Surrealist Realism: The 2016 Trans Atlas Marathon
[Author’s Note: In the last week of May, I ran the Trans Atlas Marathon, a six-day, 170-mile, supported stage race through Morocco’s High Atlas mountains, which is directed by Mohamad Ahansal. Here I put some words to the experience along with the images of photographer Kirsten Kortebein.]
A sun rises into a caramel-colored sky. It looks like bath water following a big, dirty adventure—not at all ugly, more curious than anything. I am told that the haze is almost certainly suspended sand particles from the Sahara Desert, which, though we are in Morocco’s High Atlas mountains, is only about a day’s flight as the crow might meander. The sun’s light struggles to cut through this atmospheric opacity and the multi-thousand-foot cliffs above us are lit up only subtly. We will be greeted several times in the next week by these unusually textured heavens.
At relative eye level, the village of Zaouiat Ahansal lies seemingly still. It’s 6:30 a.m., but the day’s first ‘adhan’ fired off at 4:42 a.m. and the roosters have been hollering ever since, so I know people are awake. The little town is built up a rocky, steep hillside with the lowest- and highest-elevation structures separated by probably 400 vertical feet. In places, it looks like one home is built pretty much atop the next. While it must be more difficult to build and live in close vertical proximity and on such steep terrain, I have learned this to be the High Atlas norm. The rare flat spots are reserved for subsistence farming—largely wheat and barley for human consumption and several sorts of grasses for livestock.
Many of this village’s structures are earthen, made of rocks piled atop each other or of a clay or adobe that’s been pressed against and into a frame. Yesterday, I watched the build process on a new-construction house, and it was a combination of sifted dirt and commercially available adherent material being slapped onto a concrete-block frame and smoothed out. A marriage of new tech and old tech, I guess?
Those imposing cliffs colored weirdly by the sun’s diffused light; the strange, sandy sky; the topographic improbability of town; and the weird fact that I am here among all this with 50-some-odd other runners—close to half of them locals to this mountain range or the Sahara Desert—and about an hour away from starting the Trans Atlas Marathon, a six-day stage race that will traverse 170 miles of the High Atlas and climb about 46,000 feet along the way: all this reads in my brain as a jumble of juxtaposition.
I decide, We are the subjects of a Surrealist painting. In examining Surrealist art, we attempt to put away the intellectual, to stop trying to assign a logical explanation for why there’s a random apple or a few clocks or a flying fish within an otherwise regular landscape scene or portrait. If we accept that which is contradictory, we are told, we can then open our minds to the creative path that might follow. It is in this psychological vein that I shoot off the starting line with the rest of the runners, make the one-mile loop through Zaouiat Ahansal while little children wearing cardigans and wild hair, women beating rugs with sticks, and a couple frail cows stare, and head for the hills.
At first blush, one might conclude that the High Atlas are a rocky, arid wasteland. Indeed, this is some of the most continuously rocky terrain upon which I have ever run. And, oh yes, you will travel miles upon miles in the range’s uplands without encountering a water source. But a wasteland this place is not. Thousands of times over in these mountains, which extend some 600 miles across Morocco, ridges fold into valleys teeming with life. Small groups of dwellings, villages, and even multi-thousand-person towns are situated where the land gives way and water follows its gravitational path. Typically, the more water that is present, the more people and the more trappings of civilization there are.
This is my sixth visit to Morocco, but I spent the entirety of the first five in the Sahara Desert. What I experience in the High Atlas’s valleys is like nothing I’ve seen in Morocco before. For miles during Stage 2, we ascend a creek from a micro-village called Ghougoult. The locals’ path to the homesteads which gently dot the valley and the nomad camps much higher up is simply the creek itself. And so this is our race course, too. I spend at least 90 minutes wading and splashing and generally mucking about in this creek—this is perhaps the most refreshed I’ve ever felt in Morocco.
As I make my way upstream, I pass the homes of an ethnic group called the Berbers. Well, to be clear, our whole week of running is through their lands. The Berber people call themselves ‘Imazighen,’ which translates from their native language to ‘people who are free/noble.’ Berbers have at least 5,000 years of history in North Africa. Their evolved sense of independence, as I understand, originated at least in part from centuries of persecution and negative influence from outside cultures, including in earlier history Arab emigrants and in later history European colonizers. In fact, the High Atlas is not the Berbers’s chosen home. Centuries ago in what’s now Morocco, thousands of Berbers retreated from the lowlands and into the mountains, away from Arab influence, so that they could live culturally uninterrupted.
