This gallery contains 6 photos.
This afternoon, there was a violent rainstorm. As it drew closer, the whole family, sprang into action, covering the tent with a big sheet of plastic, doing the same to all the piles of provisions, bringing in anything that might get ruined by the rain and making sure the firewood had somewhere dry to sit.
There we were, our motley crew of foreigners and Berbers, with no languages in common but masses of goodwill. So, we did what all good people do when stuck in a rainstorm, we played a game guessing how many stones there were in everyone’s hands. In the UK it is a drinking game, here we did it with just mint tea. Everyone loved it.
Rain and water is the big preoccupation for Zaid and his family. There has been a drought in the region for the last three years and it has affected him badly. This year he spent over €1000 on feed for some sheep he had in his flock, but he lost 35 of them through starvation. Goats eat anything, but sheep are fussier. I am holding the lone survivor up above. We could see the lack of water even in the little wells and springs that dotted the route. All were just puddles.
For Zaid and his family to survive, everyone works and does their share. From first thing in the morning, even the little ones are working. The tea goes on, the family sit together and eat bread and olive oil or butter, then they are packing up the tent and provisions and getting the animals ready. The chicken is strapped to the mule, Zahra, picks up the little sheep, Zaid and Izza count the goats out of the enclosure and everyone sets off.
Sharing is instinctual here. On the walk, I had lent my poles to Maymoun to try out. He loved them, he was so proud, walking in front like our guide, checking back to make sure we were all following and joyously prodding every piece of dung on the route. But when I looked up 5 minutes later, he had made one of the poles shorter and given it to his little brother, Hassan, so they could both enjoy it.
It is a small illustration of the core value of this culture. It is completely communal, everyone sleeps in the same place, eats from the same bowl of food, takes their share of the work and sits together in rest time. It would be very hard to be lonely.
Tomorrow: Herding and endings
To do this walk: http://www.shepherdswalksholidays.co.uk
210 goats, 1 sheep, 7 mules, 10 camels, 3 donkeys, 2 dogs, 22 people and one chicken. It was crowded in the early morning light as we kicked off the first proper day of the migration. Izza and Zahra left before us with the goats, the dogs and Shaun the Sheep. Their job was to take the slow route and find as much grazing as possible on the way.
We set off in grand convoy, up to the first pass out of camp and down past the last road we would see for days. We were a motley bunch from Mohammed El Kabir, resplendent in robes, turban, and proper moustache to us with our fleeces, hats and walking poles. Mohammed El Kabir was very taken with my solar recharger and wanted to swap it for his enormous dagger (no, that is not a euphemism). After a spirited negotiation, he was even willing to throw in a donkey, but I wasn’t sure my landlord in Marrakech would go for that.
Our route was undulating with some rocky, sharp passes. The rhythm was completely new to me as I have never walked with a big convoy of animals before. We were slowing down and speeding up with them. Sometimes, it was hard even to watch. One small donkey was very heavily laden. Twice she fell over a boulder as she was going uphill and had to be hauled up to standing again by Zaid and the muleteers.
I was fascinated by the camels, especially by their feet. They walk very elegantly and precisely, and the soles of their feet puff up and down like little hover crafts. No obstacle seemed to phase them, and whenever they caught up to us, they would just stop and wait till we had gone a little way ahead, and then start again.
We got to camp by lunchtime. Then the rest of the work day started, the tents were put up, bread was baked, the chicken was taken off the mule and tethered in a little home made chicken hut and we all had tea and a siesta.
In the late afternoon, we walked up to a ridge and looked down onto a tiny farm which supported one family. Everywhere there is water, there is life. There, we appointed our tribal leader for the week, Paul became Dada Atta and for the rest of the trip, he was to hold sway. It is amazing how a well-wrapped turban can bestow authority.
We didn’t see Zahra and Izza with the goats till much later. around six, as they had spent all day foraging, Izza walking with Aisha slung round her back. By sundown and shortly after supper, we were all ready for bed.
