I’ve run at least 1,600 miles in Morocco. Cumulatively, that’s about nine straight days of running.
I run alone, without music. Just me and my breath and my thoughts. Sometimes a pack of kids swarm and join along for a jaunt, their backpacks bouncing, sandals slapping and giggles erupting. I wave at shepherds in their straw hats as I cruise by. They respond from across the field by raising their staffs or placing their hands over their hearts. One shepherd lady regularly chases after me, dodging prickly brushes until she catches up. She scolds me for not coming over to her house. Every time, I tell her I still don’t know where she lives. She points far off, that way, she signals.
I high five students walking to school. “JACK-LEEEEN,” often echoes from women on rooftops, kids on top of boulders and men in truck-beds. People I don’t know shout, “RIYADA!” (SPORTS!). Most everyone is alarmed by my bright red face and sweat-soaked shirt. “Llah y3wnik a bnti,” (God help you my daughter), they console. “Ana wyak bjojna,” (me and you both), I smile back. Sometimes people insist on sharing mid-run snacks: clementines, loaves of bread, even full breakfasts. Once I jogged down a rocky mountain path with a basket of eggs. A risky endeavor.
My running thoughts aren’t usually profound. Oftentimes I craft to-do lists in my head. Then, I get annoyed with myself for not being present. I count my steps. I lose focus when I reach around 120. How many eggs are too many eggs to eat in one day? pops into my head. Eggs (or other equally insignificant thoughts) distract me. I forget I’m running. Sometimes I access deeper thinking. Sometimes I trip. Sometimes it takes a tumble to reawaken my awareness.
I run past live dogs and donkeys and dead dogs and donkeys. One time, I passed live dogs eating a dead donkey. Sometimes the dogs chase me, but they don’t “eat” me like people warn me they will. Once, over 20 dogs chased me on a single run. I classify it as an unlucky run if more than one dog chases me per mile. It’s also unlucky if I get lost. Only once did I stay lost for more than a few minutes. While running to the Mediterranean coast in the middle a backpacking trip, many lost minutes amounted to unintentionally running more than a marathon. The sun set during this impromptu 26+ miles, and it was the only time I was legitimately scared I would become guard-dog-dinner.
My passion for running inspired my first ultramarathon, a 50 mile (80 kilometer) race, here in Morocco. Consistency and structure lack in my Peace Corps life, so my nearly four-month training plan became my backbone. I wrote my daily mileage goals on a piece of paper that physically traveled with me all summer. I colored-in the days upon completing workouts, satisfying my cravings for measurable progress.
This plan led me on runs along the sea, through orange gorges, amongst mountainside walnut tree groves, past adobe villages, around sparkly turquoise lakes, on sandy dunes, under waterfalls, through valleys of marijuana farms, and up to a mountain pass with a view of North Africa’s tallest mountain. From the lookout, Mt. Toubkal gleamed in the distance. Nostalgia flooded back as I visualized Radia leading our outdoor club to the summit in June. Sweaty and tired, I gave the mountain an air-hug and waved it goodbye.
The ultramarathon was scheduled for September 14th, a date that all my strides were pursuing until it was spontaneously cancelled, forcing me to laugh at the uncertainty of the world. A crew of Peace Corps pals patched together our own “ultra makeshift marathon” instead. I’ve recounted my steps taken before, during, and after the 50-mile endeavor and tried to digest where the 105,500+ steps have guided me. I’ve solidified their meaning in stages.
The arrival | Doubt
I battled with self-doubt the week leading up to the race. The longest I had run at once was 32 miles. The 18 mile gap seemed daunting. Demons of insecurity and inadequacy weighed on me. I found myself restless on the bus ride south to the High Atlas mountains where we’d host our “race.” I texted my friend Hunter, who would also be running, “what are your thoughts on just doing this big run tomorrow [a day early]?” I asked. In that moment, I wanted to run for the wrong reasons. I wanted to run away from my anxiety, feeling like I needed to pound the trails as soon as possible.
The looming leap from Morocco to the states had also begun haunting me at this same time. The idea of all the future changes and challenges drained me. I was left questioning my own potential and self-worth. Am I strong enough? Capable enough? Healed enough? Ambitious enough? Determined enough? Powerful enough? I, a confused and exhausted human, was skeptical. I arrived to Ait Bougemez, the starting line, weary and without answers.
