The founder of the Beirut Marathon, May El-Khalil tells us how personal tragedy led her to create a peaceful haven in her all-too-often war-torn country. When the former long-distance runner was hit by a truck and left unable to perform as she had before her accident, she turned her efforts to organizing races. “I needed something to take me out of my pain,” she says. “An objective to look forward to.” If she couldn’t run herself, she wanted to make sure that others could.
But organizing a marathon in Lebanon is not like organizing one in New York City. There was no preexisting running culture in the country — most people had never even heard the term “marathon.” She wondered if it would be possible to introduce running to a nation constantly on the brink of war and chaos, and lacking in internal structure. So she traveled the country tracking down political, military and community leaders of all kinds, telling her story and building their trust. In the midst of civil war, “we spoke one common language, from one human to another,” she says.
From there, it was off and running. People in Lebanon was eager to show the world what they could do, to prove they could unite for a peaceful event. In October 2003, 6,000 runners from 49 nations ran El-Khalil’s Beirut Marathon. Over the next few years, the marathon remained a bright spot through difficult political times. When the prime minister was assassinated in 2005, the marathon team organized a 5k Run for Peace through downtown Beirut, drawing over 60,000 people, wearing white, with no political slogans. It was clear that the Beirut Marathon had itself become a vehicle for peace.
El-Khalil says she sees the success of the marathon as a sign that the political obstacles in her region can indeed be overcome. If opponents can put aside their differences for a day, she sees an opportunity to build trust and cooperation. Today the Beirut Marathon has become a multi-event organization with runs to benefit the environment, breast cancer and love of Lebanon — and others just to run. Through these philanthropic events there has emerged a contagious culture of giving and doing good alongside a now fully established culture of running.
The Beirut Marathon is still one of the largest running events in the Middle East, but other countries have adopted similar models. El-Khalil sees the marathon as performing a critical function in an ever-volatile region, and believes in the power of sport as a human connector in any country. “From Boston to Beirut, we stand as one,” she says. After all, “peacemaking is not a sprint. It is more of a marathon.”