Sat, Apr 14, 2012 - Page 16 News List

In the long run

Running’s ultimate test, the Marathon des Sables pits competitors against some of the most grueling conditions on Earth

By Jacqueline Kantor  /  NY Times News Service, Ouarzazate, Morocco

Morocco’s Mohamad Ahansal starts the fifth stage of 2011’s Marathon des Sables.

Photo: AFP

Mohamad Ahansal might be 37 years old or 38 or even 39. Ahansal knows only that he was born in the summer, because his mother remembers it being hot, hotter than usual in the Sahara Desert.

The place where Ahansal was born is not a town, he emphasizes, and there was no need to mark the date or year of a birth. They did not settle for long. It was in the desert where he started running, out of necessity rather than sport.

“There were goats, camels and sheep, and I cared for them,” he said. “They don’t stay in one place. One camel goes there, and another goes there, and you have to collect them.”

The resources Ahansal did not have growing up — a bus, a bike, a local school — have allowed him to become what he is today: four-time champion of the Marathon des Sables, a six-day ultramarathon through the Sahara Desert in southern Morocco, one of the most grueling footraces in the world.

Since 1986, more than 12,000 runners from 49 countries have competed in the race. This year, beginning tomorrow, 878 competitors will carry their food and supplies for the week through 246km of scorching sun and shifting sand. Ahansal will begin the race at noon, when the temperature can reach up to 50?C. The longest one-day distance covers 81km — including 23km of dunes.

In a region where most would struggle to survive, a group of Moroccan runners consistently dominates the competition. Since 1997, either Mohamad or his older brother, Lahcen, had won the race, until last year, when Rachid el Morabity, their trainee, beat Mohamad by seven minutes. The Ahansals and Morabity share not only Moroccan descent but are all from Zagora, a town of about 35,000 in southern Morocco that lies on the outskirts of the desert. Lahcen is not competing in this year’s race.

Mohamad Ahansal went to live with his grandfather in Zagora when he was 7. School was more than 6km away, and he walked or ran every day. He excelled in sports, but in a terrain where scouts and sponsors rarely venture, it is difficult to translate raw talent into opportunity.

“When someone comes out of the desert and there’s nothing there, no trainer, no sports stadium, nothing, it’s not easy,” he said. “They think only the people from Europe will manage it.”

It was hard for Mohamad and Lahcen to justify their first runs to their family and community. When Mohamad was around 18, he and Lahcen would leave the house with djellabas, traditional Moroccan robes, hiding their shorts.

“We went out of the house a little farther away from the village, and then we would change and dig in the sand and hide the djellabas there,” he said. “We’d run and come back so that no one saw, because they thought it wasn’t good to run like that.”

The Marathon des Sables was created by a former concert promoter, Patrick Bauer of France. It requires self-sufficiency in the most challenging place on earth at a cost of almost US$5,000, including travel and fees. Without sponsorship, neither Ahansal nor Morabity would be training or running the race. Ahansal and Morabity work in one of the largest industries in Zagora — tourism.

Morabity said there are younger and faster runners in their hometown who cannot afford to enter competitions. Ahansal works with some of these runners to develop the quickness they need to compete in races of varying topography and distance. He emphasizes that mileage should gradually increase, as opposed to going straight to ultramarathons, which will deteriorate the muscles. Morabity was one of his trainees.

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