How an Ultrarunning Force Emerged from the Middle of Morocco

The Berbers of Morocco’s Atlas Mountains grow up traversing miles of harsh terrain. Which, local ultrarunner Mohamad Ahansal believes, makes them extremely good distance runners.

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Jul 20 2016, 3:41pm

Copyright Kirsten Kortebein

In May, Abdelaziz Bachazza crossed the finish line of the fourth annual Trans Atlas Marathon in the most patriotic ensemble he could find. The only part of his outfit that wasn't somehow printed with the Moroccan flag—red background, green five-pointed star—was a pair of well-worn, orange and white Brooks running shoes.

He bounded through the finish a few minutes behind the stage winners, but his cumulative time—28 hours, 41 minutes, 55 seconds—was still enough to garner his first overall victory in the six-day, 170-mile race that climbs and descends a total of 14,000 meters in the High Atlas Mountains of central Morocco. As the 21-year-old greeted the small crowd of bystanders and spectators, he touched his right palm to his heart after each handshake, a traditional way of showing respect.

"How are you? Everything good?" he asked the dozen or so people.

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The scene at the finish was that of a modest race. At a folding table, a local runner recorded the times on a hand-drawn chart held down by four stones. Behind the finish line, two local police officers and the town leader sat in a large white tent printed with black designs and paneled with green, red, and gold satin. In a smaller tent beside the finish, young siblings of the race staff played the same Algerian and Spanish pop songs on repeat.

"Alhumdulillah," Bachazza replied to every well-wisher. Praise be to God. He grinned widely, posing for photos under the flags of the finish line. Mount Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa, loomed in the background, snow still tucked into the folds of the summit.

Later that evening, Mohamad Ahansal, the race director, publicly congratulated Bachazza at the finish party, calling him a "dark horse" in Arabic. It was a Moroccan sweep on the podium. The rest of the field watched from a table lined with sweets and juices, courtesy of the town, a popular trekking destination, where the race concluded.

Of the 55 competitors in the race, 30 were Moroccan; Ahansal had capped the number of local participants at 30 and waived their entry fees—about $1,655 per person. They hailed from tiny desert towns battered by the wind and sun of the Sahara, and from mountain villages of mud and stone built into steep rock faces. Here, in a country with no specialized running stores, where the Nike logo is most often seen as a sticker on the back of trucks carrying livestock, a small, dedicated, and unexpectedly talented ultrarunning culture has emerged.

Some of the Moroccan competitors at the start of this year's Trans Atlas Marathon. Copyright Kirsten Kortebein

Ten years ago, even five years ago, there were very few ultrarunners in Morocco, and even fewer of them competing in international races. Three years ago, the Trans Atlas Marathon had just 12 Moroccan competitors. The Marathon des Sables, the most well-known ultra in the country and perhaps the continent, is a massive six-day, 150-plus mile race in the Sahara that had more than 1,000 competitors this year, its 31st edition. In 2011, the race had 16 Moroccan competitors; this year, there were 24.

In the Moroccan ultra community, everything comes back to the Ahansals, Mohamad and his older brother Lahcen. Mohamad passed in and out of the towns along the race course like local royalty, humble but esteemed. He carried official permission from the king, whom he has met twice, for runners to pass through each village on the course. But he doesn't need it, he says, because everyone is Tashelhiyt, or western Berber. They are his people.

Moroccan interest in competitive running is almost exclusively limited to the Berbers, an indigenous group of North Africa who have a language and culture distinct from the Arabs of the coast. Berbers refer to themselves as Amazigh, which roughly translates to "free man," and their runners possess an abundance of natural talent and the type of raw ambition that comes from living in a harsh environment.

The Ahansal brothers were raised in a nomadic lifestyle. Their family migrated between grazing grounds and the desert. As kids they spent days chasing goats and sheep and running lengthy distances to school. The family's "city" home was in Zagora, a town of ochre, rook-shaped kasbahs built with their backs to the Sahara Desert. In 1992, the sixth Marathon des Sables dipped through the town. Lahcen joined in for the first stage and nearly took the lead.

The race director, Frenchman Patrick Bauer, noticed Lahcen's talent and helped him to find a sponsor to front the hefty registration fee the next year. (Unlike the Trans Atlas Marathon, the MdS doesn't waive its entrance fee, regardless of a runner's past success or financial situation.) He went on to win the MdS ten times. Mohamed has won it five times. The pair trained Rachid Morabity, a wiry runner from a family of watermelon farmers in Zagora. Morabity won his fourth MdS this year. A Moroccan man has won the race every year since since 1997, except in 2012, when a runner from Jordan won the race. A Berber woman won in 2008 and 2009.

The first-place finisher in this year's MdS received more than $5,500; the second- and third-place finishers received roughly $3,300 and $1,660, respectively. This is life-changing money in Morocco, where Gross National Income per capita was $3,040 last year, according to World Bank.