In just this one valley, I jog past a wheat field and a man stands from his work within it to wave. I listen to children yell with eagerness from the hills above as they note my passage. An old woman leading a mule loaded with grass down drainage extends her calloused hand into mine. A whole group of people poke their heads out of a nomad camp that looks everything like a cliff dwelling to smile at me. I exchange pleasantries with a dude grazing a couple nice-looking mules at the day’s high point. Though they each take their sweet time to stare hard at my passing, every single person gushes in their greeting.
Beyond this valley, I have spent months of my life in Morocco with people of Berber heritage. And I’d venture a guess that most of the Moroccans running this race and with whom I’m, thus, spending this week are Berber. Robust friendliness and hospitality are qualities I’ve found time and again among this tribe. Men spend hours a day socializing with each other while drinking glasses of mint tea, women talk nonstop as they do laundry together at water sources, families live as extended- and mix-matched-family groups, and replete hospitality is offered to outsiders of all kinds. While history books have told me that the Berbers have been traditionally wary of outsiders and they themselves have told me that they are proudly independent, I find their dependence upon intra- and inter-tribal sociality to be one of their strongest present attributes. Indeed, there is no wasteland here. All things High Atlas may appear a little rough and tumble from the outside looking in, but I guarantee you it to be the opposite from the inside peering out.
It’s the brisk, windy, cloudless morning of Stage 3, and we are ascending singletrack from the village of Megdaz to a ‘tizi,’ which translates from Arabic—the official language of Morroco—as ‘col’ or ‘mountain pass.’ From the village, it’s about 3.5 miles and 1,800 feet of climb. Beyond and below the tizi, as we will see once we reach its summit, are several more smaller villages and homesteads.
This morning, we racers share the trail with perhaps a dozen locals. There’s a lone fellow on mule-back, his woven saddlebags loaded with fresh food. I meet an old woman climbing the pass in plastic jelly shoes, her burden wrapped in cloth on her back. She sits for a rest just as I pass. “As-salamu alaykum,” I say, in Arabic greeting. “Wa ‘alaykum al-salaam,” she responds. I notice, I am breathless, and she is not.
Near the top of the pass, I come across a group of men and women all on mules, carting giant pieces of wood along with them—what I’m guessing they will use in the construction of a building. “Vous êtes fatigué?” one of the men asks me in French, a language learned by many Moroccans either in school or via doing business in larger cities and a throwback to Morocco’s era as a French colony. I am, of course, tired but this moment gives me the opportunity to use my favorite Arabic word, which means ‘no.’ “La,” I say with a grin on my face and the mock impetuousness of a child refusing broccoli at dinner. The wind whisks the word away before the group catches it. I repeat myself just as we all pull up to the top of the pass and together we bust a gut.
As I leave that group behind and begin to descend the pass, I ponder why there are so many locals on the trail. I realize, today is Wednesday and Tuesday must be market day in this region of Morocco. The village of Megdaz must harbor this region’s market. All these people on the trail are carrying supplies back to their homesteads further afield.
The Berbers of the High Atlas are largely pastoralists—of sheep and goats but many families own a cow for milk and chickens for eggs—and subsistence farmers. Most walk or ride mules wherever they need to go, as many villages are only connected to each other and the rest of the world by the kinds of singletrack trails we’re running on this week. Mules are also used as beasts of transport burden for supplies. While you can get food and other sundries any day of the week in Morocco’s larger cities, rural areas rely on weekly markets for the exchange of goods that individuals can’t grow or raise themselves. Morocco’s gross national income per capita as of 2014 was U.S. $3,070, but I’d guess that number should be at least halved for the Berbers of the High Atlas. Poverty, as you’d define it on the scale of our world’s economy, is replete here.
Running downhill, I find myself lost in a sea of romanticism for their lifestyle. Indeed, I understand intellectually how challenging aspects of these people’s lives must be—how limited their access to nutritionally sufficient quantities of food, medical care, clean water, and so much more are. No matter, I am still suddenly overcome by the emotional urge to screech to a stop in one of these villages, boil a pot of mint tea, start a garden, learn to speak Berber, and settle in for the long haul. If I can be honest, every time I visit Morocco, I am overcome by a similar sensation.
Many people who once knew me have forgotten, and those who’ve met me in only the last few years could never know, but I haven’t always been the version of myself that so many people today know. So digitally connected, so surrounded by technology, so, sigh, online all the time—all this is now part and parcel to my career of telling trail running stories through the electronic medium of iRunFar.
