I've decided to join Jonathan (my coach) in Morocco for a training camp at altitude. It's in October so it should fit perfectly into my preparations for the Marathon in Valencia and it also happens to be one of those Spanish bank holidays (called a "puente" or bridge) where you get 5 days off for the price of two day's holiday. One of the star athletes that Jonathan coaches, Youness (1:03 in hallf marathon!!) is from Morocco and will give us the inside track.
I have a special place in my heart for Morocco. When I was 18 years old my rich great Aunt gave me a fantastic present: a holiday anywhere I wanted to go in the world. This is something so much grander than a holiday in any particular place and so I was reluctant to bring it down to earth by choosing my destination. My mum, on the other hand, was worried that things were getting booked up and, one day after school, I came back to find that she had made my decision for me and had booked a trip to Morocco. The irritation I felt was short lived because it was an amazing trip: I went on my own with a group of people in an army truck all over the country, sleeping in tents or, for many mild nights, directly under the stars. It was straight after the Junior World Rowing Championships in Aiguebelette, where I won a bronze medal in the coxed fours, so I was probably in the best form I have ever been in my life. I was keen to at least maintain some semblance of fitness so I remember seeking out people to go running with and I happened upon a local guy, who also had a bike he lent me. I remember setting off with him - I had my relatively flashy Nike Air trainers and he was running with some plimsolls or similar - and then being struck immediately by the inability to breathe, as if I was sucking in the air through a straw. Where we were in the Atlas mountains the air was much thinner. He was very patient and kept slowing down to let me catch up but it was quite a humbling experience!
I had an amazing holiday, getting to see all the contrasts Morocco has to offer. We would prepare food ourselves, washing the vegetables in potassium permanganate but on the last day, I threw caution to the wind and ate a salad in Jemaa al-Fnaa, the main square in Marrakesh. In those days (20 years ago) you had no idea how many flies had laid their eggs on the salad leaves, nor how many faeces they had rubbed their legs in previously. I remember that there were some foods that I was really looking forward to eating when I got back home - for some reason, polo mints were among them - but the diarrhea started more or less as soon as I walked through the front door. I've no idea what kind of awful virus I picked up but it took several months for me to be able to go back to eating normally. I started my first term at Oxford as a good bet for the Blue Boat that year and was immediately put in a coxed pair with Pete Bridge (at the time a junior gold medalist who went on to compete in the Olympic Games in Atlanta). That first (and only outing) was a disaster with Pete asking me why we were going round in circles (which is what happens if one person is pulling much harder than the other). I was told to come when I was feeling better which was some weeks later.
I've been back to Morocco twice since then. The first time was about ten years ago when we went down from Madrid all the way in a bus to spend New Year's Eve in Marrakesh. That was really something, to see how the landscape and the culture gradually changed and then not so gradually in those 30 kilometers separating Tarifa and Tangier. The second time was more recently, when the kids were about 1 and 3 years old. It was one of the best holidays we have had with the kids, they were absolutely mesmerized by the colours, the smells, the hullabaloo, and they would sleep like they never slept at home. I clearly remember having to change one of the boy's nappies in that same square where I had eaten that salad years before. He had done one of those explosive shits that had squirted all the way up his back to his neck. With the soiled baby in one hand and the soiled nappy in the other, I tried to communicate to the amused locals in my rusty french that it would be great if they could get me a plastic bag...
So I am really looking forward to going back. This time I know what to expect from running in the mountains. I won't be able to help wondering whether my anonymous running companion is still out there running somewhere.
By the way, if you are in Madrid and interested (I have nothing to gain from this) then here are the details of the training camp. It is open to anyone.