At first, there were complaints. Neighbors and family friends came to Aziza Raji's home and pestered her parents. "Why is this girl running?" they asked.
Raji, the eighth of 10 siblings, grew up watching her five older brothers set off on runs through their dusty ocher town in the Valley of Roses, a region midway between the tourist center of Marrakesh and the desert city of Ouarzazate in eastern Morocco. At 14, she decided to try running out for herself.
Sport was not forbidden for a practicing Muslim woman in the conservative, rural town of about 600 -- but it was unusual. Raji's parents continued to defend her to critical neighbors, and eventually people stopped gawking and started greeting her when she jogged past.
Fifteen years later, Raji now runs with a small and dedicated group of teens in her hometown whenever she has the time. Instead of questioning her athletics, local residents are now asking her to train their sons and daughters. She's become a local source of pride and a rising star in the small, but talented network of Moroccan ultrarunners.
No matter the race, Raji is an anomaly: She's often the lone female trekking down the course with a crew of Moroccan runners. She is also fiercely single-minded on the trail, reluctant to linger at rest stops and waste valuable course time. But in the evening and after competition during local races, she is one of the guys, regularly laughing and chatting with the 30 other Moroccan runners, many of whom she speeds past every day.
Her running resume includes two top-10 finishes in the internationally-renowned Marathon des Sables, a grueling, six-day race traversing the heart of the Moroccan Sahara. The race is perhaps the best-known ultramarathon in North Africa. More than 1,000 competitors travel to the edge of the Sahara to run approximately 160 miles, through temperatures edging above 100 degrees and sudden sandstorms.
Runners must carry all of the food and supplies they need for nearly a week in the brutally hot, barren landscape. The Moroccan runners, who mostly hail from tiny towns, tend to rely on a diet of local staples like dates and couscous, and prepackaged freeze-dried meals brought from Europe.
Raji's challengers are sponsored women from Europe and the United States equipped with the latest gear and a vastly different set of expectations from their hometowns and peers. Even everyday racers looking just to finish -- not to medal -- often spend tens of thousands in entry and preparation. When Raji first started out, she had some sponsorship from local companies, which helped her enter races, but didn't cover her gear. The secondhand shoes she raced in were passed down from visiting foreigners or purchased at local markets, where dusty, used sneakers are laid out in the town square by individual sellers. During Raji's first Marathon des Sables, a former competitor from a nearby desert town helped provide her with powdered meals from Germany.
Raji, like 99 percent of Moroccan citizens, is a practicing Muslim. She makes time during competition to fit in at least two of the required five daily prayers, and while running, she tucks her hair back into a tight bun and covers the top of her head with a cap.
Her first major race was the 2015 Oman Desert Marathon -- and it was a grueling one of 102 miles, completed over six days in soft, shifting sand and with temperatures up to 105 degrees. She took second place and made her Marathon des Sables debut a few months later, just missing the podium at MdS with a fourth-place finish about 39 minutes behind Elisabet Barnes, the 2015 winner.
Her first-place finish in the November 2016 Oman Desert Marathon marked her first out-of-country international win, and her second Marathon des Sables ended last week with a sixth-place finish. It was a very difficult edition, she said, and she was happy to complete the marathon in good health. The hardest part was staying strong with the minimal (and often unappetizing) meal options.
Raji ran as part of the first-ever international women's team, which was sponsored by X-Bionic and organized by British runner Jenny Davis, an ambassador for Free to Run, an organization dedicated to using running, physical fitness and outdoor adventure to empower and educate women impacted by conflict. Raji joined British runners Jenny Davis and Lizzie Wraith and fellow Moroccan (and two-time MdS winner) Touda Didi on the team. Didi, 48, finished in the top 50 women in her first MdS since 2010.
Davis created the team after spending time in Morocco training with former MdS champions. She recalled one day during her time in Morocco when she and Raji invited a young local girl to come train with them for the first 12.4 miles of a 68-mile run.
"She was 18 and you could see the excitement in her eyes at meeting Aziza. It was so beautiful to watch," Davis says.
"Aziza has no idea what a trailblazer she is in Morocco for encouraging and increasing women's participation in sport. She doesn't realize how important she is or how young girls look up to her."
Next up for Raji is the Trans Atlas Marathon in May, a 170-mile, six-day course climbing nearly 45,000 feet up and down the varied terrain of the High Atlas Mountains. Raji won first female in the 2016 edition.
"My dream is to have a name in the world of racing, and to make Morocco one of the big names," Raji says through a translator.
Nowadays, her running is a lot less controversial than her lack of a husband, Raji explains. In her village, it's expected that women marry in their early 20s, and she is now 29. But she doesn't have time for that yet, she says, adding that if she got married, she would be expected to stop running and care for the home.
"There are more things I want to get done in the running field," she says.