Sahara Survival - Page 2I’m now in Zagora,a four-hour drive south of Ouarzazate, at the home of Rachid El Morabity, last year’s MdS champion. We sit cross-legged on pillows around a table topped with the biggest tagine I’ve ever seen. This Moroccan version of a crockpot contains a chicken-and-vegetable dinner prepared by the 30-year-old tour guide.
Around Rachid’s table is a hodgepodge group. First, there are brothers Lhoucine, 38, Samir, 31, and Ismail Akhdar, 27. Lhoucine and Samir both have high-ranking finishes at the MDS. Ismail jokes that he is the fat, non-running brother. Aissam Nebchi, a 32-year-old childhood friend of the Akhdars who plays national-level soccer, is also present. Janet Alexander, a 52-year-old Encinitas,
California-based strength and conditioning coach, is too. Janet and I had met some of these guys while running the MdS before and accepted their invitation for a weeklong visit to their hometown prior to the race this year.
Our conversation is chaotic and jovial. We jump between Arabic, French and English. Samir speaks all three languages the best. He garners the nickname “Google Translate.”
The group teases Ismail, a self-proclaimed philanderer, about the women he is dating. Relationships between men and women are evolving in Muslim culture, these men all agree, when the dialogue sobers up. They each say they’ll marry just one woman. Lhoucine, who is already hitched to a beautiful French gal, jokes, “One is plenty.” Lhoucine, Samir and Rachid all work in tourism, which is, according to them, suffering because of political instability in other Muslim countries. We sip mint tea, our host topping off glasses before they are empty.
After dinner, Rachid replaces the tagine with the food he plans to carry and eat during the MdS. The table becomes a pile of pasta shells, rice, spices, gels that Janet and I brought him from the U.S., nuts and dried dates Rachid plucked a couple weeks ago from trees around his home.
“How many calories is this?” asks Janet.
“Just enough,” is Rachid’s answer, which Samir translates into English from Arabic. Each MDS runner is required to begin the race with 14,000 calories of food, or 2000 calories for each of the seven race days.
Rachid, Lhoucine and Samir ration the foodstuffs into plastic bags, designating individual meals, tie each bag shut with a short piece of string and then trim the extra length of bag. It takes about an hour—during which we joke amply about starvation and stealing each other’s food during the race—for the guys to create seven neat piles, the food of a hopeful Moroccan champion.
Our group splinters into several. Lhoucine and I spider onto the flat roof of Rachid’s home in Zagora’s outskirts, where civilization diffuses into Sahara. The sky is deep blue. I know the night sky of North America well, but the stars are different here. Lhoucine guides me around his sky, and I realize that this is the first time tonight that I have felt like a foreigner.