That night, it was cold so I was in the mess tent with the boys. I drifted off easily and in the middle of the night, felt warm breath on my cheek as someone moved in for a kiss. It felt lovely, a little peck and nibble – nibble??!!! I sat up with a yelp to find the little lone Shaun the sheep looking at me earnestly. He had come into the tent to try and get warm and clearly thought I was his best bet.
Tomorrow: prodding camel poo, spinning, and the economics of goats.
To do this walk: http://www.shepherdswalksholidays.co.uk
After my crushing and humiliating last place at the Marrakech Marathon in January, I bring glad tidings of GREAT news. 50km Nomad’s Run in the Agafay desert and who was first lady back? Me!
Imagine my delight – and my exhaustion – but let’s go back to the beginning. The Nomad’s Run is a mixed biking and running event – organised locally at the beautiful La Pause guesthouse in the Agafay Desert.
With just over a month to go till the Marathon Des Sables, it was a perfect chance to have a bit of a dress rehearsal so Charlie and I turned up for the 50km run with our packs fully loaded and our water/electrolytes and food rations as we would have them.
Charlie, of course, knew everyone, and it soon dawned on me that this was going to be a pretty experienced crew, and I was likely going to be running alone at the back. Four of the other nine runners were also doing the Marathon Des Sables, and they all took one look at my pack and firmly told me it was way too heavy and I was mad to carry it this early on and for this event. I had decided that I really wanted to give it a try, but I did unload three kilos in weight – a good move as I had miscalculated and this still left me hefting 8kms on my back for the day.
The gun went off at exactly 8 am and off we went. The first 17km was along a river valley – all stained red by the morning sun. It was sunny but still cool and even though I know I need to face that heat, I was pretty relieved. By the end of the 17km, I had been passed by the leader of the 20km sprint – who had paused long enough to wish me “Bon Courage” and give me a Twix, and two of the mountain bikers.
After the river valley, we turned off into the wider desert and navigation was to ensue via les petites pierres bleus. About ten minutes in, the 20km female leader came sprinting back towards me as she had lost her route – her petites pierres were orange and there were none in sight. I had Fred the Organiser on speed dial so after a hasty call to him she re-traced her route – calling wildly “Mais j’etais la premiere” I really hope she won, even though she had gone off course,
The next couple of hours were uneventful for me. I wasn’t drinking as much as I thought I would – and by the end of the day had only got through about 3 1/2 litres, and had eaten one of our nutritionist, Diana’s, Epic Boost bars every 10km (www.mymealplan.co.uk) so my energy levels were high. I trotted along playing the usual mind games and trying not to think about my back, my legs, my snail’s pace, the fact that I would have to do another five of these in a row…..
Then I hit a snag. For those of you who know me, it will come as no great surprise, I had missed a turning somewhere and was now lost – a junction with the little blue stones but no ongoing signs. So, I once again called fabulous Fred and after a few detours, started to retrace my steps. Far in the distance the bright orange 4×4 of the organisers loomed and I was picked up and set straight. I reckon I had done an extra 4-5km and as it turned out the race was only to be 44km so I probably came in at around 48km in total.
After that, I was tailed by some very kind men with very large moustaches who assured me that they would stick behind me, no matter how slow I was, and see me through to the end. This was really a very honourable offer as I am very, very slow and we were still a long way from the end.
I had been on my legs for about 7 hours now but was still feeling pretty chirpy and had launched into a long and initially welcome descent. But those descents can really knacker your hips and quads and, of course, the jolting meant my backpack was moving a lot. BUT I have to say that in general it is excellent – it is the Marathon Des Sables pack.
The afternoon light was working its magic on the desert at this stage and far ahead I could see a man walking with a blue jilbab on. He was actually going to rendezvous with his friend, who had brought a picnic for them to share. As I caught them up, they kindly offered me some mandarins but I wanted to keep to my own supplies so had to refuse. The kindness lifted my spirits though.
