Friday, October 15, 2010

Toubkal: Why spontaneously signing up for a marathon is not a good idea

Remember when I said that I often become so enthusiastic about things that I lose touch with what I can and cannot do? 



It happened again. 

Something is wrong with me. Seriously, seriously wrong. All signs point toward insanity. What else would inspire an otherwise rational person (questionable...) to spontaneously sign up for a mountain marathon up North Africa's highest peak without training? I didn't even have any running shorts with me. Or a water bottle. And I still somehow thought that this was going to turn out well. 

After a day and a half spent wandering around Marrakech, British guy and I decided to head to the Atlas mountains. 

The Atlas Mountains

Within an hour and a half, we arrived at the Moroccan mountain village of Imlil. As we stepped out of the taxi my vision of a quiet mountain village was completely shattered. Red Bull and PowerBar banners flew, dance music blared, and groups of runners clad in varying shades of neon stood around chattering excitedly. 

British guy and I had unwittingly stumbled upon a trail running marathon up the Toubkal. With 42 kilometers (26 miles), 3,313 meter (10,869 feet) total ascent and three climbs, it was dubbed the hardest trail marathon. 

There was no getting around it.

We had to do it. 

Except that we only had enough cash to pay the race fees and get back down to Marrakech. There were no banks in this town. Either we used all of our money to pay the registration fees for the race or we spent a few comfortable days in Imlil sleeping inside and eating at restaurants. 

We signed up for the race. 

We handed over the combination of Dirham and Euros that we had cobbled together and then spent the subsequent waning hours of daylight borrowing missing equipment (like running shorts), and ignoring any rational arguments about whether or not this was a sensible idea. 

We pitched the tent and set the alarm for 4:30 a.m. 

With 9 years of competitive running under my belt and a stint as a member of the U.S. junior mountain running team I knew exactly what  I was getting into and I knew it wasn't going to be pretty. But I couldn't say no. I couldn't turn down the adventure. This inability to say no gets me into a lot of trouble.

At 4:30 a.m. the alarm went off, followed closely by the call to prayer. I threw on my borrowed running tights (which were too big and kept falling down), a long-sleeved Icebreaker shirt (a staple travel item for me), and my 15 euro (21 USD) Decathlon running shoes (I lost my expensive trail running shoes while racing to catch a train in Germany and I'm too broke to buy new ones. Note: Don't tie expensive running shoes to the outside of your backpack. Especially if you're too broke to buy new ones). 

British guy and I grabbed everything we thought we might need for 42 kilometers (26 miles) in the mountains and headed to the starting line. The sun hadn't yet risen and the stars were still faintly twinkling. The air was fresh and cool and because I've always loved races, I was excited. 

Imlil. Start of the race. 

We set off. 

The first 10K (6 miles) and the first big climb went well. We had a good pace and I had at least been training for this distance. At the first food and water station, we grabbed some tea and cookies and kept climbing up alongside waterfalls. 

First food and water station. Thanks for the cookies guys. 

I thought we were pretty close to the top and was in high spirits. Except as it turns out we were nowhere near the top. And as we rounded a bend, I saw this. 

This photo was taken from the top. You can faintly see the trail switchbacking.
We ran up this. I use the verb "run" very loosely.

The altitude (3500 meter/ 11482 feet) grabbed me by the ankles. I felt as if I was walking through water...underwater even. I took slow deliberate steps and deep breaths and cursed myself repeatedly for being such a sucker for an adventure. 

At the second pass the trail dipped down along the ridge spilling into the valley and winding its way to the 2nd food and water station at the base of Toubkal. It was stunning. Unfortunately I was too busy coaxing my muscles and lungs into operation to really appreciate the magnitude of this spectacular mountain range. But the pictures look nice. British guy and I split a Red Bull (hey, it was free) and continued onto the réfuge*--which kept moving farther and farther away like some twisted optical illusion. 

Réfuge at the base of Toubkal

The trail was rocky and the loose rocks and gravel made each step a delicate dance with gravity. British guy totally wiped out. Ok, fine. It was me. 

