by Allison Macsas
22 runners. 9 days. Morocco. Spearheaded by two people with a total of 15 days experience in the country. Risky? Maybe so, but that’s how great things begin.
The back story:
In March 2012, my boyfriend Gabe and I took a two week vacation to Morocco, where we traveled around largely on our own. We knew that we’d need a guide to take us into the Sahara, but had no real basis for choosing one – we figured we’d head to the last village and ask around. Many villages away from the Sahara, heading into a guesthouse, we crossed paths with a man coming out, who asked if we’d like to visit the desert. Our independent nature and tout exhaustion led to an immediate “no thanks,” but something caused us to go back and talk with him. His name was Hamid, and we took an instant liking to him and what he had to offer.
We decided to mull over the proposed trip during dinner, and ultimately decided to go – we’d probably never be back in Morocco, and the extra expense would be worth it! It was nearly 10pm at this point, and we realized that we needed to let him know it was a go. Gabe headed across the plaza to a telephone kiosk to make the call, but couldn’t figure out how to dial the number correctly. He came back looking defeated, and we wrote offthe trip.
Ten minutes later, Hamid showed up at our table. The call HAD connected, so he called back the operator, found out that a foreigner had been trying to call, had her point out the direction that Gabe had gone and, lo and behold, he found us! We departed at 8am the next morning.
We spent a total of three days with Hamid, mostly at his family’s camp in the Sahara. On the second night, under the most amazing star scape we’d ever seen, we asked Hamid about other trips that he offered. He told us about a French client who returns every year with a group of runners. Instantly I blurted out that I “have a lot of runners!” and would come back with some. As the night wore on, Gabe and I got more and more excited about the prospect, and finally had Hamid convinced that we might be serious about it.
Several weeks later I brought the topic up at a training meeting and was told to go for it! I began by putting together an itinerary together with Hamid via email, nailed down his pricing, created a snazzy brochure, held an info session and voila! 20 people were signed up on the first day of registration. Gatherings were held, flights were purchased, packing lists created. Before we knew it, March rolled around…
Gabe and I arrived in Marrakech a day before the group to meet with Hamid, settle money matters and get our feet on the ground ahead of everyone else. The group arrived on Saturday afternoon – with all of their bags! – and settled in for a good night sleep.
Over the next seven days, we covered over 1000 miles of central Morocco, with vastly different landscapes and experiences each day. Regardless, we quickly settled into a comfortable rhythm and routine as we traveled and ran throughout the country.
The guide: Hamid Bassadok is a 28 year old from M’Hamid, the “last village” before the Sahara. He began helping his uncle with a guiding service as a teenager, and these days runs the show. He is incredibly well-connected within Morocco, has an incredible amount of knowledge about the history, people and landscapes and, despite nothing more than a high school education, speaks more than six languages. He took all 22 of us to his family home where we were greeted with a huge range of snacks, endless cups of tea and turbans for our desert trip – incredible hospitality by any standards, but especially for a family that, by American standards, is quite poor.
Hamid worked non-stop all week to ensure that everyone was as happy and comfortable as possible.
The transport: We had five Land Cruisers, four for people and one for food, wine and equipment. Each vehicle was numbered, and most people claimed allegiance to the car of their choice. Each driver was a trusted friend of Hamid’s, and each owned their own vehicle. Most of the drivers couldn’t speak much English, but that didn’t impede their ability to be unbelievable navigators (one driver told us that they were all born with NPS – Nomad Positioning Systems) and fantastic run supporters – more on that in a moment.
The food: So much food! Breakfasts involved a variety of fresh breads, butter, cheese, local jams (think fig & orange), honey, eggs, hot coffee and hand-squeezed (literally) OJ, right off the tree.
Lunches were more snacking affairs due to our running schedule – we’d have bread, dates, fruit, nuts & figs beforehand, then the same with the addition of fresh veggies and grilled meat afterward.