At the bottom of the hill, Charlie was waiting, having completed his own run in a magnificent 5hrs 15 – which would put him in the top 100 for MdS. So he relieved my moustachioed escort and tailed me for the last – and increasingly grim – kilometres.
That last 10km took a long time. Not helped by the very long climb. But really I think that I had just been out for too long. My slowness does catch up with me but I am where I am with that and am afraid that sucking it up is the only option.
At last, I was on the last two kilometres and Charlie ducked out to meet me at the finishing line. And what a great finish it was. There were still some people left and they all turned out to cheer me on, which was amazing. I felt like a champion when I got over that line and threw my backpack gratefully to the ground.
And – I was in a way! I was in fact the first woman back from the 50km – the fact that I was the ONLY woman who had entered, and that it took me nine and a half hours – I reckon is neither here nor there. For the first and the last time in my entire life, I have won a race. Woo Hoo!
Now we all tell ourselves that it is the taking part that counts and we all know that someone has got to come last. BUT it is a totally different caboodle when it is you – or, rather, ME!
I had actually been dreading running this one a bit because I knew that the organisers were shutting everything down after five hours and I knew that unless I grew an extra leg overnight, there was no way I would make it in that time.
The course itself was really, really nice. Along some of the glorious wide boulevards with views to the snow-capped mountains and then back towards the minaret of the Koutoubia, a whizz through the olive trees, a trot round the Palmeraie complete with picturesque camels and then a long drag back down to the starting point.
From Team MdS Marrakech, Amine and I were the two starters – around 300 were running the marathon in total we estimated. Charlie’s ankle needs resting so he can be really strong for the race in April and Nadia was not there. Charlie and I think that Amine has just made her up and she doesn’t exist. Amine is a bit of a God and has done MdS ELEVEN times (that definitely deserved capitals). He finished up today’s marathon in a very good 4.38 and still feeling strong.
Unlike me……my time was 6.17.37 and I can exclusively reveal that I feel anything but strong. But am hoping that the large quantity of nurofen that I have just popped and a nice cup of tea will alleviate the pain.
On to coming last…. I realised things weren’t good when I was about 21km in and the people who were behind me (yes, there were some) had dropped out of view and I could only see two pairs ahead of me. Both of whom were walk/running. I wasn’t feeling too sore, but I found that the only gait I could maintain was a little jog/shuffle run. I tried walking fast and my legs went all bendy and wobbly.
I knew I was going to make it, but I also started to realise that I might be the very last person, which was not the most positive and encouraging thought to inspire the legs over the miles. And I was still 12kms from the end.
Then help arrived in the shape of Youssef, my very own police motorcycle escort.
Youssef and an ambulance and then a race car, stayed with me from the 12km mark, right to the end. Youssef was magnificent – riding fearlessly into the middle of the busiest roundabouts, and stopping all traffic so I could trot across. If he felt any car was infringing too close to my run route, the whistle came out and they were summarily dismissed to the other side of the road. Every km or so, he and his marvellous moustache would approach me and he would ask, “Vous voulez montez” to which I would reply, La! Hashouma (no, shame on you). There are only X kms to go!” And he would giggle then zoom off to bully more cars.
My escort also meant that everyone realised I was still running the marathon and struggling so I got cheers and horn honks and Allez! Bon Courage! all the way. That helps SO much!
The end came at last. I got my medal and kisses and then Youssef gave me a ride on his big police motorbike to the nearest taxi rank, where we said a truly fond farewell. I don’t think coming last bodes well for MdS but on the other hand, I completed and I hope I’ll be ready to run tomorrow. And whatever happens, this marathon was actually a wonderful and truly Marrakchi experience.
Rewind to a very dark, cold and hideously wet day in December. I needed to kit up for the Marathon Des Sables and rather than do it piecemeal, I decided to bite the bullet and embark on an 11 hour round trip drive from the High Peak to the Brecon Beacons to visit Likeys www.likeys.com
Likeys is famous for being the all seeing, all knowing purveyors of kit for marathons, ultras and running adventures and they have a whole kit list for MdS. It is very difficult when you haven’t done anything remotely like this before, to really understand what is going to be best out on the road in the actual conditions you will face.
