Looking back to the Ibiza Half Marathon – a big thumbs up and a definite for 2019
A fantastic race with excellent organisation, plenty of freebies, and an entry fee that won’t break the bank
Before I begin, a confession: I bloody love this race. I have barely a bad word to say about it. If this race was a person, I’d be buying it flowers and expensive gifts. It’s fantastic. And – unlike wining and dining a paramour – you don’t have to spend much of your hard-earned cash on the race entry fee with bargain basement early bird entry prices of just €15 and loads of additional freebies. In fact, this race is so good, entering it is like being taken out and treated yourself. So, if you’re looking for options for Spring races next year, this race should be near the top of your list. Take a look at the details:
Race: Media Maraton de Ibiza
Date: 28 April 2018
Surface type: road / tarmac
Course type: fast, declining linear route
Approx. temperature: 15-20°C
Cost: Early-bird entry fee of €15 rising to €20 and €25 for later entries
Amenities: shuttle bus to the start line, bag drop, regular water stations along the route, free massages and medal engraving for finishers
Ibiza is known for a lot of things. A lively nightlife, sandy white beaches, a pleasant climate and – away from the clubbing and the parties – pine-clad hills and quaint little villages up in the island’s hilly interior and along its coasts. Ibiza is not, however, necessarily known for its running – but perhaps it should be. Late October sees San Antonio’s Ibiza Trail Marathon (with accompanying 21k and 10k), which showcases the Balearic island’s stunning scenery, while April sees the annual Ibiza Half Marathon – a fast, linear, road race which begins up in the hills in the south of the island and ends on the beachfront in Ibiza Town.
Given that the start line is up in the hills and the finish line is down on the coast, it’s probably no big surprise that there is a lot of downhill running in this race. This is certainly true for much of the first part of the race. The first mile (1.6km) or so is up and down before climbing to just over 200m above sea level. From this peak, however, the course is pretty much solidly down hill until just after the five mile (8km) point, as you can see on the course profile.
After plenty of downhill, runners are confronted with a pretty savage steep climb around about the 6 mile / 10km point. This is one of the steepest hills I’ve encountered during a race and so it was a bit of a shock to the system feeling like you’re treading water for a couple of minutes before you reach the crest. The elevated heart-rate, burning quads and calves, and general loss of breath takes maybe a mile or so to shake off but, happily, there are no more real noticeable ups or downs for the rest of the course – rather the race undulates gently, without being totally flat, from this point until the finish.
In terms of crowds, until the very end of the race, there are none to speak of really. Because the hills of Ibiza are pretty sparsely populated, this is not too surprising. The London Marathon, this ain’t – so if you’re one of those runners who feeds off the crowd, you’re going to be disappointed. If, like me, you tend to zone out in a race or (like a runner, who shall remain nameless, that I know well) you get irrationally annoyed at shouts of encouragement from spectators, then you can keep your head down and focus on your splits. Having said that, the race organisers – clearly mindful of the demoralising effect the steep hill mentioned in the paragraph above was likely to have on runners – arranged for a troupe of drummers to be stationed at the top of the killer incline to boost morale. On top of that, once you reached the race’s finish along the coast in Ibiza Town, crowds of holiday-makers and locals enthusiastically cheer you over the finish line.
Pros and Cons
Let’s start with the cons. There aren’t many. In fact, I can think of only one. And that’s the fact that, because a lot of this course is downhill, it’s not the easiest race on the legs and joints. You will probably feel this race for a little while afterwards, especially if you’re a heavier, taller runner with a lower running cadence (steps per minute), because of the likely heavier impact of each stride. Those of you who are a bit more spritely and run with quicker, lighter steps will get off a little easier but not be spared entirely. I spent much of the last racing season trying to develop a higher cadence and become more light on my feet but I still felt the toll of all the downhill in this race.
If I were being a bit picky, I’d say that the obligatory race t-shirt was a little bit budget – definitely not one of the lightweight, breathable pieces of kit that sometimes get handed out and the design wasn’t the greatest either. But this does feel a bit picky, so…
Onto the pros. Well, firstly, the flipside of the point above about course elevation is that, while running downhill means more impact for your legs to deal with, your heart, lungs and muscles in general are going to find it a lot easier to deal with. If you’re looking for a fast race and gunning for a PB, the Ibiza Half Marathon is a good bet.
