 13 and sprint for the line in the home straight to make up for my shocking maths! Looking down at my GPS watch after I crossed the finish line, I found I had hit the stop button on exactly 1:30:00:00, to the exact hundredth of a second – pretty unbelievable when you think about it! Technically I had missed my sub-90 minute target by a hundredth of a second… but on checking my official chip time later that day, I found I had clocked a 1:29:55. I had probably started my GPS slightly early before crossing the start lane and stopped it too late after crossing the finish; whatever the reason, I was glad of the extra few seconds and my sub 1:30:00 half marathon.

Barcelona Post Race
Obligatory ‘bite the medal’ shot

This last point – the provision of an accurate chip time – is an obvious big plus in the Barcelona half marathon’s list of pros and cons compared to Marrakech. Indeed, it really is a fundamental. The fact that many runners use their official times as qualifying times for other, over-subscribed races where only runners with valid official times are guaranteed a starting place makes the timing debacle in Marrakech even worse. Naturally, I’m pleased there was no such trouble in Barcelona!

Head-to-Head: Marrakech Half v Barcelona Half

Those who have read the whole of this review probably won’t be surprised that the clear winner in this particular half marathon head-to-head is the Mitja de Barcelona. However, the truth is that the two are actually pretty similar races on paper. They are both flat, largely urban races run along wide, roomy, tarmac roads at warmish temperatures for the time of year. They’re also both great early season race options for giving your winter training a bit of focus and they’re great candidates for a PB effort given their course profile.

The big difference between the two – you may have gathered! – is that Barcelona blows Marrakech out of the water when it comes to organisation. This is disappointing because the Marrakech race has a lot going for it and could be an awesome event given a little bit more effort on the part of the organisers. Marrakech is a great city that brims with history and vibrant culture, the race offers spectacular views of the Atlas Mountains and ancient city walls and is generally a fun event to do, not least because competitors get to say that they have finished a race in Africa! But the two big gripes of a chaotic start line and a complete failure (this year, at least) of the timing systems are major let-downs. So Barcelona wins this time and Marrakech is left to contemplate would could have been…!

Check out our photos and let us know what you think in the comments below!