Salameh Al Aqra is the back at the 2013 Marathon des Sables intent on defending his title. In the following interview, find out about his “special” first run at MdS, which competitor he’s most scared of this year, and his special relationship with the Ahansal brothers.
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Salameh Al Aqra Pre-2013 Marathon des Sables Interview Transcript
iRunFar: This is Meghan of iRunFar here in Ourzazate, Morocco, with returning champion of the Marathon des Sables. I’m here with Salameh Al Aqra out of the country of Jordan. Hi! Salaam alaikum. Can I say that?
Salameh Al Aqra: Salaam.
iRF: I’m also here with Ammar Sabbah and he’s going to play translator for us between English and Jordanian Arabic. Ammar is an MdS competitor himself. We’re all getting ready to go starve ourselves and have some fun in the Sahara. I want to say thank you for joining me for this interview today, Salameh.
Al Aqra: I would like to thank you for the interview. I’m very happy that I’m doing it. I feel it is very important to him and his name as well.
iRF: Thank you. You’re the returning champion. You were last year’s winner. How are you feeling three days from the start of the race?
Al Aqra: This is my eighth year doing this. It’s the same feeling, the same thing—feeling the competition coming in. I’m just going to do what I always do as it’s worked for me. That’s how I’m feeling.
iRF: I’ve been spending some time here in Morocco with some of the Moroccan runners and I think they’re a little nervous to be racing you this year, Salameh. What do you think about that?
Al Aqra: Being a bit nervous is a part of the fun of the race and a part of the experience. The whole field feels that on that day. My tactic has always been thinking of the actual tactical aspects of the race versus spending time on being nervous. That’s what I think everyone should focus on so they can compete better.
iRF: It’s a focus on your own race rather than the externals of what other people are doing.
Al Aqra: Absolutely. I cannot worry about what others do. I just need to run. All I care about is that I’ve given everything I’ve got after all the training that I’ve done.
iRF: That’s the end result that you’re looking for—to feel that you’ve laid it all on the table and that you’ve done the best that you can?
Al Aqra: Self-satisfaction is definitely the ultimate goal. You lay it all out and you wait and see what happens. But, I insisted on winning last year and I pushed enough for it. I am just as determined this year, but I’m going to lay it all out there and let the result take care of itself.
iRF: You have victory on the brain.
Al Aqra: Absolutely.
iRF: You’re a returning veteran to this race. This is your eighth time running it. You’re a veteran to the podium with one win, three second places, and two third places.
Sabbah: Yes, but there is a lost one there.
iRF: Then there is just one more. Your first visit to the Marathon des Sables was an interesting one, I just learned. You did not place on the podium. You had an interesting experience. Can you tell me about that?
Al Aqra: When I first came, I was just a marathon runner who used to run the streets just like anyone else who was running marathons. I had never experienced desert, never knew how to read a map or a compass. All of the sudden I found myself in the middle of this. It was my first time to Morocco, as well. It was a great experience. Definitely with a lack of capability of reading a compass being at the first position, it’s so easy to get lost.
iRF: It’s much easier to get lost.
Al Aqra: Absolutely. So I actually was lost in that desert. The period that I was out in the desert being lost, I realized I have to come back and learn to read the compass, learn how to read the map really well in order to be able to compete in the race. That experience has created the person who is sitting here with you—a champion.
iRF: Being challenged in that way made you sort of hone your skills to be able to…
Al Aqra: My second most valuable experience was my second time coming here. That’s when I realized I had potential I didn’t know about in running this race. I came in second between Lahcen and Mohamad Ahansal. They’re very much dear friends to me, and I had learned a lot from these two—tactics, how to take care of the backpack, how to eat when running on the road—all of these little things that this marathon is made of. I owe a lot of this to both of the Ahansal brothers who are great champions at that time. For me to realize that I could come and position between these two helped me understand what my potential was.
iRF: Your observations about the Ahansal brothers sort of helping and guiding and teaching is not a unique observation—Rachid [El Morabity] says the same thing, the Akhdar brothers say the same thing. The Ahansal’s have helped a lot of people learn how to race this race.
Al Aqra: I believe the Ahansal family is actually a part of the legacy of the Marathon des Sables and as a matter a fact they are part of what created that unique experience of Marathon des Sables. I’m proud that I ever met them altogether and definitely I’m proud having ran with them and being able to train with them. Lahcen with ten times as a winner it’s just something that is unbelievable. Nobody can disrespect or belittle in any shape or form. I’m proud of being not only able to run with them, but split between them and even get a win.
iRF: Let’s turn our sights to this race which starts in a couple of days. I want to ask you, Salameh, who is your competition? Who do you have your eye on?
Al Aqra: By far, the presence of Mohamad Ahansal will be the scary part of the whole race—his experience, his knowledge of the place, his capability as a runner. That’s the competition I’ll turn my head to this year.
iRF: You’re watching Mohamad.
Al Aqra: Yes.
iRF: We’re about to head out to a very special place. The Sahara is beautiful but stark and difficult with its heat and enormity. When you think about the Sahara desert, Salameh, what do you think about?
Al Aqra: I only get to think about the race itself. Right now, I don’t feel much until I carry my backpack and step off the bus. Once I’m there, it’s more of a feel of focus because the purpose is more closer to competition than it is to actually being in the Sahara.
Sabbah: I think he’s way past enjoying it.
iRF: Last question for you. I hear you’re an avid gram-counter when it comes to your backpack. You want to reduce the grams, reduce the grams, reduce the grams. What is something special in your backpack this year—maybe food or something that will help you stay comfortable this year. What’s inside your backpack?
Al Aqra: There is nothing really special about what I pack. It’s just about being smart about how to put the energy food for the run itself and where to place it as well. Other than that, it’s just about making sure the lunch and the dinner are good enough for the needs I have out there. The one thing I feel very special about has nothing to do with food or anything. I always carry the Jordanian flag that I bring out at every finish of every stage. That’s something I feel very connected to and it’s a part of my run.
iRF: It’s worth carrying the grams of the flag.
Al Aqra: Regardless of whether it’s grams or not, it’s worth carrying.
iRF: Salameh, I want to wish you the best of luck at the 2013 Marathon des Sables. Best of luck in defending your championship against the pretty fierce competition that is going to be out there. Lastly, keep your compass handy and don’t end up in Algeria this time.
Al Aqra: No worries. I’m well trained. We’ve been together reviewing the compass and that whole thing. We’ve done our homework and anything that happens, that’s distant.
iRF: Good luck to you.
Al Aqra: Good luck.