A decade ago, I actively opposed the sort of lifestyle I now have. I remember working in Yosemite National Park, and watching BlackBerries and smartphones arrive to it. With them came email, text messages, and the ability to live outside of the present moment and inside the phone. I recall the vitriolic sensations those first smartphones aroused in me. Today, I own a top-of-the-line smartphone all my own, use it robustly, and enjoy doing so. Despite this, I still feel that smartphones and other technology and their distractionary tactics can be just plain dumb.
Rolling down the backside of this tizi, I’m carrying my smartphone in my running pack because a working-in-Morocco cell phone is on the required kit list in case of emergency. I think about the ways I will use it for good today. It will connect me with my mom, brother, and Bryon, who are thousands of miles away and wondering how I’m faring on this adventure. I’ll ask it if the weather will be any hotter tomorrow. And my very presence at the Trans Atlas Marathon is no doubt partially indebted to the phone’s Facebook app for keeping me connected all these years with the friends I have made in Morocco. It may be just as irrational as it is to imagine myself taking up residence in some little High Atlas village given the phone’s relative usefulness, but I am overcome with the desire to pull it out of my bag and chuck it to kingdom come in electronic rebellion. The plurality of my life, even on my best days, confuses me.
The race advertises Stage 4 as 19.2 miles, the shortest of its six stages. It’ll surely be a mile or three longer, as all the stages have been. We racers have taken to calling this bit of extra mileage ‘Mohamad miles.’ Mohamad Ahansal is the Trans Atlas Marathon race director and, though I am certain he’s surveyed the course accurately, I think he finds humor in imposing minor torture upon us. Each day’s finish line is just a bit farther away than we expect.
Mohamad is a legend. He’s a five-time winner of the grandpappy of stage races, the Marathon des Sables, which is held in the Moroccan Sahara Desert each spring. And his older brother, Lahcen, holds 10 victories. In Morocco, a win of the Marathon des Sables is held in highest regard and, well, five of them pedestals Mohamad to a whole different level of celebrity. When you walk the streets of any town with him, strangers approach to greet him and dole compliments. He isn’t anonymous anywhere.
The high point of today’s stage is an 8,800-foot pass that’s chockfilled with equal parts rocks and wildflowers, a blunting wind blowing in climactic relief after a couple days of sweltering heat, and a horizon of rust-colored Atlas rock rising to a sapphire sky. From here, I drop a few hundred feet and traverse a rocky ridgeline. The race’s finish-line arch and white flags come into view about 1,500 feet below and a mile away. I can see the course markers taking a steep, downhill, trail-less line, bullet-ing right for the finish. The sensations of this moment overwhelm me, so I pause to take it all in before beginning my playful plummet.
In the weeks before the 2013 Marathon des Sables, which both Mohamad and I raced, we were respectively training outside of Zagora, a Moroccan town known for the way it perches at the very edge of the Sahara Desert. One day, Mohamad, who is Berber, invited me to his family’s homestead, located what must be about 12 or 15 miles west of Zagora, out a track that was first dusty and then incredibly rocky.
Language barriers are tough, but I managed to learn much that day. I learned that the homestead, built around a well producing a good amount of water, still houses Mohamad’s extended family. We met probably a dozen different people, and I stopped asking about halfway through the greetings how Mohamad and whomever I was meeting were related. The categorization of second cousins and great aunts doesn’t happen in Berber culture. To Mohamad, everyone was family.
I learned that, though the extended family now concentrates itself around this small set of dwellings, and that there are other homesteads like it peppering the land out of our view, just a generation ago the Ahansal extended family was nomadic. Mohamad’s parents spent much of their lives moving livestock, chasing vegetation in this vast environment. I learned that Mohamad doesn’t know his exact age as his mom didn’t record his birth year or day—age is also of little relevance in Berber culture.
When Mohamad was young, part of his family moved out of the desert and into the civilization of Zagora—which was a tiny town at the time but offered easier access to education, food, and other resources. One year, when Mohamad and Lahcen were little, one of the earliest editions of the Marathon des Sables took place in Zagora’s environs, and the brothers became fascinated by running.
The rest was not, indeed, history, however. These kids grew up in the kind of poverty that few readers of this article—or its writer—can tangibly comprehend. In fact, the Ahansal brothers hid their running and their love of it from family members who thought it was a waste of time. Here and there, there were school-sponsored races in Zagora, and in them Lahcen and Mohamad shined. This led to opportunities for racing in the next big town to the north, Ouarzazate, and eventually training camps in the city of Marrakech with other fast Moroccan runners scouted in and collected from the around the country. The steep, Western-priced Marathon des Sables entry fee (and no discounts for locals living on a totally different annual-income scale) meant that the Ahansals couldn’t race unless they found sponsors willing to pay those fees. I find it utterly miraculous that they were able to do this more than a dozen-and-a-half times. A couple thousand bucks in Morocco is enough to live on for a year!
