By Alice Hunter Morrison, Moroccan-based Journalist, winner of Best Africa Blog, RunUltra, and Special Correspondent to Hope So Bright
Mohamad Ahansal is a hero in his home country of Morocco and a superstar amongst trail runners. He has run the Marathon des Sables, the toughest race on earth, which takes place annually in the Sahara Desert 21 times. It is a six-day trail race covering over 250 kilometers in the most hostile environment on earth. Of those twenty-one runs, Ahansal has won the race five times and been runner-up ten times. That is an extraordinary feat.
Now, Ahansal is taking on the legendary Badwater ultra marathon. Badwater is a 135-mile (217 km) course starting at 279 feet (85 m) below sea level in the Badwater Basin, in California’s Death Valley, and ending at an elevation of 8360 feet (2548 m) at Whitney Portal, the trailhead to Mount Whitney. It takes place in mid-July when the weather conditions are horrific and temperatures are more than 120 °F (49 °C), even in the shade.
Competitors have 48 hours to finish the race. You can only compete if you are invited, and only the elites are invited.
Ahansal will be running as an Ambassador for Hope So Bright to raise awareness about children who struggle with autism. One out of ten children are diagnosed with the disorder in the United States and Hope So Bright, through their elite running team and “I Run 4 Ultra” campaign, are publicizing the issue and looking at different ways to treat the symptoms of autism.
Ahansal didn’t start running competitively until he was in his late teens.As a child growing up near Zagora, in the desert regions south of Morocco, he had a very active life. “My school was seven kilometers away,“ he says, “so, I ran there and back and that was my early conditioning.”
When he was 17, Ahansal entered his first competition. “It was Eid Al Arsh, the festival of the coronation, on the third of March, and there were lots of festivities to celebrate, including races.All the boys and young men in the area signed up. I wore green plastic, heavy football boots. I saw that everyone else was wearing trainers so, I took my boots off, left them at the start and I ran barefoot. I ran over the sand and the stones as fast as I could and I finished second. It was the first time I realized I could do it and it was completely natural. I didn’t need preparation or training.”
However, Ahansal will be training for Badwater. “I am focusing on three types of training,“ he said. “Heat, mountains, and altitude. The heat should be no problem as it regularly reaches these kinds of temperatures in Zagora, my home. As for the mountains, I am going to be running the route of the trail marathon that is in Morocco at the end of May, the Trans Atlas Marathon. To prepare for the altitude I will spend some time running in the High Atlas and go up Mount Toubkal, which is 4,167 m.
For someone who has triumphed so often at the Marathon des Sables, will Badwater still pose a challenge? I asked.
“Yes! In a way it was a crazy decision to sign up,“ says Ahansal. “It is almost the same distance but Marathon des Sables takes six days and Badwater is non-stop. I have never run this far in one race. Yes, the temperature will be the same, but the quality of the sun will be different. The altitude, the humidity and the difference between the desert plain and the mountains are all factors. At the start, it is going to be very dry with lots of heat coming up from the ground, and then by the end of the race, you’re at high altitude. This is the difficulty!”
Ahansal is running to support children who suffer from autism. I asked him if that was a problem in Morocco also. “It never used to be,” he said. “Before, children walked to school and ate dates, bread, and oil. They moved around a lot. But now, we go everywhere in cars and it is all about fast food – kids are always asking to eat at McDonald’s.”
For the race itself, Ahansal’s aim is to try and win the race. It will be very difficult he acknowledges as the competition is tough, but he hopes that his experiences in the desert with the Marathon des Sables and in the mountains with the Trans Atlas Marathon will stand him in good stead.
Ahsanal wants to win that place on the podium for team “I Run 4 Ultra” and Hope So Bright. “I am so proud to be running for Hope So Bright. I want to do as much as I can to publicize the problems that children face when diagnosed with autism. I dedicate my race and performance to these children.”