by Sean Meehan
This past winter, for the first time in 30 years, it snowed hard in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco. Visiting at the end of March, the melt water had transformed the dusty brown hues of Moroccan countryside into a verdant sea of green. Our runners arriving in Marrakech for the 2nd Annual Endurance Adventure Morocco, co-produced by Rogue Expeditions and Fuego y Agua Endurance could have been forgiven for thinking they had gotten off the plane in the wrong country. Snow capped peaks on the horizon, sheep grazing contentedly in lush meadows, pine forests alive with birdlife, babbling mountain streams - all decidedly non-Moroccan images. Not mentioning names (Haruki!) but one of our group had informed his wife that he would be running in the Sahara desert for a week…Endurance Adventure had other plans.
Marrakech though, is a trusty antidote to such romantic rural daydreaming. Our adventurers were dowsed in the noises and the smells, bewitched by the labyrinthine alleyways, and beguiled by the hawkish salesmen. Rugs, pots, lamps, camels – all those things you don’t really need, you definitely can’t transport easily, but that you somehow just parted with money for to the grinning Berber salesman now packaging your wares. “I’m just going for a wander to shake off the jetlag…” Congratulations on your new rug.
Customary Marrakech misadventures aside and with a solid night of sleep in a quaint riad (family run guesthouse) we set off in our convoy of Land Cruisers over the High Atlas, soaking in the unexpectedly green views on the way. We got underway with an afternoon run on Day 1, everyone keen to shake out legs after long flights, 30 kilometres ending at the spectacular UNESCO world heritage site of Ait Ben Haddou – a restored kasbah (fortress) on the camel train road from the Sahara; backdrop of movies like Gladiator and Babel, and TV series Game of Thrones.
Day 2 began with a cultural challenge; mixing adobe from the local soil, straw and water – a fitting construction task in shadow of the kasbah. We inadvertently sparked a village turf war by apparently mixing adobe on the wrong property! So we hastily laced up our running shoes and set off on our run through the high desert to reach the beautiful Dades Valley. On this run we passed of nomadic herders still clinging to the traditional ways living in caves in the mountainside and tending to their goatherds. Kids cruised alongside us in beat up Crocs and flip flops, easily keeping pace whilst inquiring about the availability of bon-bons in exchange for guide services.
We bookended our run with another cultural challenge, this time harvesting alfalfa with the customary small billhooks. Our runners shared a patch of pasture that would take one local lady an hour to cut; needless to say, we spoiled Westerners are not so agile with billhook in hand. A few minutes alternating between hunkers and stooping with your nose in the grass hacking away and you are left in no illusion about the stamina of these Berber ladies who can go from dawn ‘til dusk weeding, watering, planting, tilling, harvesting, and hauling. The alfalfa eventually gets carried to the goats, sheep and donkeys living next to the homestead. The animals in turn sustain the humans and all seems to be quite in balance in the carefully manicured, terraced fields along the valleys of the Atlas.
Day 3 was the start of the High Atlas in earnest as we drove up to over 2000 metres and located a hidden trailhead. The trail-runners in the group were ready to flaunt their stuff after two days of dirt roads and rolling beat-up tarmac. Immediately we were out on to adrenaline inducing trails with precipitous drops on our right-hand side. Crossing scree fields and passing waterfalls it was hard to know whether to run and enjoy, or stop and get the camera out every ten seconds. 28km of twists and turns, ups and downs, took us through some of the most off-the-grid Berber settlements in Morocco. We passed fig orchards, alfalfa fields, almond groves all flanked higher up the mountain slopes by endless goat ‘pasture.’ A cardinal rule of trail running in Morocco is: ‘No matter how high you think you are, or how sketchy the trail, there is always, always, a goat somewhere above you...
Day 3 ended far from the reaches of tourism so we camped for the night next to a village gite – the local guesthouse for passing travellers or mule drivers. Our runners had helpfully carried firewood with them from the previous village 10km downhill! So we had a roaring fire, a belly-bursting tagine, and a clear night sky full of stars to while away the evening. A pack of less than welcoming dogs serenaded the tents for part of the night, but, dogs aside, the gite would be an ideal place to drop off the grid for a while à la Jason Bourne between movies…
No dropping off the grid for our group as they tackled 20km of mostly self-navigated trail on Day 4 to emerge out into civilization again. The run ended with a notable mood of elation from a truly amazing section of trail. Technical, loose trails, scrambling along ridgelines, and steep switch-backing descents; the type of run you wish you could carry with you like a video game and replay again and again. Civilisation had its perks though; cold Coca-Cola and salty potato chips – is there any finer way to end a long hot run?
