Words: Phil Gale
Photography: Phil Gale & Emmie Collinge
Rush hour in Marrakech is no joke. Motorcycles, cars, trucks, people, and equally as many horse and carts are all concentrated into one space, a heaving mass that flows organically in both directions. Unlike many European countries, the road and its rules here are less black and white, and more like a spectrum. A process that can be intimidating, but also liberating; instead of rules, there’s an overwhelming sense of attentiveness.
After 4 km on the sidewalk, I turned the corner to run along Marrakech’s old streets, close to the palace, and I realised how the seemingly haphazard lane order was in fact vaguely reassuring. From the isolation of an area for pedestrians, I was thrown into the whirlpool. Businesses flowed out into the traffic, which then flowed like water to find the path of least resistance.
It was then, on that first early morning scouting run, that I knew we were in for something really different to launch the Spring Summer 23 collection.
The plan had been set weeks before: five days with 1,100 km of driving on the menu. Starting in Marrakech, we’d head south over the Atlas mountains to find some desert, before turning west towards the coast in Agadir, and then looping back up to Marrakech, over the Atlas mountains once more to finish the trip. Four runners would join us – two from the UK, two from Italy – all eager to shoot and test the SS23 collection in its entirety.
Performance road, training and trail kits were on the list. Hip-hop on the radio. Within minutes of leaving Marrakech behind us, we had a front row seat for a rapidly changing landscape that would be the backdrop for our work and the setting for our runs.
A lot of people had questioned why we hadn’t organised a fixer or guide for the trip, or bulk-arranged everything through an agency. But with a little bit of previous experience shooting in Morocco and the ace card of the Italian-born runner of Moroccan heritage Badr Jafaari (13:32:07 5,000m / 28:41 10km / 1:02:02 half) up our sleeve, we were confident we’d be set for all outcomes—even if the exact details* and mind-blowing landscapes were yet to be experienced.
*The police only stopped us once, despite having roadblocks at the entrance to every town. Badr smoothed things over, adding that athletes are treated with respect out there.
Other runners on the crew were Italy’s Francesca Marangi Agostino, a 1500m specialist fresh from a scholarship in the US and now completing a Masters in Turin, as well two Brits, Oli Prior and Abdi Hamund, both familiar faces at SOAR.
Tizi N’Ticka pass and Ait Ben Haddou
Even though the Atlas mountains were covered with an ominous layer of snow up high, the first trip across this range didn’t disappoint. Locations on point, with stark changes in landscape every 10 minutes, the day turned into a long one. From testing trails at 2,500 metres, touching the snow, to a windy mixed-terrain session as we dropped to our destination for the night, Ait Ben Haddou, where the deep black mineral filled rocks gave way to golden, sandy hues as we got closer to the Sahara. We were tired by the time we arrived at our base – a location used in ‘Game of Thrones’ – for the night. Time for a tagine, then bed.
Altitude intervals en-route to Taroudant
After a pre-breakfast adventure in the narrow streets of this fortified ancient city, the main rendezvous for the day was 25 x 400 metres, a session set by Badr’s coach and one that lent structure to the day. The crew jogged out to warm up together, on a nice flat road at 1,600m, the plan for them to jump in and out as they could, whilst Badr nailed his session like a metronome. Oli had okay-ed a version with his coach, breaking it into sets of five, while Abdi went for a round 20. Francesca kept on eye on the watch and another one on her rehab schedule, toning it down smartly. After lunch on the road – more tagine – we rolled along this high plain.
It is hard to describe the landscape. Picture the vastness of the west of the US mixed with the colours of Northern Africa. Throw in the warm welcome you’re given everywhere and within minutes you’ll want to do an all-inclusive altitude training camp here, paying €25 per night.
Tip: Book in person, not online.
The dunes of Tifnit
With some testing and photo shooting by the Atlantic coast on the brief, we’d done a virtual scout of a small fishing village to the south of Agadir. Touching on the Berber culture of the area, the location surpassed our expectations. Dakr blue fishing boats had been hoisted up on the beach, radiating rich colours in the haze from the ocean, but the real find were the sand dunes next to the village. We rounded off the harder-going run with more Moroccan tea—full sugar and full mint are the best way to enjoy it.
After the first crossing of the Atlas, we were in mixed minds as to what our second crossing would offer up. Did we hit one amazing road, or is the whole of this mountain range as visually stunning? The conclusion was the latter: The terrain changed even more rapidly than our first experience with these mountains. Though the peaks above us were noticeably lower, and the canyons we were driving through were now wider, the overall landscape was drier and sandier. Its colours – a mismatch of yellow, oranges and greens – kept us excited to run and shoot. This was where we hit upon one of our favourite spots, where the light, the sprawling nature, and the fact that such a remote spot is still inhabited, gave us a boost of motivation. Not that we were short of it, not by a long way
1,100 km in five days is no small journey, but in relation to the scale of Morocco, we hadn’t even scratched the surface. This is a country of mind-blowing locations, with some of the most open and friendly people inhabiting it.
Morocco, we will be back.