article by Sean Meehan, photos by Jeff Genova
In the few years of exploring and developing the Survival Run concept we realised that there is more to it than just a really hard race. Racers tend to come away frustrated and defeated, but usually having learned something profound and having gained a thirst for more understanding and more challenges. Yes the race says you will fail. And yes, most do. Only a fortunate few will ever finish it. But isn’t there more to offer everyone else? What about the mid to back of the pack 50k runner who looks at Survival Run and says - cool, but I ain’t ever doing that...
Nicaragua especially has become more than a race event. It has become a immersion experience with runners come and mingle with the local people, admiring their toughness and ingenuity, and relishing the opportunity to step away from their city lives back home. Runners eat the local food, run the local trails, abandon the gym in favour of rocks and other heavy things, pick up some lingo, and change their frame of reference going forward.
Step forward Endurance Adventure. The brainchild of Josue, founder of Fuego y Agua Endurance, and Gabe Steger, partner in Rogue Expeditions. Rogue offer multi-day running tours at home in the US and abroad in Patagonia, Kenya, Italy/Slovenia, and Morocco. Taking the chemistries of both businesses a new concept was quickly formed. Positioned somewhere between the more holiday style of Rogue’s usual tour, and the more brutality style of FYAE products. Ugh, Survival Run Lite I hear you complain. Not so. Survival Run continues to do its thing. Easy is not on the agenda. Endurance Adventure offers a far broader immersion experience with a full week of tough running, cultural challenges and activities, and first hand experience with the people who make Survival Run - explaining the why of it all. 24 hours (less for most ) of racing can’t offer that. And where Endurance Adventure goes, perhaps Survival Run can follow. What better template to test the landscape, learn the history, witness first-hand the skills of the indigenous peoples.
So off to Morocco, ancient Berber culture, blistering Sahara desert sun, towering Atlas Mountains peaks, carnage of souks and markets of Marrakech….
"Today is today, my friend. And tomorrow is tomorrow."
The Berber jeweller informed us, somewhat cryptically. We had been asking whether the necklace he was adjusting for us could he picked up in the morning rather than waiting on him. We were fidgeting impatiently as he went about his work at no pace whatsoever. It was just the first day of Endurance Adventure: Morocco - we were settling in - so his philosophy left us somewhat bemused. As we ran deeper into the Atlas mountains, and deeper into the timeless culture of the Berber people, his line resonated more and more. The line spoke of daily tasks to be tended to; of alfalfa to be scythed, firewood to be collected, bread to be baked, tagines to be cooked. The immediate necessity of these tasks leaves little room for stressful rushing around or worrying about tomorrow. Endurance Adventure, a new concept co-produced by Fuego y Agua Endurance and Rogue Expedition, afforded a handful of fortunate Western runners a glimpse through the shop window into the peaceful, balanced, human existence in the High Atlas mountains of Morocco.
**NOTE** - the author wants you to run the pristine trails of the High Atlas, but he doesn’t want you, or anyone else, to know where they are. So you will have to make do without many of the village names, and come partake in the next Endurance Adventure to know where to go.
Morocco conjures images of crowded souks, piles of spices, rolls of carpet, elaborate lampshades, incomprehensible bartering - these were the sights of Marrakech, our arrival city. Having survived its hammer blow to the senses, we escaped to the edge of the Sahara desert. Here we stretched our legs on day 1 with a half marathon though idle villages to reach the impressive Ksar of Ait Benhaddou; an ancient fortress on the caravan route from the Sahara to Marrakech. Here we ran into our philosopher come jeweller. Ait Benhaddou is one of the lucky kasbahs that has received some care and restoration. We passed countless others in disrepair; their adobe walls yielding to the desert winds. So we partook in our first cultural challenge; mixing adobe! Under the watchful eyes of local experts we toiled clumsily to mix mud, straw and water, pack the mix into moulds, and leave to set under the steady, desert sun. Adobe architecture is a cornerstone of Berber life that is fighting resolutely against the advances of concrete.
Construction task completed we ran another 15 miles through the scorching Martian landscape of the Dades valley on day 2. Veer away from water in Morocco and the terrain turns inhospitable quickly; parched sands and jagged rocks stretch to the horizon. Only in the river valleys does life cling tenuously; the population density of the villages directly linked to the quantity of water flowing past. No water is wasted here. Ingenious irrigation systems turn the water this way and that, channeling it through lush gardens and creating fertile terraces for crops.
