By Sean Meehan
Photos by Jeff Genova Photography
"Today is today, my friend. And tomorrow is tomorrow,” the Berber jeweller informed us somewhat cryptically. We had been asking whether we could return in the morning for the necklace he was adjusting for us rather than waiting on him. We were fidgeting impatiently as he went about his work at no pace whatsoever. It was just the first day of Endurance Adventure: Morocco - we were settling in - so his philosophy left us somewhat bemused. But, as we ran deeper into the Atlas mountains and deeper into the timeless culture of the Berber people, his line resonated more and more. It spoke of daily tasks to be tended to; of alfalfa to be scythed, firewood to be collected, bread to be baked, tagines to be cooked. The immediate necessity of these tasks leaves little room for stressful rushing around or worry over tomorrow. Endurance Adventure, a new concept co-produced by Fuego y Agua Endurance and Rogue Expeditions, afforded a handful of fortunate Western runners a glimpse through the shop window into the peaceful, balanced, human existence in the High Atlas mountains of Morocco.
**NOTE** The author wants you to run the pristine trails of the High Atlas, but he doesn’t want you, or anyone else, to know where they are. So, you will have to make do without many of the village names, and come partake in the next Endurance Adventure to know where to go.
Morocco conjures images of crowded souks, piles of spices, rolls of carpet, elaborate lampshades and incomprehensible bartering - these were the sights of Marrakech, our arrival city. Having survived its hammer blow to the senses, we escaped to the edge of the Sahara desert. Here we stretched our legs on the first day with a half marathon though sleepy villages to reach the impressive Ksar of Ait Benhaddou; an ancient fortress on the caravan route from the Sahara to Marrakech. Here we ran into our philosopher come jeweler. Ait Benhaddou is one of the fortunate kasbahs that has received some care and restoration; we passed countless others in disrepair; their mud brick walls yielding to the desert winds. So, we partook in our first cultural challenge; mixing adobe! Under the watchful eyes of local experts we toiled clumsily to mix mud, straw and water, pack the mix into moulds and leave to set under the relentless desert sun. Adobe architecture is a cornerstone of Berber life that is fighting resolutely against the advances of concrete.
Construction task completed we ran another 15 miles through the scorching Martian landscape of the Dades valley on Day 2. Veer away from water in Morocco and the terrain turns inhospitable quickly; parched sands and jagged rocks stretch to the horizon. Only in the river valleys does life cling tenuously; the population density of the villages is directly linked to the quantity of water flowing past. No water is wasted here. Ingenious irrigation systems turn the water this way and that, channeling it through lush gardens and creating fertile terraces for crops.
One such valley is the Todgha Gorge - a magnificent stretch of canyon walls protect oases of refreshing pools and lush gardens. Our third run saw us meander through the gorge in a tough 20 mile stretch that culminated with village tasks: we harvested wheat by hand and hauled it up to the village sheep and cows, then split firewood to heat our evening showers at the local riad. Tourism has taken solid root in this spectacular location as foreign rock climbers rub shoulders with locals offering camel rides, and after a much-needed night of deep sleep it was time for Endurance Adventure to head off the beaten track and towards the mountains.
The next two days involved 30 miles of the most stunning single track you can imagine. Our group followed mule trails etched onto the precipitous mountainsides of the High Atlas. Nomadic goat herders observed our hydration packs and hiking poles with curiosity as they waved down from crags and rocks far from our reach. Their herds paid little heed to us as they defied gravity to search out tasty morsels. As the winter snows receded into the higher peaks of the Atlas, the goats followed, foraging the fresh sprigs of spring growth. The average goat herder has a lot of time for reflection, and perhaps it was them that put me in a introspective mood, focusing very much on the ‘now-ness’ of the place we were in.
It was incredibly liberating and a huge privilege to run these lesser known trails. We ran with pockets full of raisins, figs, dates and almonds; fruits of the local landscape. Every day was punctuated by copious amounts of mint tea; green Chinese tea infused with fresh mint and buried in mounds of sugar. Our local ‘man-in-the-know' Hamid observed that there are five pillars of Islam, so five times to pray each day, and so five times to drink tea. I couldn’t argue with that kind of logic and quickly adapted to the sugary routine. Mealtime was always involved a lavish tagine: egg kefta in the mornings, beef with prunes, or chicken with lemon and vegetables for dinner. Always enough food to induce a coma. I was starting to feel more than a little Berber thanks to these routines and the dramatic landscape flashing by. I started to pause in each village we passed to observe the quiet, harmonious routines of everyday life. Water babbled in the irrigation channels as women weeded and harvested in the fields, goats generally ran amok, children smiled out of glassless, classroom windows, men lazed in the shadows occasionally roused into action by a stray mule or a sharp wife.
Today is today my friend, tomorrow is tomorrow, the jeweler had told us. He was trying to set us free. Just give in to the now, to the task at hand, and worry not of the future. The people of the High Atlas were living that philosophy and I had to admit they seemed to be doing just fine. But for the satellite dishes clinging determinedly to adobe rooftops, the scenes we passed might not have changed in centuries. Roads had not yet reached these valleys; part of me hoped they never would. Being beyond the reach of a Coca-Cola truck might just protect this sanctuary further into the 21st century. Every ridge brought another stunning view filled with crisp colours and dramatic landscapes, every village bought another smiling face, every mile brought us further from the world.
Alas though, out of those valleys we had to go, and I emerged from my reverie into a shuttle bus headed to Imlil for the final push of our trip. We climbed the 8 miles from Imlil to the mountain refuge in the shadow of Toubkal, the highest peak of the Atlas at 4167m (13,671 ft). Wrapped warm against subzero temperatures we trudged through the snow and rocks early the next morning to reach the glorious summit of Toubkal and gaze out over the High Atlas at dawn. A fitting way to end the first ever Endurance Adventure. The descent back to Imlil took us close to 100 miles for the week in what was a challenge for the body and a feast for the soul. So much to take in and reflect upon.
As we braved the chaos of Marrakech once more, and began to thing about returning to our lives, I clung desperately to the peaceful memories of the High Atlas. The thought of life going quietly along there in the high valleys became a source of inner peace. And, Inshallah, it will be there when we return to those trails next year.
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