By the time Seattle transplant Will Harrison crossed the finish line of the 700-plus mile Atlas Mountain Race, it was 5:30 a.m. and he had run out of food and water. His bike light battery was running low; over the last three hours of the race in Morocco, he carried his mountain bike and sleeping gear through miles of sand dunes in the pitch darkness. His shoes were completely filled with sand. Even now, three months later, feeling has not returned in Harrison’s big toes. And at the end of it all, there wasn’t even a dramatic ribbon to ride through, a group to cheer him on or even a prize to be won.
“No one was awake when I got in. In fact, there was no big fanfare,” Harrison said. “When I actually crossed the finish line, relief is the only emotion I had at that point. The satisfaction didn’t hit for a few weeks.”
Harrison, 29, was one of three Seattle cyclists to participate in the inaugural Atlas Mountain Race, a 715-mile unsupported, single-track cycling adventure that started in Marrakesh and ended in Agadir in February.
Competing in endurance races like these is complex. Sleep is not required — in fact, if you want to win, it’s frowned upon — and the clock never stops: The eventual winner, Sofaine Sehili, slept for two hours and finished in 3 days, 21 hours and 50 seconds. Racers also have to carry all their belongings on their person or their bike.
“It was so physically and emotionally taxing,” said Harrison, who finished in five days. “But I wanted to do something that I wasn’t sure whether I was going to complete.”
Harrison was the only one of the three Seattle cyclists who finished the race. The other two, the race’s only all-female pair, Armanda Roco and Kristen McCune, ended up pulling out on the fourth day, but cycled a total of 500 miles.
The three Seattle racers emerged from the race grateful for the once-in-a-lifetime experience, but their experiences were very different. Roco and McCune and the few other women who participated in the race worried for their safety while cycling hundreds of miles through a socially conservative country.
Harrison rode solo and stopped for meals in towns, meeting friendly Moroccans who helped him out “whenever they could.”
“The whole ride was an interesting and challenging perspective on the privilege of riding through there as a white man,” Harrison said. “I was definitely aware of riding with and stopping with women in the race to prevent them from being harassed or getting unwanted attention.”
Same race, different experiences
Roco and McCune chose to compete as a pair, and even though Roco said she normally prefers solo cycling, for this race, she was thankful McCune was by her side.
Roco remembers experiencing harassment from locals, especially when she and McCune cycled through smaller villages.
“It was extremely hot and dry. You roll out in the nighttime but as soon as you start rolling, you start shedding layers,” said Roco. “When we removed our arm and leg covers, people would yell. We had children throwing rocks at us.”
At the start of the race, bikers were not allowed to ride in groups unless they had signed up with a partner. But two days into the race, a female cyclist reported a case of sexual harassment to organizer Nelson Trees and all female cyclists received a message from Trees allowing them to ride in groups if they chose. A help button was then added to the GPS tracking devices on each racer’s bike.
Trees said in an email that the race was officially sanctioned with local authorities, and that there was a police presence along the route in addition to the emergency SOS button on each rider’s tracking device that they could activate in case of a life-threatening incident.
However, even though the rest of the race unfolded without further incident, Trees said he is determined to enhance safety precautions for female bikers in future editions of the Atlas Mountain Race.
“Following our experience with this first edition, we will allocate a tracker button from the start of the race specifically for female riders encountering any negative behavior from people they encounter along the route,” Trees said. “There are already far too few women in our niche of cycling without them also being discouraged by having bad experiences out on the road. It’s something I’m determined to mitigate as much as possible.”
Biking hundreds of miles in a foreign country was an interesting cultural experience. Harrison said he had visited Morocco before but found that “riding through Marrakesh on a bike was a completely different experience.”
Harrison said the locals seemed more interested in him, and he chatted and joked with them on his brief stops for food.
However, “As we moved into the more remote areas, sometimes cutting through back alleys in villages, it felt as though we were riding through people’s personal space, and when this was at all times of the day, I felt as though we were not always being sensitive to people’s lives,” Harrison said. “In general the race was doing a good job to be sensitive to, and engage the local community, but at times it felt very much as though we were privileged Westerners riding through their villages on weird machines.”
For the female racers, even little things like finding a place to relieve themselves proved challenging. Roco said there were no trees, and even when they were in remote areas it seemed like there was always someone around.
Roco and McCune encountered a few other harrowing incidents in their bike journey through the mountains. There was the time they were chased by stray dogs, or the time a boy lost control of his horse and it barreled down the mountain toward them full speed ahead. At one point, they had to carry their 80-pound bikes over rocky terrain for four hours.
But these setbacks weren’t the reason the pair decided to pull out on the fourth day.
“When we decided to scratch, it was the most emotional day I’ve ever had on a bike,” said Roco. “It was one of those moments where it was like — if we keep going we’re just going deeper and deeper into the abyss.”
Roco and McCune ended up deviating from the race path in favor of easier-to-navigate main roads. They met up in Agadir with the rest of the cyclists.
Adventure captured on film
The Atlas Mountain Race took place in February, a time that, for the cyclists, now feels worlds away. But the adventure was captured by filmmaker Braden Lawrence in “Into the Rift,” a 40-minute documentary movie depicting their ride that premiered May 20. Lawrence shot the race himself, staying awake alongside the bikers to document their process.
“Some people want to do something that’s on the fringes of what people normally do,” said Lawrence. “I do think there’s a level of — almost obsession — with finding these limits and wanting to compete in these types of events that go far beyond the normal boundaries.”
His goal with the film was to expose as many people to bike travel as possible. But that was before the coronavirus pandemic really started spreading throughout the world. Now, Lawrence hopes the film is a form of escapism for people, as the experience was for some of the riders.
“[During the race] I was sitting with a friend at an oasis in the desert, drinking tea,” said Harrison. “We commented on how the world could have ended out there and we’d have no idea. It was amazing to be somewhere so remote and peaceful, and to just be cut off from the outside world.”