Dinners were HUGE and generally involved a lentil soup, some sort of tagine (could be lamb, chicken or beef, slow cooked in the traditional way with lots of veggies and herbs), a couscous full of veggies, kefta (meatballs), plenty of just-baked bread and fruit to finish it all off. We ate family-style each night, and the quantity of food seemed to increase each day as they noticed that we continued to eat whenever food was brought out. Devon made an early mistake of asking if there was more chicken – five heaping plates were soon presented! We ate very well, with the added bonus of everything coming from local oasis gardens (even the wheat for the bread), which are 100% organic.
The running: As with the food…so much running! Excitement was high, the weather was beautiful and every day featured landscapes completely different from the day before – needless to say, lots of mileage ensued. Each day we’d arrive at the ‘departure area,’ where Yousef, our cook (he is actually a chef at a 5 star hotel), would have a changing tent and our big spread of snacks waiting for us. From there, we’d begin the run with a loud “Yellah!” which means “let’s go!” in Berber.
The terrain was completely different every day. We ran uphill, downhill, in the mountains, through villages, along palm oases, through Saharan sand and across a dry lake bed. There was little to no traffic to contend with, and wildlife was no concern, as the donkeys and camels weren’t too impressed with us. It was sometimes chilly, sometimes hot, sometimes windy, but always beautiful, open and free.
With 22 people we had a wide range of abilities, and most everyone had others to run with. The drivers would serve as a support team, and what a team they were! With one bringing up the front and another bringing up the rear, the three vehicles in between would patrol the course, ensuring that our water bottles were full, any turns well-marked and that we werewell-informed of the loosely-accurate remaining distance (just 2k left!).
Once you were ready to stop running, a vehicle would soon be by with a spot for you inside where you would ride for a bit, cheering on those who were still running and snapping photos. Once enough people were done for the day, we’d go on to the guesthouse where food and usually a swimming pool awaited.
The Plague & cold showers: It wasn’t all perfect, of course. Gabe and I came prepared with plenty of diarrhea medicine, but stomach issues thankfully never surfaced. Instead, a chest cold spread throughout the group and nearly everyone spent at least one day with a loud cough and overwhelming desire to sleep. Luckily, most people got over it quickly and on with the fun. It was a clear reminder that sharing your water bottle isn’t always a gesture of goodwill!
Additionally, I didn’t do the best job of forewarning people that in developing countries, hot showers are a rare, rare luxury. Though all of our hotels technically had one in each room, there is only so much water to go around in a small village and once it’s out, it’s out. We learned to take turns to let the tanks refill, wash quickly and fully appreciate the times that hot water spilled forth!
The sights: While this was first and foremost a running trip, the travel element was just as important. Beyond the stunning views from the cars, the run routes and the hotels, there was much to see. We toured the Kasbah in Ait Benhaddou, where Gladiator and other films were made, visited both a pottery and a women’s rug cooperative where we got to see the processes and buy wares directly from those who made them, played in giant Saharan sand dunes, saw firsthand what drought can do to a massive lake and of course had plenty of opportunities to wander through markets and load up on scarves.
The group: This group bonded! We explored together, we ate meals together, we ran together and we got The Plague together. We shared countless bottles of wine, lots of laughs and, though the final count is still being tallied, logged well over 1300 miles of running in some of the most beautiful and challenging places we’d ever been. Though the trip has been over for more than a week, our group Facebook page is lively and photos & inside jokes continue to flood my newsfeed. A post-trip party is already planned, and a care package to send back to Hamid is in the works. Despite a severe lack of campfire song skills, this group rocked.
I still have a hard time believing that this all came together, but Gabe and I both agree that it was a huge success and that Rogue Expeditions has a bright future. The chance to combine running with a travel adventure and to be able to share it with a group of Rogues is a dream come true, and we can’t wait to make it bigger and better each year.
Rogue Expeditions is just getting started, and spots for Morocco 2014 will be open soon. In the meantime, we have a smaller-scale Tahoe trip happening in July (one day left to sign up!) Stay tuned, and come explore with us!
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