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Morocco Marathon: The fine line between adventure and insanity November 11 2011

I catch my first glimpse of North Africa’s highest peak as I stumble to the top of a nearby ridge, lose my balance and pitch headfirst down the trail. Plumes of dust rise into the air. My boyfriend helps me to my feet. “Didn’t you used to be a competitive mountain runner?”

“Yes. That’s a special technique mountain runners use to get down the mountain faster. It’s called falling.”

“Seems…efficient,” he replies.

I glare at him. I am supposed to be sitting on the terrace of a hotel leisurely sipping Arabic coffee and reading romance novels during a two-week trip to Morocco. Instead I am brushing dust off my backside and trying to coax my muscles through one of the world’s most difficult mountain marathons. What happened? That’s a reasonable question. I’ll tell you.

Insanity. Apparently it’s hereditary and it’s the only plausible explanation as to why someone would spontaneously agree to sign up for--to pay for— a 42 kilometer race with 3,313-meter total elevation gain up Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa. What else would inspire two people to hand over all of their remaining cash to pay the race fees and then spend the night in a tent directly across from the local mosque?

At 4:45 a.m. the call to prayer shatters the silence, sending me into cardiac arrest and flooding my consciousness with yesterday’s events.

Imlil. Morocco. Toubkal. Highest peak in North Africa. Mountain marathon. Spontaneous registration. $#!@.

“You are an idiot,” my consciousness reminds me.

Normally I try to counter any negative thoughts, but this time all I can think is, “Yeah, that sounds about right.”

I pull on a pair of borrowed tights and my battered running shoes and stagger to the starting line. Villagers line the street to see us off, cheering and waving Moroccan flags.

As the sun casts a pale glow behind the jagged peaks, groups of runners slowly stretch out along the single-track trail snaking its way up the ridge. Before long we find ourselves running alone, occasionally holding up a string of heavily-laden donkeys who seem grateful to be stuck behind two creatures moving at such a leisurely pace.

Three hours and too many kilometers later, we reach the second food and water station at the beginning of the six-kilometer climb up Toubkal. Dehydrated and crumpling with exhaustion, I begin devouring everything in sight. Occasionally I step out of the way of other runners who stop briefly to grab a cookie and an orange slice before continuing on their way. Apparently you aren’t supposed to treat the food stations like an all-you-can-eat buffet. Whatever. They had cookies. I can’t be expected to restrain myself.

As I sink down onto some nearby steps, my boyfriend sits down next to me. The wind sweeps through the valley in a torrent, making it difficult to hear anything other than the blood pounding in my ears. He suggests we turn back.

My muscles are twitching from over-exertion and my hands are swollen from the altitude, but I am still reluctant to forfeit the race. I had hoped that somehow the gods of spontaneous adventure would bestow their favor, enabling us to scrape enough energy together to muddle through an impossible feat. But common sense prevails, and with one last glimpse up to the summit, we turn back.

Twelve kilometers and one summit short of finishing the marathon, we are denied the t-shirts awarded to finishers. Despite the fact that they’re too big and I don’t even like the color red, I sneak envious glances at the stack of neatly folded cotton shirts. Tucking into a bowl of couscous, I promise myself that the next time I run a marathon, I’ll train for it.

Maybe.