When you turn up for a race completely under-trained, let’s be honest completely untrained, what you really want is to be surrounded by a group of people who look like they may not have done enough training either. That was my hope as I arrived at the Nomad’s Run and queued up for my race number. A hope soon dashed as the guy in front of me in the queue was …. Mohammed Alhansal, five times winner of the Marathon Des Sables.
Nomad’s Run is an annual even that takes place at La Pause in the Agafay desert just a 45 minute drive from Marrakech. The Agafay doesn’t have the golden dunes of Zagora or Merzouga, but it has its own wild majesty. White, grey and red hills punctuated by dry river beds, thickets of olive and eucalyptus all overlooked in the distance by the snow-capped peaks of the Atlas.
Nomad’s is a mixture of biking and trail running with various distances from 12 km to half marathon plus to ultra. I had plumped for the 24km run. At 9.15 sharp with bikers in front, we counted down in a mix of French and Arabic and then we were off.
Soon, the runners strung out and I was left bringing up the back with my little hunter gatherer trot. Badr, a footballer, kept me company up the long hills towards the 5km mark. “I’m doing the 12km but it is a long way,” he said. “I never run more than five.” At that moment two kids aged about ten came galloping past us dressed variously in a Jellaba (the long, traditional Moroccan robe) and a fez. Badr and I exchanged a look of despair. Passed by ten-year-olds.
After that I was alone for a long stretch. The weather was perfect: slightly overcast with some dramatic clouds and not too hot. The absolute calm and peace of the desert. Time accordioned. I looked at my watch and saw that two hours had elapsed in what felt like five minutes. The emptiness allows you to see and hear every small detail. Goats in the distance. Crickets under the trees. A quick glimpse of Marrakech far away.
The route led down through a village where the women were out hanging washing on the spiky cactus plants to stop it blowing away. I said hello in Berber and in Arabic and was immediately invited for tea. Instead, I said, “Come and run with me,” and one of them, laughing hilariously, grabbed my hand and we jogged down the hill together. “Promise you’ll come back,” she said, “You must come to my house and drink tea with me. Just ask for Zineb, everyone knows me. Promise.”
The last part of the run is almost all slightly down hill through a canyon. I had just two kilometres to go and was starting to look forward to the end, seeing friends and sharing war stories, when I heard someone running fast behind me. It was the elites from the 60km race which had set off before us. In fact, he was in second place and running hard for the finish. I went off to the side to give him a cheer and get out of his way. “Bravo, Champion”. I was rewarded with a wave and a big smile. Then, he stopped, came back and pressed three dates into my hand. “Courage,” he said and raced off to claim his place on the podium.
And that is why I love running in Morocco.