My Moroccan dreams date back to the late Eighties. I was around ten years old when I first laid my hands on that fateful BZN tape featuring “Marrakech” somewhere on its melodic lineup. Now, in those days we didn’t have access to music videos on MTv or the likes, so lyrics made sense to us purely through what it said and how they played out in our imaginations. With Marrakech on repeat (who am I kidding – I had to stop and rewind!), fantastical images of beautiful burka-clad people riding on horses through the desert to Marrakech was burnt into my mind.
Then, completely unrelated, there was our high school geography class. I wasn’t particularly fond of geography or very good at it then (heaven knows I still get anxious when I reflect of my earliest stint with a topo map, 12 years old, dropped somewhere alone in a field in southern Namibia and ending up on a mountaintop at night, transmitting SOS torch signals in all directions). But if I recall correctly it was in one of these classes that it was mentioned that the earliest explorers fared through the Strait of Magellan and that the Atlas Mountain Range is a very significant one in northwestern Africa. Somewhere in my wanderlustful heart, it stuck.
Later on there was the big drawcard of colourful Moroccan markets, mouthwatering tagine dishes and last, but decidedly the most relevant: An ITRA rated mountain trail race in the High Atlas. That, along with the opportunity for Nico to climb Atlas Toubkal, the highest peak in the Atlas range, was enough to start turning our dreams into plans.
The start/finish of the Ultra Trail Atlas Toubkal (UTAT) race is in the small town of Oukaimeden, a Berber town and ski-resort at 2600 m in the High Atlas Mountains. With our love of privacy and quiet, we were lucky to be accommodated in a cozy Berber home, away from the buzzing race village and athletes’ hostel. Our kind host made sure we had sufficient wood to keep our fireplace going all day, and treated us to the most delectable tagine stews for dinners.
Ironically, the lamb tagine I enjoyed (too much) the night before was most probably the cause of the bout of diarrhea I woke up with on race day. So much for all the precaution I took! Not having any experience with this situation on a race, I took motivation from my awesome friend Kirsty, who recently completed the Comrades Ultramarathon with similar issues. So, after popping two Imodiums and arming myself with enough bathroom tissue, I set off for the race start through the dark in a soft drizzle.
The race started at 6 am, roughly 1.5 hours before sunrise. The first two or three kilometers were on single track that traverses a few awkward rocky riverbeds and soggy meadows. This, along with the dark made the going quite slow. Thereafter started a winding uphill on a graded road to reach the first summit after about 10 km and 516 m vertical gain. I was somewhere in the middle of the pack and the long line of head torches was clearly visible above and below me as it snaked up the pass along the switchbacks. The terrain was completely runnable, but contending with strong gusts of katabatic winds in the dark had most of us powerwalking the largest parts up to km 7.
Cresting the first peek at early dawn was a magnificent sight, but I soon realised that the wind and cold at these high altitudes were something I wasn’t prepared for at the time. My gloves were neatly tugged away in my pack and stopping to get them out wasn’t an option. It was too cold and my fingers were already numb, so ziplock zippers would pose a problem.
The next few kilometers down the valley were absolutely lovely. Up to about km 17 the going was pretty easy on the gravel road. We were now in proper Berber country. Scenery included small mountain villages blending into the steep slopes and the lush greenery of the river down below in the valley. The route veered off from the graded road and we found ourselves descending along a steep, rocky single track through the village and down to the river.
At this stage, I was still very confident that I would reach the first checkpoint at PC Timichi (20 km) before 9 am (3 hours), well safe from the 4hr cut off. But alas, the last 3 km along the banks of the river were dreadfully slow. Navigating the easiest way through a field of huge boulders and crossing the river multiple times in the sweltering sun, all the while panicking, thinking I must have missed the checkpoint, reduced my pace to about 14min/km for that 3 km section. In the end, I reached PC Timichi in 3hrs25min, which was still comfortably okay, but I didn’t dare spend too much time at this well-stocked, delightful aid station. There was still 23 km and circa 2000m of vertical gain waiting out there!
