Megan the “friend in common” with the TAM, arrived. A seasoned performer in the art of stage racing and the only other American comrade for the duration of this exploit. As we journeyed to the starting village of this endeavour we were joined by 33 other foreigners and 25 or so Moroccans. In this race, you not only commit to the course but to the brave few step up to the line at the start of Stage 1. They are your competitors, but you cheer for their daily successes, commiserate over their sufferings as they witness yours. You are in it together, perhaps each with a different goal. It would not be until we took our final positions that first day in the Zaouiat Ahansal that it settled in, the realities of the adventure of which we were to embark.
I had limited information beyond the roughly translated route description and course profile that tortured my brain. The varying scales of the course profiles condensed into a 3×7 image made everything look steep, really f%^&% steep. I tried to bury my deflated feeling when right out of the gate not 5k into the course I was breathing heavy and resolved to a fast hike upward.
Like a swift cloud of Moroccan steam they were off, out of sight before I’d reached the first mile. A storm of local strength. They knew this place, this terrain, one might argue home field advantage as their feet knew the dance steps through the loose river rock, light feet over the col’s and flight like decent to the valley without a thought. Their talent and rudimentary gear showed us all how to “run” the Atlas.
FAST, FIRM, EFFICIENT…let’s be honest I was walking. FORWARD
¾ up the initial climb we hit a false summit and there it was, that face eating smile of Mohamed Ahansal. “Yalla, Yalla” let’s go he yelled as I looked on towards the next bit of climbing.
“Massi Muski” no sweat, I beamed back.
All morning I had followed a boy, he was walking faster than I could run, though he let me pass. Chances we good he preferred the view from back there. A blond hair, blue eyed, legs, a GIRL…in shorts. I didn’t have time to be offended, or flattered. We tipped over the first col and there they were like any other herd, a pack of camels nibbling away the sage hiding amid the rocky hillside. I paused in awe, and then to prevent myself from tripping and rolling head first down the steep and rocky face.
My feet struggled to take hold as the the decent gave way beneath. Like a basket of mismatched socks, the rocks rested uneasily on one another. My legs eventually remembered what running was as the trail eased, contouring along the ridges. For a time we followed white trail markings, and then red, on rugged but defined trail, the rocks faded into patches of green sages and cacti hiding the markings from view. Mohamed’s course diverted us off the track, playing a game of hide and seek, a choose your own adventure of sorts. I stopped, seeking any sign of confidence, among the low lying mounds. I beginning a zigzagging wander across the landscape bouncing this way and that between markings, making little progress forward.
Finally my first glimpse of another running after a few hours. We teamed up jointly eyeing our target in the distance, until we were back on a more defined trail. We decending into lush fields of irrigated agriculture amid the arid vista. The locals noted our presence with a pause from their labors and a nod, “Salam Alaikum” and a smile. I was lone runner again making my way through the fields toward the next climb. Mohamed’s cheer and offer of water; glaring behind him a slow, long, hot, dry, exposed climb up the road towards our day’s destination.
It was this stage where I learned that there is a kilometer and a Moroccan kilometer. My watch indicated that I should have arrived at the finish. 3km later, I arrived. A feeling of accomplishment and hesitation washed over me as i crossed the finish line…but first to find my dihrams and make purchase of a cold fizzy beverage.
5 MORE DAYS, like going to school prepared for the bully to steal your lunch money and give your the worst wedgy imaginable. Bring it. I had survived day one relatively unscathed as I saw the other finishers arriving, hobbling tenderly to avoid placing pressure on their blisters heels, toes, tight calves, or wrenched knees. I rolled out my legs, tennis balled my hips, elevated my feet and pondered the start of day 2.
I live in a reality of miles though I tell this tale in kilometers, it was part of my internal mind game. Yes, there are more of them to count each day, but you get to tick them off a lot faster than miles. Somehow it felt like less, perhaps after 30+ hours of go, the brain begins to groundhog and you can have the same conversation with yourself every five minutes and they its starts over again.
How much more? 25km to go, so 5km is 3.1 miles, there are 5 sets of 5 km in 25 so 5 by 3.1 is 3,6,9,12, 15. Ok 15 miles, you can run fifteen miles. You should drink some water. But the next checkpoint is at 18 so that is 3 sets of 5km, so 3, 6, 9 miles, sweet only 9 more miles you can run that and there is that climb, so you get to walk again soon……
what was 25km?
25km to go, so 5km is 3.1 miles, there are 5 sets of 5 km in 25 so 5 by 3.1 is 3,6,9,
……..you get the idea, counting is hard.
54km to the before the next stopping point, or more, maybe, I wouldn’t know until it was over. To no surprise the day would begin with a climb…a big climb.
Life in the village went on around our foreign intrusions. In most, there was little notice of the spectacle of the shorts clad, hydration hose sucking, suffer face wearing runner darting their way along the small paths and dirt roads. The young berber seemed to have the most fun, darting in behind you as you dodged their impromptu soccer game in the alley. The trail spit me out into an open field, a few roads going in various directions, my focus a blur. I heard cheers ahead, a group of kids had constructed an arch of sorts from branches, string, and fabric; a boost of energy as they escorted me through this gateway to the next water stop.
Wednesdays are market days and as we contoured our way across the hillside we found ourselves in a single track traffic jam with the berbers. They had their horses loaded with wood beams and supplies as they traveled from village to home, a full day commute. We traversed through the morning, it began to get hot, really hot, after a enjoyable descent we were protected from the sun’s forces as we found shade in the river ravine that wandered us up towards the days’ highpoint of 2903m. The ravine was a beast of its own. Hop, skip, jump, from unsettled rock to unsettled rock, avoiding total shoe emersion and hours of squeegee fun. We crosshatched the river for a time before we were treated to a glorious high plateau of wildflowers before the wall of switchbacks to the final summit.
This day held in its depths a false sense of hope from the road book that advertised 25km of descending to the days finish. My body had to remember how to run again, climbing that was gradual enough that your couldn’t justify walking and descending that didn’t provide the gravitational advantage to alleviate some effort. 54 km came and went as i traversed the dry riverbed towards the final village like a baby camel taking its first steps. The rush of cold on my burning calves and knees was a brief reprieve as there was no avoiding submersion in the final k’s of the day. I was out of water, it had to be near. One more small climb and there was the faint sound of music blasting from the tent at the close of the second day. Almost 4 extra kilometers, funny, Mohamed, real funny!
Now, where’s my orange Fanta?
to be continued…