"I have two big dreams, introduce runners to the beautiful Atlas Mountains, and to the Berber way of life." Mohamad Ahansal

"Im struggling for words to describe the last 8 days. To have seen Morocco as it should be seen, away from the tourist route, to be left wondering why some amazingly talented runners aren't sponsored, to meet an inspirational man, Mohamad Ahansal, who bent over backwards to make sure that the Trans Atlas Marathon runners were safe, and immersed in the amazing culture and environment." Claire Healy, Australia.

Video by CojoFilms

Trans Atlas Marathon, a 6 day stage race of 250 KM and 12,000 meters of elevation in the heart of the High Atlas Mountains. TAM is one of the most eprouvant stage races in the world. But there is also an opportunity to do the Trans Atlas Challenge event which covers approximately half the distance of the main event, and is suited to those who feel that running the equivalent of a marathon a day is too much.

The idea for the Trans Atlas Marathon came from Mohamad Ahansal. Mohamad was born in a semi-nomad family and became a legend in Morocco,  having won the prestigious Marathon des Sables 5 times in addition to claiming victory in various other ultra trail races. He is now well known in Morocco for organizing running races via Ahansal Events, with his brother Lachen Ahansal, another international star of long distance running.

The 6th Edition, a very special year.

"No climate change Mr Trump, Snow in Morocco in May? - everything’s going well." Peter from Belgium.

The number of Trans Atlas Marathon participants varies each year. For the 6th edition, there were 36 participants and 10 nationalities represented: Austria, Australia, Belgium, Ireland, France, Germany, Morocco, Norway, Spain, USA. In camp, all instructions for the race are given in french and english, but you can hear a mixture of languages between the runners including Berber, French, English, Arabic, German, Spanish, Italian and Norwegian. « A great moroccan salad » laughed some moroccan runners. This year, a deaf runner took part in the race, Christian from Germany. It was a bit surprising for the participants. But the most astonishing thing was to see how Mohamad Ahansal and some of the other organizers were speaking to him so easily, using facial and bodily expressions, using their hands and feet and creating their own sign language. « If you want to be understanding, you will » said Mohamad. That wasn’t the end of the surprises. By talking with Michele from USA, another participant who won TAM in 2017, I learned that she used to work as a sign language interpreter. An amazing coincidence. And that is how Christian was interviewed by Chris O’Connor, the English film producer, with the help of Michele from the United States who played the role of interpreter. It was magic! This unusual scene illustrated what is so special about the Trans Atlas Marathon: more than a race, it’s a human adventure which offers unforgottable and precious moments.

This 6th edition was also very special beacause of the weather. In May, it was still snowing at 2000 meters altitude. A bolt from the blue! Naturally, no one expected that weather, neither participants from all over the world nor the organizers. « When is the next flight back to Ireland? » joked Chris O’Conner when he arrived at Marrakech airport, and heard about the freezing conditions in the mountains. « Go to Zagora » replied Mohamad Ahansal with the same sense of humor. Both Mohamad and Chris, can give loads of stick easily. They’ve work together for several years. Chris fell in love with TAM and comes regularly to film, and even compete. But, like Mohamad, he wasn’t at all prepared for the wintery weather. In any case, Mohamad had to adapt the event due to the weather. A few days before the start, he pondered what to do. The race ends just a few days before Ramadan, making it impossible to change dates. Without ever losing his legendary smile, Mohamad spoke with his team and tried to make the a best choice: “do I have to cancel the planned bivouacs in program?” He bites the bullet. “If it is sunny in a few days, I don’t want to see it,” he confesses, still smilling. Don’t cry over spilt milk. Finally, the decision was made to reserve cottages, instead of bivouacs for the first 3 stages. What a great choice! The first day, it was raining cats and dogs on camp, and runners were crossing mountain ridges of snow in the peaks. By the second day there were storms again in the camp. Fortunately, we could stay inside the cottages! Thus, each day, Mohamad and his team went back to the drawing board, and worked hard to change plans at the last minute: reserve new cottages? organise new paths? etc. A task which was huge but remained invisible to the competitors.