The next section between the aid station at PC Timichi and the highest point at Tizi n’Tacheddirt at 28 km were absolutely brutal. With a total vertical gain of 1300 m the going was painfully slow (14-23min/km). The route follows a well-marked single track in and out of various valleys on the slopes of the Adrar Tissi Mountain.
Even though this was a crazy tough section, the ever-changing scenery was absolutely marvelous. In the Berber villages we were greeted by shy children and moms, eager to show us the way. They themselves are very used to traveling vast distances across these endless steep slopes to get to their fields and wherever else they need to go. In this way we were met by numerous local travelers on the trail. Some of the boys I estimated as young as 12 years old, riding or walking beside his packed mule.
It got colder and colder as we rose higher towards the pass of Tizi n’Tacheddirt, and it eventually started to rain as well. The wind, especially, made it very cold, but luckily it only came in gusts. During every icy-cold and wet gust, which lasted up to a minute or three, I undertook to take shelter next to the next available boulder to put on my rain pants and another layer of clothing. But I never got around to it and, eventually, I ran out of options. There were no more places of shelter to be found near the summit of the pass and the wind and rain didn’t come in gusts any longer: It was pumping solidly and FREEZING. Only, of course, at that altitude, it wasn’t raindrops any longer but pellets of ice that were assaulting any and all exposed pieces of flesh. It was the sort of conditions that send one into the highest gear for survival. The onslaught of wind and ice was coming from straight ahead, and I had to lean ridiculously far forward in order to keep going. For the first time that day I couldn’t see any other people ahead or below me. All I knew was that there was zero chance of stopping and that it was vital to get over and off that pass as quickly as possible. My hands, which I used to shield my face from the ice, was shaking uncontrollably.
On the descent I tried to up my pace to increase my body temperature, but always a cautious one on rocky downhills, it didn’t work out too well. I eventually found some shelter and put on my long pants. That finally got the shivering under control. Of course, the temperatures rose quickly again the further we got down into the valley.
At the bottom of the valley, the aid station at the village of Tacheddirt was an absolute delight. The relief of being away from the bitter cold after having survived that brutal climb was celebrated with a glass of sweet Moroccan mint tea. Now, this was definitely a first for me to drink tea on a race. And I don’t normally take sugar in my tea. But the comfort and joy that was encapsulated in that small glass of aromatic, warm sweetness, so graciously served by the Berber volunteer, is hard to put in words. I still smile when I think of the warm exchanges I had with the kind, kindred souls at that table.
From the route descriptions and race reports, I was apprehensive for the remaining 600 m vertical climb over the 3 km section towards pass Tizi Addi. According to the sources, this was the hardest part of the race. I couldn’t imagine what could be worse than those endless switchbacks towards Tizi Tacheddirt, where you can look up and follow the track for hundreds of meters ahead to see exactly how painfully far you are from the top. Also, I was dreading another possibly icy mountain pass.
In the end, this last climb was actually my favourite of the three. It reminded me a lot of Brandberg, where the trail weaves through a field of rocks and boulders and you can’t see where the next route marker will take you. I still had a lot in the tank (or was it that tea?), and I was quite enjoying the climb. Also, I knew that civilization waited just beyond Mount Jebel Anggour, and I wasn’t in too much of a haste to have the adventure end just yet.
Nevertheless, the smiley face marking the highest point was a welcoming sight, and so was the last 6 km of downhill towards the finish line where my Lovelies were waiting.
I completed the 43km route in a time of 10hrs20min. According to my Suunto and Strava the total vertical gain was 2890m, although some route descriptions have it down as 2400m or 2600m. Either way, those life-sucking climbs were rewarded with absolutely mind-blowing views that will remain engrained in my heart forever.
Luckily for me those two diarrhea pills I popped before the race must have done their work. I had stomach cramps all through the day (and for the rest of the week), but although I was constantly on the lookout for the nearest emergency bush cover, all was manageable and luckily I didn’t have to use that extra tissue paper.
I can definitely recommend the UTAT marathon to any adventure-seeking trail runner. This race is well organised and is sure to lead you through places and experiences that can’t be had in any other way. Thank you UTAT for a very memorable event!