We made it to the réfuge as the first runners were coming back down from the summit. I ate some cookies. And then some peanuts, a banana, some other fruit, almonds, chocolate, tea, coke, and then some more cookies. I'd never run a marathon before. I was an 800 meter runner. The longest race I'd run before this endeavor was a 10K (6 miles). I watched the other runners approach the food station. They barely stopped as they grabbed a cup of water and perhaps an orange slice. Apparently you're not supposed to treat the food stations like an all-you-can-eat-buffet. I felt mildly self-conscious, but luckily the feeling didn't last too long. I grabbed another cookie. And a banana. 

Food and water station. We kept getting stuck behind the mules. 

I often get myself into some pretty interesting and hilarious scrapes, but I haven't died yet (YET) because I (usually) know when enough is enough. I desperately wanted to run up to the summit just so I could say I completed a trail running marathon without training (stupid). But I would have been miserable and exhausted and it could have been dangerous. Also my hands had begun to swell at an alarming rate. I looked like I was suffering from some sort of Harry Potter inspired curse. I reluctantly--but gratefully-- decided to scrap the summit and head back to the village.

Because British guy is British guy, he stayed with me through the whole race even though he is fit enough to have gone further and faster. British guy's idea of a good time is an Ironman. I'm just waiting for him to suggest a weekend excursion to cycle up Everest and then ski down. During which time he'll master the local language. I'm 99.9% sure that British guy is a spy. 

I gave Toubkal one last look, grabbed some more cookies, and we headed down the valley and back to Imlil with Toubkal rising up behind us. 

As we approached the final food station I got excited and started talking about cookies. In detail. I spent at least 5 minutes  explaining the difference between biscuits and cookies and lamenting the fact that Europe doesn't have any good cookies. British guy didn't contribute much to this conversation. I guess he doesn't have strong opinions about cookies. 

After 30K (18 miles), 2 climbs, 2300 meter (7545 feet) total elevation gain, and at least 3 dozen cookies we reached Imlil. I already have an unhealthy obsession with Chaco flips, but I was so happy to put my feet back into flip flops that I nearly cried. Here is what my feet looked like:


So I didn't finish the marathon, but I had a hell of a good time and got some free cookies out of it. In my book, that's a successful adventure (in my book anything involving cookies is a success), but next time I run a marathon, I'll train for it. Promise. 

*A réfuge is the French term for a mountain hut. When the French refer to refuges, they're referring to something that looks like this.


Angetombe said...

Haha, Nikki, you're totally nuts! I love it!! I trained for my marathon for 4 months and it was totally flat and it kicked my butt, and you merrily saunter off up a vertical mountain and manage 18 miles with no training! You're my hero :-) And who says you can't eat cookies will marathoning? Maybe no one ever tried it before!

Nikki Hodgson said...

Hahaha, it was pretty insane...but super fun! I definitely do not recommend running that distance without training. If it weren't for the cookies I'm sure I would have dropped off much earlier. I was in so much pain the next day. For the next few days stairs were my arch nemesis. And there are a lot of stairs in Morocco.

Bloghead said...

Great Adventure. Now I must read the rest of your posts. Are you planning on seeing the UAE?

Nikki Hodgson said...

I would love to visit the UAE. I have family currently living in Qatar and have been meaning to get over that way for quite some time. Hopefully soon! :)

Anonymous said...

I am completely desperate to do this race, I really hope they do it next year, I wanted to do it this year, but I couldn't get the time off. I've been training like mad. I have also never seen an English-language account of it. How was the organisation ? From the sounds of it you weren't stuck for cookies and nanas !

Nikki Hodgson said...

I definitely recommend this race! I would love to go back and do it again. (This time I'll train...). It was really well-organized. Although, I didn't sign up for it until the last-minute so I'm not sure how the pre-race organization was. The race itself was great though. Everything was clearly marked, on time, and the food and water stations were positioned perfectly. And the cookies were delicious. ;)

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