Exploring the roof of Morocco – Atlas Mountains

Winter is coming…This year having spent my first year in Chamonix I’ve had the experience of -10 degree days, even colder nights and knee high snow paths that the chance to escape this year to run in Morocco held more significance than usual. With the snow drifting onto the tarmac of the Geneva airport runway as I looked outside the aeroplane it dawned on me how flying to Marrakech every March has been a perfect escape for me from the winter blues and of course also an awesome way to run in such a beautiful country without having to pay the cost of a MDS entry and carry all of my kit and food to survive!
This was my third year at the Tizi n Trail 3 day stage race and this time I’d brought 15 others with me, an eclectic mix of ages, nationalities and cultures, with one common interest; running. Scottish, English, Dutch, Australian, Swiss, Canadian & Romanian with ages ranging from 30’s to 60’s get everyone got along. The race has around 120 other competitors mainly from France who enjoy the fact this is a race during the day but at night in the camp hot showers, food and bedding await to make it more than a race but an experience.

The gang!

Held in Morocco you’re guaranteed of course to get a bit of warm sunshine which is ideal for those of us emerging from the winter season and with the location of the race changing every year in Morocco it is always a new experience with new landscapes to explore. This year we were in the Atlas Mountains, starting from Lalla Takarkoust, a 1h45m drive from Marrakesh.

Tai Chi warm up

Fresh Moroccan tea and coffee awaited us at the start line of Day 1 before a gentle Tai Chi warm up commenced. The temperatures were forecast to be in the mid 20’s with 13 miles and 600m ascent to cover. It was meant to be a gentle but challenging start to the event but almost all of us felt eager to get going so set off too quick at the start making the most of the first flattish 3 miles before the heat and the hills kicked in. It wasn’t long before we left the flat lakeside and ascended through remote villages sharing criss crossed trails with locals and donkeys alike. The local children offered shouts and high fives for encouragement and joined many of us for a few minutes running, squealing and laughing along the way. A final stretch along a rocky river bed revealed our bivouac perched up a final climb from which a panoramic view of the mountains was our reward.

Beardy & Blondie crossing the finish line day 1

Relaxing in the sun chatting and eating the tasty sandwiches and fruit prepared by the berbers whilst watching the steady stream of competitors cross the finish line, we all agreed that this was how to do a multi day event. Showered and refreshed we were treated to some songs from the local children before the sunset and it was time for our catered dinner.

Glamping Berber style

Ready for a restful nights sleep we settled into our mattress lined Berber tents only to be awoken at 3am for a full camp evacuation. A freak windstorm had demolished the camp site and we were being taken to safety in the nearby school buildings until the storm died down. The organisers acted promptly and their efficiency combined with all the runners complying with directions with no one kicking up a fuss everyone was kept safe and sound. Even a breakfast of tea/coffee and Moroccan pancakes and bread appeared before the storm finally subsided enough for us all to make our way to the start line. Bleary eyed and a bit tired but all full of high spirits day 2 beckoned.

Ready to start day 2

The storm had definitely caused a drop in temperature keeping us all a bit cooler for the gruelling day ahead. 16 miles and 1,250m ascent through amazing scenery. The first climb brought us out on top of a gorge that opened up in front of us to reveal the most amazing ridge line that we ran along bouncing over rocks before winding back up through little villages. I found my feet on this day and got into the competitive spirit moving up from yesterday’s 17th overall/5th lady to finishing 9th overall/3rd lady. The positive feeling of moving up in the rankings throughout the day buoyed me to keep my momentum.

Stunning route for day 2 (Photo: Graham Kelly)

The climbs were unrelenting and talk in the camp later that day revealed that although everyone had thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of the day we’d all had to dig a little deeper to get to the finish. Each participant had their own challenges to deal with that day but we were all in awe of Suzan from Holland as she truly embodied the spirit of the race to finish that day. Suzan’s bottom lip trembled as she strode intently towards the finish line, she was smiling but fighting back the tears that pricked her eyes behind her dark sunglasses. It had been a tough task out there on day 2 of Morocco Tizi n Trail race, putting Suzan well out of her comfort zone with 1,250m of ascent over 16 miles of rough and technical terrain in the Atlas mountains, somewhat different to the flat lands of Holland. She’d done it and now surrounded by her newly formed Tizi family she glowed from the achievement.

Suzan reaching Day 2 finish line

Hopeful of getting a good nights sleep after the previous nights storm we all tucked ourselves away for an early night after a delicious Moroccan feast of tagine and couscous. Alas it was not to be and we were in for even more adventure, it was the mountains after all, and torrential rain had us all shifting to corners of the tent to escape the waterfalls.

Our dining room

Awaking from our slumber to a new day, the mountain tops glistened with fresh snowfall and we wondered what the final day ahead would bring with an anticipated ascent of 1,450m in only 9 miles we were heading to the Moroccan ski fields of Oukaimeden. We set off through a quaint mountainside village dotted with cherry blossom trees in full bloom before descending into a river bed that was now full of bubbling streams from all the rain.

Splashing our way through the streams (Photo: Graham Kelly)

With no chance of dry feet we splashed our way upstream towards the next climb. With ever changing scenery we climbed higher and higher eventually giving way to the mountain top village and ski fields of Oukaimeden at an altitude of 3,500m, leaving us all breathless from the combination of exertion, altitude and mind blowing scenery.