Secondly, the organisation of this race is really well done. The fact that the race is linear with a start line away from any of the main towns on the island has the potential to cause a few headaches. Not a problem in this instance. For a nominal fee, shuttle buses ferried runners from the expo centre / finish line in Ibiza Town up to the start and the bag drop (with drop off at the start and pick up at the finish) worked like a charm.
Thirdly (and this is definitely the best bit), there are a couple of nice freebies thrown into this race. Crossing the finish line, I picked up the (usually) standard medal (but see My Worse Race for an instance of medal disappointment) water and snacks that greet finishers of most 21km races these days. After catching my breath, I spotted a row of massage tables where a team of professionals trained in the art of muscle manipulation were doing their thing. “How much?”, I asked. “Gratis.” Result! I have seen post race massages an average races in the UK costing around €15 or €20 so to get a good massage for free was a nice touch.
Fresh off the massage table, my legs having been skilfully (and just the right side of painfully) pounded and rubbed to take the edge off of the achiness that would surely hit home later, I spotted another queue: for medal engraving. Once again, those sweetest of words – gratis – were uttered, and within seconds my name and time had been etched into the back of my race medal with a high-tech laser. Everybody loves free stuff, but what’s more remarkable about this race is that the entry fee is already ridiculously cheap (€15! Yes, €15 for early bird entrants!). How can they afford to chuck in all these freebies? Who knows, but I’m not complaining…
The 2019 edition has now been confirmed for 28 April 2019 and you can enter here. So, what are you waiting for?
The dilemma of what to do when you get in trouble mid-race – whether it’s injury, exhaustion or ‘other’ – and the thoughts that go through a runner’s head. John@RunBarca recounts his worst race…
My first race in Spain and I’m bent over double at the side of the road in pain. I’ve hit the stop button on my Garmin and dozens of runners are streaming past me about 9 miles (15km) into a half marathon. I’m done. It’s the second time in the race I’ve pulled over and started to walk back towards the start line, GPS watch turned off. But this time it really is over: I feel dizzy, faint and in pain. I’d trained hard, was in good shape, and the race conditions were good. So how did I get to this point? To answer that, we have to roll back the clock a few days… weeks… months… etc… etc…
Blessing in Disguise?
23 June 2016 was a significant date for me. It was the day on which a chain of events began that would see me completely changing my life, leaving London, my old job and friends, and winding up living and working in Spain as a running trainer. Some in the UK have called the 23 June 2016 ‘Independence Day’ but for me it was the date that would eventually lead to me becoming part of what has been termed the ‘Brexodus’. For this was the day the UK voted in a referendum to leave the European Union. This was particularly bad news for me as, at the time, I was working as a lawyer for the UK government meaning that, almost overnight, my job was affected by – and ultimately became – Brexit.
To cut a long story short, the turmoil in the UK made me think about what I wanted to do with my life, what my priorities were, and how and why I had got to where I had thus far. No longer content to sit in an office for hours on end, I began to take my hobby – distance running – more seriously and started taking coaching courses with England Athletics. My job made me acutely aware that UK nationals were likely to lose the rights that they enjoyed as EU citizens – including the right to live and work in other member states – once the UK left the EU and so I began to make plans to move abroad.
I eventually settled on Barcelona and what an amazing city this is. The culture, the architecture, the climate, the beach and, of course, the thriving running scene make Barcelona a fantastic place to live. Having left the UK to escape from the results of a populist referendum, the timing of my move (I arrived in Barcelona at the beginning of October 2017) was somewhat ironic with the city dealing with the fallout from Catalunya’s own vote, but that’s another story…
But enough with politics; let’s talk running! One of the first things on my agenda as a new arrival in Barcelona was to look up the local race calendar. I was delighted to see that there was a half marathon in nearby Castelldefels only two weeks after moving to my new city. I was already race fit, having run a half marathon just before I left London, so I signed up eagerly.
