Zaid Ait Malek: The stowaway who became a Spanish ultra running star

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Zaid Ait Malek
Ait Malek’s family are nomadic Berber shepherds in Morocco’s Atlas mountains

As midnight approached on 31 December 2006, most of Spain was preparing to celebrate the new year. Zaid Ait Malek spent the night evading police.

He and his cousin had just completed a five-hour ferry crossing from Morocco hidden inside a truck. They’d avoided detection but now, having set foot on European soil for the first time, their luck looked spent.

Since his childhood in the wilderness of the Atlas mountains, Ait Malek had been a strong runner. On that night in December 2006, his athletic ability would make the difference between capture and escape.

Later it would open up a whole new world – and help spare him deportation from the country he now calls home.

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Ait Malek’s family are nomadic Berber shepherds mostly based close to the village of Oudadi, about 350km (218 miles) inland from Rabat. They lived in a jaima – a large cloth tent – and every few weeks they would move for their goats to graze.

Born in a jaima in 1984, Ait Malek was the youngest of six siblings and the only one who went to school, but when he reached 18 he had to earn money for the family.

He began working at construction sites along Morocco’s Atlantic coast, earning about 500 euros (£430) a month. In 2006, he started to look towards Europe.

That year, about 40,000 irregular migrants were detected trying to gain entry to Spain. Ait Malek, his brother Said and cousin Mohamed – all economic migrants – would be among the final few making up that total.

Said and Mohamed worked in construction too, but spent much of their spare time monitoring the port of Tangier, working out the best way to sneak aboard one of the boats leaving for Spain. On New Year’s Eve, Mohamed convinced Ait Malek to join him at the port entrance.

Nothing had been planned, but when a taxi parked in front of a truck Mohamed suddenly disappeared. Moments later Ait Malek heard him shouting from underneath the truck: “Run, there’s room. If we don’t leave now we’ll never be able to cross.”

Ait Malek ran. Holding on to cables underneath the truck, they moved into the port and on to the ferry. They knew the risk they were taking. On a previous attempt, Said had been caught and badly beaten before being released.

Once aboard, Ait Malek and his cousin went in search of a cloth-sided truck in which to hide. For five hours, with no food or water, they crouched inside a concealed space they built from wooden pallets.

When the ferry arrived in Spain, and the truck drove off onto Spanish soil, the police pulled it to one side. The cargo was opened. The cousins’ hearts were racing as torches shone directly on to the pallets.

They weren’t spotted. They’d made it.

Map showing location of Oudadi

The truck was then stationary for two hours before Ait Malek and Mohamed dared to creep out. They spotted a sign for Malaga and started walking along the highway.

After about 10km they took shelter in an underpass. It was cold and dark, and they huddled together to try to get some sleep. As dawn broke, they started walking again.

A car coming from the opposite direction slowed on its approach and started flashing its lights. Ait Malek went towards it, thinking the occupants must be offering help. They were police officers.

In a moment of panic, he darted across the highway. Mohamed was apprehended trying to scramble away through bushes.

Ait Malek hid. Crouching, still, at the foot of a tree, he watched the police car now containing his cousin drive to the other side of the road, towards him. He made his move. Scaling a fence that separated the two lanes, he ran and just kept running. Mohamed and the policemen were laughing; they all thought it was ridiculous to even try. But he got away.

Now he was alone, with nobody to call for help, and he didn’t know a word of Spanish. Thanks to three chance encounters, he worked his way up the Andalusian coast.

First, an Arabic voice called to him as he reached a service station. It was a Moroccan woman who ran the service station with her Spanish husband. They gave him food and water.

Shortly afterwards, a car of Moroccans pulled up. They drove him to their home in nearby Estepona, let him take a shower, gave him some clothes and invited him to stay longer with family further up the coast in Almeria.

Then, a few days later, when calling home from a public telephone, he heard a familiar accent from another booth. It belonged to a man from his neighbouring village, now working on a farm that needed extra staff.

Ait Malek said goodbye to his hosts, thanked them for their hospitality and set off. His new life was waiting.

Zaid Ait Malek in Oudadi
Ait Malek shares family shots from visits back to Oudadi on his Instagram

For almost three years, Ait Malek lived in a farmhouse on the outskirts of Almeria, next to the greenhouses where he worked.

It was hard labour, picking tomatoes and watermelons, and maintaining greenhouses in the Andalusian heat for long hours. At times, he wondered whether he was any better off.

“When I was suffering, I seriously thought about packing up and going home. But once I had crossed, there was no going back,” Ait Malek says.

“People pay a lot of money to cross or spend years trying. I crossed the first time and was having opportunities. I had to take advantage of it.”

In 2010, he and a friend took up a job picking olives in Baena, 270km inland in the province of Cordoba. It was there that Spain finally began to feel like home.

He began taking Spanish lessons, played football with the locals and started running, through which he met members of the local athletics club – Media Legua Baena.

“From the moment we met him, Zaid stood out as a calm and thoughtful guy who valued every opportunity,” says club president Jesus Morales. “He was also a fast runner with very good physical endurance.”

Ait Malek shared an apartment with colleagues but when they left after the olive season finished, he chose to stay.

Initially, he slept in temporary shelter provided by Baena’s Red Cross branch, before Media Legua members helped to secure and furnish his own apartment. They also helped him enter local races by providing equipment and covering registration fees and travel expenses.

