Monday, March 9, 2015

Nomads Run 56K – A Moroccan Race Experience

Start of the Nomads Run 56K
This past weekend Adrienne, work colleague Nancy Abruto and I traveled to Marrakech for some warm weather – and some warm weather trail racing.

Outside our Tent at La Pause
We flew from Rome to Casablanca Thursday night and drove the 2 hours to Marrakech wanting to wake up in the Medina, the old walled city. After a morning of wandering and eating (cashews, dates, avocados, tagline) our way through the Medina we drove out to La Pause, the start of the race.

La Pause is an eco village in the Agafay Desert about 40 kilometers outside of Marrakech. We lounged away the afternoon resting and reading under the Berber tents that comprise the bulk of the village. After a traditional Moroccan meal under a full moon, we retired to our tent accommodations.

The 7:30 start had me concerned about heat and sun. While the temperatures were forecast to be pleasant – in the low 80’s, I knew I was not acclimated for the heat.  I pushed meteorological anxiety aside and cherished the thought of waking up at normal time, enjoying my coffee out-of-doors, and not being cold.

View from the Race Start
In advance of the race I had been informed by RD Patrick de Guillebon that a number of Morocco’s best trailers would be running, including Lahcen Ahansal, 10-time winner of the Marathon des Sables. I was looking forward to being able to run a kilometer – or maybe a few - with these greats.

I was surprised that the lead runners did not go out particularly fast. I hung onto a group of three young runners, several of whom had the indications of being both fast and strong. While I knew I was going a bit faster than I should, I was unsure of the course markings and found comfort in being with this lead group who clearly were familiar with the course. I sensed they were not happy with my uninvited presence so I hung back a few meters and listened to them chat away in Arabic.

The lead group blew through the first aid station at 10km without stopping. I thought it would be wise to stop and top off my bottle. I was now on my own which gave me comfort as I could run my own pace and not feel like I had to follow someone else’s pace. As the kilometers passed I realized I was slowly catching the lead group. I pushed a bit harder and by ~km 17 I was back on the train. The pace picked up and we pushed hard down a sandy wash. After several kilometers of paying attention to each other and not the painted stones that marked the route we collectively realized we were off course. After running to the top of several hills the Moroccans ascertained where we should be and off we went running across the desert. It was a surreal experience running hard across the desert following no track, through a Berber village, and then scrambling up the steep wall of a wash where there was the 20km aid station - and several runners ahead of us including Lahcen. My GPS watch indicated 24 kilometers. We had added 2.5 bonus miles to the course.

Lahcen Ahansal - 10 Time Winner of MDS at Km 30
The young Moroccans flew out of the aid station before I had finished filling my bottle and deciding whether dates or raisins would be the better choice of nutrition.  I knew it was time to let them go and see if I had the stuff to stay with Lahcen. For the next 20 km Lahcen and I seesawed back and forth -  Lahcen climbing well, me moving more quickly on the flats and descents. “How fun is this?” I kept joyously asking myself, thinking how lucky am I to be healthy enough to be able to run hard and privileged enough to jet to Morocco for a foot race.

Along the Course
At 40km I felt like the victim of a WWF SmackDown.  I was paying the price along with deferred interest for going out too fast, and racing Lahcen. With little warning I had to shift into “just keep moving” mode. Even keeping moving was hard in that shortly after 40km there was a 1500-foot climb. While not a difficult climb, the combination of the sun and heat, plus my not pacing myself earlier had me walking several sections. I went through all the usual tried-and-true mental distractions including intently focusing on the beauty around me, using my rational brain to explain to me that slowing down one minute per mile if limited to no more than 5 miles would only result in a 5 minute increase in my finishing time, and fantasizing that one of the young kids ahead of me had melted-down and would be found walking around the next corner if I just kept moving!

I plodded onward. My pace never picked up, no young speedsters were seen walking, there was no Lahcen within my sight’s distance behind me. Yet the beauty around me was inspiring and despite my misery I couldn’t stop thinking, “how lucky am I!!” And then it was over, and perversely, I was still wanting for more.

Adrienne at the Finish
At the end of the race there was a fabulous spread of Moroccan food enjoyed under Berber tents while cheering fellow runners across the finish line. I feasted in the delight of runners from across Northern Africa and Europe sharing the multicultural and cross-lingual joy of running.

Bravo to youngster Hamed Boutaleb who finished 25 minutes ahead of me. And thanks to Patrick for hosting an exceptionally well-managed event, and for me, a most memorable experience!


Work Colleague Nancy Abruto - 1st Place Woman











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