“Alice, Alice,” he said, fixing me with earnest brown eyes, “Why don’t you come along for the Trans Atlas Marathon? I need someone to translate into English for me and you can do it.” Well, when Mohamad Ahansal, five times winner of the Marathon Des Sables and all round great guy asks you to do something it is hard to refuse. What I didn’t expect though, was to turn up to do a bit of translating and find myself on the start line the next morning, wearing race number 148 for a six day epic across the High Atlas.
What a joy it was, though. Thankfully, he let me off with just doing the Challenge distance which was basically 4 x 20km days and 2 x 12km days. The route for this run is absolutely magnificent, starting off in Zawiyat Ahansal and ending in Imlil, which basically takes you right across the Atlas range. And, yes, that does mean a lot of crazy ups and downs through excruciatingly beautiful scenery.
There were 57 of us on the start line: 24 Moroccans and 33 from all around the world. We got a send off from the whole village, including little Berber girls who had gathered flowers for us, and the cheers and clapping followed us right up into the first pass, where the mountain stillness took over.
That first day started with a 1115 metre ascent and was to be pretty typical. We passed through a lush river valley where the walnut trees were in full leaf, climbing up to a rocky pass studded with shapely juniper trees and opening out on to huge views. There were encounters with little Berber children and their pretty mothers leading donkeys carrying firewood; the inevitable invitations to tea and a chorus of “Otormeet?” which means “Are you tired” in the Berber language, Tashlaheet. Of course, I lied and said, “Oho!” – “No!”.
Our nights were mainly in gites along the route so were luxuriously comfortable with mattresses and pillows, showers and toilets and big plates of couscous or tagine for supper.
On the third day of the race, it was my birthday. That night, the Berber boys broke out the drums, and the party started. You wouldn’t think that anyone could have that much fun on a cup of mint tea, but we did. And you certainly wouldn’t think that they had just run three marathons over rocky trails with around 2000 metres of ascent in each and had three more to go. After about an hour, I decided to head off to bed and was in the loo when I heard a voice,
” Alice, Alice. Come. Come.”
“Mohamad, I am in the toilet.”
“No problem, it’s not time to go to bed, come, come.”
I went back downstairs and from nowhere, Mohamad had magicked up a plate of sweet Shebakiyya and some candles and had found a set of robes and a black headdress to be transformed into a whirling dervish. The party continued.
What I loved about this experience was the camaraderie: with the Moroccan runners who I got to chat to only at the gite as they were running about ten times as fast as me, my two fellow journalists Kirsten and Jackie and the other Challenge runners. People were tired and sore but overwhelmingly good humoured and happy to share the adventures of the day.
The other thing that I loved was the ability to be totally alone in the mountains. Often I could see no-one ahead of me and no-one behind me. I could hear nothing apart from the wind, bird song and sometimes herds of goats. I could feel the sun on my head and the hurt in my legs. All around me, just mountains.
One memory is clearer than the rest. I was running down a steep hill towards a valley. As the route flattened ahead of me, there was a herd of fat sheep grazing to my right. Suddenly, I crashed into a wall of scent. The sheep were grazing on wild thyme and as they crushed it beneath their feet, the fresh, sweet tangy smell rose up to surround me.