One such valley is the Todgha Gorge - a magnificent stretch of canyon walls protect oases of refreshing pools and lush gardens. Our third run saw us meander down the gorge in a tough 20 mile stretch culminating with village tasks. Wheat to be harvested by hand and hauled to feed the sheep and cows. Firewood to be split to heat our evening showers at the local riad. Foreign rock climbers rub shoulders with locals offering camel rides in the Todgha Gorge. Tourism has taken solid root in this spectacular location. It was time for Endurance Adventure to head off the beaten track by heading back to the valleys near Imlil.
The following 2 days involved 30 miles of the most stunning single track you can imagine. Our group followed goat trails etched onto the precipitous mountainsides of the High Atlas. Nomadic goat herders observed our hydration packs and hiking poles with curiosity as they waved down from crags and rocks far from our reach. Their goat herds paid little heed to us as they defied gravity to search out tasty morsels. As the Winter snows receded into the higher peaks of the Atlas, the goats quickly pursued to forage the fresh sprigs of Spring growth. The average goat herder has a lot of time for reflection, and perhaps it was them that put me in a introspective mood, focusing very much on the ‘now-ness’ of the place we were in.
It was incredibly liberating and a huge privilege to run these lesser known trails. We ran with pockets full of raisins, figs, dates and almonds; fruits of the local landscape. Every day was punctuated by copious amounts of mint tea; green Chinese tea infused with fresh mint and buried in mounds of sugar. Our local ‘man-in-the-know' Hamid observed that there are five pillars of Islam, so five times to pray each day, and so five times to drink tea. I couldn’t argue with that kind of logic and quickly adapted to the sugary routine. Mealtime was always a burgeoning tagine: egg kefta in the mornings, beef with prunes, or chicken with vegetables for dinner. Always enough food to induce a coma. I was starting to feel more than a little Berber with these routines in place and the dramatic landscape flashing by. I started to pause in each village we passed to observe the quiet, harmonious bustle of everyday life. Water babbled in the irrigation channels as women weeded and harvested in the fields, goats generally ran amok, children smiled out of glassless, classroom windows, men lazed in the shadows occasionally roused into action by a stray mule or a sharp wife.
Today is today my friend, tomorrow is tomorrow, the jeweller had told us. He was trying to set us free. Just give in to the now, to the daily tangible tasks, and worry not of the future. The people of the High Atlas were living that philosophy and I had to admit they seemed to be doing just fine. But for the satellite dishes clinging determinedly to adobe rooftops, the scenes we passed might not have changed in centuries. Roads had not yet reached these valleys; part of me hoped they never would. Being beyond the reach of a coca-cola truck might just protect this sanctuary further into the 21st century. Every ridge brought another stunning view filled with crisp colours and dramatic landscapes, every village bought another smiling face, every mile brought us further from the world.
Alas though, out of those valleys we had to go, and I emerged from my reverie into a shuttle bus headed to Imlil for the final push of our trip. We climbed the 8 miles from Imlil to the mountain refuge in the shadow of Toubkal, the highest peak of the Atlas at 4167m (13,671 ft). Wrapped warm against subzero temperatures we trudged through the snow and rocks early the next morning to reach the glorious summit of Toubkal and gaze out over the High Atlas at dawn. A fitting way to end the first ever Endurance Adventure. The descent back to Imlil took us close to 100 miles for the week in what was a challenge for the body and a feast for the soul. So much to take in and reflect upon. As we braved the chaos of Marrakech once more, and began to thing about returning to our lives, I clung desperately to the peaceful memories of the High Atlas. The thought of life going quietly along there in the high valleys became a source of inner peace. And, Inshallah, it will be there when we return to those trails on the next Endurance Adventure: Morocco.
What's next for Endurance Adventure?
Morocco was a testing ground we freely admit. This was the inaugural tryout of something brand new. We could not be more excited about how it went. 7-10 days in a country provides the time we need to connect with the clients on our tour, and to engage with the country and surroundings in a meaningful way. Every day we can harvest ideas and try out challenges that might turn up in the next version of a Endurance Adventure or in a future Survival Run. This is a a playground, a test of endurance through the landscape, a brainstorming session, a run through history and culture, a learning experience: an Endurance Adventure.
Registration for Endurance Adventure Morocco 2017 will be open very soon on www.fuegoyagua.org/morocco
March 26th to April 1st
5 days running
130km total distance on foot.