The views got better and better every minute!

This years race had as past years races brought all of the runners together with new found friendships but this year like no other we’d also come together with the race volunteers and staff like no other due to the weather throwing us all in together in the most extreme ways. The experiences, laughter and memories of the 3 days was over far too soon but having felt that we’d all experienced so much more than most other races discussions during the awards dinner back in Marrakech quickly turned to talk of returning for next years edition to be held in the beautiful region around Ouarzazate.

Smiles & cold coke at the finish line

For me I headed back to Geneva airport, a little tanned, a lot more rewarded from the experience and also carrying a shiny 3rd place female trophy that will give me the extra motivation to keep pushing my training through the last of the Chamonix winter before starting to focus on the upcoming running season.

My shiny new trophy

To join me in Morocco in 2020 email me at: runningdutchie@hotmail.com
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Why you simply HAVE to run the Marathon du Mont Blanc

I. Loved. Every. Single. Minute.
A marathon of true beauty! Marathon du Mont Blanc is more than just a race, this is a party of trail running that takes place in one of THE Mecca’s of the sport, Chamonix. Traversing through the awe inspiring nature reserve, The Aiguilles Rouges, this event has eight various trail races (90k, 42k, 23k, 10k, VK, duo etoile night race, mini cross and the young marathon) to choose from and is a celebration of mountain running at its finest. The marathon had 2,300 runners and the electrified start at 7am on Sunday morning set goosebumps off on every competitor. The streets are lined with fans cheering on the runners but not just at the start, throughout the race through the villages and high up on top of the mountains they were there in so many ways from the loud trumpet blowers, cheering baton bashers, live bands with singers and throngs of dancers to the cute kids offering high fives and cheers of “Allez! Allez!”

Jam packed race start

With 42km and 2,780m ascent this is a tough and challenging route, made all the more difficult with temperatures reaching 32 degrees in the valley. Starting in the cooler temperatures of the early morning you are pulled into a false sense of ease as the route takes you from Chamonix into the cross country trails up through La Lavancher (I did manage to face plant only 3 Miles in on the least technical descent of the day), following the Petit Balcon Nord to Montroc and along the nature reserve running along the Col de Montets.

Views for days

The valley is in full bloom, greenery all around and bright flowers absolutely everywhere and running into Vallorcine felt like a dream. Masses of people lined the path into the checkpoint and there was a lively dancing band boosting energy levels before the first serious climb of the day up to Col Des Posettes. Aid stations are laden with local cheeses, salamis, fruit, nuts, baguettes, dark chocolate and plenty of still/sparkling water and coke. It’s certainly worthwhile taking advantage of what’s on offer. All usually served by super friendly volunteers and accompanied by some form of live music or dancing, it’s a party for everyone from the runners and volunteers to the locals and random hikers.

Stuffing salami in my mouth at Vallorcine where Jana was supporting (Photo: Jana)

All the runners are made to feel like superstars as we tackled the climb which again was lined with loss of exuberant supporters, all reading our names on our bibs to shout out personal encouragement. It gives you a taste of what the Tour de France cyclists feel like with the people crowding onto you on a narrow path, it’s absolutely electrifying! As the path narrowed and disappeared into the forest the crowds disappeared and gave way to solid hard work, with only the sounds of heavy breathing and the rhythmic ‘tap, tap’ of hiking poles as we ascended.

Heading up to the Col

The heat was pretty intense up on the Col but alleviated by an amazingly enthusiastic man playing guitar and singing on the back of a small truck. Plenty of runners were using this as a reason to hang at the checkpoint and soak up the party vibes and snap some stunning photos. We reached the summit of Aiguillette at 2201m and then headed down the steep descent of 850m back to Le Tour, the aid station before the climb up to Flegere. I tackled the descent with gusto, taking the steep rocky paths with tight bends and the odd sheer drop in my stride and it was over in no time!

A man and his guitar!

The final big push up to Flegere was a pretty slow procession of runners, now only hiking, in the heat of the day, some needing to sit on the side of the path to re-gather strength before carrying on. I had to resort to filling up water in the stream as I’d drunk my bottles dry, 1L, in the climb alone. The scent of wild strawberries was in the air and they tasted even better than they smelt, sunkissed, red & ripe.  Flegere loomed in front of us and felt within touching distance but felt more like slow motion process up a long wide, open climb in the blazing sun to get there.

An oasis on a mountain

Fuelled on coke at long last, I’d saved this for the final stretch, I felt fully charged and got a bit frustrated on the final 5k which was single track and was quite a bottle neck in parts so using my best French ‘excuses-moi’ I got my way last as many people as I could along the tight balcon with a vertical drop off on your left. You could see and hear the finish line the entire 5k, tempting you!

The finish line looms!

2 small snow drifts to cross just before the finish and it was there! Plan Praz was in front of me with the finish up a small hill which of course you have to run and seeing Dion, Gobi and Jana at the finish I let out a big whoop and massive smiles all round I got my medal.

Finish line feels (Photo : Dion Leonard)

I can’t recall a race where I felt like I smiled and laughed the entire way around so Marathon Du Mont Blanc will certainly go down in my memory as the funnest and most scenic marathon I’ve ever run.

Loving my medal!