Mohamad Ahansal, 2013 Marathon des Sables Champion, Interview

With a week of calculated racing, Morocco’s Mohamad Ahansal secured his fifth MdS win at the 2013 Marathon des Sables, ensuring that the Ahansal brother legacy lives on at their favorite race. In the following interview, Ahansal talks about how he mentally tackled this year’s race, some of his strategies, and what he did to recover himself between stages.

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Mohamad Ahansal, 2013 Marathon des Sables Champion, Interview Transcript

iRunFar: This is Meghan here with iRunFar, and we’re here in Ouarzazate, Morocco, with the 2013 Marathon des Sables Champion, Mohamad Ahansal. Félicitations, Mohamad.

Mohamad Ahansal: Thank you. Félicitations for winning the 2013 race, too, Meghan!

iRF: Thank you so much!

Ahansal: Thank you.

iRF: It was so exciting to watch you racing out in the desert. How did you feel this year?

Ahansal: I’m very, very happy to win this Marathon des Sables this year. I’m very happy to come and finish with no problem. That is very, very good for me. It’s a marathon that was very, very difficult this year.

iRF: Last year you came in second place behind Salameh Al Aqra from Jordan, and you had a few little body problems that kept you from running as fast as you wanted. This year, you are the champion and Salameh was second. How did your body feel racing him?

Ahansal: This year, I have a lot of training before—since September, I had a lot of training. I had a lot of kilometers and I had good training for my mind. It is very important for me to have good training for my mind. I think every time last year I have some problem, I come in second. This year with good training and maybe no problems I was able to go to the finish a winner.

iRF: You faced some good competition, some good runners with you out there. It wasn’t until your dominating performance through the long stage that you secured your victory. For three days, you were racing very closely the other men. Tell me about your competition. Who was your greatest competition this year?

Ahansal: The first day or stage there were a lot of mountains. The second stage was the same with a lot of mountain. I think I just had a good run in the first stage and the second stage which was very important for me. I have a lot of training in the mountains, so I’m very strong in the mountains. In the third stage, I was a little slower [to prepare for] the long stage.

iRF: To rest your body a bit.

Ahansal: I have no plan but just coming along, running along. I felt good in the first stage, and I go. I felt good in the second stage, and I go. In the third stage, I think I was a little tired and it was a long stage [the next day]. But all the stages were very good for me. I have maybe a little time, maybe 15 minutes in the first two stages, but Salameh is very strong and was number one and might stay number one. It’s very, very difficult. But the long stage is very important in the Marathon des Sables and it often determines the winner.

iRF: That’s exactly what you told me in our interview before the race in the valley in which you were born. You said, “I think the long stage will determine the winner.” That’s exactly what happened. You won by almost 20 minutes in the long stage.

Ahansal: I did well against my competitors. I think the long stage I’m very strong in the last 20k. It’s not very important the first 13 to 14k. The last part is very, very important.

iRF: In the last 20k of the long stage, you pushed and pushed and pushed.

Ahansal: Yes, it’s very, very important.

iRF: And that’s where you made your time?

Ahansal: Yes. Last 20 to 30k. I have run start to finish in first. Salameh was coming, and it was very difficult for me, but I think the last kilometers were very important.

iRF: Well you predicted that the winner of the long stage would be the winner of the MdS and that’s exactly how it turned out. You set such a big lead that you were unbeatable in the marathon stage of Stage 5.

Ahansal: After the long stage, I have 48 minutes [cumulative lead]. I think for 42k that I could come in second or third or fourth, but when I see my competition—Salameh and other runners—with five minutes or 10 minutes, it’s no problem. It was important to be the winner of the MdS. But I am a little more tired after this than compared to last year. I think I come more on schedule to stay in front in the last kilometers.

iRF: You are a student of the MdS. When I see you at the bivouac each day, I see you lying in the tent recovering your body getting ready to race the next stage. I also see you recovering your mind, resting. You have your head covered; you’re thinking, thinking, thinking. What are some of the things you think about between the stages?

Ahansal: I have a problem—I think a lot and this is the result.

iRF: Are you thinking about how you will run?

Ahansal: Food, muscles, shoes, stages, kilometers, mountains or not, go slowly or fast… I think exactly about the time (I will run). In the long stage, I ran exactly the same hour I thought. Before that day, I thought that I would run that stage in seven hours. I had every checkpoint time calculated based on each 10k and the terrain and effort. I finished in 6:54.

iRF: Just under your expectation. So at the bivouac after each stage, you think about the next stage—how to eat, how your body is going to move, your speed. You’re busy recovering your mind and your body.

Ahansal: Yes, at the bivouac, I prepare my food. I have my food organized for each day (500g for this day, 600g for this day, etc). I save a lot of energy when I walk 10 minutes in a bivouac, it’s a lot of energy, maybe 200kcal.

iRF: Yes, there it goes if I go walking. Save your energy.

Ahansal: My energy, I save for only toilette and a little for my friends or family. I don’t like just going.

iRF: No wasted energy. My last question for you:  you said Stage 2 was one of the hardest stages you ever raced in your 17 MdS’s—what was so hard about Stage 2?

Ahansal: It was the first time I’ve seen in one stage three mountain crossings. It was very, very difficult. I had a big competition with Salameh in that same stage. In my experience, it’s very important in the mountains. I can go strong. When I have run the first mountain, I was with Salameh. When I ran the second mountain, I was with Salameh. In the last mountain, that’s the point where I go. I have a lot of energy for this stage. It was very hot and with the three mountains which was difficult and in between it was very flat fast running. It was hard for the muscles to transition between the flat and the mountain.

iRF: Yes, difficult to transition from going up and down a mountain to running fast on flat to going up and down a mountain. You sure proved yourself this year. You achieved your fifth victory at the Marathon des Sables. You had your brother, Lahcen, another Marathon des Sables legend, at the finish line to cheer you. How does it feel to be champion again?

Ahansal: We have now 15 times winner in our family. Maybe it’s a big record to stand for a long time. This year was very important to be a five-time winner, and nine times second, which is 14 times on the podium. Maybe that’s another record for me. I think maybe our records will last a long time.

iRF: Congratulations to you. I watched you work so hard, and you deserve your championship.

Ahansal: Thank you very much. Congratulations to you, and I hope you can win your second race.

iRF: Inshallah.

Ahansal: Inshallah.

iRF: Thank you so much.

Ahansal: You’re welcome.

Meghan Hicks

is iRunFar.com’s Senior Editor, the author of ‘Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running,’ and a Contributing Editor at Trail Runner magazine. The converted road runner finished her first ultramarathon in 2006 and loves using running to visit the world’s wildest places. For more information on Meghan and her adventures, please visit her personal website.

There is one comment

  1. Lisa

    Meghan,

    First, congratulations on your win! Really just amazing. Second, I really appreciate your skill, generosity of spirit, clear language and enunciation. Mohamad's accent is strong and it takes finesse and patience to conduct an interview with someone whose first language isn't English. He seems like a humble man with a lot of internal strength and it seems he appreciated your questions! Great job all around.

    Lisa

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