Malta Marathon – it’s all a bit political!
I’m old. Older than dirt. March is my 2056th birthday (or at least that’s how my knees feel some days). This year as a treat my lovely wife booked us a weekend in Malta so we could see some sights, eat some food, and I could run a marathon.
So in early February 2022 I booked in for the event. Within a week, by 15th February it was cancelled. The organisers announced “The route imposed by Transport Malta has been deemed as unacceptable by Mater Dei’s emergency department, the Malta Red Cross & the Malta traffic police due to safety reasons; both for emergency responders & the runners themselves.” They were denied permission to use the route that had been in place since 2009 and believed their only option was to cancel. This follows a cancellation due to floods in 2019, and 2021 due to Covid. A third cancellation in four years is not good for the long term viability of the event sadly.
Damn it. With three weeks to go before the weekend we began to look at other options. There are many other weekend destinations that also don’t have a marathon and likely have better weather as well. It was doubtless a blow to local tourism as early March is low season and in previous years as many as 4000 participated with a large number travelling to the island specifically to race.
Then the very next day there was an announcement of an alternative full and half marathon, organised by Transport Malta and Sport Malta, for the same day as the original.
So what happened?
There are two distinct views on this based on social media and news sites:
- A long running marathon failed to secure permission and cancelled, so the government stepped in to ensure a replacement in double quick time.
- The government forced cancellation of a privately organised and successful event so they could take it over and score some positive PR during a period of local elections.
Not being an expert on politics in Malta I have no deeper understanding. My main thoughts were could they really organise a large scale road marathon in 3 weeks? Their initial announcement was unsurprisingly low on details without start or end points, route, start time or any details confirmed. Given our flights were non-refundable we figured we might as well find out.
To add to the politics, the original Malta marathon still had tees and medals so invited you to run a GPX route they’d devised to earn them and a local runner disgusted at the whole saga held guided runs of 10k or HM as a ‘Solidarity run’. So there three rivals factions. A bit like the People’s Front of Judea from the film.
Yeah I should do some of that. One of the many arguments used not to cancel the event was wasted training of all the participants. Fortunately I had little. Despite great plans for a monster three months of hard graft to start the year (with Malta being a hard effort long run before a PB attempt in April) I managed to tear my hamstring slipping on ice. Like Bambi but less cute. My best efforts to ignore it were unsuccessful and after two weeks of running in great pain then being unable to move my leg to get out of bed I finally went to see Rudi at The Treatment Lab who confirmed it. I was ordered to take at least two weeks complete rest, not even allowed to cycle so zero cardio for 2 weeks and then a very slow gradual return.
The upshot is about three weeks of OKish training at a low effort with low fitness. A week out from Malta I was able to run 16 miles as my first, last, longest and only long run for the marathon. I’d barely broken 10 miles in the last month. My previous longest run was 14 miles in January. Oh well.
To be fair to the organisers they worked very hard on setting the event up. Multiple times a day they would update their FB page as more details were confirmed.
Applications opened 21st Feb, two weeks out from race day.
Routes were confirmed on 22nd Feb with GPX available. Start times of 6:30am (ouch) and promise of free buses to the start in Rabat or back from the finish line in Sliema. Buses were to leave at 5am. FIVE AM. IN THE MORNING…….
They advised it would be chip timed, with medal and top all for the bargain price of €20 with packet pickup at the National Pool Complex on the Thursday-Saturday before which fortunately is close to the hotel we’d booked.
The race was only €20 and it was pay at pickup. The organisers advised of 250 application in first 12 hours of opening. I wondered how many applications would either not turn up (no money down so if it’s raining a the weekend sack it off) or were deliberate protest registrations with no intention of arriving. This could be the smallest ‘big’ marathon I’d ever run.
Covid restrictions: We’ve become fairly used to it but the constant changes for travel, outside & inside gatherings add an element of risk to all activities. Runners needed to be triple vaxed and set off in groups of 100. A race I had planned to do in Gran Canaria in the summer was cancelled whilst I was in the air due to a change in Covid risk locally.
Organisation of a marathon is no small feat. Even established events like Manchester Marathon have a patchy history with multiple issues. How would a three week rushed event pan out?
For anyone who’s not been before (me):
- It’s an independent republic which gained independence from the British Empire in 1964. The country is still part of the British Commonwealth and a member of the EU (wish we were)
- It’s an island of 500k population spread over 121 square miles and sits under Sicily in the Mediterranean.
- Currency is Euro
- Languages are Maltese and English
- Power is UK 3-pin 240v plugs
- They drive on the left
- Participated in the Eurovision Song Contest 33 times, yet to win but has achieved four top three results
- So I expected something a bit like Cyprus in terms of relating back to places I’ve been to.
Lots of flights from U.K. but as it’s off season they may not all line up as ideally as you’d like. We flew out of Luton on Friday and back Sunday evening to Heathrow so a bit of a pain for us. The flight back to Luton looked a little tight on timing for the original start time of the marathon.
Depending on when you read this, the COVID requirements may change but for 2022 were a fully triple jabbed certificate and the now usual Passenger Locator Form filled in advance to allow you to check in for flight.
Passport control on landing was very efficient as was baggage although there was then a 30 minute queue for health screening (checking Covid and passenger locator form). The actual process was very quick and there were 20 desks but it only takes a half dozen passengers who don’t have paperwork ready to hold up the line.
