Marrakech: A Half Marathon to Remember

It was hot. It had been over a year since I ran in the heat. Am I up for this? What if I get heat stroke or

My pre-half-marathon breakfast.

My pre-half-marathon breakfast.

heat exhaustion? “Just get yourself to the next 5km mark, Nadia. Get yourself there, slow down, drink some water at the water station, and re-evaluate then.”

The past few months I had been running in the cold of northern England. In the past few weeks, the cold had reached a below-freezing stage where I could feel my leg muscles clench from the cold. But as long as it wasn’t snowing or raining, running in temperatures above freezing was not so bad, I eventually realized. I would always warm up five minutes into the run and that was that. All I had to do afterwards was focus on getting through the run without needing to make a stop behind the bushes to pee in public. Running on snowy, icy, muddy ground was when it really got difficult for me. It’s almost impossible to fall into a comfortable stride. I’d look for slippery spots and play a complicated game of avoid-the-invisible-mines to make sure to stay injury-free. I need to stay injury free.

I reached the first water station. My husband Colin was running a full marathon right now, while I was only running a half. ONLY! I wouldn’t have thought of a half marathon as an only last year. I ran my first half marathon in April 2014. In the past three weeks, I ran the distance of a half marathon and a bit more during two of my training runs. I knew I had it in me to do the distance. This was Colin’s third marathon. To me, he’s an expert at this sort of thing. He told me just yesterday that he planned to slow down at each water station to get a proper drink of water. I wouldn’t have considered slowing down had he not mentioned it. I really wanted to run this half marathon in a good time. I had been training for weeks. More importantly, though, I wanted to get through the half marathon without heat stroke. What was good enough for my marathon-running husband should be good enough for me. Besides, I need to test out various strategies for the marathon I hope to run in March, I convinced myself.

Moroccan men and women in fluorescent orange vests and baseball caps were standing with large numbers of plastic bottles of mineral water in their hands. They were fumbling as best they could to make sure the bottles reached the stretched-out hands of the moving runners. I kept moving, reached out for a bottle, and got one placed into my hand just in the nick of time. I worked on loosening the cap without changing my pace. Once loose, I slowed down to a quick walk, and drew some water into my mouth. My stomach was still in the upheaval of a strong pace. I couldn’t swallow just yet. So I let the cool water swirl around my mouth to moisten it and then spit it out. As my heart rate slowed, if only a bit, I was able to swallow the next sip. Only a sip, I told myself. Or maybe two. More than that and you will feel sick. I downed two sips of water, started speeding up my pace with newfound strength in my legs, and poured the remainder of the bottle over my head. I felt the short shock of coolness spread over me, and continued on my way. I felt strong again. Now for the next 5km, I told myself.

I woke up at around 5:30 AM this morning to my husband crawling back into bed after a bathroom visit saying, “This is a disaster!” “What’s wrong, Colin?” I mumbled. “I have food poisoning!” he said. I rolled my eyes under my sleepy eyelids. “No you don’t, Colin. You have anxiety diarrhea. Haven’t you ever had that before?” I asked. “No.” I rolled my eyes again. Of course he hasn’t, I said in my head. He never had to endure the ugliness of med school examinations.

Colin had been anxious about this race since just before Christmas, when he came home saying that an old knee injury started acting up during his training run. He was devastated. He would have to rest his legs for at least two weeks to make sure the injury doesn’t get worse. There was less than a month-and-a-half before the Marrakech marathon and he would be losing vital training time as a result. In the weeks that followed, he kept his knee rested as much as possible, while keeping fit by doing other activities at the gym. He did a few slow, short runs before the marathon to make sure his knee was all right. It seemed fine after two weeks of rest and several weeks of a bad cold. But he was very worried. He missed out on two very important, long training runs.