As I found out from my Tour D’Afrique experience, kit can make you – thank you Dave for my handbuilt and fantastic bike. And break you – no thanks whatsoever to TerraNova and my disastrous sail of a tent!
Martin and Sue, won me over immediately when I arrived cold and weary, by showing me where the loo was and then giving me a nice hot cup of coffee.
Then our five hour marathon together started. Martin whipped out a 7 page list of options and we went through it line by line. I won’t list absolutely everything I bought but if you email me firstname.lastname@example.org or facebook me Alice Out There, I can send it on to you.
But here are my highlights:
- Compressport veino-muscular compression technology: They are going to hold my calves in check and make me much more energy efficient (well we can but hope!)
- The Lamborghini of lightweight sleeping bags: The Marmot Plasma 30F/-1C. Very, very cosy.
- PT750-TI Casserole en Titane: for those delicious dried food dinners.
- Raidlight gaiters: These hold the sand out. I am a bit worried about them as they seem loose around the ankles, but will try out when we get some dry sand.
- Venom pump: I thought this was just something we had to have for form’s sake but now that I have seen a snake in the desert, I will definitely take enough time to see how it works.
- Under Armour long compression tights: Apparently they will do for my aching glutes what the calf guards do for my calves and are to be worn overnight.
- Innov8 Backpack. This was not a good choice and I am defaulting back to the official Raidlight MdS bag. Need something tighter to my back. It is so impossible to judge by just running round the shop a few times. A lot of the packs seem designed much more with men in mind and do not take account of breasts!
- The Injinji liner sock worn with Bridgedales over the top: So far, I have loved running in these.
- Hokas: Controversial but I decided to go for it. I think they warrant a whole blog on their own.
What was really great about going to see Martin and Sue, was the extra advice and the tips based on their own experience of running MdS and other ultras.
Here are just a few of Martin’s words of wisdom:
1. “Mix up your electrolytes, so you get a surprise when you get to refill, it breaks up the monotony.”
2. ” Buy all three sizes of Compeed, you will need them. Don’t go near Doc Trotters unless you are desperate (Doc Trotters is the brutal but efficient foot clinic on the race). If you get a blister, prick it with a needle, squeeze the water and blood out, then put a needle and thread through it and leave both ends of the thread out, so it can drain.”
3. “Tie your knife, mirror, compass, whistle and survival blanket together on a lanyard so they are in one place.”
It took me all the hours of the drive back to try and digest what I had learned and to try and get my head round the thought of sawing through my own blisters. Whatever the race brings, I am sure I am going into it better prepared, and certainly with a lot more confidence in what I am wearing and carrying. Cheers, Martin!
I came across this chap about 5 minutes into the run – he seemed happy to keep to his side of the path and you can probably see the very top of my shadow in the foreground as I gingerly took this shot.
Today was the first desert run. Charlie drove us out to the Agafay desert which is about 45 minutes from Marrakech, into the sands and rock and off we set. We had agreed that we would run out for an hour and back for an hour as our paces are so different. Guess who is slower…..
The path was quite clear and with the mountains in one direction and wooded hills in the other, navigation didn’t seem like it would be too difficult. The conditions are very similar to what we will be doing in terms of the rocky terrain and the altitude at around 1000 metres so it was a brilliant chance to see how I felt. I also wore my Hokkas with the two sock system, second day in a row after yesterday’s 12.5 miler to see how that would go. And I carried just 75ml of water and no food.
I felt very heavy legged as I got going and felt all the hills up but didn’t seem to benefit from the downs. I tried to only drink every fifteen minutes and let myself slow down then to walk for a few paces while I slurped. Half an hour went by quite quickly, and then another quarter but the last quarter till half way dragged. I was looking at my watch every 30 seconds which is not a good sign. I also felt quite clumsy in my shoes which are a size and a half too big for me and have very thick soles. But I did feel that they sheltered me a bit from the stones on the path.
