Morocco's Fatima Ezzahra Gardadi on top of the world after breakthrough in Budapest

Marathon runner determined to bring another medal home from next year's Olympics

Morocco's bronze medallist Fatima Ezzahra Gardadi celebrates on the podium after the women's marathon. Reuters
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The guttural roar from Fatima Ezzahra Gardadi as she crossed the finish line to become the first Moroccan or Arab woman to win a World Championship medal in the marathon said it all.

The 31-year-old spoiled what was going to be an Ethiopian sweep in the women’s marathon in Budapest last month, and her now famous celebration stole the show and moved many to tears, as she lifted her arms in disbelief before falling to ground, audibly weeping, and revelling in her third-place finish.

Barely mustering the energy to get up, Gardadi draped herself in a Moroccan flag and sunk to her knees once more, kissing the ground and giving a prayer after shocking the field with her historic performance.

“You’ve made us proud, you’ve made us proud,” said an emotional Arabic commentator on beIN Sports during the final moments of the race. “The gates of history are wide open for you.”

Gardadi had been in sixth place going into the closing stages. She entered the event targeting a top-five finish to secure qualification for the Olympics but ran a smart race and ended up with her nation’s first podium finish by a woman in a World Championship marathon.

A month later, Gardadi is still on cloud nine.

“It’s an amazing feeling to win this medal,” she told The National. “I’m so proud to bring this medal to the entire Arab world, and to Moroccan people specifically. It gives me even greater motivation to put in more effort to bring home a gold medal from the Paris 2024 Olympics.

“It’s a huge incentive to keep going from strength to strength in all upcoming championships.”

To most followers, Gardadi’s success came out of nowhere. She went to Budapest ranked 159 in the world and hadn’t competed in previous World Championships.

But Gardadi knew what she was capable of and was confident after months of training at her base in Ifrane, a popular destination for athletes competing in endurance sports due to its high altitude (1,665m) amidst the Atlas Mountains.

Originally a runner across the 5km, 10km and half-marathon distances, Gardadi switched her focus to the full marathon four years ago at the recommendation of her coach Mustapha Al Moussaoui, who felt she had the talent for it. He was not wrong.

In her debut marathon last year in Marrakesh, Gardadi not only won, but also smashed the course record, clocking 2:25:07.

She was meant to compete in the World Championships in Eugene, Oregon shortly after, but she faced problems with her national federation, who reportedly blocked her from competing. Her absence was a hot topic on social media, with many blaming the federation for standing in her way due to the fact she wanted to continue training with her personal coach.

A slew of international competitions came and went, and Gardadi’s name was nowhere to be seen – the African Championships, the Mediterranean Games, the World Championships … she missed them all.

But something changed this year and Gardadi made sure she was going to be ready when the opportunity presented itself.

Those cries she gave out when she crossed the finish line at Budapest’s Heroes’ Square weren’t just of triumph, but also vindication. King Mohammed VI of Morocco was one of the first to publicly congratulate her.

“My determination has been key. When I face problems, I don’t see them as obstacles, I see them as incentives. I used all the obstacles I have faced as fuel to do better and train harder,” said Gardadi.

“There have been individuals who have been against me, there have been tough circumstances. But that only increased my motivation. Because why would I let them break me, when I can use that to work harder and win more medals?”

There is no bitterness in Gardadi’s voice, just a palpable passion for running.

Originally from the coastal city of Safi, Gardadi was discovered by coach Ahmed Qurshal when she was 14 and she immediately posted strong results in national and regional competitions.

Morocco is a hotbed for middle and long distance runners and Gardadi gives a chuckle when asked about the secret to her nation’s success.

“It’s in our genes,” she said, before explaining how the scouting for talent takes place across primary schools nationwide from a young age.

Gardadi grew up idolising her compatriot Jaouad Gharib, who is a two-time world champion marathoner and Olympic silver medallist.

“At the age of 36, he won an Olympic medal [in Beijing 2008]. So he did it at such an advanced age, no one had done what he has done,” she explained. “He is a role model for me and I wish to achieve what he has achieved, which would be a first for Moroccan women in my discipline.”

Gardadi runs for the Moroccan Royal Guard team, which means she can fully dedicate herself to her sport, without worrying about finding a job or securing access to good training conditions.

After winning the Rabat Marathon with a new course record in April this year, she spent months preparing for the World Championships, following a grueling training schedule in Ifrane.

“The marathon is one of the toughest disciplines because it requires you to be very strong psychologically and mentally sharp. The training is brutal, even harder than the race itself,” she said.

“You do 18km in the morning, and 12km in the evening. You go on very long runs, 35km or 40km without stopping. It’s all about overcoming the mental barrier.

“The marathon is a numbers game, it’s about calculating mileage. You count how many kilometres you are running per week, and if there is any discrepancy, you have to make it up so you can stick to your plan, so that when the day of the race comes, you are at the peak of your physical and mental ability.”

By the time Budapest came around, Gardadi knew that she was ready to finally take her shot and compete.

“You can imagine what it was like in the warm-up. I looked around me and saw all the champions I had been following on social media, champions I had been a fan of for years, following their training regimens, liking their posts - and now I was competing against them,” she recalled.

“All around me, I’m like, 'oh here is last year’s World Championship [winner], here is the European champion, here is the US record holder,' all of that motivated me and I went into the race with no fear, I was just full of joy.”

Gardadi has paid tribute to the Moroccan women who came before her and blazed a trail in the world of athletics. Nawal El Moutawakel, Hasna Benhassi and Nezha Bidouane have all provided ample inspiration for Gardadi, who says she now dreams of listening to the Moroccan national anthem while topping the podium at the Paris Olympics next year.

“After winning that medal at Worlds, it has become my responsibility to deliver one at the Olympics as well,” said Gardadi, whose next goals are competing in April’s Boston Marathon and breaking into the top 10 in the world rankings.

“I only love athletics but of course I followed our football teams in the World Cup. And our women made it to the knockout stages, that was huge for Morocco. Doing that on their World Cup debut no less. Alhamdulillah this year has been amazing for Moroccan women in sport.”

Gardadi is keen to pave the way for the next generation of long-distance runners in Morocco and feels her coming out party at the Worlds last month was a great start.

“This medal from Budapest has really opened the door for Moroccan women in the marathon,” she said.

“The World Athletics Road Running Championships, which features a half-marathon, is just around the corner [starts October 1 in Riga, Latvia] and for the first time the Moroccan national team will feature four women in the half-marathon.

“I feel that I have re-instilled the confidence and self-belief that had been lost in Moroccan and Arab women in recent years. So that’s a positive step forward, and hopefully they continue to believe in themselves because they are more than capable of competing against the world’s best.”

Earlier this month, Morocco was struck by its deadliest earthquake in more than 60 years and the nation is still dealing with the tragic aftermath.

“As Moroccans, our sense of humanity is one of our strongest attributes. This earthquake has brought us together and has shown what we are really made of, our true core has shone through and we are all working together to help out,” said Gardadi.

Updated: September 25, 2023, 6:00 PM