The night before the marathon he switched on his iPad and started watching YouTube videos of the marathon and reading reviews from previous years. No portapotties. Nowhere to leave bags before the marathon. “We’ll have to go without a thing in our hands,” we decided. Not enough water for the slower runners, a reviewer said. Up until that point, I was taking this whole running-a-half-marathon thing in my stride. In my head I had convinced myself that I was on holiday in one of my favorite countries in the world, and the half marathon was just a side event I was participating in. But NO PORTAPOTTIES?? Are you kidding me?? Whenever I go out for a long run, EVERY SINGLE TIME, I spend 3/4ths of the run feeling that I really need to pee. The whole time I’m eyeing the best potential pee spots. How about those shrubs, I ask myself? There’s a gas station. I could stop in there on my way back. If worse comes to worse, I tell myself at one point, you could stop that woman up ahead and ask her to give you some cover while you crouch and pee on the sidewalk. Every single run. That is the dominating line of thinking going on in a constant loop in my head e v e r y  s i n g l e  r u n.

In the UK, even though I’m pretty sure it’s illegal to pee in public, it’s really not the end of the world when runners and cyclists do it. I see them doing it all the time, although they’re always men. But I know that even as a woman it won’t be a problem. But I couldn’t possibly stop by the side of the road in Morocco and pee. Every single man on the planet would have his eyes on me, I told myself.

So what am I going to do about peeing?? I started to feel the panic the night before the half marathon. So did Colin, although his reasons for panicking were different. He shouldn’t have looked up those reviews. Now he thinks he has food poisoning.

I was still running strong. I calculated the pace I needed to maintain if I wanted to finish my run in my goal time. I looked at my running watch again. I was running at a better pace than my goal pace. I was running at a pace I felt I could comfortably maintain, so I decided not to slow down. I knew from experience that I naturally slow down a bit in the second half of a run. Just run at a pace you feel you can maintain, Nadia. If you slow down later, you’ll have some leeway if you’re slower than your goal pace. The earlier, faster pace will cancel out the later, slower pace and it should average out to your goal pace.

Should I just pop into that café and ask for directions to the toilets? I seriously have to pee. Maybe they’ll have portapotties along the route despite what those reviews said. There were portapotties at the start line. I wasn’t expecting those. I used one about half an hour before the start and then walked to the start line to get myself in a good position for the beginning of the run. Ten minutes later, I needed to pee again. “It’s in your head, Nadia.” I convinced myself for about two minutes. “No it’s not,” I replied later. “I really need to pee. If I start the race needing to pee this much, what’s it going to be like during the race?” I look around. I can see the portapotties, but I’m beginning to become locked into the crowds of runners. It will take me forever to push myself out of these crowds. I’ll be late for the start. And even if I’m not, I’ll have to start behind hundreds of people. I spend the next 20 minutes in a limbo of indecision.

To take my mind off my need to pee, I watch the crowds.

I was fascinated. Moroccans of all ages had gathered for the half marathon. I didn’t get a chance to see the marathoners start an hour-and-a-quarter earlier. But so many of these Moroccans looked like real runners. So many of them were warming up. A Moroccan girl in shorts was doing sprints. I was excited. I’m running with the Moroccans! What a privilege this is! Drums were beating. Red and starred Moroccan flags were waving. People in identical t-shirts – some belonging to running clubs, others running for charity, and yet others with their company logos on their t-shirts – were taking group photos and jumping up and down to the drum beats. Others were singing what sounded to me like football stadium chants. A young mother was taking pictures with her husband and daughter before she started off, leaving them behind. But it was the older Moroccan men who grabbed my attention the most.

The start horn sounded. I pressed start on my running watch. An almost-stampede started. What happens if I fall down with everyone pushing like this? But I reach the electronic official start line and the crowds give way. I’m on my way! And I really need to pee.

I’m nearing the second 5km water station. The heat is really intense. I’m bound to get heat stroke from this. How could I not? “Just get yourself to the water station, Nadia, and re-evaluate the situation afterwards,” I tell myself. A Moroccan man nearing 70 easily passes me. He proceeds with a strong pace through the crowds of men ahead of me chanting, “Allahu akbar! [God is great!]”, and the men repeat the same words as they see him go by. I’m inspired and dig deep for more strength. I reach the second water station and repeat what I did through the first. It worked then so hopefully it will work again. I grab a water bottle, loosen the cap, slow down to a fast walking pace, draw in water, spit it out, drink two big gulps, and this time I pour some of the water on my head and the rest down the front of my shirt.

I’m able to pick up my pace and go stronger than I was just before I reached the last station. The strategy was working. But I soon realize that pouring water down the front of my shirt wasn’t the best idea. The sun was intensely hot. But there was a slightly cool breeze in the air. The cool air brushed against my wet stomach and I started feeling a bit nauseous. “It will dry quickly,” I tell myself. Just focus on the running.