It wasn’t really too hot. The sun was very fierce but the temperature wasn’t bad – I reckon around 70.
The half way point was nirvana. Although, I was disappointed that I had only just got over the 4 mile mark. In an hour I should get to 5 miles even at my excruciatingly slow pace. I stopped for a wee and a good drink – rationing myself still to half way down the bottle as I had to get back. When I got up though, I felt really sick and dizzy. I’ve never really felt like that on a run before and it wasn’t a huge amount of fun.
I wasn’t totally sure what to do, but thought it was best to press on so set off at a brisk walk, which felt so much easier than the running. And then after a mile, I felt better and started off at a run again. A miracle happened – I got some flow! I suddenly felt like a runner and speeded up. I felt a rhythm and a real sense of joy and ease. My pace increased dramatically – remember it starts off at a very low base. It was a truly great feeling and made me think that maybe, just maybe, one day I will feel like that for longer than 20 mins. Still, every little helps, as they say.
So, 8 miles. Four of them trudging, one of them struggling and three of them flying.
I didn’t expect to be running a half marathon round Marrakech just three days after getting here to train for the Marathon Des Sables but what a great way to spend a Sunday morning! Amine (in the dark blue) met me yesterday and very kindly took me under his wing. He is a VETERAN of MdS with 11 under his belt already and is a mine of information. As well as showing me all his kit and photos from his decade+ of MdS runs, he invited me to join him and a group of runners for a half marathon the next day and to make it even more appealing there was a pasta party the night before.
The half was organised as part of a very cool project masterminded by Ali Aloui Mdghari (standing next to me in yellow). He is running sixteen half marathons in the sixteen different regions of Morocco in sixteen weeks in aid of sixteen different local associations/charities for health, education, environment …. https://www.facebook.com/courirlemaroc
At 9 am, we assembled outside the Mamounia Hotel and off we set. I was nervous because I know how slow I am and also I was using my Innovate back pack for the first time and had filled it with about 8 kg of stuff as part of my training. I had also forgotten a few pretty crucial items – sunglasses and a hat! Ho hum. Preparation is clearly not my strong point. My biggest worry was either slowing everyone down, or getting left behind and horribly lost. We had a route map but because I don’t really know Marrakesh, it didn’t mean very much to me. Needless to say, both fears were groundless.
With endless generosity, Yassine stayed with me the whole way, adapting to my tortoise pace with grace and good humour. He did almost make me sick at one point though with a graphic description of how the ligaments in his knee had almost been severed in a serious car crash.
The backpack was always going to be uncomfortable but it was great to try it as I now know that it is not the right one for MdS – it bounced around too much and needs more straps to keep it in place. It will be perfect for the mountains though, so nothing is lost and Amine has kindly offered to lend me one of his extensive range.
The route looped us through the city, with views of the mountains in the distance and some pretty passages through gardens and palm-flanked streets. It all got a bit crazy round Bab Doukalla, jostling for position with taxis, donkeys, scooters, and bikes. The last few kms, my legs felt really heavy and my eyes were streaming from the car fumes. I didn’t realise quite how spoiled I had become with the pure air of The Peak – time to toughen up! The good thing about suffering at the moment though is I just think, “Great, remember it is going to be a million times worse on MdS.
At the finish, there were oranges, a yoga session and lots of mutual congratulation. The icing on the cake was that I won a Garmin 110! The girls in the group drew straws for it, and I came up lucky. It was a really wonderful morning out: great run, fantastic company and some lessons learnt.
It had all started out so well. Nouri (of Epic Morocco) and I had got up at just after 3 am and were breakfasted and out on Mount Toubkal by 4.30am. A beautiful night with the stars shining brightly and the Milky Way unfurling above us.
Mount Toubkal is the highest mountain in North Africa at 4,167m and I have wanted to climb it since I saw it in 2008 when I was doing the trans-Atlas traverse on the mountainbike with Charlie Shepherd and a dozen others.