The race finishes in Sliema so that’s where we booked a hotel. It’s a relatively modern development of beachfront hotels and restaurants and a €1.50 ferry from the very old town and capital of Valletta.
Hire cars were ridiculously cheap for 2022 and we got a little Peugeot for £8 for three days as cheaper than a taxi and whatever car you’re in you’ll sit in the same traffic jam from airport. Traffic in Malta is pretty awful as they seem to be working on most junctions. Worth noting the hire company did the usual ‘there’s no damage sir’ which wasn’t the case so lost about an hour queuing to get car and then arguing the damage. Take good photos before you drive the car anywhere.
Parking is a nightmare in pretty much all the big towns so worth getting the smallest car you can fit luggage and passengers in as a lot more options to park a super mini than a massive barge.
For 2022 this was all from the national swimming complex so grabbed it on Friday after lunch at the picturesque bay of Marsaxlokk before heading to hotel. Payment of €20 by cash or card and then get given bag with tee shirt, bib, pins and a coloured wrist band that denoted your start wave (irrelevant for marathon as 100 people so all one wave).
The organisers were a little vague on the coach details. It left at 5am from near the finish. There’s was no charge or pre-booking just turn up. Great but also makes you worry how they ensure enough coaches?
Given the early start I picked up a slice of pizza on way to hotel the night before and took it with me to eat whilst waiting for coach. 5am cold pizza is fine for ultra runners but I got some odd looks.
I found a large group of runners shivering in the cold with several volunteers in hi-vis. There followed a lot of phone conversations, checking of emails and rushing about by the volunteers before a coach arrived at 5:22am. Not a huge issue but when you’re told 5am and the event is organised by the transport department you would expect the transport section to be right.
We piled on the coach and all just about fitted with some artistic seating arrangements and were dropped in the village square at Rabat about 6, still in the dark. None of the local cafes had seized the opportunity to open for hungry and cold runners so make sure you bring warm clothes and food or drink if you need it.
There was a drop bag arrangement to take bags to finish same as big city events but given I was finishing by the hotel I took a throw away hat and a foil blanket left from a race previously.
Just after 6:30am as the sun came up we set off.
Despite the comparatively downhill nature of the profile the run itself doesn’t seem especially easy. There’s a fair bit of climbing in sections so don’t expect a super fast guaranteed PB. Of course if you’ve actually trained it would be better.
The first 18 or so miles is basically wiggly loops from the start and then back out towards Sliema on mostly country lanes. It’s a beautiful country so very enjoyable. Some of the roads themselves are a little potholed so worth keeping eyes open. Also a mixture of closed roads, sections with a lane closed off for runners and some roads where you run with the flow of traffic and hope they don’t hit you. Wouldn’t recommend big headphones for this reason. All the drivers were very courteous but I like to be aware of surroundings.
There was an almost excessive number of volunteers and police marshalling their route so it was all very organised and safe. Pretty sure the volunteers outnumbered the competitors. Route was marked with spray paint on the floor as well should you miss the marshals.
Aid stations were every 5k and had full 500ml bottles of Aquarius still sports drink, a favourite of mine.
As the temperature climbed and the sun baked the runners I would have appreciated some water to douse my head but there was none. From evidence on the road there had been wet sponges available but these were all gone by the time I got to the aid stations either used by the faster marathon runners or the HM runners that run the second half of the route and start an hour after the full runners. This is a minor area to attend to in future years. I completed the first half in about 1h45 so was by no means at the back of the field.
How It Went
For someone very undertrained I was pleased with my performance. There was a hope that my accidental 3h25 of London might happen again but the reality of poor training, recent injury and a single long run of 16 miles thwarted that.
I set off steady, all over 8min pace and then as I settled in found them gradually dropping under and managed 10 miles bang on 80min.
Somewhere around mile 16 I could feel my legs getting heavy. Heart rate was still low but no amount of caffeine tablets, drink or gels could get around the fact they hadn’t run that far since November. The weather was also warm for a pasty Brit at around 15degC.
20 miles came in about 2h45 as I expected then started to count down the miles. About this point the route hits some of the less scenic sections as passes through industrial parks and on the side of busy roads. Mile 22 is basically a cordoned off section of the main bypass and like running down the North Circular but with more traffic.
Around 23 you leave the motorway and then mostly a sequence of undulating back streets for a mile before hitting the main coast road around the harbour towards Sliema. It’s scenic but by this point the runners were very spread so hard not to feel like an idiot running on your own down the shoulder of the main road.
About a mile out the crowds start and encourage the runners. I was flagging so needed the boost and managed to finish in 3h38 to collect medal and a banana before heading for hotel. I was too late for breakfast but able to shower before checking out and heading for liquid lunch.
As we left the hotel and at the airport there was a fair presence of runners who had run one of the alternative events and it did feel a bit disappointing that the running community had been split on a day that is normally a celebration of coming together for the love of the sport.
Would I recommend it?
Yes. Both Malta the island and the race is worth a visit. Despite being their first attempt the organisation was better than many established events. As for who will organise the event in future years, that’s probably anyone’s guess.
Whilst in Malta
It’s a beautiful country and would recommend a full day around Valletta taking in the sites. Mostly we walked the streets and sampled the food and drink. The cuisine is very Mediterranean with a heavy Italian influence – the most popular dish seemed to be platters of cheeses and meats.
The fishing town of Marsaxlokk is also recommended as is Rabat.
Weather in March is varied. We had some light drizzle Saturday and scorching sun on race day.