“Maybe I should just pee in my pants,” I think. “The professional cyclists do it all the time,” I tell myself. “Yes. But Bradley Wiggins said they do that when it’s raining. It’s not raining now,” I respond. “Besides. What will people think?” I look at other people’s pants and imagine what I would think if their pants were wet. “They’ll just think it’s water from the water bottles,” I said. “You’re probably right. But it must not be comfortable running in pee-soaked pants,” I say. I consider this. “You’ve never tried. Maybe it’s just fine. Maybe it’s just like running in wet clothes like I am doing now. Maybe it will dry in the sun after a few minutes.” “Maybe…” I think. “Let’s try to get through the next 5km first. You’ve done this distance before needing to pee the whole way, and the minute you’re done your intense need to pee magically disappears. Maybe this is one of those situations.”

So I pant my way along, desperately hoping I can get myself to the 15km water station. Men are standing on the side of the road with huge buckets of water and colorful sponges in their hands. I grab one and squeeze the cool water out onto my face and neck. There. That’s a little bit better. But this heat. It’s so intense. I’m not going to make it to the end without a heat stroke.

I try to take my mind off of my negative thoughts of peeing, heat, and heat stroke. School children have lined the streets to cheer the runners on. I focus my attention on them. They are all so cute! Many hold out their hands, hoping to get a high-five from the runners. I start doing some high-fives. It feels like that little bit of resistance is slowing me down just a tad. But I need to slow down just a tad. I’m getting tired.

Where’s that 15km water station? I look at my running watch and see that we’re past 15km. I look ahead. No sign of a water station. A mild panic surges from within me. “If I don’t get water soon I might die!” I think. “What if there are no more water stations??” “Focus, Nadia.” I tell myself. “You only have a few more kilometers left. It’s like running your weekly 5km Parkrun in the UK. This is the easy bit. You can easily run 5km without water.” So I keep running.

The water station appears at 17.5km. I frantically grab at a water bottle, slow down, and take three huge gulps of water. I pour the rest on my head. They had been handing out oranges along the way to replace minerals. I hadn’t stopped for those. I wasn’t convinced I needed them. Besides, it would be too complicated to peel the oranges and eat them while I was running. And I was pretty sure they would make me feel ill.

Just three more kilometers to go. My pace has slowed down. I’m moving at a pace slower than my goal

We made it!

We made it!

pace. I convince myself that it is all right. I ran for much of the race at a faster pace than my goal pace. If I need to slow down, I can slow down. It’s more important to get through this race safely than to collapse or die while trying. More crowds have gathered as we near the finish line. People are applauding the runners. I hear some men say in Arabic, “Excellent, sister! May God bless you!” I know they aren’t saying this to me. They wouldn’t be able to tell that I am also an Arab. I then see a young Moroccan woman dressed in black Lycra pass me. Her head is covered in a hijab. Tears well up in my eyes. I feel proud. Muslim women are changing. So many now know that wearing the hijab isn’t something to hold them back from achieving their ambitions. “Push!” I say in Arabic, using what little voice I have for the first time in the race. “Push! You’re doing great!” I tell her. She looks back at me, smiles, and says, “Thanks!”

By now I’m really struggling. But I know the finish line is near. Just run at whatever pace you can maintain, Nadia. You are doing this. You’ll cross. Don’t worry about your time. It’s not important.

I don’t look at my running watch any more.

But then I sense we’re near the finish. I recognize the area we’re running in. We have to be there soon. I look at my running watch. Just one more kilometer! I look at my time. “Nadia! If you just speed up just a little bit you might get to the finish line in your dream time!” I wasn’t expecting this. I had added 15 minutes to my half-marathon goal several weeks ago. I could see during my long training runs that I wasn’t managing to keep up a fast enough pace. I look at my time again. Is this possible? “Push just a little bit more, Nadia. Push! You can go faster for just one more kilometer.” I push myself just a bit more. We turn a corner lined by metal barricades. We must be near. I push even more. But I still can’t see the finish line ahead. I feel a moment of desperation. I slow down. I keep running. There! There it is! You can see the finish line, Nadia! Give it everything you have left!