A long serpentine drive (read: queasy!) through the mountains took us to the tourist mountain climbing hub of Imlil. The following day, Day 5, was to be the final day for some of our runners. They soaked up the final 25km of trails and dirt road. We horseshoed around a valley adjacent to Imlil, before climbing up and out of the valley and dropping into Imlil valley itself on the way home.
Jumu-ah prayers (the Friday prayers deemed the most important in Islam) rang out beautifully from the many minarets in the valley below. Our group was pursuing its own kind of spirituality on the trails high above as the trail switched between faint and non-existent on some steep exposed mountainsides. One of our runners, in response to the call to prayer in the valley below, said ‘I’m praying big guy, I’m praying,’ (to be heard in Texas drawl) as he navigated a particularly treacherous part of the descent. As ever the goats were upslope, amused by the clumsy 2-legs tottering along below.
The evening was spent visiting a local women’s cooperative to try our hand at making Argan oil; one the luxury exports of Morocco. Next was a visit to the local market to pick up supplies and then our runners tried out their culinary skills in making one of the standard tagines on which we had been feasting all week. An evening of red wine assisted storytelling ensued, but all to soon it was morning and time to thin down our group. As the Endurance Adventure officially ended and some headed for the airport, most of the group remained for the bonus add-on option of climbing Toubkal; the highest mountain in North Africa.
As noted at the beginning of the article, a winter of excellent snows had passed so the mountain was cloaked in snow down to 3000 metres. We had a mix of seasoned mountaineers and folks who were not entirely sure what crampons were. We stuck together as a group though and climbed through the early morning chill to the high windy ridge that that marks the approach to the summit. The heavier in the group weighted down the lighter as some started to lift off the ground in the blasting winds! An hour or so of being pummelled by the wind and exhilarating scrambling through the snow we stood by the metal pylon which marks Toubkal’s summit; 4167 metres or 13,671 feet above sea level. Face and hands stinging from the cold we delayed just long enough to snap a couple of pictures before scampering back down out of the wind. Last to leave the summit, your author took a quick check around the summit pylon to ensure that, yes, we were finally above all the goats in Morocco; no easy feat.
Congratulations to our 2017 Endurance Adventure Morocco runners. It is still #NOTARACE and no one cares how fast you ran or what your Strava says. But, here are the official awards:
Mary Alice ‘MA’ Foster (US) – winner of the Dirtbag award for doing the entre trip despite her luggage never arriving.
Candice Preslaski (US) – winner of the True Spartan award for completing some long overdue guilt burpees.
Haruki Minaki (Japan) – winner of the Mule award for most weight carried in his pack every day. Good luck to Haruki in his upcoming stage race in Hawaii.
Pat Singh (Turks & Caico) – winner of the Researcher award for signing himself and 2 friends up despite not checking our website at all…
Len Stanmore (Canada) – winner of Lazarus award for bouncing back from serious foot pain the first 3 days…
Susan Gardner (US) – winner of the Zen award for being the most chilled on the trails all week
Paul Broadway (Eng) – winner of the Bottomless award for outstanding tagine eating ability and huge running energy throughout. Good luck to Paul in MDS!
Kathleen Stabler (US) – winner of the Girl Scout award for having all kinds of tool, knick knacks and treats stashed in her backpack.
Chris Mendoza (US) – winner of the Comatose award for outstanding sleeping ability in the face of a rabid pack of dogs.
Joaquin Campos (US) – winner of the Goat Herder award for excellent skills in spotting the dangerous and threatening looking goats (zero attacks were noted)
Troy Carter (US) – winner of the Berber award for blending into the culture so much it is almost time to leave him behind.
Mairin Clare (US) – winner of the MVP for being an all round rock star and future winner of all kinds of trail runs and ultras…
Some key stats from Endurance Adventure 2017:
76 mi / 122km run in 5 days, plus another ~18 mi / 30km for those who did Toubkal. 30 mi / 50km on trails that do not exist on trekking nor Google maps.
9800 ft / 2985m of gain in 5 days, plus another ~7650 ft. / 2330m for those who did Toubkal
440mi / 705km driving through Morocco
123,456 pieces of bread consumed, 15 angry dogs avoided and 8 mud bricks produced
Endurance Adventure will return in 2018 with another trip to Morocco and a new destination to be announced very soon! Stay up to date by following Fuego y Agua Endurance and Rogue Expeditions on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and make sure to sign up for email updates so that you are the first to know:
Next up for Rogue Expeditions: Adventure running trips to Italy/Slovenia/Croatia (May & September), Bend and Tahoe (July), Kenya (October), Morocco (October & November)
Next up for Fuego y Agua: ultra trail races in Nicaragua (May) and Costa Rica (October), Survival Run and ultra trail runs in Canada (August) and Australia (November).