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Morocco – The Marrakech Marathon

Posted by on Jan 27, 2008 | 0 comments

Morocco – The Marrakech Marathon

Traveling from the Bahamas to Marrakech, Morocco required stops in both Newark and Paris on Continental and then a change of airports in Paris to transfer to an Air France flight to Morocco. All in all, roughly 24 hours of travel time.

I was, however, looking forward to trying out Continental’s Business First service “across the pond” to see how it compares with Delta’s Business Elite. I had heard great things about Continental’s international service and I had high expectations since this one flight (and one Northwest flight from Tokyo to Honolulu) had cost me an extra 60,000 miles on this ticket – the difference between a business class and a first class around the world award. Turns out, Continental and Northwest consider their international Business First cabins as first class (not business) when it comes to award travel – so, of course, I was dying to see why.

Now, since I know some of you readers out there are frequent fliers like I am, I will elaborate on the Continental flight for your benefit. First, the good points: The dinner was pretty good and we landed safely.

Now, on to the airing of the grievances: Dinner service was painfully slow, we were 2 ½ hours into the flight by the time they were done (for a 5hr 45min flight). And they don’t turn the cabin lights out until dinner service is finished so forget about trying to sleep.

After dinner (about 4am Paris time) I was finally ready to try out the “lie-flat seat” they’ve been bragging about and get a little shut-eye. It’s true that the seat does flatten out straight, however (and this is a BIG however), the entire “flat” seat tilts at an angle steep enough that I kept sliding down the seat toward the floor. Not exactly restful. Now, the Delta seats may not go flat but I sure never felt like I was going to fall out of one of them.

Needless to say I got no sleep at all and the next thing I knew they were turning on the cabin lights to serve breakfast. Which, by the way, consisted of some fruit and a stale croissant (the Delta coach breakfast upon arrival in Paris is better than that, geez). All in all, I would definitely say I was under-whelmed. I sure hope the Northwest flight turns out to be better.

We landed at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris at 7:45am and my flight to Marrakech was leaving at 11:15am from Orly Airport. I had never been to Orly before but I knew I could take the train there from CDG and I made it to Orly by 9:30am in plenty of time for my flight.

Arrival in Morocco

We touched down in Marrakech about 1:30pm. It’s one of those tiny remote airports where you have to walk down the plane stairs and then walk across the tarmac to get to the terminal. I found a taxi, haggled with the driver in French (yay me!) until we got down to what I believed to be a reasonable price for the quick trip to the hotel.

My hotel in Marrakech is the Le Meridien N’fis and, not surprisingly, it was really nice. No upgrade this time as they were sold out for the Marrakech Marathon but an incredibly large fruit and wine basket awaited me in my room.

My plan was to spend the rest of the afternoon touring Marrakech and then get to bed early to get a good nights sleep for the race. In doing a little research on Morocco, it sounded like it might be wise for me (as a blond woman traveling alone) to just bite the bullet and hire a guide for the afternoon – which I normally hate doing.

Everything I read said that women travelers are likely to be harassed in the squares, markets, etc. It sounded a lot like my experience in Egypt (another bad place to be a woman traveling alone) and I was not eager to repeat that. The guides are closely regulated in Morocco and have set prices for full and half day tours (200 dirhams or about $25 for a half day – definitely reasonable).

Snake Charmers Jemaa el Fna Marrakech Morocco

The snake charmers of Jemaa el Fna

So, I had my hotel arrange for a guide to meet me at 3:00pm and I ran to my room to grab a quick shower. My guide, Ahmoud, was a Marrakech native who was very knowledgeable about the city. And he was definitely worth his weight in gold when it came to swiftly deflecting any unwanted attention from the local men – definitely $25 well spent.

We walked around the main square, Jemaa el Fna, which is the lively heart of Marrakech and borders on sensory overload. Everything from spice vendors to street entertainers to snake charmers, you name it, it can probably be found in Jemaa el Fna.

After dark, the square becomes what they call a “rolling restaurant.” Food vendors from all over the city set up stalls complete with seating for customers. Waiters even stand outside and hand out menus. It’s hard to believe they do this every night from 5pm until 5am (for the late night disco crowd).

One thing I had read about Morocco (and was quickly confirmed by Ahmound) is that when it comes to taking photographs, Moroccans fall into two distinct categories: those who do not want their picture taken (for religious reasons) and those who want you to pay them to take their picture.

The snake charmers fell into the later category and it is customary to tip them 10 dirham (about a dollar) if you photograph them – as you can see, I’m out a few dirham. Well, seriously, snake charmers? How can you NOT take photos of that? Albeit, from a distance…we are talking about actual cobras here.

Carpet Shop Marrakech Morocco

Having some mint tea with my host in the carpet shop

From the Jemaa el Fna, Ahmoud took me down a side corridor into the souks of Marrakech. I had been to a souk in Egypt – also with a guide – and really enjoyed it, it’s all about the haggling and you can get some really good stuff if you’re souvenir shopping and not afraid to bargain.

A souk is basically an Arabian market made up of vendor stalls selling everything from fabrics to shoes to jewelry to carpets (to name just a few). I wasn’t really looking to buy anything but I did manage an impulse buy on a pair of handmade leather shoes.