My preparation undone in one lunchtime
As the race date grew closer, so did my confidence. I was loving my new running city, regularly hitting the beachfront and getting in some hill work at Montjuic. I was getting fitter and was a little lighter than in my previous race too. All was going well, and then…
The Friday before the race my housemate suggested we try the menu del dia at a restaurant he’d walked past earlier that day. Fine, I said. The restaurant was pleasant enough and the food tasted good – particularly the prawn and escargot (that’s snails to the uninitiated) salad I had for starters. This was the first time I’d eaten snails. Let’s just say that I probably won’t be eating them again in a hurry… Because by mid afternoon I was throwing up, sweating, and spending an inordinate amount of time in the bathroom. There was no mistaking it: I had food poisoning two days out from race day.
Not wanting to give up the race for dead, I started popping the pills immediately and by the time I went to bed later that night, things were no longer desperate. I was, however, still sweating a lot – and I woke up on Saturday morning wet with the kind of cold sweat you only get when you’re feeling rough as old boots. Still, I thought to myself, better than yesterday!
I always find it funny how the mind operates in the days before a race. If you are anything like me, you’ll have experienced moments of quiet – sometimes even supreme – confidence followed almost immediately by waves of self-doubt about how the race will go. Any little ache or niggling pain suddenly becomes a subject to obsess over. Then you tell yourself that you’re in shape and start thinking back to that training run you did last week when you felt strong and quick and running felt effortless and start to believe again that you’ll put in a good performance. Well, my mind was firmly in this kind of flip-flop mode of thinking, fluctuating between definitely not going ahead with the race (you know, on account of the food poisoning and all) to feeling like I could brush of my illness on account of my fitness (and it was true, I was pretty damn fit at this point).
Race day rolls around and I’ve decided to run. I wake up in a sweat but, again, it’s nowhere near as bad as the day before. I’ve been drinking plenty of water on account of the dehydration that accompanies this kind of illness but I’m not so worried about being dehydrated. I’m much more concerned with my achy limbs and throbbing joints that were acting as a constant reminder that I was still recovering from a pretty rough bout of food poisoning. But by this point, I’m in the zone and the positive voices in my head have managed to drown out the negative ones. By the time I was warming up at the start line in Castelldefels, I had convinced myself I was going to have a good race.
Disaster in Castelldefels
And things really did feel like they were going alright for about the first three miles (5km). I’d maintained a steady but not fast pace from the off and had settled down into a relaxed rhythm. I kept my breathing deep and steady and the aching in my legs that I had felt earlier that morning was gone. Yeah, this race was going to be fine! And then it hit me. Around the four mile (6.5km) mark I felt all the energy start to drain out of me. You hear a lot of runners talking about hitting ‘The Wall’ – a feeling of deep fatigue experienced when the body depletes all its glycogen stores – around the 20 mile point in a marathon. Well I’d hit The Wall with 9 miles (15km) left in a half marathon. I knew that this was not gonna be fun from here on in.
How did I know? Well, believe it or not, this was not the first time I’d done a race recovering from food poisoning. A few years before, I’d got sick a couple of days before the Gran Canaria Half Marathon (I suppose I’m just unlucky!). I’d blocked the memories of this race from my mind but suddenly they all came flooding back. This kind of psychology is familiar to most runners. Even experienced marathon veterans tend to forget how bad the last few miles of a full marathon feel. It’s a bit like getting kicked in the balls, a retch-inducing whiff of dog dirt hitting your nostrils or (I imagine) going through childbirth. You remember it being bad – really bad – but until you experience it once again, you can’t truly grasp how absolutely awful it is. I was in this kind of place mentally.
Worse was that the course was a double loop starting and finishing at the Canal Olímpic de Catalunya – where the rowing events had been held during the 1992 Barcelona games – and the half marathon was running at the same time as 10k race. As I reached halfway – feeling by this point like I wanted to collapse – I had to fight soooooo hard not to jack the race in there and then as I was right back where I started. It would have been really – temptingly, conveniently – easy to stop at this point, pick up my bag, jump on a train and head home. These sort of thoughts were made all the more tempting by seeing runners in the 10k field cross their finish line, some with arms in the air, some with smiles on their faces, others grimacing – but all of them had finished. And this was what I most envied them for: they could stop running.
