A beginners insight into the Morocco based ultra endurance epic, the Atlas Mountain Race.
Early on in 2020 the Atlas mountains played host to a 700 mile endurance mountain bike race which saw competitors from around the world witness remote terrain, gruelling climbs and stunning vistas. Michael Drummond having never raced in any format previously decided to join 186 others at the start line and take on a journey just a tad bigger than anything he had set out to do before, this is his beginners Atlas Mountain Race Diary
The murmur of dogs in the distance echo as their howls kick back off mounds of rubble and the chatter of half inflated tyres crunch along pockets of aggregate that begin to become more and more sporadic, sparsely peppered now between a thick and ever shifting new reality.
What is this hell? A deep, fine and unstable medium that seemingly soaks up all exertion, a channel of sand that is all take.
Billions of microscopic permutations of glass with an appetite for tyre and energy.
A ravenous foe met after twenty hours in the saddle, this unrelenting amorphous adversary is all that stands in between me and closure.
A finishing ribbon that never severs, a constriction of silk around the waist layering up evermore.
What does it mean to finish? In fact why would i start such a thing?
Before the beginning – What was there?
It was so alien to me, The Atlas Mountain Race is its own beast, and a tale which I couldn’t fully predict or have any kind of expectations or apprehension around.
The prospect of cycling a certain distance is fine, normal almost, outings of 100km and maybe a spot of cake had become commonplace.
This though, this would not be that cake walk which I so fondly seek out on those sunny weekend mornings.
1145km, One thousand, one hundred and forty five kilometres (Thats 14 syllables, to describe a distance) of mystery. The only true ‘knowledge’ gleaned from select vistas offered as the carrot on a stick, landscapes of wonder and beauty, a beauty that would shroud all manner of emotions, and realities.
The promise of self discovery, adversity and the physical challenge would coax me into committing but the plethora of logistical, mechanical, emotional and mental challenges that lay in wait for me couldn’t truly be quantified until I was in the middle of suffering them.
Marrakech Purgatory – A waiting game
I arrived four days early for the race, staying just a stones throw from the Jemal-Fnaa Market square in Marrakech, I had a prime spot to isolate away from the hubbub and bustle of the city, but also close enough if my senses needed some awakening.
The limbo experience in between landing in Morocco and the start of the race became a difficult time to manage; helped only by a few meandering cycles out of the city limits through remote villages on the fringes of what to me was desolation and an arid landscape.
The morning haze lifting and a puncture on the Horizon to the south of the city; the Atlas mountains themselves loom, laying in wait as they have done for all travellers human or otherwise since they ripped up through the north of Africa some 17 million years ago.
Settlements linked by sheep tracks to roaring Highways signposted Agadir offered a tactile hint at the surfaces to be experienced under wheel and foot in just a few days time.
..puncture on the Horizon to the south of the city; the Atlas mountains themselves loom, laying in wait as they have done for all travellers human..
With just a day to go before I would nonchalantly spin my way along the tarmac away from the start line a great distance behind the main peloton, I queried my packing choices and distribution of gear. The constant consideration of optimal packing configurations being questioned by the battling voices of reason and adventure in my head, Do I cook? do I not? long bib? More water? Less bidons? Spare tube? More gels?
These questions would get the better of me, and come 8.55am on the morning of the race I decided to tie on the remnants of indecision to my saddlebag.
Dead weight? I had oodles.
Initiate – The Atlas Mountain Race Begins
My North African limbo was now over, almost an adventurers analog to Tom Hanks in the Terminal. So close, yet so far.
The air of excitement, unease and trepidation began to subside as murmurs of voices and gentle shuffling to condense the pack at the start line began.
The collective body heat and native temperatures distorting the air around us, I’d imagine a heat haze above, visible to spectators on the fringes of the Hotel car park where we were to set off.
The whispers and last minute tinkers to straps, buckles, clips and laces finally hushed to a moment of stillness as Nelson; Race organiser and route master (not the bus) officially introduced the race and set us all off on our shared adventure.
Fleetingly shared in physicality as the 200 strong roster quickly dissipated along the roads leading away from the city.
Spaghettification of the start sheet as we each descend into our own Event Horizon, a place you cannot know.
With some 100+ riders out in front taking on the flat tarmac in what I imagine was a bustling peloton full of flat out sprints and full loads. I approached the grey snake lined by police cordons and traffic jams at a slightly more leisurely pace.
The first few hours felt like an endless process of discovery, settling into what was comfortable, thoroughly exploring all the sounds coming from my bike and stopping far too much in order to make inadequate diagnosis and less than professional attempts to repair things.
Eventually this discovery and anxiety led troubleshooting slowed and I began to witness the symbiotic quieting of my mind along with the incremental changes of surface quality.
An inversion of sorts, each transition to rougher grade trails and turns onto coarser paths the volume of internalisation subsiding, hushing itself to embrace the white noise in the crackle of red dust and yellow stone.
A balanced symphony that would see us through to the foot hills of the Atlas and the beginning of so very many steady climbs, which would eventually amount to some 20,000 metres of elevation on reaching the finish line of Sidi Rabat.
The first of many beautiful and unexpected joys of the race would unravel and balloon out of the landscape as these coarse corners were turned and valleys summited, a verdant introduction to the Atlas would be but a fleeting impression of what its palette truly encompassed.
Hills became mountains, and sedimentary layers strewn across the increasingly impressive geology of the land told tales of the many eons and millenia that this landscape has witnessed.
These revelations in geology proving early on the satisfaction that comes with traversing a landscape by bike.
Intense Descents, gallons of water and timeless photo opportunities careered past that will forever be seared into my mind much like the golden light washing through the morning haze was doing to my forearms.