I was definitely not interested in looking at carpets (which are apparently the #1 thing most tourists do want to look at) but I humored Ahmoud and let him take me into the shop of one of his friends. They were quick to offer me some mint tea while they showed me some carpets and since I had read it was considered very rude to refuse tea if it is offered to you, I agreed. But I did manage to get out of there without buying anything.

After the shopping, I said goodbye to Ahmoud and headed back to the hotel to get some sleep. After being up all night on the flight, I was exhausted. I fell asleep around 8pm but was awakened at 10pm by a call from the concierge.

Earlier, when I checked in, I had inquired about getting a train ticket to Casablanca for the next day and they offered to have a driver run over to the station and purchase one for me (excellent service at this hotel, I might add!). The concierge was calling to tell me they had purchased my train ticket and would be bringing it up to my room shortly.

This was great news but would have been even better news at 7:45pm. Unfortunately, after that woke me up, I had a terrible time falling back asleep and spent the rest of the night either tossing and turning in bed or at my desk on my computer. So much for a good nights rest before the race.

The Marrakech Marathon

Marrakech Marathon Morocco

Ready for the marathon and headed to the start line!

Many of you know that I ran the Honolulu Marathon a little over a month ago. What you may not know is that I have run exactly, uh, twice since then.

On one of those particularly ambitious runs about 2 weeks ago, I had the brilliant idea to check and see if there were any marathons along the route of this year’s trip. I thought it might be a fun thing to “take in a marathon” while traveling.

So, I did a little research and found that the Marrakech Marathon fell over the approximate dates that I was planning to be in the Spain/Morocco area. What fun!

So I changed my schedule around a little to start in Morocco first instead of Spain.

Technically, the race is a marathon and a half-marathon so I figured I would register for the full marathon but just see how I felt at the half-way point. If I was just not feeling it by that time, I’d bail out and settle for the half-marathon and call it a day.

So, after one night with no sleep and another night with about 3 hours of sleep, I was seriously considering just doing the half when I started out this morning. Not to mention I didn’t have any of my usual marathon essentials like energy gels or Powerade or even my bagel with peanut butter pre-race meal. Looking back, I truly believe I was doomed from the start.

But, the race has about 5,000 runners and is actually a pretty big deal in Marrakech so I still thought it would be fun and a great way to see more of the city. I mean, what better way to see a city than to run 26.2 miles through it?

And the first half  of the race actually was kind of fun. It was a cool desert morning, the roads were closed for the race and the scenery and crowd support were fantastic. I don’t know how I had forgotten this already but it’s really the second half of a marathon that tends to suck.

So when I reached the halfway point it was decision time. Stop now, take the half-marathon medal and grab a cab back to the hotel for a little nap before my afternoon train? Or press on and finish the full marathon? The overly confident side of me said “keep going, you can do it!” So, I kept going. Sometimes I really want to smack that side of me.

And it was going okay until about mile 16, where I hit the proverbial “Moroccan WALL“.  Or maybe it hit me, I really can’t remember, it all gets a little fuzzy about that point.

I had always heard people talk about hitting the wall in a marathon but it had never really happened to me. Now, I know what that whole “wall” thing is all about. And I am here to tell you, it’s a serious problem when you hit it and you also just happen to be in the middle of nowhere Morocco with no water and choking down exhaust fumes.

At that point I decided to slow it down and start doing a run/walk combination. After two miles of that, I downgraded to just walking and gave up on the running entirely. I was still pretty sure I could finish by walking the last 6 miles.

Of course, since I was obviously toward the end of the pack now (there were people behind me, I’m just not sure how many), they were starting to allow traffic back on the roads and were closing down what remained of the already insufficient water stations.

Marrakech’s traffic is terrible and the whole city reeks of car exhaust. All of this is mildly annoying on a regular day but when you’re trying to stagger your way through the end of a marathon, it’s downright dizzying.

Just about the time I was wondering if I should give up and get in the next cab, I realized there was another girl walking next to me who looked equally miserable. And since misery loves company, I introduced myself.

Her name was Mariel, she was from France and this was her first marathon. (Let’s just say it was not going very well for her.) At this point I became more worried about her than about myself and it proved to be a good distraction. She hadn’t brought any money with her so didn’t have the option of getting in a cab. I told her I was planning to walk the rest of the way and I’d walk with her if she felt like she could do it. If not, we’d hop in cab together and call it a day (I’d brought cab money, just in case, and my hotel was right next to the finish line).

Marrakech Marathon Morocco

At the finish line of the Marrakech Marathon with Mariel – we did it!

She really wanted to finish so we decided to keep walking. And it turned out to be a good thing she was with me when we kept getting lost (the course was not well-marked) and had to ask traffic cops to point us in the right direction toward the finish line (her French was a lot better than mine).

FINALLY, we crossed the finish line and got our finisher medals. I have to say this was definitely the toughest marathon I’ve ever done. Mostly because of how terrible the course was.

If you weren’t a 3-hour marathoner (which I’m definitely not) you were kind of on your own for water or course direction toward the end. It was also the most extreme as far as weather. The cold desert morning quickly turned uncomfortably hot once the sun came up.

The best part about today was that my hotel just happened to be right next to the start and finish line of the race. Thank God for small favors. As soon as I finished, I said my goodbyes to Mariel (who thanked me profusely for staying with her) and headed back to the hotel for an ice bath and a quick nap before my 3pm train to Casablanca.

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