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Reflections in the Desert Reflections in the Desert
2023-03-21 11:56:00

As I wake I can see the moonlit mountainside through a crack in the old wooden door. Monochrome snow and rock stretch up to meet the stars.

I’m lying in my bivvy in a little shepherd’s hut high in the Atlas Mountains. It’s 3AM and I’ve just woken up from a several hour nap.

The reassuring babble of a spring that soothed me to sleep is still gushing away, at least it hasn’t frozen. I can see my breath now I’m peering out of my sleeping bag, the temperature was due to be -5 degrees tonight and I could believe it. I’m so glad I found this tiny deserted shelter, tucked just above the trail, perfectly flat dirt floor, spotless and scentless, I’m sure it’s a few degrees warmer within the stone walls.

I tried to imagine the people who built it and what it’s used for, I wonder what kind of lives they lead up here. I’m so comfortable dozing there but it’s time to move. I’m only 100km in to a 1336km race through Morocco, the clock won’t stop until the finish and I’ve a long way to go.

The Atlas Mountain Race is a bike race that takes riders from Marrakech over the High Atlas, down and round in a huge 1336km loop via three checkpoints up to Essaouira on the coast. It’s unsupported, no one can receive assistance that’s unavailable to other riders. So no mechanic vans, no luggage transfer, no friends in vehicles. Just the rider carrying their essentials, pedalling between oases of resupply in the huge, arid landscapes of Morocco. You might be thinking, why on earth would you want to do that?

That moment of waking up at 3AM on a freezing mountainside, preparing to continue over the snow covered pass, it sounds extremely uncomfortable, and it was…but moments like this are why I love racing. Without the race, I’d just turn over and go back to sleep. But instead I’ve got motivation, I get up, pack up my bike and set off, pedalling and walking under the stars, the headlamps of other riders twinkling in a zig zag up into the distance.

Climbing until just as dawn is breaking I get to the crest of the pass. Colour floods the world and I can see the real scale of where we are, it’s vast. I feel unbelievably alive, so lucky to be there, connected to the people sharing this experience and the mountains we’re passing through. That feeling is worth seeking out. It’s worth racing for.

The journey of the race starts months, even sometimes years before. For me I’d been preparing to ride in Morocco for almost 3 years. I’d entered it in 2020, before the pandemic. Then Covid restrictions ebbed and flowed, the race was moved and then postponed several times.

Added to this my own life has been a rollercoaster, especially this last year. I lost my brother, Rob, in a climbing accident in July. Just six months before the race. Undoubtedly I questioned whether it was right to attempt such a large adventure so soon. I wasn’t sure how grief would make me react in tricky situations or whether I’d be able to find any value or joy in taking risks. I wasn’t sure if it was fair to my parents. But I just couldn’t shake the belief that Rob was a huge supporter of my adventures.

He wrote in a blog in 2016 following the passing of one of his friends, ‘it always seems so unfair that the people that shine brightest get taken too early, but I’d like to think they would want us to have even more adventures.’ His support continues still. I was resolved to at least give it a shot and with some trepidation I found myself standing on the start line. Not feeling ready in the slightest, despite all those years of preparation, which goes to show that if you wait until you feel ‘ready’ to do something, it’ll probably never happen.

This edition was slightly longer than the previous ones due to a new finish location in Essaouira, and to give us some more time to complete the course, the start was at 6pm taking us in to the Friday night. It made an interesting conundrum whether to sleep in the mountains or to try and make it to checkpoint 1 at a refuge on the other side before resting.

Most people didn’t have a sleeping system warm enough and so had to push on. I did, so decided to sleep and although that meant that I came into the first checkpoint right at the back of the field, I felt great for it. It’s what makes ultra-racing so fascinating to watch and so interesting to race; where you are on the first day doesn’t necessarily predict where you’ll finish.

My strategy is usually focussed on self-care, this time it was the absolute priority. The narrative around these races seems centred on suffering but in my experience, this doesn’t have to be the case. It’s as hard as you make it. I carried plenty of water and stayed hydrated, eating well and sleeping at least several hours per night.

