By Jacqueline Kantor
By Jacqueline Kantor
OUARZAZATE, April 8, 2012 (New York Times)
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.
The place where Ahansal was born is not a town, he emphasizes, and there was no need to mark the date or year of 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 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 Sunday, 878 competitors will carry their food and supplies for the week through 153.2 miles of scorching sun and shifting sand. Ahansal will begin the race at noon, when the temperature can reach up to 122 degrees. The longest one-day distance covers 50.6 miles — including 14.3 miles 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 they are all from Zagora, a town of around 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 four miles 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 one of the most challenging places on earth at a cost of almost $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 runners’ mileage should gradually increase, as opposed to going straight to ultramarathons.
Last year, Morabity wore a pair of Ahansal’s shoes and his backpack during the race. When Mohamad and Lahcen first started racing, they would receive running shoes from friends, the same shoes that were passed down to the man who would interrupt the Ahansal reign.
“You can’t just take everything for yourself,” Ahansal said in German, one of the languages he learned from tourists on his treks to the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara. “Alone, nothing is accomplished.”
Sportsmanship defines these racers. They recognize a “sport spirit” that mixes competitive drive with a humility not typically associated with professional athletes. During the longest day of last year’s race, Mohamad Ahansal started having problems in the 40th mile. He encouraged Morabity to pick up the pace and overtake Jordanian Salameh Al Aqra, who later finished third.
“I said to Rachid, ‘Now you must win, because now either I’ll manage it or I won’t,’ ” Ahansal said.
This year Morabity, 30, will be sponsored by Essoulami Rahal Abdelouahed, who owns a Moroccan catering business. Morabity and three other top Moroccan runners make up what is called the Rahal Groupe.
Meryem Khali, 37, is the fifth runner and the only woman sponsored by Rahal. At her home in Salé, the neighboring town to Morocco’s capital, Rabat, she keeps her wedding ring in the same box as a gold medal from the May 2006 International Military Sports Council championships.
Her participation in the Marathon des Sables is a first. As a leader of the military cross-country team, Khali identifies with a veteran group of Moroccan champions.
“We, the old generation, we always are proud when we win the medals, but we don’t care about the material stuff,” Khali said. “We used to love doing sports for sport, not for anything else.”
Beyond training and endurance, minute details separate a middle-of-the-pack finisher from a champion in the punishing ultramarathon. To meet the race’s daily 2,000-calorie requirement, Rahal Groupe’s runners and Ahansal will fill 15-pound bags with carbohydrates like pasta and rice, as well as dates, nuts and honey — native foods that are more common in the area than PowerBars.
One thing they will not be bringing for six days in the Sahara: sunscreen. They have no need for it, Morabity said, after a lifetime in the desert.
Rahal Groupe meets before the marathon to develop a system for tackling the steep descents and dunes of the race, such as running uphill in a zigzag formation.
“Some of the other runners, they go directly up the hill,” Morabity said. “They don’t notice the secret.”
Is the secret to these runners’ success in the training, or are these Saharan athletes, most of them of Berber descent, born to be runners?
Ahansal or Morabity may have the same strength as a foreign competitor, but their upbringing separates them.
“It’s not a luxury life and that’s where you learn the resistance, the endurance,” Ahansal said. “The people are the same, but the life isn’t.”