A moonlit run after a day of fasting
The month of Ramadan, when observant Muslims fast from dawn to sunset, can be a difficult time for people whose lives revolve around sport - it's hard to exercise when it's forbidden to drink. Alice Morrison in Marrakesh decided to try a day of fasting, followed by a moonlit race.
I have always admired the way my Muslim friends approach the month of Ramadan with such discipline and good humour. Fasting in Ramadan is one of the obligations of every Muslim, one of the Five Pillars of Islam. To me, it has always seemed so difficult: not eating and, even worse, not drinking between the hours of dawn and sunset, which here in Morocco this summer means between the hours of approximately 03:50 and 19:45.
And yet hundreds of millions across the world do this and still stick to rigorous training programmes, and even compete.
This year, I decided to do it for one day, so I signed up for a Ramadan 12km run. The idea was to bring runners from across Morocco to break their fast together, run through the desert night and then celebrate with a big meal before dawn.
The night before, I set my alarm for 03:30 so I could get up to eat and drink. I couldn't eat much at that time, just some sweet bread and cake but I drank down a full litre of water and added in some electrolyte tablets to keep my salt and trace mineral levels high during the day.
I went back to sleep, woke up as usual at 06:00 and reached for the glass of water by my bed. It wasn't there as I had removed it the night before, and then I remembered - no food and no water. The morning was hard because my mouth felt dry and my breath smelled horrible in spite of lots of tooth-brushing. I wasn't hungry but I was definitely thirsty.
By mid-afternoon, I was hungry too and quite grumpy. I had a bit of a headache and I felt out of sorts, as if I was at the very beginning of a dose of flu. I went out to do some errands and it was boiling outside, about 45C. Everyone around me was maintaining their usual good humour, so I felt ashamed of my irritability. It was a reminder that there is more to fasting than just not eating and drinking.
At 18:00, my flatmate and I started to get our stuff together to set off for the desert. This is often the time that people do their training in Ramadan and now I understood why - the end is in sight. With just under two hours to go, I felt suddenly energised.
In the car, we experienced another Ramadan tradition - crazy driving. Everyone is in a rush to get home for the fast-breaking meal, iftar or ftour, and any regard for road rules goes out of the window. Red lights are jumped, people swerve out in front of you with no notice, and mopeds and motorbikes weave in and out of the cars. "There goes the ftour ambulance," is the slightly grisly Marrakesh joke.
We arrived as the sun was setting and shepherds were bringing in a flock of sheep and herd of camels. By now, I was clock-watching, and inwardly swearing as we joined a long queue to register.
Then, there it was! Ftour time had arrived. I couldn't wait and immediately opened my bottle of mineral water, said "Bismillah" ("In the Name of God") and took a long swig. It tasted like nectar.
There were about 100 runners gathered for ftour, a mixture of Moroccans and non-Moroccans and nearly half were women. We tucked into our feast of traditional spicy harira soup made from beans and lentils eaten with a honey-covered pastry called shebakiyya and fresh dates. Delicious.
There were also sandwiches and pancakes and fresh orange juice. I ate a normal-sized meal but found that I was endlessly thirsty and drank two litres or so of water and orange juice, followed by strong, sweet coffee.
At 22:30 the moon rose. We gathered at the start with our head-torches on, wished each other "Good luck" and "Bon courage" and "Ramadan Mubarak" ("Have a Blessed Ramadan"). And we were off.
The first part of the race was along a sandy river bed with rocky patches, and steep cliffs on either side. You had to watch your feet and the laughing and joking soon quietened as we settled into our running rhythm. All you could hear was the thud of feet and the chattering of the crickets.
The first checkpoint was at the end of a short, sharp climb and then we were running over the hilltops, along the side of newly-harvested fields. Far in the distance, the lights of Marrakesh glimmered. Now we were going up and down and I started to feel the effects of the day. I had been keeping up a good pace and had a slight stitch but felt full of energy after my carbohydrate-laden breakfast.
Suddenly, I got terrible stomach cramps. I was paying for those two litres I had drunk. My stomach was swollen and swishing around like an enormous water balloon. Later, when I told the Moroccan runners this, they laughed and said it was a rookie mistake - it is very important not to drink too much when you break the fast. That advice came too late for me, however, and the next 2km were agony.
Then it eased off and the last 4km were just pure pleasure. By now, the field was spaced out so I was alone with just the moon for company. Running at night is the ultimate freedom. You have to live fully in the moment as you can't see further than your head-torch so there is no worrying about what is to come or dreading the next hill.
The quiet was broken by the noise of cheering ahead and there was the finish line. All the finishers were waiting to shout the runners in and I crossed the line feeling like a champion.
Running brings everyone together and there were no differences of nationality, religion or gender as we compared times, leaned on each other to stretch and took victory pictures. In a world which sometimes feels so divided, it is a reminder that we are all just people making our way through life as best we can.
For me, the spirit of Ramadan was embodied at that moment - the shared discipline and effort, the equality of everyone regardless of background or ability or status embarking on the same task, and then the communal celebration and shared pleasure of that task achieved.
Alice Morrison is an adventurer and writer based in Morocco
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