Mohamad’s cell phone never stops singing—he answers it, each time with a calm smile, switching in-and-out of languages. Moroccan Arabic to German, French to English. A phone that’s constantly ringing, answered each time with happiness.

Mohamad Ahansal, legendary desert runner and lover of the Atlas Mountains, Morocco, is the creator of the six-stage Trans Atlas Marathon, a 170-mile traverse of the Moroccan mountain range. 2016 marked the fourth edition of the race, and as the race grows, so does Mohamad in his role as a race director.

A lifelong runner, repeat champion of the iconic Marathon des Sables, and various international ultra races, Mohamad Ahansal, is also well known for organizing running races around Morocco with his brother Lachen Ahnsal. The young and emerging Trans Atlas Marathon ultra race is now becoming Mohamad’s “master-piece!”

© Mark Gillet

Mohamad’s roadbook for the 2016 TAM is laying on the backseat of his Toyota, pages dog-eared, chock full of notes for each stage. Scrawled on each page are notes to himself, things he wants to tell the runners: weather-related, terrain-related, attention-related (“watch out for the dogs!”).

The idea for the Trans Atlas Marathon has been in the sketchbooks of Mohamad’s mind for twenty years. Back in the 1990’s when he was training to be a mountain guide, all the trails used in the race are routes that Mohamad knows well from his years working in these mountains, and to create Trans Atlas Marathon, he connected all his favorite trails into one big 170-mile jaunt.

As race director, Mohamad had two motivations in creating TAM. The first was to organically stimulate the villages’ local economies. He has specifically organized the stages so that lunch is not handed to the runners by the organization—for lunch, they are on their own. Runners have the cultural experience to interact with locals and to handle Moroccan money (the dirham.) Spending locally isn’t a donation, this is an exchange and stimulates the local economies in a natural way. A great example of sustainable and cross-cultural development in action!

“When everyone spends something small, does something small, we will also slowly help to develop the economy,” says Mohamad. “It’s really small things, but small things are what make change.”

The second of Mohamad’s two great motivations is to demonstrate to local boys and girls that running—and exercise in general—is a positive way to spend free time. “I think that sport is really effective in combating drug and alcohol abuse,” says Mohamad.  According to him, many of the young men in these remote villages turn to substances to entertain themselves when falling into boredom. He wants to show them that there’s somewhere else to channel their energy, and to demonstrate to them how to utilize their free time positively…specifically, by moving their legs.

Passing through each village while driving through the Atlas, Mohamad gives his horn a quick tap. One time, we asked him why. “I know everyone here," he laughed. “It would be rude if I didn't say hi."

Mohamad has a real clan of people supporting him. Morocco is a culture full of communal efforts; this is evident in everything from the way people eat (shared plates, shared cups) to the way they carry bags (two people side by side, each holding one handle, bag swinging between them.) Mohamad’s approach to Trans Atlas Marathon is no exception: the people who support him during the race are crucial to the race’s success, and is one of the aspects of the race that he’s most proud of.

“You need a good team. Without a good team, you can do whatever you want, but it won't work." Mohamad Ahansal

Instead of just building an event team of friends from Mohamad’s home town of Zagora, in the Southern Sahara part of Morocco, or just the locals from the Atlas Mountains, Mohamad has forged a (race event team) out of both. “The teams from the Atlas and Sahara mixed well,” he laughed after the car radio squawked with static-y Arabic, the teams giving each other a hard time over the radio. This is also important to Mohamad, despite the fact that most of them are Moroccan, culture and tradition vary between regions. By forming a collective team from two different landscapes, he has brought together two groups of young people who may never have met.

The radio on Mohamad’s dashboard starts to squawk, and the radio waves are filled with laughter and rolling Arabic. Language skills aren’t necessary to understand that there are some solid jokes being exchanged via walkie-talkie, and Mohamad laughs as he listens in on the party.

“The teams from the Atlas and from the Sahara have mixed so, so well.” He is grinning.

This year’s 4th Edition of the Trans Atlas Marathon, there was more organization, more participants than last year. The 2016 TAM group almost doubled in size from the 2015 race—from about 25 people to around 50. Mohamad was able to use this year to learn how he wants to improve the event and move forward in 2017. “For next year, the 5th Edition of TAM, I have more realization of what needs to come together. We need to have better organization between transfers to and from Marrakech. We need to have media cars too. Mohamad also wants to develop and improve The Trans Atlas Marathon, “Challenge”, which he instated this year when the idea came to him last-minute. (The Challenge is a shorter version of TAM—it’s still six stages, but allows competitors with different skill levels to still experience the Atlas.)

Mohamad also plans to shift towards more bivouacs (camps) and fewer gites (guest houses) for future editions. These changes are partially because this year’s participant numbers pushed the gites’ capacities, and partially because he’s gotten great feedback from competitors about bivouacs.  Finally, he will continue to do even more for runners’ safety in future editions.  “For the 2015 and 2016 editions, the King Mohammed VI of Morocco had given us access to an emergency helicopter,” says Mohamad. Things like a helicopter from the King make a big difference for high-level safety measures that can be very costly.

Mohamad Ahansal is a runner with a huge heart, both for his mountains and for the people with whom he shares them. He loves this race, he loves this place, and he loves the people who have come from around the world to run Trans Atlas Marathon.

The 2016 Trans Atlas Marathon Stage Six was run in honor for our good friends we have lost “Basti and Mark” They will be missed!

The 5th Edition of the Trans Atlas Marathon will take place from May 12th to 17th  2017. A group will be running in the 2017 edition of TAM!

Supplemental sources:

Mohamad and Kirsten Kortebein