The light rail system in Casablanca was prime advertising space for the Casablanca International 10K, and it only took one tram ride for me to decide, yep - I want to run that race. My lack of French and a wonky race web site foiled my attempts to register, so on the appointed morning, I took my best guess at what is appropriate for women to wear while running here, got in a cab and headed to the residential neighborhood shown on the pixilated course map that I found online.
I thought the 10K started at 8 a.m. and the 5K at 9 a.m., but when I arrived at 7:30 a.m. there wasn't an obvious starting line. Crews and volunteers were putting together the massive staging for the finish area -- balloon arches, timing clocks, announcer stand. At a small white tent across the street, two French-speaking people patiently helped me register. One of them owns a running store and was selling shoes, the other sells a sports massage oil and was offering samples. For around $10, I got a bib with a timing chip, a tech shirt and a running cap. Not too shabby!
I was still under the impression that the race was starting in 20 minutes and I had still failed to understand that the race started and finished at the same spot. So I kept asking people, "Ou commence la course?" -- "Where does the race start?" -- and they kept gesturing to the finish area under construction. A race official who spoke English finally set me straight, and I left the staging area to loiter for an hour until the actual start time.
By now, more runners were arriving and warming up and it was definitely starting to feel like a race. Several hundred people registered for the race, and they were all wearing their blue Casablanca 10K tech shirts. I found a secluded spot behind a hedge and quickly changed into mine, too. Now I was ready!
But man, did I get here early... I'm never early for races, I loathe extra time at the starting line. I wandered back to the registration area, and the massage oil booth was in full swing. The camphor-eucalyptus scent was strong, and I joined the runners who were trying generous free samples. Some of them were serious about their pre-race routines, and others were joking around and laughing. Running clubs took group photos, parents gave their teenagers encouragement while trying not to embarrass them, earbuds were adjusted, more stretching and nervous jumping around. Everything about this felt so familiar, it made me smile.
Finally, finally the race started. One of the purple-pinafored volunteers who'd been so nice to me early in the morning called out, "bonne chance!" as I ran by him. I briefly interpreted this to mean, "You have a chance!" and I was nearly offended because even though I'm undertrained, c'mon! You don't even KNOW me enough to judge me, dude! And then I realized he was saying "good luck!" and my heart swelled with appreciation.
The vibe of the runners was jubilant as we headed out of the starting corral and into the neighborhood. People were laughing and smalls groups of curious spectators cheered from street corners. I ran with a group of middle-aged guys who were carrying a big Moroccan flag and singing a call-and-repeat song in Arabic that sounded fun, but I have no idea what the words were.
The weather was perfect -- sunny and cool to start, then warming up but never hot. What to wear had preoccupied me, and I spent a lot of the race cataloging the clothing choices of runners, men and women. In general, everyone was wearing more clothing than American runners would in this weather. Some men wore long shorts and the short-sleeve tech shirt, many wore track pants and a long-sleeve shirt under the tech shirt. Very few men were in short shorts or in singlets, which I think most Americans would have been. The women were more covered, wearing capris or full-length tights, some in short sleeves but many in long sleeves. Most but not all covered their hair, some wearing the running cap from the swag bag on top of their hair covering. I went with capris and the short-sleeve race shirt, but I had a long-sleeve shirt with me just in case it seemed more appropriate. But here as everywhere, people know I'm foreigner and don't expect me to dress like a Moroccan would.
The course support was excellent. Water stations and signage were clear and well organized, with volunteers and staff picking up discarded water bottles at the aid stations. Roads were closed with barricades and monitored by police, who gave bored side-eye to irritated drivers waiting in traffic. Some of the drivers joined the spectators to cheer for us. Kids hung from balconies yelling "allez, allez!" and the course volunteers offered high fives and, "bravos!"
The course was mostly flat with a two notable hills. Heading up one, I slowed to a walk and a man came alongside me speaking in Arabic. By his tone and his posture, I understood he was encouraging me up the hill, and I worked hard to match his pace nearly to the top. Simple interactions like this happen in every race everywhere, but it felt really special here.
Heading into the finish, I crossed the line around 1:10:00, delightfully close to my best-case guess at a finish time. A few of us who crossed the mat together spontaneously hugged and high-fived and exchanged "bravos!!" with enormous smiles. The runners who'd already finished were cheering with medals around their necks and I found my mine in the fantastic goody bag they handed each of us in the finish chute. Cookies, crackers, a few pieces of fruit, a bottle of water, a waxed paper packet of dates, raisins and almonds; and, a medal. A fantastic souvenir from a great morning. The single rose for each woman finisher was a sweet touch.
I rested on the curb grinning and taking it all in, and made friends with Adil, a runner sitting near me. Speaking a hash of French-Arabic-English, we congratulated each other on the race, chatted about running and travel, and he gave me a tech shirt from his running club. They're heading to Rabat next weekend for a half-marathon; if only I were in shape for 13.1 miles right now.
The race left me triumphantly happy. Physical exercise feels great. Hundreds of people showing up together in a good mood is contagious. Having a shared experience with strangers across language differences is awesome. And doing something you love in an unfamiliar place is great way to remember how similar we all are, everywhere.