As I mentioned in a previous post, it may not be entirely obvious why this sporting voyage I am on started in Morocco. The answer is something unassumingly know as the MdS, or les Marathon des Sables. This “race” (perhaps better termed a survival event) takes place in the Moroccan Sahara. And you run for 5 days. And you carry all your gear (except water and camping equipment). It is, simply, an absurb test of one’s endurance, an incredible test of your mental strength and a crazy thing to volunteer yourself to do. Yet its entries are highly sought after. Why? Why would an otherwise sane person put themselves through this torture? There’s no prize money, relatively little media coverage and so little fame. You may be running with a group, but there is almost no intra-group competition and so not much of an echo of tribal warfare. So what is going on?
In Dan Sheridan’s book “A Fighters Heart” he talks to legendary MMA fighter and trainer Royce Gracie about how it felt to be on top of your game. To take blows and escape holds that the would fell lesser men and come out on top. Gracie said that when he walked in crowds, and I pondered this as I strolled through Fes’s crowded medina, he felt like a wolf among sheep. That he felt different from the soft, doe eyed public, that he was a different type of human, such was his mastery of physical confrontation. And it felt great. Was this what the MdS runners were after? To prove they could conquer the desert, so when they returned to the “real world” they could stalk through the crowds, heads held high and know they had done something others could not?
My original plan was to head to the start of the race and talk to competitors about their motivations. However, the secret start place and £3000 press pass required kiboshed that plan. So instead I put the question to a couple of people involved in the MdS. First, Victoria Nicholson, previous completer of the MdS and now organising the Walking with the Wounded’s team effort*, and Nigel Doggett, a new competitor running this year’s MdS in support of Hft**. ND’s answer was simple: he didn’t expect to feel different to others after the race, and his motivation for competing was to raise awareness and money for his charity. VN’s answer was a little different, having completed the race previously, and she said that there was a strong, good feeling of satisfaction that persisted afterwards. However, she was adamant that it did not make her feel separate from others, and that she could encourage others to do it if she had. This support for others and tendency towards group-thinking maybe supports my previous argument that sport is for forming an in-group. But it does go against the “wolf among sheep” idea I mentioned earlier. So perhaps it is a bit of a red herring.
However, some sport I did manage to see in Morocco suggests the idea is not completely bogus. Seeing as Morocco is football mad, and it was a Saturday, I looked up the local football team in Fe’s, the ancient university town and sometime capital of Morocco. Turns out that MAS Fes were at home, so I decided to head to the match. It was a great decision.
It started with the bus to the game. We (I was accompanied by my newest friend, a lofty German called Jan) got on and so did about 25 Morocco boys, aged 10-16. And did we know about it. Shouting, banging, singing at the tops of their voices, climbing on seats and swinging on rails. At one point they kicked in the roof window and clambered onto the roof. They probably had about 4 bus tickets between them and certainly no match tickets at all. But they didn’t let that stop them going to the game of their team.
We had to fight through a mob at the gates to get in, all trying to enter for free. A bank of police and security held them off while waving us through. But eventually, they managed it. Not immediately. After a fairly dull first half MAS Fes and Moghreb Tétouan were still nil-nil and the teams most passionate fans were still outside. But around 10 minutes into the second half, some barrier or gate somewhere was breached, and Fes stadium was taken. They swarmed in, adding about a quarter to the capacity and trebbling the volume. Stirred by the raw passion, desire and disregard for the proper way of things MAS Fes belied their bottom of the table position and took control of the game. Two goals later they had the match won and the fans were bouncing even higher and singing even louder than before.
I can’t tell you much about the game itself, a fairly low quality affair between two teams struggling at the bottom of the table. What made it such an experience were the fans. Colourful, boisterous and entirely emotionally invested in their team and its fortunes. No. Their fortunes. For as far as they were concerned, they were the team. Fans of many sports teams have a perhaps irritating tendency to refer to the exploits of the team they follow as “we”. “We need to attack more, we do not have enough leadership in the pitch” and so on. But for these kids I felt it was genuine. They had fought to overcome the odds, they had charged forward and they had then won the game
You could see it afterwards, 11,12, 13 year olds walking 3 metres tall. Strutting, boasting, owning the streets. Nothing anymore was beyond them. We watched in suppressed horror as they mobbed various trucks on the streets, climbing up the sides and riding down the streets, invulnerable and imperious, drinking in their victory.
Perhaps it was scary for on lookers. Perhaps the kids knew this. Perhaps they felt different from the rest of us, wolves among sheep. Tough, loud and feral and so very alive. Doing things others could not. For them this is what their sport was about. Fighting and winning and living side by side. So maybe this mentality is not true for everyone. But that day, that town, those streets: there were wolves. And as a sheep, I wished I were them.