Running the Atlas Mountain Marathon (UTAT)

My first mountain marathon with 2600m of ascent, the thin air of high altitude and bone-breaking terrain. Nothing really prepares you for running in the mountains and I had to learn some hard lessons along the way. As the hours wore on and the end was still far, my fight was against my own desire to give up and sit down, as much as it was with the route and my aching legs.

Keep going, keep going, keep going

It is six o’clock in the morning and pitch black. I am at the start line with Charlie, Laurent, Stefan and around 300 other competitors. The stars are hard points of diamond in the sky but there is very little moon. The head torches illuminate the flashes of neon greens and oranges on kit and when someone turns too quickly, they blind you. We’ve kissed each other and wished each other bon courage and now it is the last few seconds of the countdown. My stomach is churning and my heart is thumping, Everyone is nervous and excited and you can actually feel the adrenaline in the air.

Trois, deux, un and we are off. We settle down quickly to a thud thud of feet and the rustle of arms against bags. The first couple of kilometres is across a flat pastureland and then it is up the piste of the first col. In the dark, you can see the headlights snaking up the zig zags. Soon, I am head down and legs and arms pumping in a quick march up the hillside.

I have four hours to get to the first Checkpoint at 19.5km with about 500m of ascent and 1000m of descent on the way. In the three times I have done this first part of the route, I have never made it in even close to four hours, so I know I really have to push myself.

I settle into a good rhythm, working with a small group who are going at the same pace and make it to the top 15 minutes quicker than I thought I would. The sun has risen and is warming the mountainsides. I eat a couple of segments of Cliff Shots and start the run down to the first village. It’s steep but still on the piste, so not technically difficult. I pass a couple of people, which is always a good thing for the confidence, and head down through the last part of this segment through a series of berber houses along the river valley. It’s tricky underfoot, and you have to focus on every step, but I manage to run a good part of it.  There is only room for one runner at a time on the trail, so there is lots of passing and moving aside, but everyone is good natured.

I’m feeling fantastic at this stage, as I know I am going to make that first check point in good time. And I do. There is coke, God’s own sports’ drink!, and bananas and a refill of water for my bottles. I stop only to refuel and then get back out by 09.28. Now, I don’t have any more time constraints till the finish line – I HAVE to get there by 6pm.

The next section is a killer. It is the Tashdirt pass, a long, hard climb of 1300m with no real respite. I have had to really put it out there to make that first checkpoint in time, so my legs are already tired. I get my lightweight running poles out, get my head down and start trudging. People I passed on the downhill and through the checkpoint now start catching me up. As they disappear past me into the distance, I regret every piece of cake, ice cream and square of chocolate I have ever eaten. My mind is a blank. I try to bring my head up to look at the views, but mainly I keep my eyes on the path, dodging the loose stones and small rocks.

Four hours later, I hit the top. My garmin is almost out, so I swap it over with my reserve, and this is where I make a big mistake. I don’t check the time properly, or the distance, before I switch one off and the other on. When I switch my new one on, it isn’t on local time and after I have sorted out the menu, I am not absolutely sure what time it is. I set it, but I think I have set it a bit fast, maybe around 10 minutes. I have also completely forgotten what kilometre I had got to. All my crucial information is missing.

The descent from Tashdirt pass to checkpoint 2 in Tashdirt village is wonderful. It winds down through the heather and the spiny little bushes at a manageable gradient. I am trotting rather than running, using my poles for balance, and keeping 100% focussed so that I don’t lose my footing.

I keep pushing, as I want to get to the next checkpoint by 1400 in order to have lots of time for the last pass, which is the most difficult for me because it is the steepest. By now, there are only five of us in my little pack. Two French girls, two Dutch men and a chap, whose nationality remained a mystery to me and who seemed strangely cheerful for the entire route. I say it is a pack but in fact we are all strung out and just over and undertake at different junctures.

Two o’clock comes and goes and I am a long way away from the check point. I am still running but I don’t trust myself to go any faster on the terrain, and I am aching.

I get to the checkpoint, gulp down 2 cups of coke and one of sprite, fill up my bottles and march on. This is it. This is the test. The third coll is the one I like the least, it is only around 600m and much shorter than Tashdirt but it is black, hard rock and vertical. I know that I can’t stop. I know I don’t have the time, if I am going to achieve my goal and get to the end within the 12 hour deadline. I struggle on up. By now, I am virtually crawling. My arms and shoulders are taking a lot of my weight with every up step. Sometimes I have to use my hands to pull myself over the rocks. It goes on and on and on. The Dutch boys pass me and so does someone else, a new person, where did he come from?

I want to make the top by 1700, so that I have enough time for the last 6 km.  I know my watch isn’t right and that I have some leeway with it. I am so tired that I want to sit down, just for a couple of minutes, just so that I can rest my head as much as my body. But if I sit down, I will definitely not make the time. I get to my low point mentally, when I think that I can’t make it in time. I start thinking of excuses, and of reasons to slow down, stop pushing, rest up for a bit. I start to go through all the negative thoughts, why didn’t I train more/eat less/push harder… They make me slow down even more and my legs grow heavier. Enough! I may not make it in time, but there is a chance I will, and if I sit down, I will definitely fail. I keep going. Step, step, step, step.

Two men are standing at the top of the coll, clapping and shouting Bravo. It is around 5pm. I might just make it. Now, I really go into my mental emergency bag. I start jogging down the slope chanting my crazy American mantra… “1,2 Balls Out, 3,4 Bring It.” I chant and jog and get down to the valley. This valley goes on and on and on. I need to get round the corner of the hill so that I can see the end, but every time I get round a corner, there is another one. I keep chanting and running.

Then there it is, in the distance, the archway for the finish. My garmin is already showing past 6pm but I know I have those minutes in hand. I try and speed up a bit and keep going. I can hear the music and then the compere saying Aliiiiiice, Alice, Aliiiiice.  A girl is standing right beside the arch and I shout, “is it the end? is it the end?” I know that if I make it, it will only be with seconds to spare, so I am desperate. “No, turn right, through the flags, “she shouts. I run on. There it is! I can hear people shouting and the steward steps forward and scans my top. “Did I do it? Did I do it?” She doesn’t really know what I mean but then I see Charlie at the end. He is waving his watch.

“17.58. You made it! You just made it. Amazing!”

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