Wednesday, October 12, 2011

An Englishman in Midelt

Youness and Jonathan
Youness' neighbours
The kind of stones found on the trails
Youness' dad
Is that an aero wheel I see there?

Jacobo, Diego, David, Jonathan, Youness, Rafa, Alfredo and myself
Just like my Vivobarefoot Ultras!
The map for the treasure hunt
Hunting for treasure

Ifrane - looks like anywhere but Morocco
The training ground for the elite
Youness bumps into a fellow runner, also based in Spain
My Run Amocs stood up to the trails beautifully
I thought that I was suntanned until I had a shower...

We met up in the airport a good couple of hours before the flight was due to leave (of course, the flight was delayed a further hour, but that's another story). I hadn't seen Jonathan, my trainer, since before the Ironman so I took the opportunity to give him the book I had made of this blog - it was also a good moment because at least then I didn't have to worry about my bag being overweight! He seemed pretty chuffed by the gesture. On the flight I was sitting next to a man nearing retirement age who started at one point to rave about the current Spanish government, the crisis and 11-M (the terrorist attacks that took place in Madrid just before the last general election). I managed to steer him onto a more upbeat topic before civil war broke out on the plane - that of food. He asked me if I knew any good Spanish restaurants in Morocco. I can't help wondering what he made of his trip.

We arrived after much ado in Casablanca, tired, and somewhat dreading the long journey by car that lay ahead. We were traveling with Youness, an elite Moroccan athlete (1:03 in Half Marathon), to his home town, Midelt, at an altitude of 1,500 meters. Just as well that we changed our plans and stayed in a "colourful" auberge in the old part of Casablanca, giving us some time to recover.


We set off for Midelt in the morning and arrived in time to go for a short run. I'd been worried that I'd get left behind as I was the slowest of the group by quite some margin but, in everything but the quality work, we ran at more or less the same speed for the aerobic runs. I literally put my foot in it within the first few minutes: I stepped in a hole covered with grass and my leg went in up to my waist! Miraculously I was completely unhurt. The trails were quite a bit more unstable and stoney than the ones I am used to running in and around Madrid. I'd taken three pairs of running shoes with me - the Vivobarefoot Ultras, the Vivobarefoot Evos and the Soft Star Run Amoks (which arrived last week in the post) - but I ended up only using the Run Amoks as they had the toughest sole. They handled the terrain admirably. Of course they attracted a fair amount of attention from the other runners in the group (Youness was particularly worried that I might hurt myself) and even from Moroccans who seemed to appreciate the simple design and the fact that they were made from leather. I ended up wearing them the entire trip as they were so comfortable and, amazingly, they still smell of leather. What was also remarkable about them is that I didn't get a single blister from them and I was even able to run without socks, something I have never been able to get away with.

After the run we went to the local public baths - a Haman - and washed ourselves in the traditional Arabic way. No-one said anything to us at the time but we must have made quite a racket.

We had the first of many incredible meals at Youness' family house that evening. The hospitality of Youness and his family was second to none. We were really made to feel at home and we ate like kings. Youness insisted on us giving our sweaty kit to his mum for washing so that, in the end, I actually only used a small amount of the clothes I packed. But it was meeting his family, seeing his wedding photos and playing with his nephew that made it unique. I always jump at the opportunity to go to another country where I have some sort of connection: Midelt isn't a particularly special place but Youness and his family made it special. Midelt is just large enough to have a hotel but small enough that the tourist industry is not booming there and so we were able to carry on as if we were the same as any other local.

Youness talked about his growing up in Morocco and his progression as an athlete. Hearing all this in context really made it all the more impressive. Youness makes a living from winning races but this puts a tremendous amount of pressure on him. As Jonathan put it, were Youness a football player of equal ranking, he would possibly be in either Real Madrid or Barça, and would be enjoying quite a different lifestyle. In athletics, once you go below the very top of the pyramid, the possibilities to make a living from it drop off dramatically.


Sunday was the day of the series - in my case I was tasked with running 5 bouts of 8 minutes at my anaerobic threshold. I was paired up with Rafa and Youness joined us although, for him, it was an easy trot. I really started to feel the altitude - it felt like I was sucking in the air through a straw. I couldn't get my pulse rate up quite as high as it was supposed to be because it felt like I was drowning and I certainly couldn't run as fast as I would have done in Madrid (at "only" 600 meters above sea level). I found that going up hills was what really separated me from the other, lighter runners. Rafa and Youness soon disappeared off into the distance and, after completing the job, I ran back to the car with Jacobo, who was suffering from a prior injury. I was a little disappointed with myself because I felt that I had neither hit my heart rate nor my pace target but I was definitely very tired and my lungs felt like they had had a good workout.