Two dreams, one soul, many prizes

“I have two big dreams » Mohamad once said. « The first is to introduce runners to the beautiful mountains here, and the Berber way of life”.  Berbers refer to themselves as Amazigh, which roughly translates to “free man”. Mohamad wanted to hold a race that took place in the region of his birth place, that’s why the Trans Atlas Marathon is so deeply connected to Berber landscape. The race is characterized by days full of steep ascents, and plunging descents. Runners follow goat, and sheep herding paths used for centuries, they cross rocky moonscapes that dive into lush, green waterways, pass through acres of burned acacia trees – the branches cut, and scorched to make charcoal. Runners meet heavily laden mules transporting their haul to the market. “I didn’t expect so much diversity of landscape,” Before coming here, I thought Morocco was a kind of desert,” Carla from ItalyMohamad replied: “Even some volunteers from Morocco were very surprised to see the diversity of our country.” Sometimes, paths grow faint, and then disappear altogether, making the race particularly technical and difficult! It’s way harder than the Trans Alpine.” said Karl from Austria, four times finisher of that tough mountain event.

So what is Mohamad’s second dream? The second is to discover hidden stars in the Moroccan running community. I want to give a chance to the local Berbers boys and girls who run in the mountains, and the desert, but don’t have the chance, or the equipment to come out, and compete.” Because of Mohamad’s own personal story, he knows there is excellent running talent in the area. That’s why he devotes so much of his time to finding, and supporting local runners, Coach Ahansal! So the Trans Atlas Marathon aims to discover future stars who run like the wind, such as Abelaziz Bagherra, this year’s winner and champion in 3 previous editions, or Aziza Raji, quadruple champion. Both Abelaziz and Aziza are from tiny desert and mountain villages of mud and stone. So the elite western runners who come to race TAM, have the opportunity to pit themselves, against the Berber boys and girls on their home turf. Every year, a few days before the start of the race, Mohamad’s cell phone didn’t stop ringing. Calls from local runners who beg Mohamad to register them at the last minute. Unfortunately he can’t pay for everyone. Fixing the limit at 10 moroccan participants this year, he spent a lot of time refusing the requests of some great local runners, and was sincerely sorry for not being able to help them more.

Smells like TAM spirit - Team Occidental

“Thanks for the amazing support we both recieved from back home, and thank you too the group of runners we shared the TAM adventure with. Everyone with their own stories and experiences, provided us with so much inspiration….a picture is worth a thousand words, sadly I do not have enough pictures to convey this story.” Claire

Over the last few years, more and more trail races are being organised in Morocco. But, in my mind, none come close to the Trans Atlas Marathon. Do you know of any other races where people dance and sing before and after running an ultra stage? TAM is 100% organized by local Moroccans.  The event offers western runners the opportunity to dive into the local Berber culture, run with local Moroccans, and sit down all together at the end of the day for dinner. The chief TAM cook has worked for the race for 4 years. “I always prepare local and in season food. The aim is to show the typical Moroccan cuisine. I also try to adapt menus for runners, cooking some Moroccan style pastas for example.” Agriculture is an important economic sector in Morocco with over half of the population working in farming. Each day, runners support the local economy by eating typical Moroccan food such as couscous or tajine or Moroccan soup. At breakfast, bread and cheese is served with a cup of Berber tea or Moroccan coffee. And sometimes, Msemmen, the delicious flaky crepes. After each stage, a slice of fresh water melon from Zagora is offered at the finish line. This deep connection with Berber culture transforms the race into an unforgettable adventure.

Everything is said, and shown. The images of happy faces and the beautiful landscapes don’t show the stories that are behind the event. New friends, people who you share their water with if you have run out, happy children laughing as if you have apperaed from another planet, donkeys who patiently show you the way back when you got lost. And the joy on the faces of small children when you buy a small piece of bread and distribute it amongst the villagers. One way or another, I am sad or perhaps nostalgic for this arid and yet beautiful land with its amazing and diverse vegetation and landscape.” Karl from Austria.

He’s already dreaming on the next edition. Like me!

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