With their race winnings, the Ahansals bought apartments in Marrakech, started their own trekking companies, and flitted back and forth from Europe to Morocco, honing their language skills, marrying foreign wives, and cultivating a long call list of international running friends and peers. Eventually, they returned home to Morocco. The brothers knew there was more running talent where they came from, and they began to devote time to finding and supporting it.

This year's Trans Atlas Marathon started in Zaouiat Ahansal, a small village in the Atlas Mountains and race director Mohamad Ahansal's ancestral home. Copyright Kirsten Kortebein

On the night before the official check-in day of the Trans Atlas this year, Mohamad called a driver making a midnight six-hour drive from Marrakech to Zaouit Ahansal, the family village that marked the start of the race. Mohamad wanted to know if he could make a few last-minute stops along the steep and winding road between mountain towns.

The driver pulled over and waited until out of the darkness the young runners emerged, each with only one or two small bags of supplies for the week of running ahead. For these racers, shoes and bags were donated or purchased second hand. They cut holes in the tops of 1.5-liter plastic water bottles and inserted spare Camelbak hoses to emulate the gear of the European participants. Bachazza, whose last job was in construction for $7 a day, bought his bag at the market for $5. Mohamad gave him a spare Camelbak bladder.

Most of the Berber ultrarunners have little or no training. Bachazza said he only began "seriously" training about a month before winning this year's Trans Atlas race. Young runners don't have to train here, Mohamad explains, because they're already moving all the time, often long distances, on foot: five miles to school and back, three miles to the market and back, ten miles to the next town over.

The terrain they cover is as stunning as it is rugged; one Trans Atlas racer described the course as "like running on the moon." To survive in this harsh landscape, understanding the weather and the land is more important than knowing how to log on to wifi—and those just so happen to be key skills to succeed in ultrarunning, too.

While they once covered the miles out of necessity, they're now doing so for sport, and they thrive in longer stage races.

"It's already in their legs," Mohamad said. "It's in their blood."

It might also be in their shoes. Meghan Hicks, the 2012 female winner of the Marathon des Sables, is well versed in what sets apart an elite ultra runner. As senior editor for iRunFar.com, she's spoken and competed with dozens of top athletes. She's also spent significant time in Morocco training with the "Zagora boys" before her five MdS appearances, and she credits some of their success in part to their limited footwear growing up.

"Strength and running economy are two key qualities of your running stride," she explained. "These guys come from wearing sandals or no shoes, and they continue to walk on pretty gnarly terrain. That leads to really powerful and strong feet, which transfers into the rest of the runner's gait and then back down again."

Of course, like any elite runners, the most successful Berbers are super driven, singularly minded, and above all, quick to adapt, she added.

"What makes these guys different is they're really flexible and adaptable," she said, "and I think that comes from where they grew up. Being flexible for trail running and ultras is a huge beneficial quality. Being able to surmount an unexpected problem as it happens—the sooner you can surmount it, the better you perform."

That's not to say every Berber runner is destined for Ahansal status, but the brothers' success serves as the ultimate example for many. They still compete, too: this week, Mohamad became the first Moroccan to compete in the legendary Badwater Ultramarathon in California, a notoriously difficult 135-mile race through Death Valley that is currently underway.

Back home, Mohamad drove the Trans Atlas course in his green SUV decorated with stickers from his sponsors and stacked with equipment and a giant box of Tunisian dates in the trunk. His car, and the financial security it represents, do not go unnoticed by the Moroccan runners.

"When you start, you don't think about the money," said Abdelhadi el Moustahli, a runner from Zagora who served as the sweeper for this year's race. "But after life starts to get hard...running is a way to improve your life. At first, it's just to be the best, to know who I am."

El Moustahli ran the course in blue satin pants with an unthinkably long white turban wrapped around his head for protection from the sun. His turban is a gift from family in Mauritania, but he grew up in Zagora. He began running at an early age, trying to beat his childhood friend Morabity. Last month, he won the Clyde Stride 40 Mile Ultra Marathon in Scotland.

Aziza Raji, who won the women's division and placed seventh overall in the Trans Atlas Marathon this year, and Aicha M'rabet-Bensalah sip tea after the fourth stage of the race. Copyright Kirsten Kortebein

The Ahansal brothers are an inspiration to Moroccan runners, providing a blueprint for changing their own lives. If a hopeful runner can get noticed at a smaller race like the Trans Atlas, thanks in part to the free entry from the Ahansals, the runner might catch the notice of a sponsor that could pay for entry into the Marathon des Sables. There, he or she can square up against heavily funded European and American runners for a chance at prize money and potential sponsorships.

In Zagora, el Moustahli and Morabity started a small running group this summer. They began to organize it as Ramadan started, in early June. Six to 12 runners showed up each day during the month of fasting. The idea was to keep people healthy, but the long-term goal is to find the next generation of Berber running talent.

"It comes down to the way of life," el Moustahli said. "It is a hard life, and it makes you tough. These are the people of the desert, of the sun, of the mountains."