Mohamad and Lahcen Ahansal have been organizing the Trans Atlas Marathon in Morocco since 2013. This monstrous running event was always likely to be a success, given the brothers’ status as two of the finest ultra-runners on the planet; their combined total of 16 victories in the (in)famous Marathon des Sables across the Sahara tells you all you need to know on that front. Mohamad Ahansal shares his story with GripWorld.
Every year, the young Mohamad Ahansal would set off – alone and barefoot – on a 160-kilometer trek across the desert. His destination was the Moroccan town of Zagora, where athletes would gather for the start of the Marathon des Sables. Not that Ahansal was taking part in the legendary cross-Sahara challenge. No, this was all about the ultra-run of his own creation. One that involved three days pounding the sand under a hot sun, just so he could be there to cheer off his idols, the best runners from around the world. Ahansal had grown up in the Sahara among nomadic Berbers, but was too young to join the field when the event got underway.
For the brothers, the Marathon des Sables was a lifelong dream, covering terrain that formed the backdrop to their lives. Eventually, Lahcen could wait no longer, mingling in the field of competitors beyond the gaze of the officials and soon adding a fleet-footed presence to the leading pack. He was duly discovered and hooked off the course, but not before the seeds of a truly incredible desert-running career had been sown. Having spotted Lahcen’s talent, the race organizers got together with sponsors to ensure he could take part in the event (officially this time) the following year. It wasn’t long before Mohamad Ahansal also received the support he needed to pay the entry fee; he was just 17 years old when he lined up for his Marathon des Sables debut. Running without shoes, he finished in a stunning fourth place. What was to follow proved even more extraordinary: Mohamad won the toughest stage race on earth six times and Lahcen notched up no fewer than ten victories. Between 1997 and 2010 the Ahansal name was ever-present at the top of the overall time sheets. And in 1998 Mohamad set a new record for the fastest desert crossing of all time, soaking up the 221 kilometers in 16:22.29 sec. Not to be outdone, Lahcen also pushed the performance bar to fresh heights, winning the race nine times in a row between 1999 and 2007. Not surprisingly, his record still stands. The status of these two running nomads as desert legends is well and truly secure.
Life for the brothers nowadays may be a little closer to normal, but they are still involved in ultra-running. As well as hosting training camps and trekking tours back home, in 2013 they launched a race of their own – the Trans Atlas Marathon in Morocco. Support for the event has come from the highest places. “I was given the go-ahead personally by King Mohammed VI,” recounts Ahansal in an exclusive interview with Continental GripWorld. “That gave me a big boost and made me very happy,” he says. Today, the Trans Atlas Marathon is one of Africa’s most popular races.
The event follows the classical stage-race template. The runners cover 280 kilometers in six days over a route that takes them out of the desert, 3,000 meters up into the Atlas Mountains. The profile of the course and the unpredictable weather conditions that go with it invariably prove an irresistible proposition for ultra-runners. The stages are between 30 and 60 kilometers in length and the competitors scale around 12,000 meters in elevation. They must carry their equipment and daily provisions with them through the stages. And each night, they are greeted at one of the many mountain villages en route by bivouac tents pitched by local people and traditional dishes prepared by their own hands. “The special thing about this event,” explains Mohamad Ahansal, “is that the people signing up for it aren’t just running, they’re discovering the Berber culture, interacting directly with the people and sleeping in their villages in traditional bivouacs.” For Ahansal, the Trans Atlas goes beyond sport; it’s a platform for cultural exchange, strengthening traditions and a community spirit.
The participants arrive in Marrakech on 7 June for the start of this year’s event. Following an overnight stay in the city, a shuttle takes them some 180 kilometers to the Berber village of Agouti located 1,800 meters up in what’s known as the “Vallée des heureuses” (valley of the happy). The village community will be waiting, and food, conversation and cheering kids are sure to be in generous supply. From here, the runners will embark on their adventure the following day. But what might the weather have in store? Big question.
In the short history of the Trans Atlas, the participants have learned to expect a mixed bag when it comes to the elements – everything from desert heat to mountain snow. Last year, for example, they had to contend with historically epic conditions, as the region saw more snow and mud than at any time in the last fifty years. All of which came as something of a shock at first; photos from the previous year had led runners to expect summer temperatures. Soon, though, the conditions brought out the fighting spirit among the participants. And, of course, the snow made for some extraordinary views.
For the Ahansals, the event is a mammoth logistical undertaking, and they use their vast experience as desert runners to map out a different course each year. “We work all summer on the route for the following year,” says Mohamad Ahansal. “And now we give ourselves two options, so we can move quickly to plan B if the weather’s tricky.” That means racking up quite a few kilometers but, as 2018 showed, it is time and mileage well spent. The weather was bad beyond anyone’s expectations, meaning that even the alternative route had to be tweaked and shortened by two kilometers. But harsh as it can be, the weather is very much a side issue for Mohamad. “We’re running through the stunning landscape of the Atlas Mountains,” he underlines, “the vibe is fantastic and we spend the evenings listening to music, dancing and just having fun.” For him, this is also a good way to give something back to the people here, the place where he became one of the world’s best desert runners. “Running past villages and schools is the best experience,” he says. “The kids and teenagers come out and start running with us.” Indeed, Ahansal has already uncovered plenty of fresh talent and nurtured it in his training camps. This is his running life coming full circle: “It is how my own story began,” he reflects.