Expo day | Joy
Traditionally, the day before organized races is “expo day,” when participants pick up their racing bibs. Without #1 and #2 bibs for Hunter and I, we invested in scenic sits and strolls instead.
My friend Sarah and I woke at our campsite after sleeping 11 hours (!!) and spent the mid-morning wandering through lush apple orchards. The plump fruits strained tree branches with their weight and created a harmony as they dropped to the ground. Thud. Thud. Thud.
We spent the day chatting with Peace Corps friends over espresso and strolling through more orchards and up foothills. We cooked curry, savored crackers and cheese and carbo-loaded with chocolate chip cookies.
We started referring to our race as “long jog day” rather than “ultra makeshift marathon,” a shift that relieved my tension. As I laid in my sleeping bag that night, I dozed off while meditating on joy. Joy of friends. Of therapeutic walks. Of ripe apples thudding to the ground. Of running.
I reflected on all my quiet, early morning jogs by the lake or in the foggy foothills surrounding my Moroccan town. Just my footsteps, the sun, the shepherds and me. The first 30 minutes of jogging were usually groggy, spent slowly shaking out my body and brain’s morning kinks. I’d battle with demons of doubt and stress until they eventually alleviated and I emerged weightless. I would float along the trails rather than strike them. Some euphoric state would take over. I’d run for the joy of running, the joy of exploring with my own two feet. Sometimes I’d never reach this bliss. Other times, it would explode. Hoots and hollers and yelps escaped out of me as I floated along, not caring if the shepherds heard me.
As I fell asleep that night, I couldn’t wait to reach that euphoric state the next morning. To see how many hoots and hollers the 50 miles would induce.
Miles 0 to 26.2 | Connection
Just after sunrise, Hunter and I stepped outside into the crisp morning air. My backpack was filled with pancakes, peanut butter balls, water, rehydration salts and instant coffee. Hunter had a banana into his fanny-pack. We had each other. We had Sarah and Alena to cheer us on and replenish pancakes and peanut butter balls. We had support and ambition. We didn’t need much else.
In all honesty, Hunter and I haven’t spent much time together. Our friendship is built on sporadic runs together at Peace Corps events. As we jog, we usually chat about books, writing and people that we love. This run followed suit, just for a lot longer than usual.
It felt radical to be embarking on such a meaningful challenge together despite our lack of history. As Hunter ran through the region that he’s spent the past two years making his home, he reflected on his connection to the landscape. He thanked the mountains that stimulate his creativity day after day. I thanked them too.
Near the end of the first marathon, a crew of kids started following along. We took a wrong trail forcing us to turn back and making the kids our leaders. Hunter dashed after them as if he were a happy-go-lucky monster. The kids bubbled with exhilarating glee and scurried away. A few miles later, Hunter’s phone measured 26.2 miles. He completed his very first marathon. I gave him a high five, though he deserved much more, and I trotted along. Half way, I thought to myself. “Long joy day!” I yelled back.
Miles 26.2 to 42 | Gratitude
I ran the middle 16 miles alone. A few miles in, I stopped to refill my water at a spring. There was an old woman filling plastic jugs on her donkey’s back. She looked me up and down like I was an alien, fixating her glance on the crusty salt dried on my shirt. Then, she emptied one of her jugs into my water bladder. I gave her a peanut butter ball. “Llah y3wnik a bnti,” (God help you my daughter), she said softly, still wide-eyed, as I jogged away.
I felt surprisingly strong, and overwhelmingly grateful. Grateful for my mobility. My quick water-refill. The natural beauty enveloping me. For all the people and moments that beat me down and built me up until I wound up here. Grateful for the “alien” role that I play here in Morocco that enables me to easily break social boundaries.
I thought back to a walk-jog last spring with a 23-year-old girl named Ghzlan. (I would write woman, but she considers herself still a girl since she’s not married). We jogged and walked to the outskirts of town, to a lone olive tree atop a small hill. The expanse of the reservoir sprawled out before us. A road follows the water’s curves. You run out there? ALONE? She questioned in disbelief. I could never. When I asked her why, she explained that people would gossip about her. She can’t risk her reputation, she admitted. She needs to get married for financial reasons.