“The club helped in everything he needed, to show that he was one of the Media Legua family,” adds Morales.

Ait Malek began winning prize money from local road races, supplementing his income from olive picking. Media Legua then helped him secure an athlete scholarship with the local council and, crucially, a residence permit in 2012.

He helped to train local children at the club with Carlos Chamorro, who suggested Ait Malek tried mountain running. That helped him “remember my childhood, that the mountain was my world”.

Ait Malek was a natural. Soon Chamorro had another race in mind for his new friend.

Zaid Ait Malek competing at a Skyrunning event in Switzerland
Ait Malek’s story was the subject of a 2018 book by Anna Comet: La eterna sonrisa del trail

Nestled among the remote mountains of the Basque Country, the small town of Zegama has become best known for the annual race first held there in 2002.

A marathon in distance, with an elevation gain of 2,736m across the Aizkorri massif, it has developed a mythical status among the trail running community. Thousands line the route, rattling cowbells and forming a human corridor on the steepest sections. It’s like a mountain stage on the Tour de France.

Such is the desire to run Zegama-Aizkorri that 12,563 applied in 2020. But places are limited to 500 – with 225 decided by ballot, 125 given to the best previous entrants, and 150 distributed at the organisers’ discretion.

Chamorro wanted to enter Ait Malek in 2013, when 3,207 applied, but he knew they’d need help.

He called on Nuria Burgada – an acquaintance through a student exchange programme. When visiting Baena she met Ait Malek and the way he ran in the mountains reminded her of her son – the multiple Zegama-Aizkorri winner Kilian Jornet.

Jornet told race director Ainhoa Txurruka it would be “something nice” to let Ait Malek enter. She agreed.

Ait Malek was now up against an elite, international field. At the start line, he was an unknown.

They soon took notice as he was immediately among the frontrunners. When he reached the famed Sancti Spiritu climb to the Aizkorri summit, just short of halfway, he trailed leader Jornet by just 90 seconds.

Ait Malek ultimately finished fourth, in just under four hours. It was a performance that changed his life. He was signed by a professional trail-running team and began racing all over Europe, enjoying success on the Skyrunner World Series.

In 2013 and 2014 he crossed the line first at the Spanish Mountain Racing Championships but the runner-up was declared national champion as Ait Malek was not a Spanish citizen.

In 2018, that issue finally came to a head.

Zaid Ait Malek
Ait Malek will be competing for Spain at the world trail running championships in November

Under the terms of his residence permit, Ait Malek had to pick olives for 180 days a year for it to renew annually.

Typical of his positive outlook, he saw it as a good form of training for an endurance athlete. He felt it helped “to know how to suffer”.

But his race schedule, coupled with a shorter harvest, meant Ait Malek was going to fall short in 2018, so when his permit expired, he would technically be in Spain illegally. He could be deported from the country he’d called home for 12 years.

Through trail running, Ait Malek had gained many friends. He had been selected by a pro team not just for his ability but his personality.

Always smiling, occasionally sporting an afro, he became one of the most popular, most recognisable runners on the circuit among athletes and fans alike.

Now they rallied together to start a social media campaign with a simple message: #ZaidSeQueda (Zaid stays). It gained national media coverage, and his old friend Jornet gave his support.

When Ait Malek raced at the 109km Ultra Pirineu in Catalonia in September, a week before his permit was due to expire, spectators held banners that read ‘Zaid Se Queda’. They chanted it as he crossed the finish line in second place.

The deadline passed, but a month later there was news. The Ministry of Justice granted him Spanish nationality ‘by letter of naturalisation’, which can be done in exceptional circumstances.

A press release noted Ait Malek was “fully integrated” in Spain and explained the decision was based on his “exceptional level and sporting results that offer serious expectations of success to our athletics”.

His cousin Mohamed is now settled in Spain, too. After being captured by police he was sent back to Morocco and failed a further attempt to cross into the country, but he has since secured residency in Catalonia.

“I was afraid of deportation,” Ait Malek admits. “My life up to then was not easy, but my instincts told me that nothing could go wrong.

“My surroundings made me see, believe, and gave me assurance that the Spanish government would not let me go.

“And so it proved. I was extremely happy. I’m the luckiest man in the world to feel so loved and appreciated by Spain. I will never know how to say thank you for all that support.”

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Ait Malek doesn’t know the precise day on which he was born in that jaima back in 1984. The Berber people don’t celebrate birthdays. For registration purposes, when he started school his was simply given as 1/1/84, but he knows it was one day in September.

So he’s just turned 37, but remains a leading contender on the Skyrunner World Series. Last Sunday he won the 31km Gorbeia Suzien race in Zeanuri, just 70km from Zegama and the race that was “the key to my dreams”.

Although he won’t be competing at the next race in the series, the 40km Snowdon Skyrace in Wales on Sunday, he now has the freedom to take on even more sporting adventures. In April, for example, he won the 250km Volcano UltraMarathon in Costa Rica.

And he remains a valuable team member, spreading joy wherever he goes. Finally able to represent Spain, he came fourth at the Skyrunning World Championships in July to help them win the team event.

He also came second in Spain’s national trail running championships to qualify for this year’s World Championships in Thailand.

Almost 15 years after entering Spain as a stowaway, he’ll be wearing the colours of his adopted nation with pride in November.

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