I put every last bit of energy I have into my legs. Sprint finish, Nadia. Sprint finish! You know you can do this!

I cross the finish line. I press stop on my running watch. I think I’m going to throw up. I can’t breathe. I find a small wooden stage to my right. I sit down on it to catch my breath. Spit is drooling out of my mouth. After a minute, I feel relatively better and move myself down the lines of runners. I get my finishers’ medal. I find enough energy to take a look at my running watch now. I check my time. I can hardly believe my eyes. I finished my run in the exact time I had hoped I could before I started my weeks of training. All those weeks! Running in the freezing cold. The loneliness of running on my own for so long. The pains. The injuries. The visits to the physiotherapist. Working with a personal trainer to help me work on my weaknesses to avoid further injuries. It all worked! I feel so overjoyed that I want to cry.

A British woman asks me, “Are you all right?” I smile and say yes. She saw me sitting on the wooden stage while I was catching my breath. We’re both waiting now for our husbands. Hers is running the half marathon. She finished before him. Mine will be awhile. He’s running the marathon. Her husband arrives. We both joke about the missing water station at the 15km mark. “It was the worst 2.5km of my life!” he says. I agree. They bid their goodbyes. I look at my watch. Colin should be arriving in about ten minutes. I relax and look around. A young Moroccan woman has collapsed on the ground behind me. A couple of men are pulling on her arms but she seems flaccid. I rush to her. She’s conscious but she’s exhausted. She rests on her right side while I check her pulse. Her pulse seems fine. She sits up. I ask her permission to pour some water on her head. She allows me to. Someone gives her water and tells her to drink. I tell her to drink slowly and not too much. Someone else brings a small bag of dates and raisins that they are handing out to all finishers. We take her to the curb, she sits down, and starts eating slowly. She’s looking much better. She thanks me profusely. I smile and leave her, knowing she’ll be fine, to wait for my husband.

I stand on a metal barricade, my eyes on the finish line. Colin will be wearing a white cap and a blue t-

Two Frenchmen from our hotel ran the half marathon as well. They jogged to the start line with me in the morning because Colin had left much earlier for his full marathon start. We were exuberant to see each other at the finish line and then later at the hotel.

Two Frenchmen from our hotel ran the half marathon as well. They jogged to the start line with me in the morning because Colin had left much earlier for his full marathon start. We were exuberant to see each other at the finish line and then later at the hotel.

shirt. I bought him that t-shirt especially for this marathon. I got a special design made for it. “Colin” is written in the front and “Made in Scotland” on the back. Minutes go by, I look at my watch, and then I see him. I’m so relieved and so incredibly proud. My 49-year-old husband, the one with food poisoning just this morning, the one who couldn’t complete his marathon training because of an injured knee, just crossed the finish line of the Marrakech marathon in the same time he crossed it 24 years ago while running the New York marathon.

I ran up to him and he fell into my arms. “You got such a great time!” I said repeatedly. And then I realize he’s crying. “Are you all right??” He can’t talk. I take him to the side of the road and start doing the same things for him I had just done for the young Moroccan girl. I get him water, oranges, dates and oranges. I make sure he’s sitting in the shade. He looks fine to me. He’s just exhausted from the run. After a few minutes he feels strong enough to start walking. We put our arms around each other’s waists and support each other through the crowds.

We did it!

And guess what? The intense need to pee has gone. Go figure.

Next stop for me: the Barcelona marathon on March 15.

Several days later, I have a worrying shin injury. I’ve been resting my leg and not running now for days. I think of Colin who ran a marathon without the last few weeks of training. I decide that I’ll rest my leg for however long it takes to get better. I’ll keep fit however I can in the meantime. And I’ll walk that marathon if it comes to it. I have to. I’ve promised a friend. A friend who needs our help.

3 comments

  1. We regular followers of ‘The Adventures of Nadia’ will be familiar with her constant battle with micturation. Last year we followed her need to pee across the whole of Europe on her bicycle and now she has taken it for a run in Morocco. Just to keep it in practise she exercises it through the cold and damp of Yorkshire too. This dedication deserves reward and I suggest that we loyal followers club together and buy her a SheWee in appreciation of her efforts.

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