The Atlas Mountains
A the end of November, after spending 2 months in London, I decided it was time to go back to the mountains! Morocco seemed to be the perfect place to go; only 3:30hrs flight, fairly cheap, and some big mountains!!
Few days later, I landed in Marrakech where I got ripped off by a taxi driver as a good tourist would do ;) Fortunately, the second taxi driver was much more genuine and took me to Imlil at 1800m where my hotel was. The road leading to the Atlas Mountains didn’t disappoint, the sceneries were breath-taking.
My initial plan was to climb up Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa culminating at 4200m, after a couple of days of acclimatisation; but after my first run I was kindly reminded by my legs that running on the flat in London wasn’t the perfect prep for the mountains. Going to such altitude is no walk in the park and requires a good level of fitness, well at least if you want to enjoy the hike.
Since I wanted to summit Toubkal at a descent pace and have fun while doing so, I decided to wait a few days for my legs to get back to (mountain) speed before heading. The trails there are unbelievably beautiful! Some really nice hard-packed rocky and dusty trails with endless routes and circuits to choose from! Even if I was there in late-November the temperatures were very nice (15-20°C). Hot enough to run in short shorts and t-shirts, but cool enough not to overheat. It was a bit chilly during the evenings though but hey you can’t have it all J
After these few days of training and acclimatising, I felt ready to go. The round trip to the top from Imlil is around 35k with 2500m of climbing. The first part of the route up to the basecamp (3200m) is really enjoyable as the gradient allows you to jog up without too much effort; the section from the refuge to the top is another story ;) This last section is much steeper and technical. The altitude as well starts to play its part and so settling into a fast hike is more comfortable – at least it was for me. Once you get to the top, the views are utterly unbelievable. There is a spectacular 360° view looking over the surrounding mountains, the only downside is the steel structure marking the top. It’s simply ugly to be honest… After summiting, the run back down is great with lots of runnable descents and only few tricky bits.
The round trip took me 5:45 hours. The people from the hotel thought I was a bit crazy ;) They are probably not completely wrong…
It took me a few days to fully recover from running up Toubkal. Spending time at high altitude always takes a lot out of the body even if it’s not very technical.
Few days later, my dad came and met me in the Atlas Mountains. He likes to join me on my adventures around the world whenever he can. So far he came to Chile and Nepal, and now Morocco! He is not a runner but we both enjoy spending time hiking in the mountains together even if he talks too much for my taste J
The plan was to hike up Toubkal together, this time in two days (my father slows me down ;-), staying one night at the basecamp.
On the first day, we went for a gentle hike so he could acclimatise. The next day, we made our way to the basecamp. My dad usually responds quite well to altitude, which is handy as he usually only meets me for few days. Day three was the day of the big climb but the weather was not looking very good. It was cloudy and very windy. Rain was also forecasted for the afternoon so we set off early in the morning in order to avoid getting wet. The wind made the temperature drop and it was getting very cold. Nevertheless, we put all our layers on and went for it. Everything was going well until about halfway when my dad started to struggle to keep up with my pace and I couldn’t really slow down as I was already quite cold. My dad started to doubt he could make it to the top. I knew it was the altitude that started to play tricks on his mind so I told him to keep pushing but he was still dropping the pace so we had to take drastic measures. I told him to hold on to my backpack and I would pull him up to the top, we didn’t make it all the way here to turn round! So he grabbed my bag and we forged on. My quads were on fire, but there was no way I would let him down - we had to go to the top! At least, I wasn’t cold anymore J When we arrived at the summit, we both felt really happy we made it and my dad started to feel better; Having had experience with altitude before, I knew it was his mind messing up with him. I was very proud of him for not giving up! The way back down went well and we made it back to the hostel in one piece. Well, my dad stumbled and fell a few times but nothing unusual here…
This was our last day in the Atlas Mountains… I really didn’t think that the trails here would be so amazing. The weather at this time of year was just perfect. I loved it and will definitely go back. It is roughly the same price as going to the Alps and it allows you to train higher which can be a great advantage
Post DNF depression
My trip to Morocco was pretty special to me as I had gone through a bit of a hard time after my DNF at UTMB. Dropping out during the race wasn’t something I had prepared myself for. I had to drop after 110k due to pain in my trachea, I couldn’t breathe properly anymore which is a bit of a problem when you run in the mountains…
I felt so strong during the first half of the race and I was on target pace but after Courmayeur things started to go wrong. I could feel the pain coming and had to slow down to the point where I was unable to run anymore… On the way down to La Fouly, I made the decision that I was going to drop out because I wasn’t enjoying it and this wasn’t the race anymore that I had trained so hard for. I was also concerned that I would cause damage to my body and the weather conditions were not helping either. So before I got to the aid station, I rang my parents who were crewing me to tell them to come and pick me up but I couldn’t speak; tears were running down my face. I was heartbroken. I only managed to say “I cannot breathe. Come to La Fouly”. This race meant the world to me… For those who don’t know me, I quit my job back in December last year to dedicate my life to running and to train for UTMB. I trained as hard as I possibly could and sacrificed so many things for this race. But my body had failed me… When I got to the aid station, I went straight to the drop out desk and got my bib number cut… By the time my parents arrived, I somehow had managed to convince myself I was ok with the decision I made and we drove back to Chamonix where my bed was waiting for me. After all, this wasn’t something I could control.
The following week was good as I was busy. I moved out of Chamonix and I volunteered at UTMR so I had no time to reflect on the race. Then, I went to London to stay with a friend who needed a little help. But when I got there, everything started to spiral down. I didn’t feel like running anymore. I also didn’t want to see anybody. I felt a bit like a failure and no single day passed where I didn’t ask myself why I dropped out and why I didn’t push on. I didn’t realise it at that time, but I was in a way suffering from a kind of post-DNF depression. I never thought something like this could happen to me. As an ultra-runner, I have a strong mind and like to think that I can overcome anything… I couldn’t have been more wrong! I kept all that to myself and would simply pretend that everything was fine. But it wasn’t and it and it ate me from the inside.
My trip to the Atlas Mountains came as an eye opener. This is why I love the mountains so much. You can only be true to yourself when facing their stillness and power, or they will break you. I had to look deep inside to figure out what was going on and then it came to me. I have DNFed but this is not the end of me, if anything it will make me a better and stronger runner. There is also no shame in not finishing a race. I had given everything I had on that day and made the right call. My journey to UTMB was the most amazing and that’s really what mattered - I have grown so much as a person and a runner, and I have learnt a lot about myself along the way. This DNF is just another lesson I had to learn and it has brought me one step closer to becoming the runner I want to be. Strong, humble and passionate.
DNF is a thing and I will not make the mistake again to not prepare myself for this possibility. I was confident, in great shape, and so full of excitement that it never even crossed my mind I might not be able to finish the race. Well, you live and learn! You can’t take this big races for granted as the physical challenge and the constant battle with your mind will get the best of you from time to time. I have learnt for myself that it is ok not to finish a race as long as I have given my 100%. At the end of the day, the race is just the end of a journey but no matter what happens, you are left with a beautiful experience.
I also would like to say thank you to my teammate and running partner the beautiful Svenja (aka Peanut) who helped and supported me during this tough time. She is such an amazing person and a great runner. An ultra-running machine in the making!! Just a piece of advice if you want to stay in her good book – Never get between her and a can of coke or never push her onto an electrical wire (the ones you can find around fields), she doesn’t really like getting electrocuted for some reason… I am still laughing about that one though, sorry… J