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Monthly Archives - May 2016

Mohamad Ahansal

Mohamad Ahansal Interview

Mohamad Ahansal Interview

By Alice Hunter Morrison, Moroccan-based Journalist, winner of Best Africa Blog, RunUltra, and Special Correspondent to Hope So Bright

Mohamad Ahansal is a hero in his home country of Morocco and a superstar amongst trail runners. He has run the Marathon des Sables, the toughest race on earth, which takes place annually in the Sahara Desert 21 times.  It is a six-day trail race covering over 250 kilometers in the most hostile environment on earth. Of those twenty-one runs, Ahansal has won the race five times and been runner-up ten times.  That is an extraordinary feat.

Now, Ahansal is taking on the legendary Badwater ultra marathon. Badwater is a 135-mile (217 km) course starting at 279 feet (85 m) below sea level in the Badwater Basin, in California’s Death Valley, and ending at an elevation of 8360 feet (2548 m) at Whitney Portal, the trailhead to Mount Whitney. It takes place in mid-July when the weather conditions are horrific and temperatures are more than 120 °F (49 °C), even in the shade.

Competitors have 48 hours to finish the race. You can only compete if you are invited, and only the elites are invited.

Ahansal will be running as an Ambassador for Hope So Bright to raise awareness about children who struggle with autism. One out of ten children are diagnosed with the disorder in the United States and Hope So Bright, through their elite running team and “I Run 4 Ultra” campaign, are publicizing the issue and looking at different ways to treat the symptoms of autism.

Ahansal didn’t start running competitively until he was in his late teens.  As a child growing up near Zagora, in the desert regions south of Morocco, he had a very active life. “My school was seven kilometers away,“ he says, “so, I ran there and back and that was my early conditioning.”

When he was 17, Ahansal entered his first competition. “It was Eid Al Arsh, the festival of the coronation, on the third of March, and there were lots of festivities to celebrate, including races. All the boys and young men in the area signed up. I wore green plastic, heavy football boots. I saw that everyone else was wearing trainers so, I took my boots off, left them at the start and I ran barefoot. I ran over the sand and the stones as fast as I could and I finished second. It was the first time I realized I could do it and it was completely natural. I didn’t need preparation or training.”

However, Ahansal will be training for Badwater.  “I am focusing on three types of training,“ he said. “Heat, mountains, and altitude. The heat should be no problem as it regularly reaches these kinds of temperatures in Zagora, my home. As for the mountains, I am going to be running the route of the trail marathon that is in Morocco at the end of May, the Trans Atlas Marathon.  To prepare for the altitude I will spend some time running in the High Atlas and go up Mount Toubkal, which is 4,167 m.
For someone who has triumphed so often at the Marathon des Sables, will Badwater still pose a challenge? I asked.
“Yes! In a way it was a crazy decision to sign up,“ says Ahansal. “It is almost the same distance but Marathon des Sables takes six days and Badwater is non-stop.  I have never run this far in one race.  Yes, the temperature will be the same, but the quality of the sun will be different.  The altitude, the humidity and the difference between the desert plain and the mountains are all factors. At the start, it is going to be very dry with lots of heat coming up from the ground, and then by the end of the race, you’re at high altitude. This is the difficulty!”
Ahansal is running to support children who suffer from autism. I asked him if that was a problem in Morocco also. “It never used to be,” he said. “Before, children walked to school and ate dates, bread, and oil. They moved around a lot. But now, we go everywhere in cars and it is all about fast food – kids are always asking to eat at McDonald’s.”
For the race itself, Ahansal’s aim is to try and win the race. It will be very difficult he acknowledges as the competition is tough, but he hopes that his experiences in the desert with the Marathon des Sables and in the mountains with the Trans Atlas Marathon will stand him in good stead.

Ahsanal wants to win that place on the podium for team “I Run 4 Ultra” and Hope So Bright. “I am so proud to be running for Hope So Bright. I want to do as much as I can to publicize the problems that children face when diagnosed with autism. I dedicate my race and performance to these children.”

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Marco Olmo’s Marathon Des Sables race for Team I Run 4 Ultra

Marco Olmo is a legend in so many ways but he is held in particular reverence by the Marathon Des Sables community. He has run the race, the toughest footrace on earth, six marathons in six days across the Sahara desert over twenty times. He continues, in his late sixties to maintain an elite pace and to finish at the forefront of the rankings.
As his fellow team mate, Harvey Lewis said about him, “Marco Olmo is very special. He has run this race 21 times. I want to be like him in 28 years! He is 68 years young and can out run anyone from my home town!”
In this year’s MdS, he came second in the team competition with Team I Run 4 Ultra and 30th in the overall rankings with a time of 29h 32 for the 258 km covered in the race.

We caught up with him just days after it had finished.

Q: How was the race for you? Can you give us a general overview of how it went?
A: This MdS has been very difficult for me due to the intense heat, the wind and the very demanding route.  However there was a wonderful team spirit both in the tent and in the team.
Q: Were there any particularly tough moments and how did you overcome them?
A: The most difficult day was the longest one.  I found it really tough both mentally and physically.  In order to reach the end, I thought about my team and how I  didn’t want to disappoint my fans.  That is what helped me finish.
Q: Were you happy with your final position? (Marco came 30th out of a field of 1200 competitors) and how was it running with the team.
A: At the end of the race I was a bit disappointed with my final position, but now taking into consideration my age and the high level of competitors I am happy with it. Our team was very united and the atmosphere was wonderful.
Q: I know that on the last marathon stage, Harvey Lewis used you as his mentor and guide and followed everything you did. How was that for you?
A: Yes during the last stage,  Harvey followed me like a shadow and was very loyal towards me.  He never bothered me by running too close or by overtaking me.  It was an honor to run with a great champion like Harvey.
Q:  What were your feelings as you crossed the finish line?
A: It was very liberating finishing the race but above all I was just so incredibly happy to have finished for my team and all that it represents.

Thank you to Marco Olmo for his wonderful effort as part of Team I Run 4 Ultra and their efforts to raise awareness of ADHD.
Photographs by Dino Bonelli.

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