Marrakech Express by Becky Fennelly

For the fifth consecutive year, a group of intrepid Eagles flew off to Marrakech to take part in the Marathon and Half Marathon weekend. The weekend was expertly hosted by Eileen Imrie and Rachid Afouzar as always. The fact that a number of the group are now regulars at the event is testament to how well we are all looked after both before and during the trip. In total, Rachid and Eileen were looking after over 120 runners in various groups including a group of runners raising money for the Human Appeal charity. Perhaps they should set up a travel agency!

This was my second time at the Marrakech marathon weekend, although the previous year was only as a spectator, having suffered a calf tear days before the trip. This year I have been training very cautiously as my main aim was to get to Marrakech in one piece and actually get to run this year.

The Eagles flocked together over the course of Friday with transfers arranged from the airport to the beautiful Riad Anya which was home for 3 nights. The Riad was booked for our sole use and it was a great opportunity to spend some time with like-minded people. Dinner was served in the Riad on Friday night cooked expertly by a lovely local lady to recipes that reflect what a typical family meal is in Morocco.

The evening was a great opportunity to meet the other Eagles and find out about each other’s goals for the weekend. With so many members of the club now it was lovely to have a chance to spend time with Eagles whom we may not crossed paths with before. 

Saturday was taken up with a variety of activities. Some took the opportunity to join a guided tour of the city which is included in the price of the trip. The day starts with a trip to the beautiful and peaceful Jardin Majorelle which houses a memorial to Yves Saint Laurent as well as many beautiful plants. A local guide then took the group round many of the main sights followed by lunch in a rooftop restaurant overlooking Djemaa El Fna (the main square). From the restaurant you absorb the sights and sounds of the square, watch the traders, snake charmers and other characters without being hassled to buy anything. 

The afternoon provided a chance to go to the local pharmacy and discover all sorts of local remedies for ailments and illnesses. Eileen was on hand to help stop the traders hassling us and showing us how best to deal with them when they approached us.

Another group travelled out of the city to visit the beautiful Cascade D’Ouzoud waterfall which included a hike in the hills and an unfortunate incident with a sheep.

Saturday evening was dinner in the Riad once again and an opportunity to carb load on couscous ready for the big day. 

The day arrived, bright and sunny (as is pretty much always the case in Marrakech) and the marathon runners got up for an early breakfast ready to start running at 8am. The Riad was close enough to the start line to walk there and stretch the legs before racing.

Melissah Gibson, Sophie Shawdon & Paul Keen set off to represent the Eagles in the marathon, joined at the start by Piers Keenleyside. Paul had run the marathon the previous year and was looking to shave a significant amount of time off his previous best. Sophie was running her first marathon whilst our 100 club members were planning to run hard, Melissah aiming for that elusive sub 3 hour marathon and Piers hoping to improve his start pen for Comrades with a solid time in Marrakech.

The start line was lively with plenty of music to keep runners upbeat and ready to go for it although the number of portaloos was woefully inadequate for the number of runners.  It would appear they were relying heavily on people waiting to use the unofficial “toilets” in the Olive Grove at mile 3 (ladies right, gents left). They could certainly learn something about this side of the organisation from EHM. 

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At 8am the marathon set off and the start line cleared ready for the half marathon runners to gather.
The Eagles were well represented in the half marathon. Tony Austin, Douglas Hodgkinson, Paul Doeh, Kelly Scanlon, Trevor Pask, Dineke Austin, Kathryn Keenleyside, Paul Barry, Me (Becky) & Daniel Fennelly lined up at the start along with Kelly’s friend Mandy 


Having heard numerous reports of water stations running out of water for the slower runners I had over a litre of water secreted about my person in various drinking bottles as the idea of running in warm weather without water had me in a pre-race panic.

At 8:30am the half marathon started in warm sunshine. The roads were lined with supporters right from the start and shouts of “Bon Courage” could be heard as we set out.

In the early miles the route took us along wide boulevards closed to traffic. After about a mile the crowds had started to spread out and I found myself running alone. This was not a problem as I was enjoying seeing parts of the city I had not yet visited.

After about 3 miles we reached the Olive Groves where the first water station was which not only had bottles of water but crates of small oranges too which were very refreshing on the warm morning. This was the narrowest part of the course and I found myself battling for road space with a car carrying a film crew with cameras pointing out the boot and the windows. I don’t know who they were filming for but I like to think that my Eagles vest may have made it onto Moroccan TV that day.

After exiting the Olive Groves we turned back onto a main boulevard where I found myself accompanied by a clown, high fiving everyone and shouting “Bon Courage” to all the runners.  
With a smile on my face I carried on knowing I was approaching the spot where the Eagles cheer squad would be waiting. Even from a distance I could see Eileen, Rachid, Jonathan, Jacquie and a number of other friends waiting to cheer us on. Rachid was technically running too but spent much of the race running backwards and forwards finding Eagles and other charity runners from his other groups to cheer on and support as they made their way round the course.

Onwards towards the half way point and I was on track to match my time from EHM. Meanwhile, elsewhere on the course, the first Eagles were finishing the race with Douglas completing the half marathon in 1:33:36, followed by Kelly 5 minutes later. 

Around the same time, there was bit of commotion at the finish line for the marathon when the Melissah was seen approaching the line at pretty much the same time as the male first place runner meaning she had run a world record marathon time for a woman! Now we all know she’s flipping fast but that would be an incredible achievement. 

A confused Melissah wondered why she had crossed the finish line given that her watch said she’d only run 29km. Sadly, it seems like she must have taken a wrong turn and picked up the half marathon route at some point. Despite trying to get advice on how to get back on course, it became clear that today wasn’t the day for that sub 3 hour marathon.

