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Beyond the tourist circuit: Runners see the real Morocco during a mountain marathon

Moroccan competitor Said Raji during the final stage of this year's Trans Atlas Marathon. (Kirsten Kortebein/For The Washington Post)

The runner emerged out of a pale green valley, disappearing briefly as she ducked around small hills spotted with scrubby camel grass. She was about five minutes away from completing the fourth stage of the Trans Atlas Marathon, a six-day, 170-mile trek through the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco. One of her teammates from a seven-person Israeli crew spotted her and shouted to the rest of the runners to gather and welcome the last runner back.

A Moroccan runner turned up the Algerian pop music, and a German and a Belgian sprinted out to catch a finish-line photo. The rest of the race field — French, Dutch, American, British and Swiss runners — created a welcome tunnel for 38-year-old Limor Bigon as she cruised through, marking the end of another day in the mountains and the start of a rowdy international dance party in the middle of an empty valley.

Welcome to Morocco — or the Morocco that Mohamad Ahansal wants you to see. Ahansal, a Moroccan ultra-runner known for his five wins in the Marathon des Sables (arguably the toughest ultra on the continent or in the world, depending on whom you ask), believes that the best way to know a land — particularly one as geographically enchanting as Morocco — is by foot.

It’s an easy argument for Ahansal, who was raised semi-nomadic. For years, he worked as a tour guide, but found that many travelers stuck to a well-worn path that kept them in their own bubble and prevented them from fully appreciating the areas of the country that he calls home, the areas where he says life is the hardest, the purest and the most beautiful.

“When you walk, you enter a country, you become part of the country,” he said. “When you stay in a posh hotel, you stay in your own country.”

Three years ago, Ahansal started the Trans Atlas Marathon in hopes of helping runners explore the untouched areas of the picturesque High Atlas Mountains. The first three editions of the race were dominated by local runners, with the occasional appearance from international running friends.

This year’s edition, staged in the last 10 days of May, featured an international field of 33 runners along with about 20 Moroccans. Part of the uptick in registrations was thanks to a new “Challenger” version, which allows casual runners or walkers to compete on the same course but with a little less than half the mileage to cover.

It’s a small race and always will be, as that’s the only way for Ahansal to direct the course though tiny ochre stone villages perched in the mountains. His high standing in the country and among the Berbers, the indigenous people of Morocco, gives him access to these towns and trails, granting foreigners a look into a side of Morocco that’s nearly impossible to discover otherwise.

“This is the best way to see the country; there is no other way,” said Peter DeWulf, a prolific Belgian ultra-marathoner who made his first trip to Morocco for the race. “You would never get in contact with a population like we have been in contact by running through their villages. It’s impossible.”

It’s an ideal option for those uninterested in contrived vibes in places like Marrakesh’s main square. Runners can go miles without spotting much more than the lone shepherd and his slow-moving herd. The 2016 edition began in Zaouiat Ahansal — Ahansal’s ancestral village — which is about six hours and change from the Marrakesh airport on steep switchback mountain roads.

In most of the villages, home to Berber populations in the low hundreds, people live off the land in the same way they have for centuries, hours from the nearest grocery store or WiFi. The race ends in Imlil, which is considered the “Moroccan Chamonix” for its popularity among trekkers and its bucolic, mountain-town feel in the shadows of Mount Toubkal, the largest peak in North Africa.

“In these tiny places, you see people in their natural state, you get to see how people really are, with no attachment to tourism,” Ahansal said. Along those lines, lunch is not provided en route, and runners are encouraged to pick up supplies in each town to help the local economy.

Accommodation during the race is in the local gite d’etape, a guesthouse for trekkers, or a cluster of tents in a bivouac. At one gite, local kids run around the finish with handfuls of balloons, dancing to a song by the Berber group Tinariwen as the sun turns the slate-colored cliffs of the Atlas from gray to gold, and the light drapes the valley in rose and soft orange, the colors of the desert bleeding up into the mountains.

Each day, the landscape of the course spotlights a different aspect of the country’s terrain: one stage traverses miles of cobalt stones on a moon-like hill until reaching an unexpected lake; another day takes runners through a shaded grove of thick walnut trees along a small stream until they reach Megdez, a village of blush-colored earth and stone houses stacked into the cliffs.

At night, the runners gather around long, low wooden tables for tagine or couscous topped with steamed vegetables, served with an endless supply of sugary Moroccan mint tea. Runners trade stories of their days over dinner: A British runner was stopped by a local woman who invited him in for tea. Another runner got lost, but an elderly Berber woman pointed her in the right direction. One runner ended up racing a crowd of kids along a village’s dusty main road from their school to the town limits.

“Here, you are able to go through basically people’s back yards,” said Meghan Hicks, one of the two American runners.

“You’re going through the villages and seeing life. Nobody is modifying behavior for you. Life is happening, and you get to have these small glimpses of it.”

Kantor is a freelance journalist and editor.

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Wandering through the medinas of Morocco

If you go

Trans Atlas Marathon

May 12 through May 22, 2017

Registration for the full race (includes all accommodations, transfers and medical and technical support) is $1,662 per runner ($1,412 before Sept. 30). The full edition involves 180 miles and 12,000 meters of climbing. Registration for the challenge edition is $1,840 per runner ($1,564 before Sept. 30). It covers 75 miles with 6,000 meters of climbing. Participants are expected to provide a medical fitness certificate and a resting electrocardiogram more than 30 days before the start. Registration will close Jan. 31.

— J.K.