Last updated: 20-Sep-18
UTAT (Ultra Trail Atlas Toubkal) has to be the best kept secret in Britain. It is a stonking race, ideally suited to our British desire for punishment with a little bit of self-flagellation thrown in. So far, though, the French, Italians and Spanish have been keeping it all to themselves.
Scheduled at the beginning of October (29th Sep – 3rd Oct) it is set in the Atlas Mountain, an hour and a half’s transfer from Marrakech. There are cheap flights from most major cities in the UK with Easyjet/Ryan Air, just a 3 /12 hour flight, same time zone and no visa needed.
The camp is in Oukaimeden, Morocco’s premier ski resort – yes you did just read that. You are already at an altitude of 2,600m, camped up on a plateau surrounded by peaks. The race includes two pre-nights of accommodation and ideally you need to take advantage of that to acclimatise. It is also fun as the race organisers put on loads of events and you get a real chance to mix with the other runners. The atmosphere is super-friendly.
There are four distances available: the Ultra at 105 km is the jewel in the crown, with a whopping 6,500 m of ascent. To put it into context that is Kilimanjaro followed by half of Snowdon. The highest pass is 3550m so altitude is definitely a factor. The marathon is next with 2600m of ascent over three Cols – the third of which is pretty near vertical at times. Then there is the 26km, a kind of half marathon+ on speed. The great thing about the 26km is the number of young Moroccans that take part. Cyrille Sismondini, the Race Director, is passionate about supporting Moroccan runners and emerging talent, so he gives a number of free places to the young men from the villages on the route (it is a very traditional Berber area and the women don’t run). The boys are all heart and legs and they will literally run until they drop, determined to keep up on their home ground but often without the necessary training and running education. The final race is a two day combining the marathon and the 26km, stretching out the agony.
All the races are truly challenging. The terrain is a mixture of steep rock, decent trail, and loose scree. There are some serious gradients and the descents are quad destroyers. They all demand semi self sufficiency as, although there are feed and medical stations, you have to take enough water to see you through some long stretches and you may well need extra food.
The Ultra is extremely intense. The ratio of 6,500m ascent in 105 km puts it right at the top of the difficulty level. The cut off is 36 hours and, whether you are fast or slow, the night is going to take you over some very tricky territory in the darkness. The weather is another factor with some real heat in the day and then a big drop at night.
The route takes you up over a number of high mountain passes, down into the deep terraced valleys of the Atlas. You run through tiny Berber villages that have remained unchanged for centuries where every single person will stop to cheer you on. You pass flocks of goats and sheep perched precariously on the high slopes, with their shepherd and his dog watching over them. You cross rivers where women do their washing and bright clothes and rugs are spread out to dry like improbable butterflies. And at those heart stopping moments when you reach the top of a pass the blue-pink peaks of the Atlas mountains spread out endlessly in front of you like God’s own playground.
It’s a cruel race but a beautiful one and a true test of body and spirit. You won’t come back from the mountains unchanged, and you won’t come back with your heart intact, you will leave some of your soul out there in the Atlas.
Following the run, the Race Director, Cyrille Sismondini, asked Alice to be the Ambassador to the UK for UTAT and to spread the word about the race.
Read more information here.
Photo credit: Ultra Trail Atlas Toubkal (UTAT).