More Eagles started to cross the finish line for the half marathon with Paul Doeh next over the line with Tony Austin not far behind. Paul’s chances of a PB had been dashed by the group of Berbers shouting “Obama, brother Africa, come dance with us!”. Who could resist pulling out a few moves? Not Paul! 

Further back down the course I was approached by a lady asking “Parlez-Vous Anglais?” to which I replied “Oui, Je parle Anglais”. My French mode had kicked in over the course of the weekend and it didn’t cross my mind that perhaps she wanted me to speak English to her.  The lady in question turned out to be called Deborah and had travelled from Salt Lake, USA to run the race. 

For the next couple of miles we took the opportunity to chat to fellow English speakers and ran together along the wide boulevards slowing to collect more oranges and (still plentiful) water along the way. She was keen to know what Ealing Eagles was and I relished the chance to wax lyrical about the club to a new audience. 

Eventually my pre-race niggles started to take their toll and my hips and thigh became quite painful so we parted company as I slowed down, leaving behind my chances of a PB.  It was lovely to have a few fellow runners who had been running close to me check I was ok when they saw my pace dropping, although my tiredness and less than fluent French meant my responses were pretty limited.

Back at the finish line, a flurry of Eagles crossed the finish line. Dineke finished the half in a frustrating 2:00:04, Paul Barry finished in 2:02:46 with Trevor Pask right on his heels. Mandy crossed the line to complete her first ever half marathon in 2:06:24.

The Eagles who had finished headed back to the Riad to freshen up knowing the remaining field would not be finishing for a while. Mandy decided to celebrate her first half marathon by jumping fully clothed into the plunge pool. None of us had used the plunge pool up to that point due to the fact the water was freezing cold. Well, they do say a post-race ice bath is good for you!

Back, on the course, the marshalls seemed to have given up on holding back the traffic on the busy main roads and gradually I found myself navigating multiple lanes of traffic at every road junction. If you live here and are quite used to just stepping out in front of traffic this probably isn’t an issue, but for a cautious accountant like myself, this was not what I needed in the latter stages of a half marathon with aching hips. A similar experience was being had by Sophie out on the marathon course, and the crazy scooter drivers hurtling towards her was quite disconcerting at times.

I reached the bus station area and the traffic, public, donkeys etc became quite an issue and I was continuously dodging and weaving.  After this the route took in a market area where the crowds were gathered and were very supportive of a weary looking runner. At one point I found myself surrounded by children and whilst I’m not averse to high-fiving the youngsters on my way round this was bit overwhelming. Listening to their shouts, I realised that they were crowding round me because they wanted my water bottle that I had been carrying since the previous (again well stocked) water station. Apparently the race organisers were paying kids for each bottle they collected in an effort to get the streets cleaned up quickly. Eventually the route took us back onto quieter roads and the stress of dodging traffic and pedestrians eased off. 

Back at the finish line Piers was the next Eagle to cross the line with a marathon time 3:26:06 which many people would have been delighted with, but for Piers today this was a little disappointing. In the meantime, Melissah, undeterred by being unable to re-join the race, decided to complete her marathon in the car park. This earned her many a confused look from finishers heading back to their car but she was determined to complete the distance she set out to do.

Finally, I found myself close to the end of the race, in some discomfort, but keeping going. As I rounded a bend in the last km I spotted the familiar sight of Rachid who was chatting to a friend. On spying me he dropped his bag, handed his phone to the friend and proceeded to run the final stretch with me. It was great to have the encouragement at the end to allow me to finish with a strong push over the finish line. Shouts of support from Piers who had recently finished his marathon also spurred me on to push hard for the line. Having seen video footage of my finish since, it looks much slower than it felt.

My final time was 10 minutes slower than my EHM time, but given my careful approach to preparation, pain and the warmth of the day, I was happy overall and delighted to get my hands on the medal I had missed out on last year. I was also pleased to have not needed any of the water I still had round my waist. I bumped into my American friend milling about beyond the finish line and was pleased to discover she had easily achieved her target.

4 more Eagles to finish and next over the line was Paul Keen who completed the marathon in 3:52:05 closely followed by Kathryn finishing a tough half marathon.

I stayed around the finish line looking for Daniel who I hadn’t seen since mile 1. After a few minutes I saw him limping towards the finish line. Unfortunately he had turned his ankle quite early in the race and had been bravely hobbling his way round the course for most of the route.
The final Eagle out on the course now was Sophie, who found herself running directly into the mid-day sun for the last hour of the marathon. She had found some company along the way and chose the camaraderie of running with someone else over chasing a time alone. Nevertheless, she crossed the line, completing her first marathon in a very respectable 5:08:44.
With all Eagles home it was time to head back to the square for a well earned lunch, followed by a stroll back to the Riad for a rest. Celebrations were had in the evening with a trip to Fantasia, a somewhat touristy destination but with banquet style food, alcohol on sale and some local dancers for entertainment, it was an excellent way to round off a great day of running.

Monday dawned to some aching muscles and some of the group set off early for their flight. A group of us headed back towards the Souks to visit the Cafe Des Epices for a relaxing rooftop lunch in the sun with great views out over the snow-topped Atlas Mountains. One intrepid Eagle set off for a night in the desert with Rachid and some of the charity runners, while Melissah decided to try her hand at camel riding.

After lunch there was time for a bit of haggling for gifts to take home. Tony secured himself 25 camels for a very reasonable price and Paul Doeh found that being a native French speaker made it harder to shrug off the salesmen as he couldn’t pretend not to understand.

Finally it was time to say goodbye to the Riad, the city and our wonderful hosts and board the flight home, many of the group vowing to be back again next year.

Sadly, getting any refreshments out of BA on the flight home was pretty much impossible. That company has gone downhill since Piers left. ...