That evening Jonathan and Youness organized a treasure hunt. We were grouped into pairs (I was again paired with Rafa) and our task was to find 7 pieces of coloured card hidden around Midelt and to bring them back to the hotel. On the back of the cards were written some questions related to athletics and any wrong answers would incur a time penalty. I don't know if I have ever done anything quite so absurd as running in a pair of skimpy shorts through the middle of a small Moroccan town in pitch black, looking for bits of coloured paper with another runner who happened to be deaf. There were times when I was worried that Rafa might get hit by a car as he was running down the middle of an unlit street but shouting a warning was of no use: I had to sprint ahead to catch him up. Between the two of us we managed to get well and truly lost. We had a lot of trouble finding one card in particular - it was supposedly hidden in an olive tree outside the Haman. There we bumped into Diego and David who were also in the same predicament. I was able to explain to some locals in my limited French what we were trying to do and, finally, between all of us we managed to find it. We realized that the third pair - Alfredo and Claudia - had gone off without managing to find the card! However, we still had to find the card at the local sports center. We asked directions from several people and this is where I think our ability to speak French put us at a disadvantage: later we found that we had been only meters away from the sports center before someone sent us in completely the wrong direction! One guy very sincerely offered his bike for me to use but I refused - after all, this was a running camp, not a triathlon camp. People were shouting "courage!" to us as we ran by. What moved me most, though, was finding the first card in the Jaima (or tent). At first I ran into the tent without thinking and then realized that I should have taken off my shoes first. There were dozens of children who helped us find the piece of card and then started to run with us - what an adrenaline rush! I told them to tell the others that it was elsewhere... For the last two questions Rafa and I split up: I went to the market where I saw Jonathan, Youness and a rather smug looking Alfredo. Alfredo's expression changed when I mentioned that I had seen the card that he and Claudia had missed. When I got back to the hotel, Rafa was still looking for the card that was hidden in a hole in the wall. Rafa went off in search of it but I couldn't believe that Jonathan would have hidden it so far away. Doubling back I finally found the little piece of card - it was almost impossible to see in the dark - and now all that was left was to catch up with Rafa again! In the meantime, Alfredo had run back for the missing card and now it was down to who answered all the questions correctly - which was us!


After all the excitement from the previous night, we left Midelt for Ifrane which is where the elite Moroccan athletes train at an altitude of 1,700m. Ifrane looks like no other Moroccan town I have seen. As it is a ski resort and an imperial city, it is very well kept and in a mock-European style. We headed for the running track where we bumped into several top athletes in training. We warmed up on the track while Jonathan filmed us in slow motion and then we hit the trails for the rest of the 1 hour 40 minute run that was programmed that day. In parts the trail was extremely rocky and my Run Amocs were not quite up to the job - to be honest, I'm not sure if any of my shoes would have been - even the others, in their "normal" running shoes were complaining of sore feet. In these patches I ended up lagging behind a little but at least it was nice and shady in the forest. This time I was sure to take my Camel Bak hydration pack because, at altitude, you lose water through perspiration more quickly than at sea level. In fact, I drank my liter deposit dry some time before finishing the run. The others were able to run without water but I'm either not trained to do that or not able, I'm not sure which. By the end of the run I was actually quite tired. The day before had been hard, what with the series and the treasure hunt (during which we were running quite fast at times).

That afternoon we left for Fez where we could relax and enjoy being tourists for a while. I love the Medina in Fez, it is like traveling back in time. I find it hard to think of a place I have been which has quite this same transporting effect. The Medina, or old city, has a circumference of 14 kilometers. It is packed so tight and the streets are so higgeldy-piggeldy that there is almost no more light during daytime than at night. Sometimes you glimpse through a window or a doorway an artisan cramped over some elaborate carving or beating out a piece of metal. And the smells... At least no-one could tell that I hadn't yet had a shower since my run.


In the car back to Casablanca, Jonathan showed me the videos of me running, as well as those of some of elite runners that he also trains. Although my technique has improved dramatically since I took up the POSE Method, there are still some vestiges from my heel-striking days. I tend to kick out my foot just before landing, as if there were a football there. Apart from there being a slight pause before I pick up the ground, I also land a little in front of my center of gravity. This much I know from the wear patterns on the soles of my shoes. He suggested that I try to lift my leg upwards and forwards with the hip flexors so that it is better positioned for landing. He also said that I should try to "grab" the ground with an active landing so that my foot meets the ground at 0 kilometers per hour relative to the ground. He knows that these two points go against the holy book of the POSE Method but I now feel I have consolidated the basic technique to a point where I can make some little tweaks. As I have said before, I believe that the real value of the POSE Method is in helping you develop a good running technique by yourself, something that requires a certain dogmatism if it is going to work.

At one point we got stopped by the police for going at 131kph in a 120kph zone and a combination of Alfredo's excuse (we were late for our plane) and my translation helped us to avoid a 10 euro fine (my GCSE French has paid off at last!); Youness, who was driving the other car, was not so lucky. He used the same excuse but also added that we were athletes... "So you like to go fast?" is what I imagine the policeman who fined him was thinking.

After a long journey we started to disperse and go our separate ways in Madrid. As we were waiting for the train we saw an advert on a TV for a race in Madrid in which Youness appeared (he looked like he was winning). The trip was a great success and an experience I will never forget, along with my other memories of that wonderful land, Morocco. Thank you Youness and Jonathan!

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