Four months ago, Sofia Skiredj and Ghizlaine Ammor were going about their daily routines unaware of the enormous turn their lives were set to take. Also hindered from their view was the enormity of the tasks that would change their lives forever.
Skiredj is a CEO at a bank in Morocco while her friend Ammor is a fashion designer. They are neighbours in the Moroccan city of Casablanca, having known each other for 25 years.
But when the pair decided to take part in a multi-sports challenge in Dakhla’s desert, little did they know that despite being amateurs against the highest level of competition, Skiredj and Ammor would go on to win the competition.
They kept their expectations low, given the challenge and the level of the other competitors. But they managed to not only stand tall against nature’s many challenges but also the 44 other teams over 120km (75 miles) of running, biking, climbing and kayaking, amid the gruelling physical and psychological demands of the Western Sahara desert.
“Before deciding to take on this Saharaouiya challenge, I wasn’t running and doing all these activities at all,” Skiredj said. “I started training for this competition four months ago, we started a programme, stuck to it no matter what, because we wanted to be prepared for not just the terrain but the lineup against us: iron man winners, marathon runners, former MMA champions, and a basketball Olympic medallist.”
For seven days, 45 all-women teams of two, aged 17 to 59, were up against the demanding desert terrain, the bay and city centre, over the course of 22 day and night events.
The wind, sand, changing weather conditions and, for the majority, the inexperience of having done nothing of this sort before, was a test sterner than anything they had encountered 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,” Ammor said. “You have to live it to understand. What made it easier for us – to go from zero to champions – was the teamwork. I know her very well, she knows me very well. We can feel each others’ thoughts before they become words.
“When she was distressed, tired or had no energy, I felt it before she could say it. So I could tell her what she needed to hear. And it was the same the other way around. We coped well, we didn’t in those five days. When things became intense, I managed to keep the disappointment inside me and that helped us out.”
The organisers of the Saharouiya’s ninth edition described the event as a “mixture of laughter, tears and emotions”.
The tears and emotions were seen aplenty during the course of the events. The laughter, mostly at night when the participants would put aside the rivalry over dinner, would talk about their experiences and hardships, and dance their tiredness away.
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. It was also the excitement and challenge of literally stepping into the unknown that Skiredj said spurred her on four months ago.
“It’s my first competition ever. I love sports, I’ve been dancing since I was a kid and I do fitness exercises, but nothing of this sort. It was a multi-sport event so it was kind of interesting that way. I got to see the Dakhla desert, that was another reason why we chose this,” said Skjiredj.
“If you have to do certain things, you have to sacrifice sometimes. I used to train early in the morning or during my lunch breaks at work. I have a busy job, I’m a wife and mother of two. I tried not to do my trainings at night, at the time I’m supposed to be with my kids, but I did whatever I could. It was a challenge and now it’s become pretty addictive.”
Ammor echoed those views, saying the biggest reason they decided to enrol was “we wanted to challenge ourselves”.
“It was to prove that if you work hard and if you have the discipline, you can get what you want. We trained hard and we won. Now we’re really hardcore.”
As the pair headed back to Casablanca to take a well-deserved rest, and to soak in the applause on the night of the awards ceremony and from work colleagues back home, they both agree it’s not the last time they would have taken on a challenge as “crazy” as this.
“You don’t know what you can do until you give it a go and succeed at it,” said Skiredj. “And this performance not only changed the way we think about ourselves and extend our limits but also how others see us. It’s an amazing feeling.”