More than just a race!
This year the UTAT, the Ultra Trail Atlas Toubkal celebrated its tenth anniversary with a new racecourse through the Atlas mountains around Ouikameden and Imill. Besides the orangziation, mother nature also had a surprise in charge for all the runners, and volunteers - very bad weather conditions during the main race day created a bunch of new challenges.
As a photographer, my intention was to capture the most iconic places of race, those that make this event very special. Therefore I joined a group of volunteers that were in charge of preparing and taking care of PC-10, an aid station at kilometer 68. They had an enormous amount of equipment including medical devices, tents, food for the runners and a lot of bottled water that had to be transported with mules over two mountain passes on the same way that we took by foot. It took everybody almost a full day to reach our campsite and after the Moroccans had built the cooking tent, it was time for a typical Berber meal with vegetables and soup.
We were up quiet late and laughed a lot - a full day of hiking and preparation makes a group of strangers become a team! I was happy to be able to speak a little bit French and furthermore document the incredible energy all the volunteers put into their work for the race.
The next morning I woke up at 6 am to catch the first runner at the PC-11, which is on top of the next col. I left camp alone and made my way through the Berber village as suddenly a group of eight dogs started to growl and surround me to protect their flock. I was honestly scared, because they made it impossible to follow the marked path and I had to hurry up to reach the col before the first runner. It took me about 20 minutes to bring the situation under control and instruct a local to keep an eye on the dogs as I did not want the runners to get into the same trouble.
I gave my very best with the 70l backpack full of gear, sleeping bag and clothes and climbed the mountain as fast as possible. On top two volunteers told me that the runners are two hours behind the schedule and therefore I had plenty of time to relax and instantly I was offered a tea and something to eat. Over the radio we constantly tried to get an overview of the race situation and it became obvious that the harsh weather conditions with a lot of rain during the night made the runners move slower than expected.
Clouds were moving in and out and then we discovered a little yellow point on the path speeding up the hill - Rémi Loubet, position number one was getting closer!
Wow! This guy was in shape! He looked strong, ate something and only few minutes later he was gone...
Keep up with the athlete
I said good bye to the French volunteers and descended into the valley myself, of course a lot slower than the runners, but on the next uphill I was able to keep up with Spanish runner Enrique Gomis and capture his ascent to PC-13, that is the last checkpoint before the highest point of the race at 3700 m.
At the col I let him go and waited for the leading female runner, good friend Kristin Berglund from Austria. She was focused, in shape and to the volunteers astonishment she did not stop a single minute at the checkpoint. What a funny reunion as I did not see her for quiet a while and then we meet somewhere in the High Atlas mountains.
I joined her on the way to the top of the race, the mountain Tichki. Mother nature made this ascent a colorful adventure with rainbows, a lot of fast moving clouds and rays of sun enlightening the red and orange mountain hills.
Something Kristin did not perceive in her tunnel vision, as she told me after the race. On a flat spot we said good bye and while she started the 2000m descent to Imill, I hided behind a stone with my down jacket to wait for the following runners.
Serious terrain - not easy at all!
I saw it in their faces, Ultra Trail Atals Toubkal pushed some of the runners to their physical and mental limits. Some struggled because of bad acclimatization, some simply underestimated the high alpine terrain and others suffered due to the cold and the wet conditions in the mountains. I gave my best to encourage everybody who passed me to keep pushing on. I was relatively comfortable with long pants, several jackets and solid mountain boots, but with shorts and running shoes... My deep respect for everybody who tackled this enormous challenge!
At the next control point, once more I realized what an incredible job all the medical and logistic volunteers did. I reached the PC around 6 pm and left late in the night at 11 pm. Five, very intense hours....
The weather changed every five minutes including serious snow fall, high winds and a little bit of sunshine. The race organisation was discussing more than once about cancelling, but things always calmed down a little bit again. The crew of PC-14 had their hands full of work, because most of the runners arriving suffered from the cold and needed something to eat and drink, some even needed to sleep for some hours.
Every single runner was registered and his position was passed on via radio to the base in Ouikameden to make sure nobody gets lost. One time a runner was missing around the Tichki mountain and I helped Martin to search for the lost participant, but the snowfall, the clouds and of course the dark were stronger than our headlamps and we returned back to camp without success. One hour later we welcomed the runner at the tent, he slept on top of the mountain behind a stone! At this time, Rémi had already crossed the finsih line and Kristin made it before midnight as well. Crazy!!!
A sky full of stars
The volunteers had to stay up all night and I decided to head on to Imill with a group of runners. The descent is steep and partly a little bit exposed, so concentration was key. Easily said, but imagine a runner that has already completed over 80 km and is about to run through the second night...
I think they did not enjoy the milky way in the sky as much as I did, so I took a picture for them.
Around 2 am, I arrived at Imill, a small village with a bigger checkpoint. Whereas some runners started on the last 15 km of the race, I had to take a break and slept for four hours. The next morning, I was told that a lot of runners stopped their race during the night and therefore I won't meet anybody on the trail ahead. Nevertheless I moved on to reach the last big ascent back to the plateau of Ouikameden, because the runners of the 26 km race share this track as well. After a long walk for my own, it was refreshing to have a little bit more traffic on the race course and of course those guys were moving much faster.
As I was getting closer to the finish line, I also met a lot more of my photography colleagues, that captured the final kilometers of the race. Then, after 32 hours in the field I was back myself. Finish! Time for a shower, something to eat and a little bit of sleep!
The day found a beautiful end with a nice podium ceremony, a lot of nice people that I was not able to meet before and a lot of congratulations. Thank you so much, Baptiste, Cyrille, Oliver, Virginie and everybody else for your trust and your company! Merci beaucoup!
Great feeling to be part of this big family!