Atop this grand ridge, I look down toward the finish. It looks well organized and welcoming, a harbor for us runners after a hard day in the hills. I know Mohamad is down there somewhere, busting his ass to make sure all is well. Mohamad told me this morning that Lahcen will be at this finish line, too, and will join the race organization for the event’s last couple days. I think, Many variables were pitted against Mohamad and his brother, starting with their stunningly nonexistent birthrights. Look at who they are and what they have created, all by hustling.
I need to be more clear. Mohamad and the other runners of his generation have not just created opportunities for Westerners like me to have a running vacation in the High Atlas. Almost half of the race’s participants are locals running free of charge. From out of the desert and out of the mountains, in the days before the race, filtered a couple dozen young men and one woman. Among this group are all kinds, from a 2:10 marathoner to individuals who don’t run much but who’ve been inspired to run after seeing the Ahansal brothers in newspapers and on television.
The juxtaposition of their past and this present—this tangible demonstration that so many things are, indeed, possible—is the kind of surreal that sends a cascade of shivers down my spine. It is upon the great levity of hope that I float from this ridge and into Mohamad’s arms after the finish.
And so we dance. We dance to start each stage, we dance at each finish, and we dance at night. Music—a capella Berber songs, Berber tribal chants supported by a drum, wild gyrations to Arab music, and even the errant Western pop song to which everyone shouts the lyrics guiltlessly—is a part of the Trans Atlas Marathon culture. It is, thus, only fitting that our sixth and final running day begins in the same manner.
We runners represent 11 nationalities, at least six languages, and all sorts of cultural backgrounds. We are an incredibly diverse collection of human beings. Even so, we join hands, link arms, grasp upon each others’ spirits, cast glitter-filled eyes toward the sky, and move our bodies. Everyday I have watched us dance, and I have observed: our movements cross every barrier that divides us. Language? Age? Gender? Color? Religion? We’re all the same when we dance.
I think back to the second day of the Trans Atlas Marathon, of descending a large pass and emptying into the village of Tasgaioualt. There, I encounter Moroccan runner Hamid Yachou. He’s a young guy of Berber descent, a second-generation Zagora runner. What I mean by this is that Hamid is one of a dozen-ish young men from the Ahansal brothers’ hometown who took up running while watching their successes. Hamid and I are about 20 miles into our day and have 15 more to go. The heat is engulfing, the sort that radiates from the sun above and the ground below. There is still road running to be done, steep pitches to heave ourselves over, a boulder-filled riverbed to run in, and a couple ‘Mohamad miles’ to surpass.
Hamid and I join forces and share the effort: he is stronger on the steeps, so I mimic his approach there, and I am more metronomic on the flats, which allows him to slide into step with me. It goes on like this for three hours until we finally finish together. Thing is, we speak very little, our conversation harnessed by both a language barrier and our fatigue-quieted temperaments. Thing also is, we don’t really need to speak, either. Just like in the way we racers dance each day, in the act of running as a pair, in languishing in the same heat, in shadowing and being shadowed, we are deeply sharing life.
I am not surprised that Mohamad has saved our longest climb for our final day. We’re now about halfway through Stage 6, and we encounter a climb lasting just under 4.5 miles and ascending some 4,200 feet. Compared to what we’ve been through this week, this climb is not particularly brutal in anything but the fact that it goes on almost forever.
At the base of the climb, I connect with Nicolas Blondin, a French runner. I’m stronger on the uphills and he’s better than me on the downhills. Linked together with him—no talking save for some wicked grunting and gesturing as the going is a bit tough—I become a better version of myself. It’s somehow easier to pound the downhills because he’s already paved the way, and I’m spurred to climb well knowing there’s someone matching me step for step. It takes only shared motion to find symbiosis. When we reach the Trans Atlas Marathon’s ultimate finish line in the bustling village of Imlil, my sore feet and hips are relieved to stop moving. For weeks to come, however, my mind and heart will buzz with the energy collectively created here.
Some have called running a selfish sport, a solitary act of self-improvement. Indeed, many of us run to maintain a healthy personal status quo or to illicit positive change within ourselves–I put in hundreds of miles a year with such intentions. But the Trans Atlas Marathon has revealed to me the power of running for external purpose. Running makes family out of strangers. Running links people to place. Just one runner can inspire others into running. Running creates opportunity where opportunity didn’t previously exist. Running bridges division, connects contradiction. Running conspires creativity and allows the surreal to become real.