Crampons and an ice axe were absolute necessities and the beginning of the climb from the refuge (3,207 metres) was fiercely steep and really challenging. My legs felt like little short stumps as I bashed my crampons in at every step to get purchase. An hour into the climb, I was starting to feel more confident and thought I had pretty well sorted my crampon gait but not according to Nouri – “legs wider, legs wider” He was obviously imagining the dreaded trouser catch and subsequent tumble down several hundred metres……
He’s a merciful man though and I was allowed a sit down on a big rock and eat a Bounty half way up to the first pass. The dawn was breaking and it was stunning, fingers of pink stretching out through the peaks. The sun took another hour to come out and hit us just as we were about to reach the pass.
From there, it was crampons off as we got to the scree. The gradient had loosened off a bit and the climb was lighter. Just one really nasty section which was a traverse from right to left across snow and boulders with a vertiginous drop to the side. “I don’t like this, Nouri, I don’t like this.”
Until then, we had been the only folk on the mountain, but just at that point two young Moroccan men cheerfully passed us.
The final metres trudge to the top. I felt great, I’d done it at last and no altitude sickness at all. Bright sunshine, La Vache Qui Rit and bread on our own private picnic ledge and a heart stopping 360 view of the High Atlas.
But all good picnics come to an end and we started back down the scree. Within half an hour the two lads bounded past us – Nouri called out to follow the paths and watch their legs, but they were on a high and weren’t listening.
150 metres later, disaster struck. One of them tripped and flipped right over landing on his face. I watched it happen and felt sick with fear. Nouri covered the distance to him in about 45 seconds – it took me another 20 minutes. The boy was lying like a rag doll, unconscious, sprawled and bleeding on the slope and his friend was distraught.
Nouri saved him. He got him into the recovery position, bandaged up his head and got a foil blanket and then my down jacket on him. By the time I got there, the boy (Ibrahim) was conscious but thrashing around and Nouri and I tried to support his head and stop him bashing himself. Nouri got some water and sugar into him but he vomited it straight up. By incredibly good luck, he didn’t appear to have any fractures – when I saw him fall, I thought he’d broken his neck.
At last, a second mountain guide appeared on the horizon and ran down when he saw what had happened. So, there we were on the mountain with a barely conscious boy who was alternately throwing himself around and lying as limp as a rag doll, with no phone reception, air ambulance or any way off except on foot. There was only one option and Nouri and his fellow guide got Ibrahim on his feet between them and started carrying him down.
It was amazing to watch – they were so quick and sure footed even when they were sinking thigh deep in the snow which had now softened under the strength of the sun. They were quickly way ahead of me as I made my tentative way down. I am not that confident in the snow and having just seen such a horrible fall did NOT improve my courage. Two and a half hours later, I saw the refuge and Nouri walking back up to me – the man is a machine!
When I got to the refuge, Ibrahim was lying down, looking much much better and waiting for a mule, which he was put onto and taken down to Imlil where an ambulance was waiting to take him to the hospital in Marrakech.
Lucky, lucky boy that Nouri was so close to him when he fell, and a reminder that mountains have to be treated with respect and caution!
For me, there was still a long long way to go as we were going on to Imlil and Douar Samra that day. The full walk is 38km, and by the end of it my legs were screaming. We were late due to all the drama but set off in good spirits and the walk down was truly beautiful, following the valleys and gorges with the sun bouncing off the mountains and then deepening into the evening light.
The next few hours passed in a blur – a mixture of pleasure at the beauty of the place, teaching Nouri nationalistic Scottish songs, and pain as I thumped down and down and down over the rocky ground.
At quarter to nine, we finally got to the last and final set of rocky steps up to the guest house. Nirvana! Fluffy blankets, a fire in my bedroom and big fat cushions for my achy legs. Mohammed and Rashida had saved me supper and even brought it to my room because I was too knackered to tackle the steps back up to the dining room.
So, the love affair with Morocco continues. Fun, energy, beauty and a hint of danger are pretty irresistible.
I travelled with http://www.epicmorocco.co.uk – brilliant!