I strive to be a clean eater and packed accordingly. When your coach tells you to pack some junk food, pack it. We were required to carry at least 1500 calories of food with for each stage. So I packed my fruit puree and oatmeal squeeze tubes, my peanut butter and dried fruit granola bars, some PB sachets, nuts, you know REAL FOOD. What did i manage to get down? The Skratch chews, an energy Gu, and the Fun Size Snickers.
As the days continued to blend, the third day brought forth a new challenge. Running. I could climb like the best of them, fight the wind as I ascended, my short legs an advantage on the hairpin turns and steep pitched descents. I had forgotten how to pick up each fatigued leg and step forwards at what seemed like much more than the pace of a snail with a lopsided shell. This day posed a challenge, the runners I had so easily surpassed climbing, showed their stride. I did everything i could to keep my sights on the strong older German, and the Belgian (who was not keen on Americans). One bad experience and we all assumed the 1 star yelp review in his book. He warmed to us by the end. Mohamed toured us over wildflower dusted plateaus, dried river beds, and contouring rugged roads, every bit as breathtaking as the last, and always changing with the elevation. We reached Lake Tamda on this day, the highest Alpine Lake in the Atlas, I watched as Hameed, one of the Moroccan runners I’d been chasing all day jumped into the frigid teal mountain tonic.
Mohamed offered up what we thought like a reprieve, a chance to finish early and have a longer recovery period. A short 30km to our night in a bivouac. I had surpassed the halfway point, the 10000 feet of climbing on the last day looming like a joke with a bad punchline. I refused to think beyond the task at hand, breaking this journey into small digestible bits. I had to forget everything I had just done, or what was yet to come in the coming days or even later that day. I thought only of what must happen in the present moment.
Right now, I have to go 12km to the checkpoint, I can go 12km.
We were eased into the day with a casual climb that darted between runnable trail shaded by lush green trees to less hazardous dirt track, the beginnings of a new road. The wind held the suns blazing head as we followed the single track across the highgrasses dotted with yellows and pinks and purples of tiny flowers. The trail wound rolled its way over the arid woods and contoured along revealing the most amazing peaks in the distance. Cheers and smiles, Yella, yella from the berber team of 3 guiding their horses up the trail, giving way to my tired bones. I turned a corner and the wind hit hard, stealing my hat, losing ground and momentum to retrieve it. The calm before the storm.
Departing checkpoint two with a full water bladder and a date in each hand i looked onward to the next demon. A barren black rock, covered in small gritty pebbles, to conquer, straight up was the option. Thought it was seemingly short is was only but a taste of what was to come. Mohamed again with his smile pointing out the real pitch, a red rock face in the distance, no the red rock face beyond the other 2 red rock faces in the distance. Calves hardening, I soldiered on, committed to the climb.
Hours later there it was, a team of tiny white points taunting me. The bivouac there in the field below…way below saying “I’m right here, so close, right here, come to me….,…..NOT” Every sense wanted to begin my track straight for the tent but those little red and white marks drew me away back to the task at hand. A sharp edge ridge traverse, to a sliding sidehill, to a class 3-4 scramble. The view was worth it. Let the fun begin, the slick sandy rock pulled you down, down, down, knees burning, quads shaking, spitting you out at the bottom like a pinball towards the TAM flags concluding the day at our private camp for an afternoon of rest, replenishment, and Joe’s incessant sleep apnea in my right ear.
One of the best meals we had during the week came from a tent of men, furiously constructing tagines and tasties out of their make shift kitchen. First to our assigned tents, Meghan and I debated the value of taking the spots nearest the door or the tuck ourselves away in the back. Either way there would be 11 that night in the tents, seeking out the peaceful z’s of a much needed recovery. The berber drums welcomed the undiluted glow of the moon and stars on our bivouac. And then the freight train arrived, its call sign Joe. My left ear shocked by an arrival no earplugs could withstand. My hope for any real sleep disintegrated with a gurgle, gasp, and heavy breath by my side like clockwork until the waking of the herd shook to life preparing for our day 5 on the trail. It was only then, did this fine caboose of noise, roll to his side in silence for the next 45 minutes
And so we enter the day of descending. Hold on to your knees kids, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride. My shoes had taken a beating the past 4 days, as this day was no different, the rocks, kicked biting into the soles, holding nothing back as the impact shot through my lower body. My knees held strong convinced that the last days has been training, my feet and legs now knew what to do, how to act, how to react to the sifted terrain under them. My brain was fading, though my body was moving, the fatigue was shading doubt through my system. I was moving, but my spirit was waning as I hiked up the barren dirt road towards the checkpoint. I looked back and saw Meghan shortening the gap with a confident veteran ultrarunners step. As we reached the prairie, I growled Mohamed’s name as I hadn’t seen any course markings in a will and convinced this was where he might place a sharp turn off the beaten path to humor his whimsical self. There she was on my heels, I grumped in frustration, muttering something about running slow and knowing I had more to give. Sensing my agitation, offered a shotblock, which in my glucose deprived brain shrugged off, and she retreated to her own running zone, nearby. I realized my failure, and slugged down a gu pouch, and came alive from my funk.
I am sorry I acted like a princess that didn’t get a pony for her birthday. You deserve better. Please let me run with you again.
We made our way down together, taking in the sights, spotting old cave dwellings camouflaged in the rocks; passing by a herder guiding a sheep to what we can assume a certain demise, but a tasty tagine. Switchback by switchback, rock step to rock slant, we trundled ourselves down the mountain catching sight of a village. According to the watch our hopeful finish, but being no Moroccan mile setting on my suunto, we ventured another 3km further.
The finish flags waved at us from across the river. The only thing between us and a delicious fizzy, a most precarious wooden swinging bridge. One unthoughtful step would could lead to a most certain unexpected drop. It bounced and swaggered against the flow of my forward momentum until I once again on solid ground face to face with one last thigh squelching staircase.
This would be it, our adventure coming to a close. One final day that with the 10000 ft climb that had been mocking us the entire week. The starting line was a buzz, this was our victory lap, smiles, dancing feet washed through the crowd as the final countdown
sept… six… cinq… quatre… trois… deux… un… Yella!
Body tired and chilled by the morning shade, this was it, the last day of what was perhaps my biggest challenge every. It took focused effort to get the legs moving down the road towards that final 10000 feet of climbing. But this was it, a final look a the Atlas from the highest point along the course. I inhaled all of it. The beautifully real faces of the Berber people; their resourcefulness, their quiet commitment to daily survival, sugary mint tea and tagine, to their smiles of encouragement devoid of any language barrier.
This was Morocco.
I counted down the kilometers as I switchback my way up the hill side, every so often we would get a reprieve as we contoured the along with runnable surface towards the next climb. The wind headstrong as we ascended upwards. There were no more days ahead, no more kilometers, no more elevations, just one final flight down to the finish. The trail welcomed my feet as let loose to enjoy the final ride.
And that was that. 41 hours, 35 minutes, 48 seconds; 272.02 km later the mission was complete.
Special Thanks to my friends for providing the support to make this adventure possible.
Buck for thinking I am crazy supporting me all the way, oh, and for feeding the cat.
Everyone @MiiR: for letting me play hookie for 3 weeks
Cascade Endurance: for masterminding my training
Mason with Ascension Sales, Black Diamond: for my ultralight poles
Dave with PMNW Reps, Altra: for keeping my feet blister free
Vince @Osprey: for the pack that stored all my daily supplies
CW-X: for keeping my muscles compressed and expediting recovery
Outdoor Research: for keeping me cool, sun protected, and looking good!
Would I recommend it? Absolutely! Trans Atlas Marathon