I reflected on all the views, people, feelings, realizations, connections, adventures, highs, questions, answers, dreams, goals, tears, plans, challenges, hoots, hollers and yelps I would’ve been deprived of throughout my life if I couldn’t run alone. I would be a totally different human. I wondered who and where Ghzlan would be with the freedom to run wild.
Excitement flooded as I neared mile 32, my previous longest distance record, which I had run just a few weeks prior. All the miles beyond 32 were new territory. Mysterious and unknown. New adventures. New lessons. It’s going to be tough, I reminded myself, but so am I.
Running has taught me about my own resilience and endurance. It builds perspective. This HURTS, my quads yell while huffing and puffing, but what a privilege it is to willingly create and embrace challenge. It’s taught me to accept whatever shape or form I exist in that day. Tired and sluggish or fresh and powerful, I am running and that’s enough. I am, and that’s enough. I am enough.
Miles 42 to 47ish | Home
Alena met me and my shaky legs with a fresh baggie of peanut butter balls. A humble soul who raves about her politically-active, river-rafting grandma, Alena herself mirrors her adventurous role model. She’s an ultramarathoner who prefers to run up hills than on flat ground, bakes her own bagels and scored a sweet community development gig starting post Peace Corps.
My mileage calculation turned wonky since I forgot to resume my watch after waiting for Alena. Nonetheless, we covered counted and un-counted miles through a dry river bed, up wobbly scree and past a berry farm. We jogged through a shaded grove next to a small stream. “There are some places out here that remind me of home,” Alena reflected on West Virginia. “This is one of them.”
I recalled the places where I feel at home in my Moroccan community. Trails, I thought to myself. I remember the feeling of escaping into the mountains after ditching my crutches last year, walking slowly while picking berries, herbs and wildflowers with Radia. As I regained strength and muscle, I escaped to the trails any chance I could. My retreat.
The trails swerve by olive and fig trees, yucca plants and prickly pear cactuses. Despite their contrast to the Midwest flora and fauna, they make me feel at home. Maybe it’s the way they hug me like the oak and maple tree canopies would engulf me while jogging through my university’s arboretum. Or the way the Morocco’s wild springtime daisies and poppies replenish my energy the same way the bluebells and marigolds rejuvenated me in Minnesota. I feel at home anywhere I feel free, I realized. Trails have always liberated me.
Miles 47ish to 50-something | Ordinary
Sarah handed me my last pancake. “You seem just fine,” she observed. “Makes no sense to me,” I admitted. I had expected to have shed tears or to have been intensely battling mental demons by this point. Blisters stung my toes and my legs pulsed, but my mind was light. “I guess it’s time to finish,” I looked at Sarah, and we were off.
I didn’t have much to say aloud except that I was dreaming of a chilled melon. I was silently grateful for Sarah’s company, a new friend who proactively pursues her dreams and supports others through theirs. She hosted both a swim camp and a girls’ empowerment camp over the summer, representing only a slice of her passion to create opportunities for others.
“I can’t believe it’s almost over,” I kept repeating. My goal had been to finish before sunset, which meant I was four hours ahead of schedule. Too easy, I thought to myself, weirdly craving more pain to meet my expectations. I considered running further, maybe 60 miles, and then realized that that the intent of the “long jog” had nothing to do with distance. It had everything to do with trusting my own capabilities. I am capable. I am enough. I repeated the affirmations, reminding myself that my self-worth has no relation to any number of miles.
We decided to finish atop a foothill overlooking the valley. “Happy valley,” it translates to. My legs shrieked while climbing the slope, and my jog slowed to a power-walk. An ancient, earthen structure stood proudly on top, historically used to store harvests and other valuables. I ran circles around it until my watch vibrated. “50.0 miles,” it read. So I stopped.
“Long jog day,” I concluded. Sarah let out some cheers and double high-fives, and we hobbled back down the mountain. I ate leftover pasta. Took a cold shower. Stood in the sun to warm up because my body was too exhausted to heat itself. Called my Moroccan mama. Everything felt ordinary.