In what felt like some kind of elongated morning the 100 or so kilometres leading upto the first real climb seemingly compressed the day, time really does fly when you’re having type 2 fun.
A gratuitous long burnt ochre sunset took on a whole new level of meaning as serendipity saw a group of riders, (me amongst them) summit the exhausting, rough and slow climb to the highest point of the race. The Telouet Pass at a smidge above 2600m would be our stage to about face and witness the great fizzing, irradiating sphere nestle amongst the peaks conquered before lunch, chronologically behind us but still ever present in the legs beneath.
.. And so as the laws of thermodynamics dictates, along with any and all ancient civilisation has scribed, “great scary ball of fire go bye bye, coldness, darkness and irrational fear say hi”A timeless trio which met us on the crest of that peak and atop this towering testament to time and rubbles relationship, a half dozen thoroughly exhausted cyclists hurriedly layer up with gloves and jackets.
Some hunkering down behind car sized boulders to escape the wind racing up the South side of the pass.
With the arrival of night however, an ally would be found, respite from the heat and a new beauty to witness through the mockery of illumination that would spit out from the torches and lights strapped to our bikes.
Meager beams of yellows and off whites washing over dissected frames from the greater canvas of cavernous shadow that lay in wait for the mornings call time. A wax on wax off repertoire of dark and light that all would bear witness to for the week ahead.
I carefully peered over the disjointed car-park of boulders lining the summit and took head on the biting gusts careering over the face of the mountain, soaking in the perspective of what lay ahead from 2600m.
White beacons, scatty in motion and pace dusted in a morse code rhythm on the thick darkness, an inversion of ants on white tile.
I’d trained plenty I thought, gym sessions and the like, conditioning myself to take on my bikes weight as I hike down, around and over the rubble that lay ahead.
If only though this was a fisher price experience, a gentle introduction, no.
Oh no, this was some full on trial by fire shit.
Rocks, boulders and well, more boulders strewn along a convoluted and rarely trodden route that winds down the back of this peak enveloped in thick darkness. Rarely trodden that is until 187 cyclists made a purposefully correct wrong turn to take it on.
the soup laden knights of the round table all intent on making up the lost kilometres set off in a patchy group into the night.
Some sections proving rideable, almost enjoyable a short lived sensation as the feet again make connection with terra firma and the bike is used as a cumbersome hiking pole to aid the descent.
Venturing down as one of those puzzled and erratic dots and dashes dusted on the mountainside.
The steady pace of the day seemingly felt much quicker after the bottleneck created by the kilometres of rocky descent. Arms and shoulders aching from carrying the bike and pulling on the brakes to ease any kind of acceleration, both eager for rest and rejuvenation.
Checkpoint 1 AMR 2020 – 126km
The condensed pack of riders, gathered for food and stories around the tables of the restaurant at Checkpoint 1. Telouet, a small town at the start of the valley and where the dusting of lights were all tracking towards.
The joy as the first Checkpoint comes into sight is unique, a sensation of relief and salvation. A promise of food, water and treats galore.
Round wooden tables, adorned with swathes of cola bottles, tagines and stacks of bowls that once contained delicious and nutritious soup now barren; wiped clean by berber bread, crumbs now the only evidence.
Its 9 pm, and each rider has been ingesting as much fuel as possible for the best part of 45 mins to ensure their special bar is glowing gold ready for the next level to begin.
Fuel; an odd turn of phrase which contextualises food in a more functional manner than anything else, there to only serve the purpose of keeping a body topped up and energised for the miles ahead. Fuel in the tank as it were.
“Was just really hoping to get 200km in today” **or thereabouts.
Names elude me as do numbers, but that one passing comment I naively utter between a mouthful of soup and cutlery remains distinctly in my memory, sending the table into garbles of laughter and honest realisation at the magnitude of the task that lay ahead of all of us.
After seeing a whole disc of bread, two bowls of soup and my first tagine outside of Marrakech safely pass from mouth to belly it was time to ponder the options in the shop below.
A literal big kid in a candy store; cans of coke, bags of cake, boxes of crisps and bread slabs, a perfect storm for an on the road buffet.
Post digestion and supermarket sweep, the soup laden knights of the round table all intent on making up the lost kilometres set off in a patchy group into the night.
Softened by street lights above, the heavy night lay in wait just outside of Telouet. A floaty gift in the shape of a long winding descent unfurled into the shadows of the valley, smooth tarmac lit only by shimmering light interrupted by spokes and flapping jackets.
Kilometres racking up, numbers slowly dwindle, hips, berms and dusty switchbacks etched into the fringes of a small town make a for a light hearted cruisy playground.
153km tick. Goal reached, bikes down, shoes off.
A phenomenal decompression for the digits of the southern extremities, having been squished, shaken and spun around for the better part of fifteen hours.
The faint blinking of a Spot tracker emanates from under a lone tree where a rider has made camp.
A subtle reminder of the Big Brother like show going on via Satellite, imagining some kind of heaving Pub, attended by family and friends as they scream words of wisdom and advice while reams of pints are being spilled, like a football Sunday at the local.
But… probably not.
My wandering mind resets to analyse my new temporary home, shifting rocks and uprooting barbed weeds peppering the sandy clearing I throw out the footprint and clumsily pitch my tent.
A sudden realisation that the last minute packing amends has resulted in every bag being spilled open for something to make camp. A looming tetris nightmare has been secured for the morning.
I lay awake for the first few hours of being horizontal, bearing witness to the surging energy still humming through my legs.
Just like that though, I awaken not realising I had even begun the sleeping process.
Pt 2 of Drummond’s AMR diary will follow.
Last modified: 26th December 2021