Marathons take off in Mid East

2008-12-05 00:00

A series of footsteps painted on the floor beckoned and, intrigued by the words inside each print, I followed the message to its conclusion: “Giving up hurts much more than the pain.”

The imprints had pulled me into the hotel lobby where signs pasted across the lift doors instructed that stairs would have to be used on November 30 in support of the Blom Beirut Marathon runners. This year’s event had been dedicated to cancer with a ubiquitous slogan pronouncing “with their strength we run”.

These days, no sooner have you cleared customs in Lebanon than you face the grip of marathon fever. The race is in its sixth year and is the peak of a boom time for running in the Middle East region.

Staring eyes probed my intentions and sanity throughout my first training exploration on Beirut’s Corniche in 2003 when preparations commenced for the first race amid a population totally devoid of such sporting extroversion.

It took a high-profile publicity campaign under race president May El Khalil to draw 6 500 participants to walk, jog and occasionally run over the four distances ranging from five to 42 km.

That only a fraction of the 900 marathon entries completed the distance stood as testament to the lack of appreciation of what the marathon challenge required.

By 2001 the civil war and political turmoil that had ravaged the country was over, but even so the marathon emerged in tense political times, and was welcomed as much for its sporting relief as its nation-building qualities.

“Run Run Beirut” and “Starting Over Again” were the initial mustering calls. In 2006 the inspiration began with “The World is Running to Beirut” as an attempt to increase international interest, but the assassination of the minister of Industry, Pierre Gemayel, and the occupation of the parliament square three days before the race not only brought a week’s postponement, but forced an appeal to run “For the Love of Lebanon”.

Despite the desperation of the times, over 17 500 entries responded to the call. It was the beginning of the end of the negotiations that delivered a settlement in mid-2008. Marathon numbers entered exponential growth with 18 500 registrations in 2007 and 28 000 this year.

Changes to the course and growing international interest have reduced the event record to two hours 12 minutes 47 seconds. Ethiopian Alemtsehay Hailu led the women’s race over the snake-like route — it has a legal drop but a more assistive profile than even the Berlin Marathon — to the tape in only two hours 34 minutes.

The Beirut Marathon is inspirational in a region hungry for the running boom. Saudi Arabia, Riyadh, Jeddah, and Dammam all have inaugural events scheduled for early 2009.

Jordan annually holds the Dead Sea 50 km Ultra in April, and ran the Accaba Marathon, half and 10 km yesterday along the scenic banks of the Red Sea. The IAAF World Cross- Country Championships will go to Amman next March, and by next October they will have added the inaugural Amman International Marathon, an exciting two-lap tour of the Roman ruin-strewn city centre.

Not unexpectedly, the financial pearl in the crown sits in Dubai where next month Hailie Gebrselassie will return to defend his title and attempt to etch another slither of time from the world record, with a one-million-dollar incentive at stake. Dubai funding may soon be challenged by Qatar, which has commenced preparation for a mass event in 2009.

Egypt is also making inroads into prestigious events, expanding on their well-known 100 km desert race with the marathons in Sharm El Sheikh, Luxor, and St Catherine on New Year’s Eve.

The most recent addition was Wednesday’s El Ghouna marathon held in a luxurious, purpose-built tourist village on the shore of the Red Sea.

Although event organisers view this sun-drenched running future optimistically, the fact that the past five days have seen three marathons in three countries is a potential cloud on the horizon of sustainability.

As the Middle East sheds its perception for unrest in favour of the growth and development that is outplaying the worldwide recession, there are a growing number of reasons for runners to head for the sun.

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