Our wonderful brand ambassador, Graham Kelly, recently spent three days out running in the Atlas Mountains. You can run or hike the Tizi N'Trail, and with only 150 competitors, it's quite exclusive compared to other multi-day events such as the Marathon des Sables. We caught up with Graham upon his return and we're in awe of his adventure and may have to sign up next year ourselves!
I like stage races. Everyone gets their own challenge and adventure but gets back together each night to share tales around the camp/bivouac. These can be the simple two or three-day mountain marathons or longer more exotic affairs overseas. Probably my biggest challenge was taking part in the 2008 Marathon des Sables (MdS) – an event that even after time has passed, the memories remain strong.
Last year, some friends took part in the Transmarocaine Tizi N'Trail event – a French organised 3-day stage race which changes location each year. It differs from the MdS in that the camps are more luxurious, the overnight kit is transported and breakfast/evening meals are provided (MdS is self-sufficient and you need to carry everything). With numbers being limited to 150 competitors and an option to hike rather than run, it is the perfect event for both someone new to stage racing and folks aiming for a podium place.
With this year's event being in the Atlas mountains, a return to Morocco felt overdue.
Race registration was in Marrakech and we got a day to explore before heading back to the hotel for kit and admin check. Next morning it was a leisurely start and short(ish) drive to the start line at Lalla Takerkoust where we were served sweet tea and some took part in a Tai Chi warm up.
Stage One was around 21km with 600m of ascent i.e. a shade too runnable! We set off at a nippy pace round the initial lake edge before stunning trails linking small villages where the local kids had come out to cheer the runners on/giggle at the crazies. The heat was manageable if on the warm side for a Scotsman not really designed to be in direct sunlight! Even though the stage was modest in terms of statistics, I was glad to see the final short climb up to the bivouac and finish line. We relaxed and chatted with other runners as others including the hikers completed their day. Being able to share experiences with those around you is probably my favourite aspect of stage races.
An Early AwakeningAs is usual, it was an early bed and sleep wasn’t long in arriving. That lasted until around 3am when I woke thinking camp was being dismantled early. It was, in fact, the camp being destroyed by the sandstorm that had suddenly arrived. In the MdS these are not entirely unusual so I pulled my buff up over my mouth, drew my sleeping bag around my head and went back to sleep. Shortly after, we were awoken by the race team to say all runners were being evacuated to a school in the nearby village. An insanely coordinated effort by the organisers soon had the school open and our kit bags safely stored on a truck and within an hour we were served pancakes, bread and beautiful hot sweet tea. Some slept in chairs and on the floors and others discussed whether the event was over. Maybe around 7am, we were informed the wind was due to drop and the second stage would continue as planned. We got our kit bags and started to sort ourselves out.
Stage TwoStage Two was a tastier 26km with 1250m of ascent. Within seconds of starting, we were on the first climb which quickly found the fatigue from the previous day. The nice thing about the human brain is that it quickly ignores insignificant pain and by the time the gradient eased, running was possible again. The nature of the course changed again and we enjoyed beautiful running along the edge of a gorge before climbing up onto a plateau. The last section saw a return to another gorge before a final climb up to camp. The air was a bit colder and it was clear we were close to the higher mountains. Camp life was enhanced by some local kids coming to sing to the runners – no matter where in the world you go, the kids are the same with an infectious curiosity and acceptance of strangers – we could learn a lot from them.
Finding a Dry SpotAfter the previous night's adventures, I was seriously looking forward to some sleeping bag time. Around 8:45pm a light mist was coming through the tent fabric – the rain originally forecast for earlier in the day had arrived. Some tarps were placed over the tent roof which held the deluge back for a short time until pooling caused a significant failure in the system and we had a full ensuite shower room within the tent! There was nothing to be done other than move towards the edge of the tent, get in the bivi bags and listen the other runners scurry around the camp trying to find a dry spot to sleep in vain.
As often happens, the next morning dawned with a generous measure of blue sky!
The third and final stage was short in distance at around 15km but with the largest vertical gain of 1450m. We started along the road before going through another gorgeous village. Once on the far side, we climbed into another system of gorges leading to more villages before the last long climb to the ski slopes and French Alpine hut located at the finish line in Oukaimeden. A highlight of this stage was a herd of mountain goats who seemed to understand a Scottish “mehhhhhhh” or two – or maybe the simply saw the beard and thought I was one of them.
We had one last night to share with the race team and fellow runners back in Marrakech and it didn’t disappoint – think Indiana Jones, Belly Dancers, Moroccan Drums whilst we dined on fine wine, couscous and a tasty tagine and you’ll get the idea.
What's Best to Wear?
One of the questions I’ve been asked about running in hotter climates is what to wear.
Where the sun is likely to be an issue, there are two main schools of thought – stay cool with little on (apart from sunscreen) or cover up! I’ve always opted for the cover option since you get the benefit of less risk of getting burnt. The idea is that the sweat sits on the skin which is cooling rather than being evaporated. Back in the 2008 MdS many relied on a long-sleeved cotton shirt made over in the USA. They worked but pretty much from the outset stank to high heaven (but did get funky salt/sweat stains)!
For the Tizi N'Trail I opted for the Findra Arran Merino - Lite Enduro Long Sleeve top. In contrast to the cotton, it worked well both during the day and at night – cool enough when running (I always opt for a loose fit) and kept the chill away in the evening when layered up with a PrimaLoft jacket. I also slept in mine only finally changing out of it when back in Marrakech where I was pleasantly surprised to note it didn’t smell nearly as bad as I did!
Thanks to Graham for his great roundup of an awe-inspiring event. If you want to read more about what our brand ambassadors get up to, check out Tom Hill's account of the OMM.