For seven days, 45 all-women teams of two, aged 17 to 59, faced off not only each other in a multi-sports challenge but also the demanding terrain of the Western Sahara desert which offered plenty of sun during the day and cold winds at night.
The organisers of the Saharouiya’s ninth edition described the event as a “mixture of laughter, tears and emotions”.
With plenty of tears and emotions on display over the course of 22 day and night events that covered 120km (75 miles), every night, the participants would put aside the rivalry over dinner, talk about their experiences and hardships, and dance their tiredness away.
For the inexperienced, the wind, sand and changing weather conditions provided a sterner test than anything in the past.
It became hot in the day, cold winds blew at night, there was rain, and tired legs and shoulders from carrying bicycles in the desert sand led to tired minds.
“If I tell you how hard it was, you won’t be able to feel it,” Ghizlaine Ammor, who won the challenge together with her partner Sofia Skiredj, said. “You have to live it to understand.”
In addition to being competitive, there was also another common goal for all 45 teams. They all represented an organisation or social cause close to their hearts.
Here, some participants share their thoughts on why they took on the challenge, especially running in the desert sand.
‘The hardest experience of my life’
“This is the first time I’ve done anything of this sort,” Sara, representing SOS Children’s Villages Morocco with her teammate Houda, said.
“I was asked to do this but I don’t regret being here at all. It was very, very hard, perhaps the hardest experience of my life. But it’s a challenge for myself and if I was asked to do it again, I definitely would. It was incredible, we met incredible people along the way that really push themselves to the limit not only for themselves but all the beautiful causes they are representing.”
For Houda, too, this “challenging experience” would not be her last.
“It was my first experience doing something like this but definitely not the last,” Houda said. “For me it was very, very hard because I didn’t train all year, just a couple of months to prepare for this. But for me, given the cause I represent, I also don’t regret doing this and being here.”
‘Will and determination’
Cecile and Alexia came to Dakhla from the south of France, having heard about this event from friends a few years ago.
“We really wanted to do this and that’s why we’re here,” said Cecile. “We started training in September and would meet once a week to run, bike or do deep training together. But to get through this, you need the head, the will, the determination … can’t be done without that.
“We’re here raising awareness about children with cancer. So we had the extra determination to go through this. There was no way out.”
‘The whole package appealed to me’
Iman Akelei, at 50, was one of the oldest contestants in the event. However, she managed to finish third with her partner, not only enjoying the competition but also the company of those who were present.
“I did this mainly for the fun. I love sports, nature, challenges and loved the idea that it was a women’s event,” Akelei said. “The whole package appealed to me. I’m a runner, I run marathons but this was extremely challenging, more difficult than I had imagined. Cycling, or carrying the bicycle in the desert sun, is something I would not recommend anyone does for fun. The whole circuit pushed us to the extreme.
“But it was worth it. Running is like a getaway for me. Like a trance. When I run, my mind gets completely clear, it’s a way to meditate for me.”
Umubyeyi Ernestine, this year was the fourth time she had taken part in the event.
A medical student from Rwanda, Ernestine has been living in Morocco since 2019 and keeps coming back to Dakhla for the sheer fun of it.
“It’s amazing, it’s definitely something that can never be boring,” she said.
“You keep challenging yourself. It’s like a vacation for me, I tell my friends, just a different type though. Sports is my therapy, my friend. Running, especially, helps me relax and come up with new ideas.”