I’d packed a Mythic Ultra 180 sleeping bag and a Mythic Alpine Light down jacket which performed amazingly in the low temperatures. I also made it my aim to talk to people and really engage with where I was passing through. Sharing high fives with the small children who lined the village trails, spending money in the communities we passed through and having deep chats with other racers. It wasn’t always easy but that was also part of why I was there, to see what I could draw out of myself in those challenging moments. So much of the value of choosing a journey like this lies in what you learn about yourself and the world along the way.

I fell in love with the landscape. I’d not been sure that I’d like the desert but actually it was stunningly beautiful. The spectrum of colour there is so surprising, from the brown, yellow and ochre you’d expect to dusky blues and vivid purples. Huge rock formations, plateaus and plains, canyons, sandy river beds and very occasionally the lush vibrance of an oasis. The trail was never boring and no section lasted an unbearable amount of time. From fast rolling road and gravel to sections of unridable steep rocks and everything in between. It’s a truly magnificent route.

There were so many special moments, too many to fully recount. One of my highlights was the Colonial road, a crazy feat of engineering that, although crumbling in places, is still carved in zigzags over a remote mountainside. I passed the afternoon climbing up and up, scrambling over the washed out sections of the trail. Every time a corner was turned more road stretched up into the distance.

By the time I got to the top the sun was starting to sink and everything was bathed in golden light. I felt so close to Rob during that sunset descent, like he was coaching me down, telling me to stop dragging the brakes. I shed tears but I’m not sure if they were grief or joy, the two so close together in that moment. It felt so right to be there.

Another risk themed epiphany came from the dangers of riding as a solo female. There was a lot of concern as in previous editions some female participants had experienced harassment. I went through a real journey, starting out feeling hyper alert and cautious. I chose to wear leggings, baggy over shorts and a long sleeve lightweight hoodie which felt right given that most Moroccan women were fully covered. As I progressed it became clear that the attention I was getting didn’t equal threat and that nearly every interaction I was having was positive. It seemed to make no difference how people treated me if I wore the over shorts or not. People were generally so helpful and respectful, the culture there is one of generosity.

In the end it’s a game of chance, just like in the UK, the risk is there, but the probability of attack didn’t warrant the level of fear I’d assigned it. It’s hard not to when the scary stories are amplified. It was empowering to work through that. I’d love to see more women at the start line of this race, in fact any race. The more of us that ride, the more positive stories there’ll be. My experience of travelling as a woman in Morocco was that people are generally warm and welcoming, the food is delicious, the history is rich, it’s a truly wonderful place to have an adventure.

As the race progressed I felt stronger and more confident in myself. Due to the self-care strategy I was full of energy at the end and I could really try to squeeze every bit of power out of my legs. The last day the weather had turned, it felt wild and unpredictable. The heavy clouds sweeping across the sky, full to burst but moving too fast for anything to fall.

It was as if the wind was willing me to finish, pushing me hard up along the coastline, the iron-grey sea raging to my side. I flew along the trails, time trialling with all I had. I rode that last 95km faster than anything I’d ridden all year. As I closed in on the finish the heavens opened, a deluge of heavy raindrops, getting battered by water felt amazing after 6 days of dust and sand.

I rolled in to the finish, filled with gratitude for my health, my start in life and the opportunities I’ve had. The chance to find out, once again, that I’m capable of so much more than I think.

I’m finding that the value of these races doesn’t lie with the result. Although that doesn’t mean I’m not competitive. I love to race and so proud that I came 54th overall and 3rd woman. However, I often wonder whether we’ve confused competing with ‘trying to win’. Competing, to me, is an exploration of what I’m capable of, using other competitors to inspire me and push me. But whether I come first or last the value is still there.

Atlas Mountain Race was an exploration of a new culture, of looking after myself in remote and arid environments and working out my attitude to risk. I really feel I achieved those things. It also led me to discover that the grief I will always carry with me doesn’t mean I have to stop adventuring, in fact it makes me appreciate life all the more. That’s a pretty big win as far as I’m concerned.

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Words by | Gail Brown

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