I realized how extraordinary it is just to exist, to go through the motions of life and to simply be. To test our limits, eat some pasta and move on. The extraordinary ordinary-ness of humans. How easily we adapt. How much we can surprise ourselves. Our universal limitlessness. I am still just an ordinary human, I reminded myself, and that’s more than enough. Miracles sprinkle our routines and saturate them with meaning. Running 50 miles isn’t miraculous, but perspective, people and sunshine can create magic. The right combination of ordinary things produces wonders.
Recovery | Vulnerability
Two young men loitered outside Sarah’s and my tent that night. After an hour of silently hoping they would leave, Sarah and I crawled out at 3 a.m. and retreated to Hunter’s. We resumed our slumbers. The cold woke me that morning. The blanket across the room felt like a world away. My legs anchored me down, so I crawled to retrieve it.
I laughed to myself about the stark contrast between yesterday’s power and my current state of fragility. I thought about other times running has shamelessly exposed my vulnerability here in Morocco. Hundreds of dogs. Two men with knives. Multiple times being followed. Three condescending grown men who doubted my abilities, so I raced them (one loss, two wins). One run that turned into an aggressive marriage pursuit. Thousands of honks (sometimes friendly, always alarming). Running makes me feel simultaneously big and small, empowered and vulnerable, resilient and exhausted. It makes me feel.
Feelings, both positive and negative, are prerequisites to wholehearted living. Running has taught me to embrace both the times life enables me to soar and the times it drowns me. To consciously feel rather than to numb.
After post-long-jog-day, I plunged into a post-race blues. I returned back to town eager to embrace my last moments in Morocco. I imagined myself simply soaking up every moment: playing Monopoly at the youth center, sharing sunset walks with students and eating lots of pomegranates with my Moroccan family. Aside from Monopoly, reality didn’t match my expectations. Life instead seemed saturated with people wrestling mental and physical health problems. Defeated by injustices.
One day, an elderly woman walked into the town’s hospital with a swollen black eye. She explained that her husband beat her, and she didn’t know where to go. Listeners expressed their sympathy and concluded, “machi so9na” (not our business). Nothing they could do to sustainably help, no resources to provide. Another woman explained to me that she’s nostalgic for the days her husband would physically beat her. Now, the physical abuse has been replaced with constant emotional abuse. Bodily pain was easier to cope with, she confessed.
I felt helpless, hopeless and guilty. Guilty that I invested so much of my time and energy in my selfish running journey rather than something more productive, like more actively addressing injustice. Guilty that I’m leaving Morocco. Guilty about my excitement to pursue my life of boundless freedom and running wild, a foreign fantasy to many. Paralyzed by my lack of solutions or the right words to say. All I wanted to do was run in order to mask my stress rather than cope with it, to distract myself from reality. Running 50 miles hurts, but emotional acceptance and recovery hurts more.
Beginning again | Hope
School started, and I created a routine. Less running. More biking, baking, writing, sharing and listening. Aerobics classes with women. Hikes with the outdoor team. Library and creative time with kids at the youth center (plus blisters on my fingers from sharpening too many colored pencils to prove it).
The workout finale in aerobic classes is running around in circles. Eighteen Moroccan mamas speed around our makeshift track in an empty classroom. We switch directions when they complain about getting dizzy. All tension releases. They hoot and holler. “Yalla yalla!” they cheer each other on. Then one woman jets off, weaving between the others and chasing us down as she tries to pinch our butts. Shrieks and laughter erupt, and we clap for ourselves. A celebration of our capabilities.
Outside of aerobics, I allow myself to run only if I’m in a stable mental state, to be sure I’m not trying to run away and numb an emotion rather than process it. On a particularly rejuvenating trail run, I vowed to myself to choose peace over anxiety during my last month in Morocco. To stride forward, mile by mile, minute by minute, in pursuit of acceptance rather than perfection. To accept the transformation of the past two years and the way they’ve simultaneously damaged and healed me. I’m resisting running away like a Moroccan mama is trying to pinch my butt because I want to simply be. To flow through the motions, breathe and embrace my own pace. It’s not my fastest pace, but it’s a pace that’s allowing me to accept and heal and give thanks. I think I’m in the middle of a different type of very long jog. I’m disoriented and unsure of my whereabouts in the course, but the miles themselves are irrelevant. We are here, and we are enough.