Start of the 2007 Blom Beirut Marathon (© Rima Nehme)
Sometimes a Marathon is more than a Marathon, more than a core of elite runners attracting a mass participation, to chase and maybe even emulate them, while taking part in a city-wide celebration once a year.
Sometimes a Marathon is, well, like the Beirut Marathon.
To many people around the world Beirut is synonymous with chaos, a crossroads between the warring factions in the Middle East. But in the half dozen years since its inception, the BLOM Beirut Marathon has become a beacon of hope, a symbol of normality for a war-torn city, and introduced a whole country, if not a region to a culture of physical fitness of which they were largely unaware.
And the city once known as the Paris of the Orient has its own Joan of Arc to thank for it all. Following an accident seven years ago, which almost killed her, sometime runner May El Khalil decided not only to fight her way back to fitness but to enlist the citizens of Beirut to accompany her by inaugurating the marathon in 2003.
“There was absolutely no culture of running here,” she said this week, “and about a thousand people entered the 42.2k the first year, without having the slightest idea what a marathon was. Fortunately, it was a two-lap course, and most people dropped out at halfway. So they went to the 5 and 10k, and are working back up to the marathon distance.”
But it hasn’t been without the sort of stumbles which have so often characterised Beirut. The course has had to be altered several times, to avoid damaged buildings and demonstrations, then in 2006, the race was postponed for a week following the assassination of government minister, Pierre Gemayel.
But the setbacks have only strengthened the team’s resolve, and the BLOM Beirut Marathon is now a fixture on the Middle East cultural agenda. There are over 27,000 competitors in Sunday’s three events, with hundreds coming from surrounding countries, including 70 people from Iraq. And the Beirut Marathon Association will launch the Amman Marathon in neighbouring Jordan next October.
There are also initiatives at athlete level. Race director Mark Dickinson and elite athlete coordinator and coach, Antonio Nannoni have set up a training camp in Ethiopia. And after just one three-week training period there three months ago, the two leading Lebanese marathoners, Omar Issa and Hussein Awada took three and seven minutes respectively off the national record, which now hovers on the verge of respectability, with Awada’s 2:20:36 in Berlin.
“I expect both of them to do better again here on Sunday,” says Nannoni, who also has high hopes that the race record of 2:17:04, by Paul Rugut of Kenya in the inaugural race will be shattered. “For sure,” says Nannoni, “by several minutes, I think.”
Ethiopian Alemayehu ‘Alex’ Shumye, a 20-year-old from Nazrit, 100 kilometres east of the capital Addis Ababa, is the favourite to do that. He has won his two previous marathons, in Vercelli near Torino in May, and Warsaw in September, both with course records, the latter in a personal best, 2:11:50.
“If not for wind, I can do 2:09 in Warsaw,” he said. “My training is good, Sunday depends on weather and God. But I’m sure I can win.”
Both he and Beirut deserve such confidence.
Pat Butcher for the IAAF