I didn’t stop at the halfway point. I kept running. About a mile further on I regretted this decision deeply. A short (and not particularly steep) incline completely broke me. It was only a few metres uphill but the way I was feeling it might as well have been Tibidabo. I was acutely aware that with every pace I ran on that second loop of the course, I was going further and further away from the start line. Every step I took was a step I would have to retrace when I inevitably – and it really did feel inevitable after that tiny hill – had to give up and walk back. These kind of thoughts got the better of me and I stopped running. Looking down at my watch, it read 7.36 miles. I pressed the stop button and started to stagger dejectedly back towards the start line.
But something made me turn around and start running again. There’s a strong chance that national pride could have come into play. This was my first race in Spain and I’d chosen to wear a Union Jack running vest that I tend to wheel out for international races. There were plenty of proud Spaniards and – given the heightened politics in the region – Catalunyans displaying colours of their own and, as I traipsed past them at the side of the road, I somehow felt I was letting the side down. Ridiculous, I know, but I really do think that if I was wearing a plain running top, I’d have kept on walking in the opposite direction.
So, I’m running again and feeling no better. By this point, I’d worked out that despite consciously trying to keep my water intake up even when I was feeling ill, I was horribly dehydrated. I’m not usually one for taking on lots of fluid during a race but on this occasion I was downing two bottles of water at every refreshment station I passed. I must have drunk three or four litres along the route. This was helping, but I was still feeling weak and faint. By the time I hit mile nine, I’m thinking that carrying on is just stupid, that I could do myself some serious damage and that I didn’t have to prove anything to anybody. I’d also started to get stomach cramps that were making me want to bend at the waist and my running form was all over the place. So I pulled up, hit stop on my watch again, put my hands on my knees and stood there staring down at the pavement.
“Don’t come back without the medal!”
I stayed like this for about a minute. I started to hobble back in the opposite direction to the rest of the field once again. The runners streaming past me couldn’t know it, but an internal struggle was going on inside my head. “Good decision,” one voice was saying. But another voice was telling me that this was a failure, this was giving up. I must have done about three or four 180 degree turns in the space of a minute as I flip-flopped between listening to the tough guy telling me not to quit and the sensible voice telling me that they’re be other races, that I should listen to my body and stop. The tough guy voice ended up winning out, and for the rest of the race it kept up a constant refrain: “Don’t come back without the medal!”
This became something of a mantra for me for the rest of this race. I decided that, even if I had to walk (and walk I did!), I was going to cross the finish line. It was a disappointing day all in all but I’m happy to report that I did eventually cross the finish line. Those last four miles were horrible but the mantra did its trick. My official time came in at 1:46:21 – nowhere near what I had been training and hoping for before I got sick – but it felt like a massive accomplishment considering how I felt.
So, I’d done it! My mantra had worked and, though exhausted, as I caught my breath and enjoyed the pure, unadulterated pleasure of not having to run any more, my thoughts began to turn to the medal which I had vowed not to come back without. As I milled along with other tired finishers, getting corralled through the finishing area by the marshals, I was handed various drinks, nourishments and leaflets by the race volunteers.
Before I knew it, I had been funnelled out of the finishing area and was back in the open amongst the general public, surrounded by other runners being hugged and congratulated by friends and family. Where were the usual volunteers presenting finishers with their medals? As I looked around at the other runners, none of whom had medals of their own, the realisation slowly dawned on me: there were no race medals. Constantly telling myself not to come back without “the medal” had got me through the race, but in a final ironic twist, I would come back without a medal regardless.
Oh, well… Rummaging through the race goodie bag I had been given after I had crossed the finish line, I found that all I had to show for my efforts was a couple of small bananas, an orange, a bottle of powerade, a packet of sliced chicken and a bag of nuts. Better than nothing; but the real reward was knowing that I had dug deep into my reserves of willpower and made it to the end. And there was always next year (snails firmly off the menu).
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)
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 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.
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.
Bright and Lightweight Race Shirt
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.
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.
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.
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 email@example.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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!