The COVID-19 Pandemic: A Metaphorical Ultramarathon

[Editor’s Note: This month’s “Community Voices” column is authored by Alice Morrison, a Scottish adventurer specializing in the Middle East and Africa. Her most recent ultramarathon was the 2019 Trans Atlas Marathon and she just finished a six-month, 2,000-kilometer expedition across a part of the Sahara Desert exploring climate and social change with six camels and three Amazigh (Berber) guides. Her latest book is Adventures in Morocco and she podcasts weekly on Alice in Wanderland. In this column each month, we showcase the work of a writer, visual artist, or other creative type from within our global trail running and ultrarunning community. Our goal is to tell stories about our sport and wildlands in creative and innovative ways. Read more about the concept and submit your work for consideration!]

I’m writing this while looking out at a coronet of 3,000-meter-plus mountain peaks in the middle of Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains. The sun catches the ridge opposite my house, located in the village of Imlil and an hour and a half from Marrakech, which took a fresh fall of snow yesterday. Off to my right, I can see my regular training trail snaking up to Tizi Mizik–a pass which gives out to the valley below. I live in a small flat in a family compound perched above a sea of walnut trees and with a good view of the village and the mountains above.

All of this is as inaccessible to me right now as the moon because Morocco has acted with incredible swiftness to curtail the spread of COVID-19 and went into lockdown on Friday, March 20, at 6 p.m. At that time, it only had 57 deaths reported. My immediate world has gone quiet. The streets are empty, the mules and muleteers are all at home, and the taxis to Marrakech have stopped their quest for passengers.

Morocco’s Atlas Mountains as seen during the Trans Atlas Marathon. All photos courtesy of Alice Morrison.

I was in London, my home country, when COVID-19 really started to hit and I made an active choice to come back to this community which has become like a family and this place which is my home.

Ultrarunning has defined my life in Morocco. I came to run the 2014 Marathon des Sables and liked it so much that I stayed, first in Marrakech and then in Essaouira. In 2018, I signed up for the Everest Trail Race in Nepal was so moved by mountains that I moved myself from that home on the flat shores of the Atlantic coast to the magnificence of the Atlas Mountains. Being here has transformed me in so many ways; from a non-runner to a very bad runner who pushes out to do ultramarathons and has found a community of amazing people; from a regular worker to a full-time adventurer who makes a living from writing and broadcasting about the world around me.

So, you can imagine how I love Morocco and wanted to be here. But, honestly, I didn’t know the severity of it–how quickly the virus was going to take hold and how it would suddenly collapse the world.

I became scared. The realization that I was very far from my home in the U.K. hit me like a train. My elderly parents are in Edinburgh, Scotland, and what was I doing leaving them? My brother is in Saint Kitts, an island in the West Indies, and neither of us can now get home if something awful happens.

And why had I left the country of my birth to be somewhere where I am visibly different? I am European and there are bound to be some here who blame us for bringing the virus in. Why had I come to a place which is an hour and a half’s drive down terrible roads to the nearest hospital and where the health care is so poor. I started reading all the newsflashes, watching the casualties rise in Italy, listening to all the seemingly conflicting advice, and hearing reports of all the foreigners fleeing Morocco.

I am not a panicker–I really am not. I just finished a 2,000-kilometer trek across the Sahara Desert, of which the last week was through a military area strewn with landmines for goodness sake, but I was talking myself into one. I started to feel trapped and breathless and afraid. Then, my friend Charlie Shepherd, who did Marathon des Sables with me, called and said, “Alice, this is an ultra, just treat it like one.”

The author during her 2,000-kilometer trek in the Sahara Desert.

Those words changed everything for me. I am an ultrarunner, a really bad one, but an ultrarunner nevertheless. I know what it is like to endure and to achieve the end goal although there is plenty of suffering along the way. I understand the need to focus on the now and to keep relentlessly positive even when the world is dark around you.

With this in mind, here is my list of ultra tips that I and we can follow for this crazy and unwanted race.

A Guide to the Metaphorical COVID-19 Ultramarathon

  1. Make sure you have the right kit and enough supplies to last you for the course. But don’t overdo it, we’ve all carried too much stuff at one time or another and know there’s a balance between too heavy a pack and forgetting to carry something important.
  2. Get as much good course information as you can, particularly from experts and those who have run this kind of thing before. Don’t listen to speculation and general noise.
  3. Be positive and believe in yourself. You’ve done your training, you are as a fit as you are going to be to take this on. Trust in that.
  4. Break it into small chunks, the next ridge or mile marker or snack time, and get to it. You know that if you start thinking about how long the course is, it may overwhelm you.
  5. If you get a niggle–mental or physical–deal with it immediately or it will only get worse.
  6. Buddy up with someone along the way who is of a similar speed and mindset–a bit of chat really helps. However, fear is infectious so pull away from anyone who is dragging you down.
  7. Stop and check on anyone who is struggling but when you have done what you can for them, carry on.
  8. Accept the suffering. This is going to hurt and you know that. Don’t fear it. It will end.
  9. Understand that when you think it can’t get any worse, it probably will. At least until we reach the finish line.
  10. When the darkness threatens to swamp you, remember that you are an ultrarunner. You are strong, you are resilient, and you can do this. Never, ever give up. There is no DNFing this one.
  11. And the last thing is the most important: take time to look up and appreciate where you are and what you have. This time right now may be your best.

Stay safe, friends. See you at the end, I hope, though you may have to wait for me because I am not the fastest….

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you think that some of the knowledge and skills you’ve picked up through your ultrarunning hobby are applicable to our current circumstances?
  • If so, in what ways do you think our ultrarunning experience can help us navigate the COVID-19 pandemic?

The author and Trans Atlas Marathon race director Mohamad Ahansal.

The members of Alice Morrison’s 2,000-kilometer Sahara Desert expedition.

There are 6 comments

  1. Andy M

    Love this. I often apply ultrarunning metaphors for all sorts of life challenges but had yet to invoke it here, on the uncertain and unnerving COVID 19 course. Beautiful.

  2. Alastair

    To the editor’s note, Her 2000km trek was in Western Sahara and not Morocco. She was on BBC Breakfast making that claim as well. Challenge her on it.

  3. Alastair

    To the editor’s note. Alice Morrison did NOT trek across Morocco. Her 2000km walk was through Western Sahara which Morocco occupies ILLEGALLY after invading it in 1975. Can you amend the note so that it reflects the truth?

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